In the Golden Age of Television, there’s bound to be some TV shows that slip through the cracks. There are literally hundreds of TV shows currently in production and every network seems to boast at least two “prestige” shows, with networks like HBO and Netflix dominating the space. That being said, there are several shows which not only deserve to be talked about more, but deserve the praise and viewers of lesser shows that inexplicably dominate the TV landscape (looking at you The Walking Dead).
I literally can’t start this list with any other show. With an average viewership of around 700,000 a week, basically no one watches this show, and everyone I know that does has watched it because I told them to. This may be because it’s stuck on the Syfy channel, and seeing that channel has lost a ton of viewers to other networks, it’s no wonder why this cinematic gem has been lost. Let me put it this way, it’s one of the most thoughtful shows in years. Although I hate the constant comparisons to Game of Thrones that this show gets, I’ll have to use it for this article. Also based off of a series of books (actually co-written by George R.R. Martin’s former personal assistant Ty Franck) is a wildly dense and well thought out world that features just as much depth as Martin’s magnum opus. Part of this comes from the origin of the books as a MMORPG design that evolved into a book. That being said, where Martin’s series sometimes chokes readers and viewers on that depth, The Expanse doesn’t. That stuff is window dressing for the characters and story, and once it gets going, feels a lot more like Firefly and Battlestar Galactica than Game of Thrones.
In addition to the complex world, the series is the kind of hard sci-fi that series like Star Trek pretend to be. It’s the kind of show that as the creators put it, made a simple turn a plot point. Gravity is not a given, and there are different kinds of humans based on where they’re from, as people born in the belt may be super tall and thin, whereas Earthers are short and portly in comparison. Suffice to say, it’s a much more grounded level of sci-fi that makes everything feel more dangerous.
The central story of season one follows three groups of characters, one on Earth, one in the asteroid belt station Ceres, and an Ice Hauler heading back from Jupiter. Each story line comes together around a extinction level event wrapped in a thriller. And if that seems vague, that’s because I pretty much can’t say anything else without spoiling it.
The production values, though definitely not HBO level, are decidedly high compared to most shows on the lesser networks. I’d say it absolutely exceeds AMC’s production values and comes closer to Starz or Showtime’s quality. The series also has some unexpected high level acting talent for Syfy channel like Jared Harris (Mad Men, The Crown), Thomas Jane (The Punisher, Hung, The Mist), Shohreh Aghdashloo (24, The Lake House), and Chad L. Coleman (The Walking Dead, Arrow) and up and coming actors like Steven Strait (Magic City), and Dominique Tipper. What I’m saying is, you should watch the first season, but unless you live outside of North America you can only buy it. It is literally not available to stream anywhere (outside the US you can check it out on Netflix). Season 2 begins airing Feb. 1 on Syfy.
Now it’s time to talk about Vikings. This show is unbelievably good, and also is the most metal show on TV. Created by Michael Hirst (The Tudors, Elizabeth), it follows the adventures of Ragnar Lothbrok and his sons. Ragnar is the Viking equivalent to King Arthur. Except, where King Arthur is almost entirely fiction, Ragnar’s purported life in the sagas conforms relatively to actual historical events during the beginning if the Viking Age. The show takes a grounded approach to the Viking age, and to Ragnar’s life in general, which is surrounded by mysticism and myth. It shows how they lived, what drove their society, and shows them treating their gods seriously (for good and for ill). What makes the show, however, is how astoundingly unpredictable it is. The show doesn’t pull punches, kills characters off mercilessly, and doesn’t allow storylines to drag on. Travis Fimmel‘s performance as Ragnar is electric, and captures the brilliance and madness of one of the most compelling and unpredictable characters on TV. The show also sports the most badass woman on TV, Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick).
I also can’t continue without talking about the battles. The first season struggled to capture these large scale battles due to budget reasons, but now it seems the History Channel and MGM have opened up the purse strings because some of these battles match or exceed some of Game of Throne’s most impressive battle sequences. In addition, the production quality is absolutely HBO level.
I also have to mention how alien the show makes historical civilizations. For instance, religion plays a huge part for the characters, and motivates them through just about every decision. And it sometimes seems silly in the post modern age for characters to be taking Thor and Loki seriously, but the character’s seriousness about their faith makes them more compelling and more dangerous. It shows more than anything else that these characters may share some of the same values that we have, but they would be monsters to us. More than anything, that’s what the show feels like — it’s a contemplation on the boogeyman. Ragnar represents everything we think of, and think we know, about the Vikings. They’re scary, and violent, and power hungry, but they weren’t entirely that. Vikings is currently airing the last 10 episodes of season 4 currently. You can catch up on Hulu or the History Channel.
Star Wars Rebels
Yeah, I know, it’s a kids show … but it’s Star Wars! Not only is it Star Wars, but it’s a compelling bridge between the prequels, the phenomenal Clone Wars cartoon, and the original trilogy. Set roughly 5 years before Rogue One it features a group of rebels on the outer rim planet of Lothal fighting their solitary battle against the Empire, until they inadvertently stumble into stitching together the nascent Rebellion. It’s pretty standard fare for Star Wars, with all your typical Star Wars archetypes, but it’s how they use them that makes the show special.
First they build on an already established universe and make it more coherent. We get to understand what life in the Empire was like for the common person and why people would rebel in the first place. Sure, we can just call them space Nazis and let it end there, but its different when you actually get to see how every corner of a person’s life is infringed by Imperial influence. We get to see what happens to those captured by the Empire, but we also get to see why people fought for the Empire. In particular, through a true believer named Agent Kallus, an Imperial Security Bureau agent who has acted as the primary recurring antagonist for the main characters since the beginning, and to see how his character has evolved has been wonderful stuff. In addition to there normal workers of the Empire, we finally get to see the Imperial Inquisition on display, and any time Sith influenced dark Jedi appear, it’s always for great and terrible reasons.
And also … did I mention both Darth Vader and Darth Maul have made their appearances? That alone should be enough reason to watch.
Well, that and Chopper.
I have already written at length about Starz’s Black Sails, but I’ll repeat what I said early, it’s one of the best shows on TV.
For those who are unaware, the series is a prequel to Treasure Island (that’s right THAT Treasure Island) and follows the story of Captain Flint and the crew of the Walrus as they fight to secure a haul of Spanish gold from a treasure ship (that’s right the gold from Treasure Island). We quickly get an introduction to many of the players from the original book like John Silver. (The actor Luke Arnold, who portrays John Silver, manages to channel the cunning and charm of a young Tim Curry, who assumed the same role in Muppet Treasure Island. Mentally, I make a lot of comparisons of that movie to this show). The magic is how they managed to turn a children’s story into a dark, adult drama without removing the heart of the original tale. Whereas in the book it’s Jim Hawkin’s story, in this it’s John Silvers progression into piracy that frames the viewers perspective.
The show is also very sneaky. In addition to using an entirely fictional crew, they’ve inserted them into a very real place in history with real pirates from the 1710s. The series is as much about the rise and fall of the Pirate Republic of the Bahamas as it is about the journey of the Walrus crew. Each character the series revolves around are well defined, strong, and identifiable. It’s astounding in a series dominated by strong male characters that you have equally strong female characters whose stories are not defined by the men. It’s also strange that a vehicle of this sort serves up more relevant social commentary on class, freedom, and civilization than even the Star Trek movies. It also manages to take these real life monsters and doesn’t just stop at making them understandable, it makes you root for them. In addition, Ray Stevenson’s turn as Blackbeard in this series is just incredible to watch.
In the same way that the Hamilton musical turned a man obsessed with nobility and class systems into a story about the American Dream, this show takes social pariahs and criminals and fold them into that same narrative tradition.
This is not to mention that the show is beautiful, and all the characters are played with a brilliant vitality by their actors. Once again, I can’t believe that Michael Bay produces a show that I like this much.