One of the television genres to really rise to the level of cinematic programming are those based around science fiction and fantasy. Television is full of shows that either go the hard sci-fi route (Stargate, Battlestar Galactica) or incorporate their elements more subtly (Lost).
Twin Peaks (1990 -1991, created by David Lynch and Mark Frost)
Starring Kyle MacLachlan, Michael Ontkean, Sherilyn Fenn, Madchen Amick, Sheryl Lee, Lara Flynn Boyle, Jack Nance, Grace Zabriskie, Ray Wise
There had never been a show like, and probably never will be another show like, Twin Peaks. The series was a perfect combination of the avant-garde sensibilities of filmmaker David Lynch and primetime soap producer Mark Frost. The show is at moment high camp and melodrama, then switching to tense neo-noir thriller, and over to creep-infused cinematic horror. The premise is incredibly simple: Young girl’s body washes up on the shores of her small Washington state town, FBI eventually called in to investigate. Out of this premise rises one of the most eclectic casts ever assembled on the small screen. Kyle MacLachlan plays Special Agent Dale Cooper, an investigator the likes of which you have never seen. He doesn’t put much stock in typical detective work, but rather relies on Eastern philosophy and his enigmatic dreams to guide the case. The series will introduce you to the wonders of the Log Lady, the Backwards Talking and Dancing Midget, The One-Armed Shoe Salesman, and a coffee percolator with a trout inside. You’ll never have coffee and pie the same way again. Though the series lacks horribly in the middle of its second season (Lynch was away from the series to work on a film), it is still light years better than anything you’ve ever seen on TV.
Battlestar Galactica (2004 – 2009, created by Glen A. Larson, Ronald Moore, and David Eick)
Starring James Edward Olmos, Mary McDonnell, Katie Sackhoff, Jamie Bamber, James Callis, Tricia Helfer, Grace Park, Michael Hogan, Tamoh Penikett, Aaron Douglas
When I first heard they were doing a remake of the cheesy Star Wars knock-off Battlestar Galactica I was a bit suspect. It wasn’t till 2006 that I actually sat down and began to work my way through the first two seasons of the series and was amazingly surprised. The names were the same, and original premise was fairly intact (Cylons destroy the Twelve Colonies, forcing a small fleet of ships to begin searching for a new home), but the themes and tone of the remake was startlingly fresh. What was done so well in BSG was that is stayed true to the great science fiction trope of being more about our present society and context, much more than any future environs. The series manages to capture a lot of tension in post-9/11 America, with characters finding it easy to dehumanize their enemies, debating if authority has the right to seize power in the midst of crisis, and approaching issues of religious conflict. Despite the first half of the third season being one of the most brilliant things ever, the show begins to crumble in the second half and never recovers during the final season. The show’s focus began to get tied up in trying to explain its overly dense mythology and characters behaved in erratic ways. The series is definitely one of the best science fiction series ever aired and spawned a spin-off prequel series, Caprica.
Lost (2004 – 2010, created by Jeffery Lieber, JJ Abrams, Damon Lindeloff, and Carleton Cuse)
Starring Matthew Fox, Terry O’Quinn, Michael Emerson, Josh Holloway, Evangeline Lilly, Jorge Garcia, Daniel Dae-Kim, Yunjin Kim, Naveen Andrews, Henry Ian Cusick
I must admit my bias. Lost is one of my favorite things ever. EVER! I was less than interested when I watched the premiere during its original airing, but returned to the series when my roommate ‘s obsession pulled me back in at the start of the 2nd season. I have been hooked ever since. What makes Lost great is that it took its time to get to its big mysteries. The entire first season is all character based, with slight touches of mystery sprinkled throughout. Because we have an emotional investment in these people when the trouble goes down, we feel it more. The production values of the series are astonishing. Every episode features beautiful cinematography, gorgeous music, and writing that is very clever and knows how to dole out pieces of a mystery perfectly. The show has a dragging point in the first half of season three, but quickly recovers and hasn’t let up since. The current and final season has been carefully pulling the layers of the onion back before the full reveal is made. The creators of the series have an apparent love of classic crazy sci-fi TV, particularly the shows of Irwin Allen (Land of the Giants, Lost in Space, Time Tunnel). That is mixed with some fascinating spiritual themes and literary references, that make the show enjoyable if you want to simply watch for fun or mine it for all its thematic richness.
True Blood (2008 – present, created by Charlaine Harris and Alan Ball)
Starring Anna Paquin, Stephen Moyer, Sam Trammel, Ryan Kwanten, Rutina Wesley, Chris Bauer, Nelsan Ellis, Todd Lowe, Carrie Preston
If Tennessee Williams wrote a vampire novel, this would be what was produced. The accents are garish, the acting sickeningly melodramatic, and the plots are over the top. But I can’t stop watching it! Set in the fictional hamlet of Bon Temps, Lousiana, True Blood focuses on Sookie Stackhouse, a dive bar waitress with psychic powers and in love with a Civil War era vampire, Bill. In the world of the series, vampires have “come out of the coffin” and are attempting to become integrated into modern society. The impetus behind this is that scientists have managed to synthesize blood, meaning vampires can crack open a cold one rather than gnawing on a warm one. However, there are certain vampires who see this as selling out to the establishment, and there are humans who have fetishized being the playthings of the living dead. The heart of the show are not the leading romantic pair, but all the supporting citizens of Bon Temps. The short order cook is secretly dealing “V”, vampire blood used to trip like acid but better. His replacement is an Iraq War veteran suffering from PTSD. The bar’s owner vanishes on certain nights, showing up naked in the middle of nowhere. A voodoo priestess lives in a trailer just outside of town performing exorcisms. This is not for people looking for Mad Men, though you can enjoy both shows. If you like some supernatural insanity then definitely check this one out.
I’d like to know what dramas, comedies, and sci-fi/fantasy series YOU are watching that I haven’t included and you believe should be. Reply to the comments here or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org