I’ve been watching season one of Bewitched with my five-year-old daughter, which brings up all kinds of interesting discussion topics (never mind the dodgy gender politics, the smoking, ye gods, all the smoking!) and which, for the most part, she seems to be enjoying.
What occurred to me, in between all the gnashing of my teeth at Darrin calling Samantha a liar when she swears she didn’t use magic to come up with advertising ideas which are slightly less daft than his own, is that the thing which always intrigued me about this show was the invisible worldbuilding.
The point of Bewitched is that Samantha has given up her life as a witch in order to become a suburban housewife. Her old life intrudes on the new one through the interference of various members of her family, mostly her mother Endora, but eventually including a whole host of witchy and warlocky types, and we piece together aspects of Samantha’s past based on the clues given, but there is still a lot we are not told.
One of the elements of magic that is often emphasised is its decadence. Endora and indeed Samantha reminisce about ways in which they have used magic to enhance their lives, and it is almost always the kind of glamorous activities that could just as easily be accomplished by having pots of money – having anything they want at the snap of the fingers, travelling to exotic places for frivolous reasons, and so on.
But there is also a magical world out there, beyond Samantha and Darrin’s suburbia, and beyond even the Paris cafe tables to which Endora repeatedly tries to lure Samantha. We hear about it in snatches, bits and pieces, hints about a Witches Council, or the proper uses of newt, or what they really get up to on brooms. When Sam’s father Maurice joins the cast, his penchant for telling elaborate stories does much to add to the idea of that witchy world and how it works.
The audience never sees that world. We see the intrusions, the characters crossing from there to here, and we often see the effects of that world, but we don’t really get to visit it. Certainly for the first few seasons of the show, we are firmly stuck in “reality” and end up constructing the magical world in our own heads. We never see Endora’s house, as far as I can remember. We don’t see or even hear about the tangible everyday life that Sam left when she married Darrin, all we get is airy anecdotes slipped in here and there. We don’t get a big reveal, a pay off for all those years of hints and snatches of information. Which is a shame, really, because ultimately the magic is what the audience is there to see, though it could be argued that showing that world would have made the whole thing too wacky and less accessible to the same audiences who loved to see Sam transform sexual-harassers into cute fluffy dogs.
I have always been a big fan of invisible worldbuilding. I love it when characters evoke their homes, their backstory and their personality through tantalising hints of language, through careful choice of words and phrasing. I love the complex game that comes from drip-feeding clues to an audience, especially when you can later turn seemingly innocuous bits of information into vital pieces of plot.
Harry Potter is a great example of this – the first book was very simple and elegant, and while we only saw a small slice of the wizarding world, we were treated to many carefully-placed details. Later on, with each book, we saw a bit more of the wizarding world, and many of the worldbuilding details from early books were built upon, or shown to be more important than they seemed. It was three books before we learned there was a wizarding village and a wizarding prison; four books before we learned there were other wizarding schools in other parts of the world; five before we learned about Grimmauld Place, and so on. But the cleverness of Rowling was that many places and people seemed familiar by the time we got to them, because they had been referred to or hinted at as tiny bits of background information.
Invisible worldbuilding is all very well but, to my mind, it’s most effectively used as build up to a whacking great pay off. One of the greatest disappointments to me of the Bewitched movie (apart from, you know, the entire movie) was that once again, it was all about magical intrusions into the “real” world and the magical world itself was left a little too entirely to the audience’s imagination. But perhaps it’s better that way – could anything tangible really live up to the version we construct ourselves?
What do you think? Is invisible worldbuilding a sophisticated literary tool, or one big cop out? Do you prefer it when authors sneak worldbuilding into your food, or would you rather they present it in instant pill form?