A ton of new genre shows hit the tube this year. So with the calendar turning, we asked our esteemed panel the following question…
2015 has been a great year for SF/F television. In addition to many excellent series returning with new seasons (Game of Thrones, Person of Interest are standouts for me), dozens of new shows launched this year. Having spent way too much of my writing time watching TV instead, here are my favorites:
Brian Finch is a ne’er-do-well who is exposed to an experimental drug called NZT-48, which allows him to use 100% of his brain and become the “smartest man in the world.” Most people can’t use the drug on the regular basis because the side effects are deadly, but Brian is immune for reasons I won’t disclose to avoid spoilers. The FBI employs Brian as a consultant to help them solve cases.
I didn’t have high hopes for this one. A crime procedural with a minor SF element, based on an unremarkable namesake movie and reliant on the tired and false trope of human beings using only a fraction of their brain power, this one had “cancellation” written all over it. And yet, the show succeeds spectacularly, thanks in part to a stellar cast (Jake McDorman and Jennifer Carpenter star, but it’s Desmond Harrington and Hill Harper who frequently steal the show) and in part to its quirky, fun approach to storytelling. The show frequently breaks the fourth wall, pokes fun at itself, and still manages to tell compelling stories that dwell upon the moral and emotional complexity that comes with Brian’s pharmaceutically induced powers.
Much like Person of Interest, Limitless is far greater than the sum of its parts and is by far my favorite new genre show of 2015.
Into the Badlands (AMC)
A highly stylized martial arts series set in a feudal post-apocalyptic world where guns are absent and warlords vie for power, Badlands is sure to appeal to fans of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Bonus points for a truly diverse cast of characters. AMC rarely fails (in fact, I can’t think of any scripted show from them I truly disliked) and while it’s only been a few episodes so far, I’m very much on board and looking forward to more.
Last Man on Earth (Fox)
Another post-apocalyptic show, but this one is a sitcom. Will Forte stars as a survivor of a virus that wiped out the world population two years prior.
Despite the series title, he isn’t alone: the show focuses on the lives of a small band of survivors, gradually introduced over the course of the first season. Much of the comedy relies on the unique setting, which also makes the show feel fresh. The cast is excellent, and further spiced up with guest appearances by the likes of Will Ferrell and Jason Sudeikis, but it’s co-lead Kristen Schaal whose performance especially stands out for me.
There are no interstellar ships or fire-breathing dragons among my top picks. The rest of my top 10 (in alphabetical order) includes some space opera and superhero shows:
- Agent Carter (ABC)
- Dark Matter (SyFy)
- Fear the Walking Dead (AMC)
- Jessica Jones (Netflix)
- Killjoys (SyFy)
- Sense8 (Netflix)
- Supergirl (CBS)
I’ve heard good things about but haven’t had the chance to watch The Man in the High Castle (Amazon Prime). Some of the other shows I sampled but wasn’t as impressed with (thus far) include Heroes Reborn (NBC), Galavant (ABC), Daredevil (Netflix), The Expanse (SyFy), and Minority Report (Fox).
Last but not least, SyFy recently previewed the first episode of The Magicians (which officially premieres in January) and I thought it was really, really good. Perhaps the best show premiere I’ve seen on the SyFy channel to date. I’m looking forward to watching it in 2016, as well as checking out a large crop of new shows. Some of the announced shows that caught my interest already include The Shannara Chronicles (MTV), Preacher (AMC), Lucifer (Fox) and Colony (USA).
In January I would have told you that the year wouldn’t produce any genre TV show that would make me happier than Agent Carter. It had a distinct visual style, a great aesthetic, a star who exuded intelligence and charisma. The writing was solid. Even the action blended humor and my beloved use-what’s available tactic. If it had some problems, it was still everything I had wanted from the Agents of SHIELD, that SHIELD never delivered. I added my voice to those clamoring for Agent Carter to get a second season.
Then along came Supergirl, the show twelve-year-old DC-fan me would have fallen head over heels for. It didn’t have the same quality of writing, but it had the sense of humor that has been missing from all of DC’s movie projects. It’s a little hokey, sure, and they don’t seem to have spent much on their effects, but they found the right actress for the job. She’s smart and earnest, and I love that she actually looks strong. Best of all, the character of Cat Grant, as played by Calista Flockhart. In the first episodes, I assumed she was going to be playing that bad fashion magazine boss that we’ve seen a half dozen times in the last few years. I’ve been delighted to see her character grow and change, and the dynamic between Supergirl/Kara and Cat is actually my favorite thing about the show.
And THEN came Jessica Jones. Jessica Jones had it all: superior visual storytelling; a script that was smart, tense and funny; a great cast; and a mission to actually interrogate some of our assumptions about superheroes and women in superhero stories. The writing and the acting blew me away. Ritter and Tennant were tremendous, as was the supporting cast. With the exception of the cartoonish upstairs neighbor, I believed in every one of them. I loved that it was built around female friendship, too, and that Jessica and Trish trusted and supported each other at every step.
I know that’s three when I’m supposed to be giving one, but I’m cheating on this answer because I am just overjoyed that all three of these shows, and all three of these characters, existed on TV in the same year.
As spoiler-free as humanly possible
While there were many strong TV and movie comics adaptations this year, Jessica Jones stands possibly the only one that was actually science fiction. Superheroes are often seen as a subgenre of SF, of course, but most adaptations instead use them as an element to let them tell amped-up stories in other genres: paranoid thrillers, as in Captain America: The Winter Soldier; retro-’60s spy stories, as in Agents of Shield; heist movies, as in Ant-Man; and, of course, action movies. It’s actually rare for superhero stories, especially media adaptations, to use the characters and settings to do what I consider to be the core purpose of SF and fantasy: to help us look at something in the real world — ideally a universal or at least very common experience — in a new way by changing the ground rules, taking a metaphor and making it concrete. (This is not quite the same thing as allegory, because an allegory is basically a logical argument, and therefore has no room for imagination. The purpose of an allegory is to make you agree with the writer: the purpose of a metaphor is to make you think, with no guarantee of where you’ll wind up.)
On Jessica Jones that metaphor is about consent. The SFnal element used to explore this is Kilgrave, a character for whom consent is irrelevant: he can tell anyone to do something and they’ll do it without question, up to and including killing themselves — or someone else. He is, naturally, the villain, and much of the series is a cat-and-mouse game between him and the title character, a super-strong private investigator who became one of his victims during an ill-fated attempt to play superhero. One of the key questions is whether, with his powers, he can ever obtain genuine consent — how would he know if someone really wanted to do what he told them to? — which recalls a number of high-profile incidents in which people charged with sexual assault didn’t seem to understand that being unconscious makes it impossible for someone to consent to sex.
But the issues of consent that Jessica Jones plays with aren’t limited to a sexual context. Kilgrave, it comes out, got his powers as a result of being experimented on by his parents as a child — experiments to which he explicitly and vehemently did not give consent — and our sense of whether or not that was justified changes as we learn more about the circumstances, forcing us to question our previous assumptions. It’s also strongly implied that Jessica’s powers come as a result of experiments carried out on her as a child, again without consent (while she was unconscious after an accident) and another character gains powers from drugs: while he initially consents to taking them, the validity of that consent is unclear because he doesn’t seem able to decide whether or not to stop.
Kilgrave’s powers, meanwhile, are paralleled by other characters who use people in more prosaic ways, Jessica among them. In a number of cases the ends of her doing so seem to be good, and in another story we wouldn’t see what she does as anything more than the sign of a kick-ass hero: with the SFnal element always in the background, though, we’re forced to question that, and ask ourselves where the line is between what the two of them are doing. It’s to the series’ credit that while Jessica is certainly a sympathetic character, she’s not always likable and is very far from perfect, struggling — and sometimes failing — to live up to her standards of right and wrong. Moreover, none of the significant characters are flawless: indeed, the series invites us to consider not only that any of us might become Kilgrave if we had his powers, but that most of us have a strong tendency in that direction even if we don’t.
It’s interesting to compare Jessica Jones to Daredevil, its sister Marvel show on Netflix. I liked Daredevil a lot, and on a technical level it’s probably superior: the directing on Jessica Jones tends to be pedestrian, where Daredevil was often ambitious and fairly stylish. But Daredevil suffers because, in the end, it’s not really about anything: it’s using the main character to tell a version of the one-good-man-in-a-corrupt-city story, a kind of superhero Serpico. That’s entertaining, but it’s ultimately out of our experience on both a metaphorical or a literal level: you don’t come out of Daredevil asking a lot of questions about law enforcement or municipal government. Jessica Jones, on the other hand, basically demands that you ask questions — which is what makes it good science fiction.
I enjoyed so many SFF television and movies this year (Jessica Jones, Ex Machina, Star Wars), but my favorite of 2015 is an anime available on Hulu called One-Punch Man. In a departure from a common superhero arc where the hero fights, loses, trains/learns a new skill, fights again and wins (levels up), Saitama (One-Punch Man) defeats his foes in–as you can probably guess–one punch. With his strength being unquestioned (by the viewer, but not so much the other incredulous or jealous heroes), it gives the story an opportunity to focus on the emotional and mental growth of Saitama, who starts off bored with his easy victories, and often lonely until he makes his first friend who really appreciates him, and gets him to join a league of heroes. That’s not to say there isn’t any action, as the lesser heroes are often the first to the fray to keep it exciting.
Of the many new SyFy series, my favorite has been Dark Matter, where a spaceship crew come out of their cryosleep and don’t remember who they are. In its first season, the show isn’t perfect, but delivers a solid performance that examines the question of personal responsibility of an amnesiac for their past, and what makes a villain–actions or a brain chemistry. This isn’t necessarily a new idea, but it’s done quite well, and with an ensemble instead of a single tragic heroic figure.
iZombie is the most recent series that I’ve marathon’d on Netflix, a fun zombie-detective show where the undead aren’t any more or less evil than the living–they just needs brains to survive. Olivia, the protagonist, is a zombie who is lucky enough to have a medical degree, and so she works as an assistant medical examiner, with easy access to brains. She quickly realizes that eating brains gives her memories and the personality traits of the person she ate, and she uses these to help solve their murders. If you need a fake-psychic detective show to replace Psych, iZombie has a similarly fun cast, though the subject matter and tone is a bit darker, as you can imagine.
Okay, I’ll admit it: I don’t really know what my favorite new SF/F/H show this year was. After all, Jessica Jones was pretty amazing. Sense8 was incredibly original. Even Supergirl and Dark Matter, which both started really slow for me, improved a lot as they went on.
But definitely one of my favorite new shows this year was Killjoys, which was just the fun, charming, snarky bounty hunter space opera I was hoping it’d be. I loved the characters, which is always first and foremost for me. It’s got a great heroine in Dutch, who has an amazing and totally platonic relationship with John, who in turn has an interesting sibling relationship with D’avin that’s complicated and tense without ever being whiny and stupid. Also, John’s relationship with the ship AI, Lucy, never fails to amuse me. I’m a sucker for a good human/machine ‘ship. (Someday, someone will write me a TNG fanfic about the epic romance between Geordi and the ship’s computer. You know they’re made for each other.)
Killjoys also has a lot of interesting stuff going on with world building, specifically politics and religion, and I feel like there’s so much more to see in this particular ‘verse that we’ve only gotten a glimpse of. Not to mention, Season One ends on something of a cliffhanger, so I was incredibly relieved to see it got renewed. I may never have been great at picking my favorite anything, but Killjoys may very well be the SF/F/H show I’m most looking forward to coming back next year.
I didn’t do a lot of TV watching in 2015, so this comes from a small pool of shows I caught, but I really enjoyed Sense8 on Netflix. It’s a very short season (you can binge watch it in a single day, if you feel like it), and the second season won’t be out until fall 2016, but by the end of the current episodes, I found myself looking forward to the new episodes.
What I liked about this series: inclusive casting (of the eight in the cluster, four are males, four female; characters include gay, lesbian, and trans people; characters are scattered around the globe and include Korean, Nigerian, Indian, Mexican, American, German, and Scandinavian), location shooting, and interesting uses of the premise that the characters are connected mentally.
What I didn’t like: some sloppy lines, such as in the first episode when a character is on the south side of Chicago and says he has to be on an airplane taking off from the airport in an hour — between traffic and security, I just couldn’t see that happening; as well as some logic gaps, such as a character who was lost in the wilds not following the clearly visible power lines to a fairly obvious substation to get help.
Overall, this was good candy watching — no pretense of hard science here, just good fun as the characters talk to people only they can see (or kiss someone only they can see, which is fairly amusing to watch) or jump in to control each other’s bodies for chase scenes, escapes, and fights. There is no one character who stands out as being more capable, a wish-fulfillment type. Rather, they all complement each other, from the hacker to the cop to the pharmacist to the kickboxer to the bus driver to the movie star to the DJ to the criminal — a range of people with different motivations and back stories, locked together and just trying to figure out what’s going on and where they go from here.
If you’re after something that’s not at all mentally taxing to watch, I recommend Sense8 wholeheartedly. Just be prepared to ignore the obvious goofs.
2015 was a pretty exciting year for genre television, if we can even call it that after 2015!
My favorite show thus far this year has been SyFy’s The Expanse, which brought back Space Opera in a big way to the channel. Based on James S.A. Corey’s novels, it’s serious science fiction that has outstanding characters, visuals and a killer story to the small screen.
Another excellent program is Amazon’s Man in the High Castle, which is bringing Philip K. Dick’s excellent novel by the same name to life. It’s taken a bit of a different path than that of the novel, but the story that the show is laying out is an excellent one, and like The Expanse, it’s boasting excellent production values and acting.
Marvel brought in a couple of outstanding programs through Netflix: Daredevil and Jessica Jones, both of which I thought were far better than their big-screen counterparts. They were dark, complicated dramas that are satisfying in the time that they take to unwind their stories, relying more on the characters than spectacle.
Mr. Robot is a fantastic show in the cyber security realm. I haven’t gotten to watch all of it yet, but what I’ve seen has been fantastic. Great acting and stories.
Two other favorites that I’ve had were other offerings from SyFy: Dark Matter and Killjoys, which were epic amounts of fun. They remind me quite a bit of shows like Farscape, Firefly and Stargate, set out in space with a fun cast of characters and weekly adventures. It’s been too long since we’ve had something like them.
Three TV new shows this year stand out for me. One of them I’ve been anticipating for a while, one I initially shook my head at, and the other one surprised me since it seemingly came out of nowhere.
The Expanse is the one I was anticipating for at least a year. I think the books by James S.A. Corey are (arguably) the best space-based Science Fiction books on the shelves right now. Of course the authors behind the name know a little bit about TV adaptations having been protégés of George R.R. Martin. The people making the show have credibility, with some having experience on Breaking Bad, and smartly, they invited Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck to contribute to the show. To say this show is great is an understatement, it does everything well that the books do and more. The show introduces a couple of characters immediately who didn’t appear until later books (Chrisjen Avasarala) in the series and this makes the show all the better. Some very good actors involved, too: Thomas Jane (The Mist, 61*), Jared Harris (Mad Men, Fringe), Shohreh Aghdashloo (Grimm, House of Sand and Fog), and Chad L. Coleman (The Walking Dead, The Wire). In short, this is brilliant SF television that could surpass Battlestar Galactica as the best thing SyFy has ever produced.
I initially shook my head at Supergirl but soon got over that when I realized some of the same folks (Greg Berlanti) who are responsible for The Flash and Arrow are making this one. The pilot was stellar and most of the episodes so far are just so much fun. Melissa Benoist is spectacular as Kara Zor-El. I was initially concerned with Calista Flockhart being cast as Cat Grant, but that evaporated quickly, too. Overall, even though Kara takes some of the color palette from Henry Cavill’s Superman, the tone is much more fun, upbeat, and positive – a colorful comic-book. The writers, just like on Flash are smartly weaving a lot of DC Comics lore into the show. We’re talking deep dive characters like Jemm, Son of Saturn. There are some parallels to Superman, which is natural. Maxwell Lord is basically Supergirl’s Lex Luthor, but he’s developing into a distinct enough character. This show being on Monday makes Monday all the more tolerable.
Lastly, the TV show that came out of nowhere from me was Mr. Robot. This is one of those shows that requires dancing around on eggshells when discussing, but the story, performances and look of the film are brilliant. I also absolutely love the soundtrack to this one. In it, Rami Malek is Elliot Alderson, an IT security engineer for “Allsafe.” Elliot has dissociative and anxiety disorders, but is sort of a Hacking Robin Hood. He finds himself drawn to “fsociety,” led by the titular Mr. Robot. To say more would lessen the weight of the narrative. In the same way Orphan Black stunned me and blew me away a couple of years ago, so does Mr. Robot. A fully engaging television narrative.
Childhood’s End SyFy
My 83-year-old mom and I (61) watched all 6 hours of this, over several days, one hour at a time (as it is probably meant to be viewed in the future).
First, we never like the format of having previews before each segment (after every commercial). Why does the SyFy channel do this? We always fast-forwarded through them, but sometimes they caught us unawares and we accidentally watched some: VERY CONFUSING and unnecessary.
Second, we actively disliked most of the background music: why use the horribly, fake-operatic Christian-Latin chorus so often? YUCK! Also, why did they choose to use so many old songs (pre-1990) to set moods? Does the “future Earth” not have any new music?
The story, an Arthur C. Clarke classic, was one I had read so long ago that I remembered very little of it. My mom didn’t know a thing about it and I did not tell her anything as we watched or before, which was good because this was not completely faithful to the original.
“Updating” sci-fi stories or movies is controversial, I know, but this one really didn’t suffer from that so much. Putting it in “now” was probably just easier for the producers and set designers, so, fine.
Third, why was it deliberately confusing? Jumpy editing among unnamed characters, not placing any of them in time or location frequently enough to keep track, with no explanations as to the reasons these characters were being depicted or how they connected until well into each segment: who likes this? Clarke’s story wasn’t like that.
Fourth, characterization problems. Although there were many opportunities to show more about the ways the main character, Ricky Stormgren (played very well by Under the Dome‘s Mike Vogel), was feeling and responding to his having been chosen to be, and his serving as, Earth’s liaison, these were mostly ignored/missed.
Daisy Betts played his long-suffering and seemingly trivially jealous betrothed (about to become and then does become his second wife, Ellie) very well, but, again, why weren’t the aspects of their relationship shown more as they were impacted by Ricky’s role?
Furthermore, Ricky’s first wife was idealized purposefully, but again, working right along with classic stereotyping to cast her with the blonde and beautiful Georgina Haig. Trite.
Fifth, it seemed an unfortunate and strange choice to give so little time to the key elements that provided the story with both its title and its theme: so little was explained about all that.
We were left confused and disappointed by the final two episodes.
Too much time was given to the traveling through space and showing the effects of that on Milo, played a bit heavy-handedly by Osy Ikhile. Why not have more of his experiences allow the viewers to understand Earth’s situation better?
The “Overmind” special effects made it very difficult to hear what was being said and it was disappointingly depicted as well.
Charles Dance was excellent as the semi-deified/demonized Karellen (how did they make his so tall?).
Why, though, do so many USA science-fiction films/TV shows cast British-sounding actors in mega roles, often playing god-like characters? Do USA filmmakers really believe that deities have to sound like upper-class British folks to sound important?
Overall, we gave it a C- grade. Worth watching if you’re a fan. Otherwise, skip it.
Agent X TNT
Alternate history/present USA sci-fi, here. Jeff Hephner, John Shea, Sharon Stone, Carolyn Stotesbery, Gerald McRaney in the cast with executive producers Armyan Bernstein and Nathan Fillion (yes, of Castle, Firefly and Dr. Horrible): what could go wrong?
Watched the pilot this week, when it aired. Interesting premises and glad to see a good role going to Sharon Stone.
Could do without seeing so much of Gerald McRaney (why do people like him? He’s so stiff; also, always the same character and very much overused on TV).
Jeff Hephner is good in his role, as it goes, but the show and its music, moves, storylines and villains are very comic-book-y–two-dimensional–using many “inside jokes” and tropes from James Bond, Mission Impossible, and various spy TV and film shows from the past.
Writing seems lazy and trying too hard, both; not amusing enough to be “camp” and not interesting enough to be great. The situations are so implausible as to be funny. The “bad” guys shoot many bullets and always miss; the “good” guys almost never miss. Mostly, they fight physically even when they have guns (too typical and very BORING).
It’s sometimes fun and not entirely boring, but, again, too much kick-boxing/fighting/chase scenes and not enough story or character development.
All we know about the main character is that he is Agent X. So?
All we know about the Vice President is that she lost her husband in a car accident somewhat recently and is the first woman to have this elected office. So?
John Shea as the President is wasted and almost absent in Episode 1, but he was the VP before Stone. Thought he might be useful, then they tell us that he’s not allowed to talk to Stone about her job at all. Huh? So, why is he even in the show? Comes in for a few minutes here and there, then mostly absent, again in other episodes as well.
By season’s end in December, a number of unexpected twists and an ongoing villain (played by Andrew Howard) created more tension and interest.
Liking the recurring Olga Petrovka (played amusingly by Olga Fonda) character’s appearances as well as John’s former love, Pamela, played by Carolyn Stotesbery.
Giving it a C grade.