It’s a good time to be a geek who loves TV, and 2013 gave us a great big pile of cool stuff to watch. A pile so big, it threatened to bury me as I contemplated it all. There was the bittersweet ending of Fringe, with Walter Bishop finally getting his shot at redemption through self-sacrifice (pictured above). The ever-escalating stakes on Warehouse 13, as Pete, Myka and the gang battled both supernatural and internal demons on their inevitable journey to 2014’s final season. Not to mention the crazy reboots of Haven and Lost Girl, two series that revolve around strong, magnetic women but couldn’t be more different.
Less fun was the hot mess of Under the Dome, whose tale of a small town trapped beneath an invisible, impenetrable barrier started out meh, had a shot at being intriguing for a few episodes, but ended up overstaying its welcome (a cliffhanger? argh!). In the same vein (sorry), NBC’s Dracula proved painfully uneven, with interesting twists on the myth – such as its steampunk look and a new take on the bloodsucker’s sidekick Renfield (Nonso Anozie) – wrecked by dreadful dialogue, situations that defied suspending disbelief and star Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ horrible American accent.
Then there are things I’m sure WILL BE fun … as soon as I finally watch them. Stuff like Breaking Bad (sorry, Walter White; I’ll get around to you someday), American Horror Story: Coven, The Walking Dead and other breakout genre shows that have won the hearts and minds of even “normal” TV viewers. Not to mention Vikings, Drunk History, Witches of East End and other more niche-y stuff that I failed to catch up with.
Anyway, I still watched more TV this year than I have since I was a teenager stuck at home without a driver’s license. And because (sometimes) life is too short to waste it bitching about bad stuff, here are the 10 most fun geek TV shows of 2013.
10. Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
It took 10 whole episodes for me to decide that this show is even worth bothering with – and the only reason I lasted that long was because of Joss Whedon’s involvement. One of the tragedies of Firefly‘s abrupt cancellation was that the show had just started to get good, so at least Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has a better shot at actually improving.
Riding the coattails of Marvel Comics’ super popular superhero movies, this series co-created by geek god Whedon felt like it would never quite jell, despite the calming presence of Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), who apparently did not die at the hands of Loki in The Avengers, after all (or at least, he got better). But I was impatient with the mystery surrounding his survival (and the allusions to his recovery in Tahiti, a “magical place”), and rebelliously thought it would be more revolutionary to just explain that right away and get on with it, already.
Although Coulson’s team had a certain range of personalities – reluctant veteran Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen), black ops specialist Grant Ward (Brett Dalton), geeky tech duo Leo Fitz (Ian De Caestecker) and Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge), and newbie Skye (Chloe Bennet), a hacktivist “consultant” of dubious loyalty – their roles tended to be shorthand for their characters, which wasn’t very interesting. Even a guest appearance by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) felt like a desperate attempt to remind us how much we loved the Marvel movies, when what we really needed was a reason to watch this show.
Thankfully, reasons began to arrive, as later episodes like “F.Z.Z.T.” and “The Well” delved a little deeper into the team members’ psyches. By the time the most recent ep, “The Bridge,” rolled around, the Whedon-esque intrigue really kicked in, with Coulson and May hiding secrets from Skye, Ward possibly sacrificing himself to save the team and Coulson being whisked away to parts unknown. Only two episodes to go in this season, and I’m finally looking forward to the next one.
I didn’t expect to dig Arrow so much, but the CW’s take on DC Comics’ Green Arrow is just so unapologetically comic-booky, I have to love it. Now in its second season, the series first hooked me with its good looks. I don’t mean fresh-faced Stephen Amell as Oliver Queen/The Hood/Arrow, but how the world he moves in feels both totally real and completely composed – as though each frame could be lifted from the pages of a graphic novel. I love how, when the Arrow leaps down from on high, he holds his landing crouch a beat longer than seems necessary, something that might look stupid in reality but has the effect of a comics panel come to life. Likewise, this season when we see the show’s equivalent of Black Canary (Caity Lotz) in action, she makes an entrance from above by flipping over and over down a long column of fabric in a rapid-fire sequence that somehow conveys the sense that she is hanging in place on a page.
Arrow can also be unexpectedly poignant, especially in the flashback parts where we see sheltered billionaire scion Oliver going through the experiences that will turn him into a vigilante, but also in the present day when he loses his best friend, or when his mother decides to take responsibility for her actions that have, as the Hood is so fond of telling his targets, “failed this city.”
I can’t remember all the details of Green Arrow’s comic-book story too well, and Arrow has made some alterations to those details anyway. But a big part of the fun of the series is recognizing elements from various DC tales that get mentioned or shown – S.T.A.R. Labs, Kord Enterprises, Helena Bertinelli, Barry Allen – and guessing how they will fit into this world. Right now I’m figuring that explosion Barry got caught in at the end of the most recent episode will not be the end of him … but may be the beginning of yet another new hero.
At first I found this Syfy series too generic and reminiscent of its progenitors, which include Farscape (that show’s creator, Rockne S. O’Bannon, is one of this one’s executive producers and writers), Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (which fellow exec producers/writers Kevin Murphy and Michael Taylor worked on), not to mention Firefly, at least in its futuristic Wild West feel. But as the show unfolded, this near-future tale of a town called Defiance (formerly St. Louis) – where humans struggle to co-exist with alien refugees the Votans, seven races from a distant, dead star system who arrived on Earth 33 years earlier – grew more intriguing.
Probably the most obvious fun thing about Defiance is Doc Yewll (Trenna Keating), a member of a vaguely reptilian people called Indogenes, who is snarky in the Bones McCoy mode and gets all the best sardonic lines. Otherwise, what’s entertaining here is how so many wildly different characters conclude that Machiavellian machinations are just the ticket to get them what they want (and Yewll is no exception). Sometimes, even people who should be on the same side are secretly working against each other.
The show also has a way of making you kind of hate characters you should like, such as crusty human miner Rafe McCawley (Graham Greene), and suddenly start liking characters you should hate, like the conniving and stuck-up Castithans Datak and Stahma Tarr (Tony Curran and Jaime Murray, pictured), who lord it over their own kind and other Votans. Then again, when one of the supposedly likable characters is Julie Benz’s simperingly ineffective mayor, it’s not that hard to start rooting for the bad guys.
7. Once Upon a Time in Wonderland
This spin-off from ABC’s Once Upon a Time mashes up myths like its parent show; in Once Upon a Time in Wonderland, Alice (Sophie Lowe, above) meets the love of her life, Cyrus (Peter Gadiot), in Wonderland. But Cyrus is a genie with roots in the tales of Agrabah from Disney’s Aladdin. The show’s main villains are the Red Queen (Emma Rigby) and evil sorcerer Jafar (played by Naveen Andrews of Lost fame, just to further the OUaT allusions to that series), also of Agrabah. When the Red Queen throws Cyrus to his apparent death, a devastated Alice returns to her Victorian England home and almost consents to a lobotomy before the Knave of Hearts (Michael Socha) shows up with news that Cyrus still lives.
This franchise does weird me out, because part of its purpose seems to be furthering Disney’s hold on classic fairy tales by cementing its versions in the minds of as many millions of viewers as possible (for example, the Belle character in OUaT looks like Belle from Disney’s animated Beauty and the Beast). But I still like both shows, because they provide a sweet-hearted antidote to some of the darker stuff I love. Wonderland has an edge, though, partly due to the absence of the highly irritating Snow White and Prince Charming, but mainly because Alice is so totally kick-ass, a girl in tall boots who wields a sword with casual ferocity and always thinks of herself as the rescuer. Though predictable – we know that Cyrus and Alice will be reunited – the mid-season finale had a twist I wasn’t expecting, which was both hilarious and awful. Throw in a Wonderland setting that’s a delightfully demented homage to Disney’s animated film (though the effects can be cheesy at times) and quirky CGI characters like John Lithgow’s White Rabbit and Iggy Pop’s Caterpillar crime boss, and you’ve got a show that I will happily watch till the wheels fall off.
It may not be Sherlock, but it doesn’t have to be. Elementary is a thoroughly American take on the British classic, but that is part of its charm. Transplanting Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) to present-day New York City and embracing his necessary status as a recovering addict (’cause there’s no way any modern TV take on Sherlock Holmes is going to have him unapologetically using drugs like he does in the books), Elementary gives us a consulting detective who is less immediately fetching than Benedict Cumberbatch’s version, but ultimately more, well, human. Where Cumberbatch’s Sherlock is a whirlwind of extroverted genius, Jonny Lee Miller’s Holmes is more introverted, a delightfully twitchy weirdo who really seems like he just landed here from another planet.
As with Sherlock, a big part of the fun of Elementary is Holmes’ give-and-take with Watson (Lucy Liu). But more surprising in the second season is how entertaining it’s been to watch Sherlock learn the full meaning of being in recovery – which includes not just getting help, but helping others. I’ve never found the 12-step recovery process especially interesting, dramatically speaking (don’t get me wrong; I have nothing against people doing what they need to do to get right with themselves and others), but somehow Sherlock’s tentative attempts to mine the compassion he actually does have somewhere inside are both amusing and kind of touching.
Like Orphan Black (see No. 3), Continuum is a Canadian import that explores the real-life impact of a sci-fi concept: time travel here, instead of cloning. Kiera Cameron (Rachel Nichols) is a police officer from 2077, who’s unwillingly transported back to 2012 when members of terrorist group Liber8 escape execution by fleeing to the past. She conceals her true origin (and her nifty high-tech suit with built-in sensors, forcefields, invisibility cloak, etc.) and bluffs her way into joining forces with the Vancouver Police Department. She also meets teenage computer whiz Alec Sadler (Erik Knudsen), who in the future is the Smoking Man from The X-Files (OK, not really, but he is played by William B. Davis).
The reality of time travel here is neatly balanced by Kiera’s uncertainty about how it actually works, and, although Kiera isn’t really enjoying herself, that’s a fun puzzle for viewers to work out. If she manages to get back home, will it be the same 2077 she left behind? Or has her presence in the past already irrevocably altered the future? In Kiera’s time, Alec is a hugely powerful figure whose tech corporation dominates business, government and everyday life – and is the symbol of forced compliance that Liber8 is fighting against. In Season 2, we learn that old Alec came to regret his role in making this world, and hopes to change things by manipulating both Kiera and Liber8. But can any individual hope to take on history – or the future – and alter the entire architecture of existence? I dunno, but thinking about that stuff always gets my synapses firing.
4. Sleepy Hollow
I’ve heard more than one person say this show is better than it has any right to be, which is both accurate and damning with faint praise. Truth is, Fox’s “modern retelling” of Washington Irving’s short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is really good, and among the few new shows of 2013 that grabbed me right out of the box.
Sleepy Hollow‘s secret weapon is the pairing of Tom Mison’s Ichabod Crane, an 18th-century Rip Van Winkle who finds himself resurrected after dying in battle with a Hessian horseman, with Nicole Beharie’s 21st-century police Lieutenant Abbie Mills, who grudgingly takes Crane under her wing and comes to be his friend … and his fellow witness to the coming Apocalypse. Crane’s banter with Mills, and his general irritation with and grudging adjustments to the modern world, provide reliable moments of levity. But Mison also makes us feel his character’s anguish at being ripped away from his world, and his confusion about his place in this new one.
Another fun thing is how the show twists Biblical mythology to emphasize the supernatural, weaving a tangled tale back and forth across time. It’s also got that I-like-to-be-scared element, including creepy encounters with a demon named Moloch and the truly frightening Headless Horseman. I’m not sure why he’s so scary, but there’s something deeply unsettling about a huge guy with no head toting an automatic weapon on horseback … and what could be more of a kick than that?
3. Orphan Black
As is too often the case with shows I end up loving, I was late to the Orphan Black party, which is why my list of TV panels to catch at 2013 Comic-Con didn’t include this show. For shame! This Canadian series aired on BBC America and stars Tatiana Maslany as Sarah Manning – and Beth Childs and Alison Hendrix and Cosima Niehaus and Helena and … .
Maslany is terrific as con artist Sarah, who witnesses the suicide-by-train of lookalike stranger Beth, a police detective. She then appropriates Beth’s life, much to the disapproval of Sarah’s rent-boy/artist foster brother Felix (Jordan Gavaris), and quickly learns that she is one of many clones. They look the same but have very different styles and temperaments, and come from widely divergent places (and Maslany handles every incarnation with flair). Also, some of them are dead … at the hands of insane assassin Helena. Sarah reluctantly joins forces with “soccer mom” Alison and grad student Cosima to find out how they came to exist and why the people closest to them are “monitors” who secretly report on them to the company who created them. Not to mention why Sarah’s the only one they know of who has a biological child of her own.
Part of the fun of Orphan Black is seeing Maslany in her different guises, but the show brings up deeper questions about the ethics of cloning, along with I guess you’d say the logistics of it, of keeping the experiment a secret and attempting to monitor these women and maintain a measure of control despite the crazy amount of variables inherent in letting them loose in the world. Because each woman is such a strong character, the season-ending revelation that they are property, at least in the eyes of the company and perhaps the law, really reverberated as a shock – and left me eager to see what happens next.
2. Game of Thrones
Red Wedding! Red Wedding! Red Wedding! Season 3 of HBO’s hit adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series had a lot more going for it, but there’s no denying that the penultimate episode, “The Rains of Castamere,” was a heart-stopper that completely dominated the pop-culture conversation after it aired. From anguished tweets to hilariously OTT reaction videos, it seemed for a minute there like everyone in the world was losing their entire minds over the brutality as sour-minded old coot Walder Frey (David Bradley) gave the Young Wolf, Robb Stark (Richard Madden, above), his blood-soaked comeuppance for going back on his word to marry one of Frey’s daughters.
As intense as it was, the TV version of the Red Wedding was a much different beast than the novel version. Throughout this year’s 10 episodes, Game of Thrones showrunner/writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss again proved that they have a firm grip on their source material yet aren’t afraid to meddle with it to suit the show’s needs. As someone who’s read all the books, that is part of the fun of watching: Sometimes I still don’t know what the hell is going to happen.
1. Doctor Who
Predictable, I know, but c’mon: 2013 marked the 50th anniversary of Britain’s most durable sci-fi export – even if that number is fudged a bit, since Doctor Who hasn’t actually been on the air for an entire half-century. Whatever.
The year began with Part 2 of Series 7, in which the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) re-meets new companion Clara (Jenna Coleman) and spends the rest of the season trying to figure out why she is the “Impossible Girl,” whom he keeps encountering in different times and places, though she has no memory of him. These eight episodes had their highs and lows, but what made them fun was the chemistry between Coleman and Smith. Their camaraderie transcended even the worst stories, and harked back to the days of the Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) and Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen), when a Doctor could be close to his companion but not nudge-nudge wink-wink close.
Clara’s role was key in the 50th-anniversary special, “The Day of the Doctor,” a delightful tribute to everyone’s favorite Time Lord that featured three incarnations of the Doctor and even had me ready to forgive showrunner Steven Moffat for his various irritating tendencies. (A lovely, er, companion piece was the BBC-produced docudrama An Adventure in Space and Time, a surprisingly enjoyable look at the show’s beginnings.)
Too bad that happy high came crashing down with the Christmas special, “The Time of the Doctor,” which was sadly not very fun. Though there was some hilarity in the Doctor’s pairing up with a disembodied Cyberman head he nicknamed “Handles,” mostly Moffat did Matt Smith’s much-anticipated swan song a huge disservice. I wouldn’t call the story confusing, but it was definitely convoluted, and there was too much boring rehash of past elements Moffat introduced to Doctor Who (human Daleks, the Silence, Weeping Angels, Trenzalore, etc.), which simply felt like self-congratulation. Not to mention a totally unfunny, juvenile bit about how the Doctor and Clara were naked under their holographic clothes. We were also subjected to the “truth” that Clara did fancy the Doctor, despite her protestations to the contrary, and that just pissed me off.
All of this made the actual revelations, like about who blew up the TARDIS and how the Doctor would be able to continue regenerating past the end of his lifecycle, fall flat. Smith’s final moments before turning into new Doctor Peter Capaldi still managed to be poignant, but part of that was my regret that this episode wasn’t also Moffat’s swan song.
Previously by Natalie Nichols: