All the charmingly domestic magic that once delighted 1960s sitcom audiences has recently come back into vogue, finding a new outlet in the subgenre we’ve collectively embraced as cozy fantasy. Bask in the comforts of magically folded laundry, stew you don’t have to stir yourself, and the feeling after a long hard day that you can brew a nice hot drink that has a little something extra in it to keep you warm. Sure, the something extra is probably a spell, but in cozy fantasy, the magical possibilities are endless! So, let’s go back in time for a look at a particular television trend that was oddly similar to the kind of stories taking over our shelves (and our hearts) today…
The mid-’60s gave rise to a handful of fantasy sitcoms (sometimes called “magi-coms”) which included Bewitched (1964), I Dream of Jeannie (1965), The Addams Family (1964), and The Munsters (1964). These shows all have elements of the fantastical or the (comedically) monstrous playing out in real-world contexts. I think it’s fair to say I am not the only one fascinated by the way mid-’60s American sitcoms chose to highlight domestic magic and supernatural creatures for family at-home viewing—these shows are still fondly remembered (often thanks to syndication) over half a century later, and the fact that they all came out in 1964-5 is so wondrously specific.
Bewitched begins with a typical couple falling in love and getting married before the pilot narrator explains “…except it so happens that this girl is a witch” with Samantha, the witch in question, retrieving a brush with the twitch of a finger and floating it her way. I would describe the show as a whimsical, high feminine comedy about choosing to live a domestic life that centers on partnership. Samantha marries “a normal mortal human being” in defiance of her mother, and it’s clear that she is happy with the life she chose.
It would be another situation entirely if she was forced to live in the home, forbidden to do magic and ordered to do housework by her husband, but that is simply not the case. Samantha has plenty of power, she can do and be whatever she likes, and she enjoys being married. Her husband, Darrin, is pretty easily convinced that having a witch for a wife is just fine—mostly because Samantha is very good at convincing outsiders that she’s a non-magical suburban housewife, and they are in love. I still find it adorable. This ’60s sitcom still strikes me as funny and romantic, with most episodes focused on the way Samantha chooses to use her magic to improve her domestic, partnered life. The fantastical is present, but while other types of fantasy stories focus on world-ending stakes and all manner of magical threats, the fantasy here is more about finding, after a long night of entertaining, you can simply move your hands or twitch your nose and all your kitchen cleaning is done. These characters happily reject the larger world and instead choose to live contained lives with their extended families or found families with an unassuming level of determination.
I Dream of Jeannie is another sitcom where a regular, shmegular guy (albeit an astronaut) has a supernaturally powerful love interest. As you can see from the original opening credits above, Jeannie was trapped inside a bottle on a desert island until Captain Tony Nelson unwittingly released her. The astronaut frees Jeannie from any kind of servile contract, and she chooses to surreptitiously hitch a ride and come home with him (much to his surprise). I should note here that the exoticized costume and Persian she speaks in the first episode have aged very poorly (and were problematic even at the time), instantly calling to mind Edward Said’s critique of Orientalism—this aspect of I Dream of Jeannie has been explored at length elsewhere, and it’s an issue any discussion of the show must address upfront.
Following their initial meeting, Jeannie becomes a chaotic sexy menace as soon as she’s granted her freedom and it’s glorious. First, she sabotages Nelson’s engagement and makes his commanding officers think he’s having girl-in-bottle-related delusions, and then she berates him for not listening to her. The premise of the series is that she essentially forces her way into the life of a regular guy who was already happily engaged, and I admit that, again, the show should not be given a pass just because it was framed as a joke in 1964. However, the themes the show was centered on are relevant to this discussion: Jeannie is an incredibly powerful, 2000-year-old magical being and all she wants is to stay with the person who made her happy and showed her kindness. She uses her infinite, ancient power to craft her perfect domestic space because she can and while hijinks might ensue, they make it work (with the help, and some interference, from their circle of friends and family).
Of course, the fantasy sitcom trend didn’t only focus on romantic relationships, with both The Addams Family and The Munsters centered around two oddball American families giving normal a try (or at least, redefining “normal” on their own terms). Both the Addamses and the Munsters see themselves as perfectly normal and tend to view their non-supernatural family members or more conventional neighbors as being a bit peculiar. They enjoy a cozy, cordial home life with a large extended family. Sure, their houses might be filled with cobwebs and decorated like it’s Halloween all year round, but it’s clear that they all care deeply about one another and have a great time without worrying about outside opinions. Give me a witty, magical found family yesterday, please…
I think it’s important to note that, even though these series were intended to be slightly satirical, all of these shows celebrate the frankly wonderful idea that all kinds of families—even those that with very obvious or hidden differences that might set them apart or make them seem strange to outsiders—can still claim a life full of love, happiness, and acceptance. The shows make fun of the straight-laced American families that surround our protagonists while reaffirming the idea love, friendship, partnership, and family are valuable and desirable. Because shows like Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, The Addams Family and The Munsters center family values and partnership, they can make jokes about stodgier aspects of American life while still embracing the familial stability at the center of it all, in their own unconventional ways.
Historians who study Sixties-era America can tell you far better than I can, but even a relative novice like me has a base-level understanding that a countercultural movement was rising up to challenge many of the traditional values and assumptions prevalent at that time. These sitcoms were appealing to both sides of the American public—the radical and the traditional—by gently presenting magical others who, deep down, wanted to live a normal, happy life. Readers of today’s cozy fantasy fiction will likely recognize that the subgenre has picked up these thematic threads and questioning of “normalcy,” while embracing a more radical insistence on inclusivity and celebrating difference in a way these older shows never could.
As the outside world has become more hectic and disruptive, the appeal of living happily contained domestic lives seems to become more and more appealing, at least for some of us. Who doesn’t want to spend more time at home with a warm drink of your choice and a hobby to keep you occupied? A personal mantra of mine for 2023 is to “say no and do less”: I don’t want to #girlboss my way through life, thank you very much. I want to do a manageable amount of work, get a reasonable amount of sleep, and talk to friends and family often enough. If I could blink and have my laundry done and dinner ready, I promise you I would. These goals, while they’re not the kind of things that never rate a mention in more epic fare, are the kind of thing that cozy fantasy books understand and tend to revel in.
During the pandemic, there was increased interest in crafting, home improvement, and cooking. It is fair to say that aesthetics like cottagecore, cottagegore, and goblincore, which all embrace the relaxing nature of homemaking, also experienced a bit of a boom. These trends support a reclaiming of home space activities as restorative, and an extension of important self-care that anyone can engage with and enjoy. So perhaps it’s unsurprising that I’ve noticed similar kinds of narrative focus on magic as a tool for homemaking or family in the recent boom in cozy fantasy books.
Although “cozy fantasy” as a category wasn’t in widespread use before 2022, the subgenre has seen an undeniable uptick in interest among fantasy readers. Bookish tiktokers like @megstearoom and @books.with.lee have done quite a lot to help define and promote the cozy fantasy genre (and the tag has more than 18 million views). Your exact definition of what constitutes cozy fantasy might differ from another reader’s, but we can generally agree that books that earn the label tend to spark warm, “cozy” feelings with relatively low stakes, spinning feel-good stories that center community building or maintenance (so family, found family, and/or friendship). Just a few recent standouts include Can’t Spell Treason Without Tea by Rebecca Thorne, Legends & Lattes by Travis Baldree, Witchful Thinking by Celestine Martin, and The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches by Sangu Mandanna, which all explore the fantastical in narratives that focus on domesticity.
A wave of interest was sparked by Baldree’s independently published Legends & Lattes (subtitled “A Novel of High Fantasy and Low Stakes”) following the book’s release in February 2022. The sapphic cozy fantasy novel was lauded for creating a high fantasy world where a former mercenary decides to hang up her weapons and follow her dream of opening her own coffee shop. The gentle but compelling narrative hook drew readers in, exploring how one creates a small business after living a life as an adventurer and the surprising relationships that can be forged along the way. Although the sitcoms discussed above mainly focused on the at-home applications of the fantastical, Baldree’s novel’s small business also doubles as a home, fostering a cozy found-family environment.
Can’t Spell Treason Without Tea by Rebecca Thorne is another wonderful example of a sapphic cozy fantasy that features a home business. In this case, it’s a bookshop that serves tea, set up by a couple instead of an individual, but the vibes are similar to Legends & Lattes. The book imagines what it would be like to run away with the person you love: “Run away with me, the mage had said, her eyes alight. You like tea. I like books. Let’s open a shop somewhere remote and forget the world exists.” It’s wondrously romantic to imagine one of the Queen’s guards, fed up with her bloody job, joining forces with the most powerful mage in existence—both of them giving it all up to live a quiet, comfortable life together. Much like the protagonists of Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, the two central characters are powerful, potentially dangerous people who want nothing more than to cultivate a home and be in love.
I would tend to trace this shift from magic in the home to magic in the home business to the frankly disappointing state of affairs in corporate America, paired with the appeal of the Hallmark-esque dream of moving to a small town and opening your very own successful small business. Think about it: First, in this scenario, you are only paying to live and work at one location that you own outright—in a world with sky-high housing prices, the idea that you can wholly own your home business is a bit of a fantasy in and of itself. Second, you love and are loved by everyone you work and live with—just as in our ’60s sitcoms, you have chosen your family/ found family/ friends wisely, and it has paid off. Third, some of the work required, like getting your stock in on time and or the labor needed to get your business ready to open, can be made easier and less time-consuming by the use of your fantastical strength and/or magic. Taken together, you have the ideal components for a cozy high fantasy world.
That is not to say the low fantasy worlds (basically our world, but with a bit more magic) seen in ’60s sitcoms are a thing of the past: Witchful Thinking by Celestine Martin and The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches by Sangu Mandanna both have that covered. Both books are specifically cozy fantasy romance novels about witches just trying to do their best as magic infiltrates the worlds around them. They channel the same vibes as The Addams Family and The Munsters, featuring supernatural found families supporting each other and living their own version of “normal” life.
When I say Sangu Mandanna’s The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches is one of the cutest things I’ve ever read I am not exaggerating (and trust me when I say I’ve read a lot of very cute fiction). Mika Moon, orphaned and adopted at a young age, grew up mostly alone with limited access to friends and family because the more witches there are in one place, the more dangerous it is for the witches in question. Now she is an influencer pretending to be a witch online (that is, she is pretending to be a fake witch who claims to do magic—she doesn’t think anyone watching would believe her spells are real). Luckily, when a group of non-magical people trying to raise three adopted witches come across her videos, they reach out to her and ask if she can tutor their kids in witchcraft. This is a gentle, lovely story that prioritizes child safety, community, and happiness above all else, while challenging the adult characters to unpack their own childhood traumas in order to be the best mentors and parents they can be to these adopted children.
Mandanna’s novel reinforces the idea that all children—even the ones who might feel that they are different or strange, powerful or powerless—deserve to have adults in their lives who want you to feel safe and loved. You can say what you’d like about the Addams family’s casually murderous or macabre sense of humor, but the Addams parents unconditionally love and encourage Wednesday and Pugsley. It truly is adorable and praiseworthy and I for one am happy to see these offbeat-but-nurturing familial relationships getting more attention in the cozy fantasy world once more.
Martin’s Witchful Thinking imagines a small coastal town in New Jersey where small bits of magic and magical creatures are everywhere. The fantasy romance centers on Lucinda, a schoolteacher and witch who desperately wants her life to be a bit more exciting and fulfilling than it is. Lucy finds herself longing to reach a few new milestones, including finding a new house and a new soul mate. And then suddenly, her high school friend/merman/photographer Alex, who has been busily traveling the world, comes back home to celebrate his birthday. This novel is all about learning how to grow roots in a place full of people you love and how to experience adventure even when you don’t travel too far. In a way, it reimagines a kind of neighborhood life similar to the world of The Munsters, where the supernatural exists contentedly beside the everyday.
Cozy fantasy books make room for magic homemaking in regular, everyday life in a way not many works of fiction tend to do. Cozy, much like horror or comedy, is an emotional genre. The books are written to evoke warmth and comfort, and while the process can be subjective and responses might from person to person and over time, certain key elements tend to remain the same. We can see some of the DNA of the ’60s fantasy sitcom mirrored in this new wave of cozy fantasy because we still respond to those elements—the comforts of home, family, friendship, and security, with just enough magic to keep things interesting and add a bit of comforting escapism into the mix.
There is a kind of reclamation happening when it comes to domesticity, and it’s a cyclical pattern, extending far beyond the connection with the kooky sitcoms of the 1960s to stretches of literary and artistic fascination with the homey, the small, and the pastoral throughout history. Sometimes we just want to wax romantic about nature and farms and cozy small lives where nothing horrible happens and think about the magical or mystical side of everyday life, and these sorts of stories fulfill that yearning in the best possible way.
Fantasy sitcoms showed us that magic can be fun and funny and comfortingly domestic, while making TV a little stranger and more interesting. They told us that being weird could be just as valid as being conventional, at the end of the day, and let us dream of doing magic instead of laundry. Clearly, cozy fantasy books are responding to the same kinds of desires, and this new wave of authors are ready, willing, and able to skillfully set these familiar beats to a new tune for an audience in need of whimsical comfort.
Originally published May 2023.
R. Nassor is a senior contributing writer at Book Riot who covers Fantasy, Science Fiction, Romance, and YA books. She graduated with a double major in English and Psychology and a Dance minor from The George Washington University and is completing an M.A. in the English program at Georgetown University where she looks at medievalism in feminine-focused fantasy. She’s also been known to throw a mug or two in her quest to write about myth, pop culture, and genre at large.