Thoughtful Thursday: SFF TV Series: Stay or Go? (Giveaway!)

Once upon a time, I finished every book I started whether it gave me pleasure or not. It took me years to break myself of that, but I did eventually grow older and wiser (in that order and with a pretty big lag time between the two).

Also once upon a time (as in all the way back to “up to last week”), I’d sit through anything to watch my beloved science fiction/fantasy on TV. Originally, this was less a stupid obsession and simply a fact of scarcity; with three networks, and then later a mere handful of cable stations, there just weren’t a lot of genre shows on. So good, bad — it didn’t matter; you took what you got when you got it. And even though we’ve long been in a golden age of genre television, with sci-fi/fantasy all over the screen nowadays (there’s even a sci-fi channel! Kind of. Sort of. Well, not so much), it’s taken me a while to break an old habit (there’s that lag time I mentioned).

But epiphany has finally struck. I can be selective. I don’t have to keep watching a show just because it’s set in space or amasses hordes of orcs (or goblins or trollocks). I don’t have to keep watching a show just because it has “Star” in its title. Because it was produced by Marvel. Because it will force-feed me another episode in 15 seconds if I just sit here and do nothing save shovel more pizza at my face.

So recently, I finally did it. I picked up the remote to actually remove titles from my “Up Next” queue. I’m not saying it was easy. That when the dialog box came up asking if I was sure that I didn’t hesitate, or when the next one came up noting the streaming channel knew where I lived I didn’t reconsider, or when the next next one came up saying it was a nice TV I had, and it’d be “too bad” if something happened to it, my hand didn’t start to shake. But I steeled my spine, clicked “OK”, and “poof,” there it went. Didn’t even hurt. Plus, it got easier. Poof. Poof. Poof.

Because you know what? There’s soooo much stuff out there. Really. I went through all my streaming and cable channels, counted all the genre shows, and after some quick calculation found they added up to a “veritable shit-load.” See? So much stuff. So here are five shows that are either ongoing or just finished so I have to decide whether to continue with season two (feel free to read while playing The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go” on repeat).

Foundation

Stay

Why? First and foremost, I love the visuals of this show. The plot could suck, the characters be completely shallow, the dialogue wince-inducing, and I’d mute the show and leave it on while my music played. It’s the most gorgeous show I’ve seen on TV. Luckily, the plot doesn’t suck. Or the plots, since there are actually three. One, centered on the Emperors on Trantor, is great. Big ideas set against a galaxy-spanning canvas brought down to a level we care about thanks to strong characterizations played by top-notch actors. The other two plot threads are admittedly more hit and miss, with plotting, characterization, and acting that runs a much wider spectrum, but whatever weak moments they sometimes bring to the party are hugely overshadowed by the stellar moments with the emperors.

Star Trek Discovery

Go

Why? I gave this show three full seasons. I didn’t like the first at all save for a few characters, Season Two breathed new life into the show with far more interesting characters though it still had issues, Season Three I mostly hated, and the beginning of Season Four is actually what prompted my epiphany that I could … just … stop … watching. I have a number of problems with the show — contrived plotting, wasting of good characters (Saru) — but my biggest barrier to the show is its lead, both in terms of character and acting. Too often I feel the show forces plot to create a sense of Burnham as indispensable not just to the ship but the universe. Meanwhile, if I had to watch another scene where the actor tilted her head sideways and breathily whispered so we knew this was an “intense moment,” I was going to walk into one of the disintegration chambers from “A Taste of Armageddon.” Shades of Nynaeve’s braid-tugging

Star Trek Prodigy

Stay

My favorite Star Trek in a long time (possibly even since TOS). Yes, it’s animated. Yes, it’s “for kids.” Yes, the character changing sides was utterly predictable. I don’t care. It has John Noble’s voice and a warmly sarcastic Holo Janeway! Seriously, what more could people want? But it’s also got great artwork. All the richness of setting an animated show offers. Wonderful banter. Heartfelt emotion. A large rock being that dislikes violence and is voiced by a ten-year-old girl. And did I mention John Noble’s voice and Holo Janeway?

The Wheel of Time

Go

Speaking of braid-tugging, I gave this one seven episodes, hoping the show would improve on the series by streamlining the books (I like to say there’s a good 6-8 book series in those 14 books). The show does streamline, but unfortunately, the way it does so causes two major issues. One is it feels so rushed that actions either make no sense and/or feel perfunctory while characterization is shallow or too overt for shortcut purposes. The other big problem is by what they’ve chosen to cut and keep, the show runners have managed to exaggerate the already noticeably derivative nature of Jordan’s work so that characters, scenes, settings, and dialogue feel like they were from film left on Peter Jackson’s cutting room floor. In the books, Jordan throws so much at the reader, a lot that’s derivative but widely sourced, and a lot of course that’s highly original, but here that’s all stripped away so we’re left with moments where I simply watch and mutter “Mines of Moria” or “Gandalf speaking to Frodo” or “the chase to the ferry”, etc. It doesn’t help that outside the wide outdoor shots and the close-in shots of costumes, the whole thing looks like it was filmed with the budget of a typical high school musical.

Invasion

Stay

Why? I’ll say at the outset this show will not be for everyone. An alien invasion where we don’t even see the aliens until halfway through season one? That’s a pretty risky move. But if you like character-driven stories and always wondered what was going on with the regular folks on the ground while the heroes were getting ready to avenge all those scene-filling shots of aliens destroying the White House or downtown LA, this is a wonderfully intimate show, employing a quiet tension (one episode shot all inside a home is particularly taut) driven by character emotions and reactions rather than gaudy spectacle driven by a large special effects budget. It’s a show that creates real people and focuses on their responses to trauma and tragedy and fear, as opposed to creating stock character types that go through the usual hero motions — bravado, witty banter, and an endless supply of bullets.

Resident Alien

Stay

I thoroughly enjoyed the first season of Resident Alien, even if it had a few pacing issues here and there. But several episodes in, this show is absolutely nailing season two. So much so it’s hooked my wife, who didn’t watch more than a few episodes of season one, began this season with letting me have it on while she worked and paid half-attention, and moved quickly to watching it along with me. This season is funnier, warmer, throws several nice twists into the mix, and is both expanding and fleshing out its wonderful cast of characters. And Alan Tudyk is doing criminally under-appreciated work. Seriously underappreciated.

Hit-Monkey

Go

I’ll admit I didn’t give a lot of time to this one. Just two or three episodes, mostly based on it being a Marvel show and having two great voices in George Takei and Jason Sudeikis. Unfortunately, neither overcame my aversion to the show’s gratuitous gore and lack of enjoyment of its monotone humor (Sudeikis’ hit man character being sarcastic about something the monkey just did or about some pop culture reference the monkey — shockingly — didn’t get), increasingly dull and repetitive fight scenes/slaughters, or the overly-familiar “corruption at the top” plus “Old system cop and new idealistic cop” background story. It felt like an Archer clone in the way that clones have more flaws and die more quickly. I eventually bailed on Archer as well, but not until after several seasons. Here I couldn’t get through half a season despite the occasional flash of something more substantive below the surface.

Arcane

Stay

Arcane won me over fully ten minutes into episode one. The visual style is beautiful, mature, stunning in its looks and style, especially how it changes to match not just the two major settings (uptown Piltover and the undercity), but the emotional states of the characters as well. Similar to Foundation, the show is worth watching for the visuals alone. But it also has an engrossing plot, familiar in many ways but complex enough and with enough strong characterization to make it feel original and unique. The writers also make nice use of parallel structure, not just in the up-down storylines but also in the vividly drawn main character pairings, with two young scientists (Jayce and Viktor) up top and two young street smart girls (Vi and Powder) below. Secondary characters are equally strong, with lots of “grayness” going around. It’s the strength of characterization that makes the show heartbreaking at times. Well, that and the strength of the voice cast, which includes Haile Steinfeld as Vi, giving her the trifecta this year as far as I’m concerned, with her roles here and in Dickinson and Hawkeye.

What are your thoughts about these series or any other SFF series on TV right now? One commenter wins either a book from our stacks or a $5 Amazon gift card.


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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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15 comments

  1. I really don’t watch much TV anymore. I just can’t seem to find any must watch series these days.

  2. John Smith /

    I’d probably be most likely to give the Foundation series a try out of all of these. This is a good rundown of shows–I must be pretty out of the sci-Fi TV-series loop these days!

  3. What a great column!

    I started up with RESIDENT ALIEN again after reading the comic collection, after Brad’s review. I’m finding Season Two much more accessible. And yes, OMG, Tudyk is just wonderful here.

  4. I’ll try not to dwell on the fact that I can’t afford more than two streaming services, and that most of the shows that look cool are not appropriate for my teen kids (I’m really, really tired of gratuitous violence/gore/etc). That said, my family and I have enjoyed all the new Marvel shows plus The Mandalorian. I wish there were more options available, though. I would love to watch Resident Alien!

    • The subscriptions can add up for sure Andi (our TV shows and books are my two splurges). I don’t know which one you have outside Disney, but amongst the ones we have (an embarrassingly long list), I’d say AppleTV+ gives us the most bang for the buck. It’s cheap and we find as a percentage it has the highest quality shows. I don’t know how old your “teens” are, but it offers a lot of children/young adult programming that is free of violence, gore, etc (I also like that much of their adult is also free of gore and gratuitous violence), a number of wholesome shows fiction and non-fiction, and some great documentaries (nature, music).

  5. Jillian /

    This makes me so sad! I’ve been working to get through several of these series so that I can watch the shows and now I’m not as excited.

    • Well, we all have our own tastes. Obviously lots of people are enjoying WoT or Discovery. And I’m sure a tone of people think Invasion doesn’t have enough action in it (I was so sure I was in a minority I was worried about it not getting renewed–I was glad to hear it was) I’m curious as to which ones you’re watching and enjoying though!

  6. Amit khaira /

    I have really enjoyed watching Peacemaker on HBO Max. There’s only so much time you can devote to a series and I am happy I committed time to this one . James Gunn has given a solid shot in the arm to the superhero genre . It’s funny , entertaining and weird at the same time.

    I did enjoy the first season of Resident Alien and Arcane was great fun to watch as well . I want to watch Invasion but the mixed reviews discouraged me a bit . I will give it a try based on your views.

  7. Noneofyourbusiness /

    Shows that should never have gone as soon as they did: Infinity Train, Dark Angel, Dark Matter, Firefly, Caprica, Crusade, Babylon 5: The Legend of the Rangers, Class, Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome, Kings, The Cape, Nomad of Nowhere, Gargoyles, TRON: Uprising, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Counterpart, The Rook, Netflix Cowboy Bebop, W.I.T.C.H., Deadly Class, Happy!, Stargate Atlantis, Stargate Universe, Nightflyers, Humans, 2017 DuckTales.

  8. The Distinguished Professor /

    What I’ve heard about The Wheel of Time has been mixed but mostly positive, including a friend of mine who is a reviewer by profession and a big fan of the books.

  9. Lady Morar /

    I’m glad that Stranger Things, which featured the song you’re semi-quoting, will be back for a fifth season after the fourth.

  10. Amit Khaira,if you live in the USA, you win a book of your choice from our stacks. If your address is outside of the USA, you will get a $5 Amazon gift card.
    Please contact me (Marion) with your choice and a US address. Happy reading!

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