Everywhere you look, someone is proclaiming this to be a new Golden Age of TV, what with all the Mad Mens and Breaking Bads changing the rules for televised drama and bringing home Emmys like there’s no tomorrow. Less publicized is the fact that there’s something of a Golden Age of geek TV happening at the same time. In all your fundamental geek genres — fantasy, sci-fi, horror, superhero, and more — you’ve got multiple options ranging from good to great (all that’s missing is a decent space opera; someone get on that, please!). Even better, these shows are receiving the kind of ratings — and the budgets that go along with them — that yesteryear’s cult hits could only dream of. Best of all, the trend shows no signs of slowing down, as 2012 offered more great geek TV than most of us had time to watch. To help make sure you’re not missing out on the best of it, we’ve helpfully compiled this mostly spoiler-free list of the year’s best in geek TV.
10) The Vampire Diaries.
Watching The Vampire Diaries is like a weekly visit to the best Halloween party ever — everywhere you look it’s wall-to-wall sexy witches, sexy werewolves and sexy vampires. Go ahead and run it down by calling it more soapy small-town supernatural nonsense, but damn, is it entertaining when it’s at its best. Unlike in some other vampire series that will go unnamed, the teenaged main character of this one — Elena, played by actress Nina Dobrev — is both sympathetic and charismatic. That means you actually care when bad things happen to her, and boy do they ever. The show has its issues, but at the very least it’s something to watch with your less geeky, non-genre loving girlfriend (or boyfriend), especially since True Blood (did we say “go unnamed”? Oops), its main competition in the turgid vampire melodrama category, became an unwatchable mess seasons ago. You can even pretend you’re watching it under duress — we won’t reveal your secret.
9) American Horror Story.
Sometimes, it’s enough to just be completely apeshit. And nothing on TV is more completely apeshit than American Horror Story. Set in an insane asylum run by Catholics, season two of AHS is a smorgasbord of crazy. From week to week you might find anything, as long as it’s creepy, weird or just plain fucked-up. Cannibal mutants? Sure! Mysterious serial killers? Of course. Aliens, Nazi war criminals and demonic possession? Why the hell not? You just never know what’s coming next, and if it doesn’t always necessarily make a whole lot of sense, well, that’s okay. You want tight plotting and meticulous character studies? Pick yourself an Emmy winner and go. You want sheer lunacy that hurtles around at breakneck speed, constantly threatening to fly off the tracks until it actually does fly off the tracks and crash in such an entertaining and preposterous way you don’t even mind? Well, that’s what American Horror Story is for.
If you’ve stuck with Fringe through its rough patches, things really paid off in 2012 with the series going balls out to resolve its overarching “war of alternate worlds” story, killing off main characters and even entire universes along the way. Contrast that with The X-Files — which Fringe was frequently compared to in its early going — which never seemed willing to let anyone die, much less get to the alien invasion that technically was the show’s whole reason for being. It’s also pretty much the only show you’re going to find on network TV with a main character who uses LSD to get his shit together trying to fend off a hostile takeover by mysterious bald men, so there’s that. Sure, it’s had its awkward moments and forgettable episodes — or episodes you’d rather forget, anyway — but it’s also building to what looks to be one hell of an exciting climax.
7) Adventure Time.
The story of a boy and his dog and their adventures in the post-apocalyptic world of Ooo, any given Adventure Time episode can offer something as epic as a face off against a powerful lich or as small-scale as an emotional meltdown over a friendly game of the world’s most convoluted card game. Its characters are wacky on the surface — how else to categorize entities like Lumpy Space Princess, a pink cloud that chooses to live like a hobo, or Peppermint Butler, a peppermint candy with a dark past — but surprisingly deep and human (witness the Ice King’s tragic history as a victim whose sanity is destroyed by the magic that keeps him alive). Its twisted mythology is packed with secrets to uncover and connections to puzzle out, making it perfect fodder for late-night discussions about how it all fits together and what that means. At last, Cartoon Network has added stoner philosophy to its regular menu of random stoner humor. Pass the Cheetos; shit’s about to get deep.
Although the season’s best — and arguably most geek-friendly — episode of the season actually aired in 2011 (that’d be “Remedial Chaos Theory,” with its multiple timelines branching off from a surprisingly important pizza delivery), it’s hard to argue that Community was one of the best geek shows of 2012. For those who insist on arguing, we offer Exhibit A: “Digital Estate Planning,” in which the show turned into an 8-bit video game for an episode, complete with authentic chiptune rendering of the show’s theme. (You’re not going to see The Big Bang Theory pull that off.) It also has two of the best geek characters on TV in Troy and Abed, not to mention its constant references and homages to geek touchstones like Doctor Who and Star Trek‘s Holodeck — or Inspector Spacetime and the Dreamatorium, if you prefer it in the parlance of the show.
SyFy isn’t known for its smart, sophisticated science fiction, but that’s exactly what Alphas is. The “superheroes without costumes” angle has been done on TV before — most obviously by Heroes — but never this well. The powers are generally plausible, with the main cast representing abilities both traditional, like super strength or enhanced senses; and novel, such as being able to perceive and understand EMF – making it possible to “listen in” on everything from cell phones to wireless security cameras. Those powers are employed by characters that are nearly all well developed and well acted (David Strathairn as Dr. Rosen and Ryan Cartwright as Gary deserve special mention for their universally excellent performances on the show) in the service of solid storylines that aren’t afraid to tackle the negative dimensions of what it means to be “super,” like the super-speed character who moves ten times as fast as anyone else, but ages at the same rate. It may have a fraction of the budget Heroes had to execute similar ideas, but it has ten times the smarts. Watch even a single episode and it’s clear which of those two things is more important.
4) Gravity Falls.
Don’t be turned off by the fact that this show is on Disney, or that it’s aimed at tweens. That’s irrelevant, because Gravity Falls is fantastic. The show follows the adventures of pre-teen twins Mabel and Dipper in a surreal small town populated with amorous gnomes, a pint-sized lunatic mystic and mechanical lake monsters. It’s a world where a malfunctioning copy machine can spawn clones and a paper jam results in exactly the tragicomic results you’d expect. Gorgeous animation, excellent writing and a stellar voice cast (especially Kristen Schaal) bring the haunted convenience stores, candy monsters and murderous wax figurines of the town of Gravity Falls to life. Side by side with this Twin Peaks-esque weirdness, you get a nuanced understanding of what it’s like to live through the adolescent yearnings for older girls or the discomfort of telling a suitor you just want to be friends. Everything that makes the tween years so damn awkward.
The loopy spy shenanigans of Archer provide a perfect setting for some of the best comedy on TV right now. It’s like a cough-syrup fueled fever dream of the perfect spy show, from its bizarrely anachronistic setting, where cell phones and holographic girlfriend technology coexist with punch-card computers and the Soviet Union, to its ludicrously drunken and debauched main character. The storylines this season took Sterling Archer everywhere from the backwoods of West Virginia to a space station, dragging in guest stars as diverse as Burt Reynolds and Bryan Cranston along the way. More importantly, the jokes come thick and fast, with running gags popping up in the strangest of places and just enough bizarre pop-culture references to keep the hipsters happy.
2) Game of Thrones.
Once again, the television adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series delivered an irresistible fix of backstabbing intrigue and deviant royalty in a gritty fantasy world where no good deed goes unpunished. In some ways, the second season was even better than the first, as the writers seemed to become more comfortable with massaging the source material, which might have annoyed purists but worked just fine on screen. We got dragons, we visited the icy edge of the world, the warped, evil boy-king Joffrey gave us all the more reason to hope for his death and it all looked great. Sure, the battle for King’s Landing could have benefited from a larger budget, but that’s a minor quibble in an otherwise thoroughly satisfying season.
1) The Walking Dead.
2012 was a good year for The Walking Dead on TV, if not for all of its characters. Not only did it set all kinds of ratings records for a basic cable drama, it also shook off the doldrums that set in in the first half of its second season, suddenly seeming to remember that a zombie apocalypse story only works when it has some bite. Luckily, this year offered lots and lots of biting, plus some nice disembowelment and more time spent killing both characters and zombies than talking about bullshit. Sure, there were still some weak moments — seriously, writers, figure out a better way to move the story than having a kid wander off again, for fuck’s sake — but some of the comics’ best moments came to life this year, including everyone’s favorite sword-wielding badass and a wall of fishtanks full of zombie heads. At last, The Walking Dead finally returned to it’s status as a zombie series with brains — and the willingness to spill them early and often.