I have this need to not only make people watch the shows I like, but to sit down and watch them at the same time. Something about recapturing the magic vicariously through the coerced enjoyment of others. Sadly, I can’t do that for the internet, but I can make you all watch what I want you to watch. Don’t worry, it’s not shitty Buffy the Vampire Slayer porn (although the acting is probably on par with early Sarah Michelle Gellar.)
No. Instead I’m going to give you the top 5 sci-fi/fantasy shows that you could start watching right now. Provided you have Netflix, or know someone who has Netflix, or are an unscrupulous person who pretends to have Netflix that you’re actually stealing from an aged relative. These are all viable lifestyle choices. Just watch these damn shows.
(By the way, I’m going to list them in order of how easy they are to get into, not on how much I like them. Because I love them all.)
5. Doctor Who
Doctor Who gets #5 on this list because Season 1 is EXTREMELY hard to get into if you’re not a fan of the old series, cheesy plots, bad CGI, farting monsters, Chris Eccleston’s ears, Rose Tyler’s cat mouth or Russell Davies’ use of extreme closeups on people’s faces.
That was a really good pitch. Let me start over.
Doctor Who is the story of a 900-1100 year old alien (who looks like an attractive British man) who can travel through time and space in a police box that is bigger on the inside (or smaller on the outside, depending on which companion you are.) The Doctor and his (usually) young and pretty companion travel around solving mysteries that always link back to malevolent alien species. Sometimes there are bowties. Sometimes the Doctor loses his friends or the people he’s trying to save. But he almost always saves the world.
Doctor Who is an amazing series, and you don’t have to know anything about the 1960s version to get into it. Unfortunately, Season 1 (2005) starts off a little shaky. A trash can eats a dude and burps. It’s that kind of show. However, it rapidly gains something that very few sci-fi shows attain: heart. It gives mere lip service to science, but whatever. More than being a show about aliens and time travel (which is often very cool,) Doctor Who is mostly about how terrible it is to be in charge of other people’s safety and happiness, and how lonely it is to be a god.
All of the actors who play the Doctor have been brilliant, and each manages to portray a quirky, adventurous, excitable man who really wants to show off his knowledge and impress people. They also manage to show a man who tries to repress his loneliness, his bitterness, his guilt and his shame and can’t quite pull it off.
Watch Doctor Who for the relationships and the acting. Watch it for Steven Moffat’s clever writing or scary bad guys, but mostly watch it to piece together the beautiful, powerful mess of a man who wants to save everyone and never quite manages it.
Total Seasons Available: 6 available on Netflix, but the show is midway through Season 7.
Total Episodes: There are about 87 45-minute episodes, although you have to search through Netflix for a few of the specials.
Best Episode: “Blink” is one of the greatest episodes of television. This award is not up for debate.
4. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is technically the story of an extremely annoying cheerleader who doesn’t want the superpowers that she’s given. Then she gradually learns to slay vampires, kill demons, and solve mysteries, always with a terrible pun and some witty banter. Actually, though, this show is the brilliant deconstruction of almost every trope, genre and pop culture phenomenon ever. And it’s funny as hell.
Buffy is another one of my favorite shows that takes a bit of effort to get into. This is Joss Whedon, whose writer’s block probably cures cancer, but he starts off a little slow. Like Doctor Who, you must be patient with Season 1. Your patience will be rewarded. Buffy has everything you could ever want.
It’s a feminist text set in a campy horror setting. It’s a show that stars powerful women that is not just watched by women and that doesn’t just focus on romance. It delights in classic tropes that you didn’t realize were cliches, and then it inverts them.
Very few high school shows outlast the high school years. Most of them shouldn’t. This one thrived and it stayed fresh for almost its entire run. Inside jokes, sexy-ass romance, Seth Green as a laconic werewolf, clever dialogue, real heart, and mostly this…
…Are all great reasons to start this brilliant show right now. If you’ve ever hated cliches, wanted more continuity, enjoyed witty banter or had an emotion, this show is for you. If you’ve had too many emotions, try watching Angel.
Total Seasons Available: All 7
Total Episodes: 144 45-minute episodes. It sounds like a big time commitment and it is. Yet I feel no shame in telling you that I downed this series in just over a month and I regret nothing.
Best Episode: The two episodes that embody the extremes of BtVS with the most innovation, beauty and fun are “The Body” and “Once More With Feeling.” I could write essays on “The Body” and I might, because it is the most amazing piece of film ever written or directed. “Once More With Feeling” is just an extremely catchy musical.
3. Battlestar Galactica
Battlestar Galactica is set in a time when human beings have expanded across 12 worlds. They suppressed their wayward mechanical creations, the Cylons, back in the old series when Starbuck was a man and special effects sucked a big one. Now the Cylons come back and just start murdering the crap out of all of the planets. The bigger problem, unfortunately, is that the Cylons could look like any human being, including you or me.
BSG is one of those shows, like Lost, that sets up a little more than it’s able to deliver. For all that, though, it is an incredibly powerful, thought-provoking essay on what it means to be human under devastating circumstances, and how civilization stays together or falls apart. It starts out with a bang, meaning that it’s pretty easy to get into from the very first episode (or the TV movie special, as it were.) BSG features one of my favorite feminist characters (hell yes, Laura Roslin!) and the female model that I personally strive to be.
There are no aliens in the BSG world. It is comprised entirely of a very small handful of human beings who are trying to find a new place to live before they run out of resources, and wrestling with what it actually means to be human. I’ll grant you that the ending makes very little sense, but at least they wrap it up and stick a bow on it for you.
Total Seasons Available: All 4 and the hit-and-miss mini-series starter.
Total Episodes: About 75 45-minute episodes. Try to dig up Razor, too, it’s worth watching.
Best Episode: I’m hard pressed to come up with a favorite, but it’s been awhile since I went through the whole show. I like episodes that highlight Starbuck, so I’ll go with either “Scar” or “Unfinished Business.”
2. Avatar: The Last Airbender
Want to blaze through a fantasy story that’s incredibly thought-through, beautifully animated and fairly deep for a children’s story?
Avatar: The Last Airbender is a gorgeous homage to Eastern artistic style, martial arts and mentality. It dreams up a world where people are divided into four tribes. In each tribe there are people who can “bend” one of the four elements. So in the Earth Kingdom some people can manipulate sand, rock or earth in a sort of telekinesis Tai Chi. Same for Water with the Water Tribes, Air with the Air Temples, and Fire in the Fire Nation. The Avatar is the only one who can learn all four elements, and he must maintain balance in the world.
How fucking cool is that?
The Last Airbender has amazing continuity and characters who are multifaceted (if occasionally drawn in broad strokes.) Bad guys aren’t always entirely bad, and good guys have serious faults. It also has a refreshingly gentle hero, and for once the girl isn’t the one mooning over the boy. The “bending” of the elements is used in a different way in almost every episode, the animals are just animals that do not talk, they deal actively with death, and I just can’t come to grips with the fact that Nickelodeon gave me this.
The pseudo-sequel/continuation, The Legend of Korra, is even better in some ways, although it’s not available on Netflix yet. Made for a slightly older audience, there’s less stupid mugging for the camera and “funny” lines that are aimed at kids who’ve eaten too many paint chips.
Total Seasons Available: All 3
Total Episodes: 61 20-minute episodes.
Best Episode: All the season finales are epic and gorgeous, but I’m a fan of smaller character moments. “Zuko Alone” and “The Water Bending Master” are both great examples of that. Also, “The Puppet Master” was impressively creepy.
You knew this would be #1. If you haven’t watched this show, get off the computer and go watch it. It’s easy to get into, the characters are real people from the first second they’re on screen, Joss Whedon and Tim Minear deliver on dialogue and plot in spades, and it’s only one season long (because Fox hates us.)
Firefly is the story of motherfucking cowboys. In space. This show made me want to use poor grammar just so I could sound like Malcolm Reynolds. Mal is the captain of a Firefly-class ship called Serenity and he pirates around the galaxy with eight of the other most brilliant characters to ever grace the screen.
Firefly is another show that understands the deep problems and dangers of space travel. Running out of fuel, breaking down in the middle of a big empty universe and being hunted by Space Nazis are all potentially fatal problems. This is also a show with no aliens, thereby keeping the focus on understanding these characters that are funny, tough, kind, cruel, witty, flawed and damaged. The only problem I have with this show is that there’s only one season when there should have been seven.
Total Seasons Available: All 1 of them. And the movie, which is considerably darker.
Total Episodes: 14 45-minute episodes. SAVOR THEM.
Best Episode: I don’t know if I can do this. I want to say “Our Mrs. Reynolds” (see a few pics above for two good reasons there.) But then I want to say “Out of Gas.” Or “The Message.” And now I’m already at like 3/4 of the entire series. So just go watch the damn thing yourself.