Congratulations! You made it to the end of the year 2015. You’ve survived three years longer than the Mayans said that you would, and as your reward, you are treated to one Best or Worst of the Year list after the other. So welcome again to our annual compendium of the Top 10 Nerdy TV shows.
How was the year for sci-fi, fantasy, and horror fiction on TV? In a word, excellent. As you may be aware, we are living in an era of Peak TV, which makes the compilation for a list like this harder than ever seeing as how among the some 409 scripted series that premiered on the air this year, a great many of them fit our core audience. Depending on your point of view, this is either a gift from the gods, or you’re being tested by them to see how long you can go without breathing fresh air outside your home.
The top picks for this year’s best of nerdy TV include zombies (not those ones, the other ones), cannibals, speedsters, detectives, Nazis, vampires, battling artificial intelligences, and the biggest cast ever put together for a TV show in the history of ever. Shall we begin?
10) The Originals – The CW
Sure, it’s a soap opera about a loving family of powerful vampires who are always undermining and betraying one and other, but the CW series has a remarkable sense of self. Although it began life as a spin-off of The Vampire Diaries, The Originals has learned to stand proud and apart by playing to the sudsy romantic base of the network with visions of regicide and betrayal akin to a certain HBO show to be named later. Yes, sometimes the former threatens to envelope the latter, and there’s only some many times you can hear “I will never forgive you for this” until it loses all meaning, but whenever Klaus smiles that crooked smile you know that another wonderfully deplorable scheme to remain King of New Orleans is just a commercial break away.
9) Ash Vs. Evil Dead – Starz
A TV show featuring Bruce Campbell fighting Deadites again as a middle-aged Ash? How could that possibly be any good? Many thought that Ash Vs Evil Dead might have been one trip back to the nostalgia well too far, but then something weird happened: this show was must-watch fun! Co-created by Evil Dead originator Sam Raimi, Campbell’s comeback as the same self-aggrandizing slacker he was 30 years ago is a stroke of comedic genius. Was it the part Campbell was born to play? Probably. But does it play to all of Campbell’s strengths as a performer? Absolutely. It’s a minor miracle that all these years later, Raimi can still work that same old magic with slapstick gore that he started his career with. It’s even more of a miracle that in a zombie-filled TV universe there’s still room for something different, and fun.
8) The Man in the High Castle – Amazon
Probably no series this year has taken the whole concept of novel-for-TV to heart than The Man in the High Castle. Based on a Philip K. Dick novel, Frank Spotnitz and his team did an amazing job of not just interpreting Dick’s intricate prose, but by creating a living and breathing 1960s America run by the Nazis in the east and the Japanese in the west. The plots about various spies, a mysterious film reel, and the machinations to plan for a post-Hitler world are almost superfluous to just how well the show’s reality is constructed. That’s not to say you want to live in the Greater Nazi Reich or the Japanese Pacific States, but Spotnitz and friends hit you hard with the show’s realism. All but for the grace of God – or the fates of the I Ching – indeed.
7) Game of Thrones – HBO
It was inevitable that we would get to this point. (That is unless George R.R. Martin stepped on the gas and got some writing done. He did not.) As Game of Thrones began to depart heavily from its source material, it started taking risks with that material, and not all of them paid off. It took a while, but it seemed like the show finally went too far in the way it sometimes treats its female characters, between that and other long-awaited aspects of the novel not delivering on their promise, some argued that Thrones was becoming a shade of its former self. But others hail this last season as stupendous, if nothing else, it did put two of the show’s best characters in the same room together. It will be interesting to see as David Benioff and D. B. Weiss head deeper into the plot without the direct guidance of the Martin novels where the show may end up, and how long they can keep going with this volume of plot and a cast of hundreds…
6) The 100 – The CW
If you wrote off The 100 as “Space Lord of the Flies,” you’re missing out on a series that handily picks up the torch of other survival dramas like Lost and Battlestar Galactica, and it even sometimes outdoes The Walking Dead on matters of having to sometimes make the best bad choice possible. The season long build up the battle with Mount Weather came with a lot of twists and turns that pushed all the characters, but especially Clarke, to higher and higher levels of moral ambiguity. Then, all the compromises made in the build up to war are rendered moot through a last minute betrayal that leaves Clarke physically and emotionally alone to make a last ditch effort to save her friends; her final move, meanwhile, leaves you stunned. Two seasons of world building pays off beautifully, and just when you think all might be peaceful on post-nuclear Earth, a new (or is that old?) threat arises…
5) The Flash – The CW
While Arrow struggles to get out of its slump, The Flash continues to run on all pistons, doubling down on its hearty embrace of comic book tropes by introducing Earth-2, King Shark, and Gorilla City. It’s easy to be so confident about parallel universes and shark people when you’ve handled time travel and its paradoxes so beautifully, and the back half of season one offered other rewards including Team Flash’s realization that Harrison Wells is the Reverse Flash, and Iris’ justifiable indignation that she was kept out of the Flash loop for so long. Despite the spin-off service that the show’s had to do for Legends of Tomorrow, The Flash still delivers fun and surprises when left to its own devices. And Zoom, as voiced by the incomparable Tony Todd, has proven himself a Big Bad to truly dread. The continued winning mix of adventure and humor makes every Tuesday at 8 go by in, well, a flash.
4) Penny Dreadful – Showtime
In its embiggened second season, Penny Dreadful continued to be a wonderfully indulgent affair of gothic atmosphere and melancholy. Realizing the secret weapon he had in Eva Green, creator and writer John Logan made the season all about Vanessa Ives, and the possibility that she’s been raised to be the wife of the devil whether she likes it or not. And instead of going hog wild by introducing new characters from Victorian literature into the Dreadful world (we’ll welcome one Dr. Henry Jekyll in season three), the show focused on developing the ones it already had. This year Ethan’s werewolfism gets him in deeper trouble, Sir Malcolm struggles with the guilt of killing his family, The Creature nearly becomes a circus freak, Frankenstein lusts after one his creations, and Brona – once made to be the supposed bride of the creature – takes a firm stand for suffrage and supernatural superiority as Lily by teaming up with Dorian Grey. In telling a tale about monsters (and those that think they are), Penny Dreadful gets to some very essential truths about the human condition, and leaves you feeling moody about it.
3) Jessica Jones – Netflix
Marvel Studios has gotten deservedly rapped on the hands for this seeming unwillingness to move on the idea of a female superhero as the star of her own movie, but Jessica Jones more than handily fulfill those ambitions. The titular hard-boiled heroine – who’s played with charm, sass, and vinegar by Krysten Ritter – is dealing with things far more intangible than monsters, aliens, or robots. Her superhero career destroyed before she even got started, Jessica has PTSD, survivor’s guilt, and an unyielding need to prove she’s tougher than she thinks, and on top it all, her worst nightmare comes back when she least suspects it. David Tennant, lampshading some of the ticks and prompts he used for years playing his beloved version of Doctor Who, turned ugly in playing Kilgrave, who possibly gives Loki a run for the best (worst?) Marvel villain yet. Together, through showrunner Melissa Rosenberg, Jessica Jones is a stunning commentary on rape culture, misogyny, and consent. Forget looking for Easter eggs, you should be taking notes for your sociology exam.
2) Person of Interest – CBS
How can you not love a show that constantly leaves its characters in ever increasing degrees of peril at the end of every season? Season four saw Team Machine lose one more member, and then they were forced to carry their A.I. benefactor away from a gun fight in a briefcase full of external hard drives. Despite CBS trying to bury the show, cutting its season five order to 13 episodes and keeping it in limbo without a midseason premiere date, Person of Interest remains a prescient and enthralling modern drama that combines awesome action, great characters, and loaded thematic material. Every other week, some new movie tries to make a pointed comment on the surveillance state, or the dangers and the ethics of artificial intelligence, but POI schools those films on how to tackle these kinds of stories the right way. Now gives us a premiere date for season five, CBS!!!
1) Hannibal – NBC
In its final season, Hannibal got completely brazen. This has always been a series that played by its own rules: it should be too over-the-top gory for network TV, it has no regard for linear storytelling, and its main characters are a psychologically disturbed man and a cannibalistic serial killer in a self-destructive bromance. In season three, not only did Bryan Fuller, et al do their own spin on Red Dragon, they incorporated bits of Hannibal, the novel that takes place long after Red Dragon, as part of the first half of season three’s story. Perhaps knowing that the end was nye, Fuller dumped all that he could into this that ended up being the final season. It’s not that Fuller felt that he had a story to tell, but rather there were times it seemed as though he was going down a Hannibal bucket list of things he wanted to do before the series was over. Sadly though, after three seasons, and despite a rabid fanbase, low ratings meant no more Hannibal, and even through there were overtures, it looks like Fannibals are doomed to despair that this is the end. The door is left open, but at this point, like a certain character, we have prepared and cooked our own leg for a dinner party that will never happen. And that’s a shame.
The Walking Dead: The first three episodes of season six were masterpieces of tension, rarely in watching a TV show to you cling so tightly to your seat as if your life depended on it. But dicking the audience around with the fate of Glenn, and the unrepentant stupidity and naiveté of the Alexandrians, was kind of off-putting.
Continuum: Simon Barry did what he could, but he had to crunch about two seasons worth of story into six episodes. Although the plot was rushed, the series’ finale hit all the right notes, allowing some characters to have their happy ending, while changing the future but with a bittersweet coda for one of the main characters. When you’re time travel show manages to tie off the paradoxes, the rest is easy.
Agent Carter: No one can deny the incredible magnetism of Hayley Atwell, and Marvel did a solid by letting Peggy take charge in a pre-Women’s Lib world and then bring her back for season two, but that first season sagged in the middle, and, at times, the male characters were a little too cartoony in their chauvinism.
Daredevil: Everyone thought Marvel couldn’t do TV, it turns out that they just couldn’t do broadcast TV. The series began as a stark, bone-crunching, street-level antidote to the more fantastical film series, but the series struggled in its latter half with Foggy’s clichéd reaction to finding out his friend was a superhero, and to the relative ease that Kingpin fell after 10/11 episodes of establishing his power. Plus, costume issues, anyone?