Syfy, home of Sharknado, has been spending the last few years building a stable of scripted series designed to make you forget it’s the home of Sharknado. It’s had mixed results in the past, but its current projects—which include some smart adaptation choices—are less an attempt to win the lottery than to win genre bingo by covering every possible square. Trippy dystopia (12 Monkeys), science-fiction critical darling (The Expanse), prestige fantasy drama (The Magicians), zombie horror (Z Nation), action caper (Killjoys), lupine urban fantasy (Bitten)—Syfy wants to collect them all. And under “weird Western,” along with the movie Dead 7, it has Wynonna Earp.
Adapted from the Beau Smith/Joyce Chin comic and developed by Lost Girl‘s Emily Andras, Wynonna Earp is a modern-day supernatural Western that follows the titular antihero (Melanie Scrofano) as she reluctantly heads back to her hometown of Purgatory to make good on the family legacy. Turns out the revenants of criminals gunned down by her great-grandfather Wyatt have risen from the grave to menace the townsfolk (any surviving Earps, specifically), and Wynonna will have to begrudgingly set aside her family angst, take up the family’s Peacemaker pistol, and lay down the law.
The series has certainly found the right woman for the job. Scrofano is an easy, authoritative presence, walking a very delicate line between the naturalism of her quieter moments and the self-conscious fourth-wall winking this referential weird Western demands. (She has an impressive spectrum of facial expressions just for the many times someone assures her she could die any moment.) It’s a perfectly pitched central performance that at times is asked to drag the entire show along behind it—especially since her costars seem to have wandered in from different shows, and there’s a little awkwardness involved in watching everyone try to find the same gear.
Although the cast is up to the job, the tonal shifts are big enough that it might take a few episodes to settle. Dominique Provost-Chalkley, as Wynonna’s younger sister Waverly, hits her “charmingly anxious” requirement so hard she seems transported from an early season of Grey’s Anatomy. Tim Rozon, as tormented double agent Doc Holliday, spends a full episode palpably talking himself into the setup (and becomes instantly more compelling when he gives in). And though Shamier Anderson does what he can with seen-it-all paranormal investigator Dolls, riding into town to provide a season-arc frame story and a steadying influence for Wynonna, the role is so textbook in early episodes that he’s functionally invisible.
These could just be early-episode growing pains that smooth out as things go on—once Wynonna Earp isn’t so intent on proving itself to network specs and early viewers, it will likely settle in. Some of the no-time-for-subtlety beats hit the pulpy nonsense basic-cable bullseye: revenant councils lit like intense cologne ads, queer lady sheriff Officer Haught (yup) stopping by the bar during a wet-shirt emergency, for exactly the sort of scene you’d imagine. Other moments—like Wynonna’s agonized realization, “I can’t leave Purgatory!”—act as a litmus test for whether or not this show’s cheese level is something viewers can handle.
If it all sounds a little by-the-numbers, it is. But part of the fun of both Westerns and pulp revenge stories is setting up the tropes to play with them later, so Wynonna Earp could just be getting a few things out of the way before the shenanigans really get started. Even though none of the supernatural set-dressing is particularly groundbreaking, this is a show that’s happy just to wink broadly at its influences, which include everything from Buffy to Sleepy Hollow, a self-consciousness that can be distracting. (Including and especially the “She’s just a girl!” agitation, which has overstayed its welcome by the end of two episodes.)
But when it’s allowed the room to run, Wynonna Earp delights in itself: Irascible Wynonna, small-town politics, a handful of scenery-chewing cowboys from hell, and demons who sink into the underworld with effects straight out of Hanna-Barbera. (It even has a head start on the competition; Van Helsing, about Vanessa Helsing accepting her destiny as the heir to a monster-killing dynasty, is due to premiere on Syfy later this year. Given the network’s itchy trigger finger, Wynonna Earp will want to be in the swing of things by then.) If Syfy has faith in it, Wynonna Earp could grow into the good-time Western pulp it has the potential to be. The camera makes good use of Calgary country that convincingly brings the West to life, and there’s enough structure in the premise to build a solid season on. Scrofano is doing her part to make Wynonna Earp a slice of gritty, goofy fun; let’s hope the show can follow suit.