TV trends often go in cycles, and ‘genre’ shows seem to be very much on the up at the moment. Although the failure rate is high – the cancellation of the new Knight Rider and the oh-so-disappointing US version of Life On Mars were not great losses; Dollhouse, however, was killed well before its time – there is still a wealth of quality genre programming (both American and British) available on UK screens, either currently or due for broadcast within the next few weeks. Here’s what I’ll be setting my Sky+ box for:
1. Caprica (season 1), Sky1: A rarity in that the UK is seeing first-run episodes of the Battlestar Galactica prequel 3 days ahead of US audiences. I’m generally wary of prequels – Enterprise, for instance, was poor, and I have never understood the longevity of Smallville – but Caprica is a stunning piece of small screen drama. Taking both visual and narrative cues from the likes of Goodfellas and Grand Theft Auto, the show is packed with weighty philosophical themes (can a computer-generated avatar really be alive?) and contemporary allegories, from religious fundamentalists carrying out acts of urban terrorism to a generation of youth becoming lost in their own virtual worlds. At its best, science fiction poses difficult questions about the world we live in; Caprica is a challenging inquisitor. There are only 2 more episodes to air before a mid-season hiatus – if you do nothing else, catch it before it disappears.
2. Doctor Who (s5), BBC1 (from April 3): The baton – well, three batons, really – has been handed over. Russell T Davies to Steven Moffat. David Tennant to Matt Smith. Catherine Tate to Karen Gillan. Moffat pens taut, simple drama/horror perhaps better than any Who writer past or present, having produced some of the new series’ most memorable moments: the Hugo Award-winning stories The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, The Girl In The Fireplace and Blink (an episode which prominently featured Carey Mulligan, since Oscar-nominated for An Education), and Silence In The Library/Forest Of The Dead. How will Smith and Gillan fare versus their illustrious predecessors? Can Moffat transfer his episodic magic to a full season? We will soon find out, but my money is firmly on the regenerated 11th Doctor being a runaway success.
3. Lost (s6), Sky1: Airing in the UK just three days after US transmission, Lost‘s final season remains just as demanding on its viewers’ concentration as ever, with the new story-telling mechanic of the ‘flash-sideways’ posing as many questions as are being answered. With only a couple of minor missteps along the way, Lost has consistently baffled, challenged and at times frustrated viewers with a complex narrative which even now, as it hurtles at breakneck speed towards its closing hours, feels as fresh as it did in those opening moments when we first witnessed the aftermath of Oceanic 815’s crash on the mysterious island. We demand answers – and, slowly but surely, we are starting to get them.
4. True Blood (s2), FX: The series based on Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire Mysteries remains a glorious mish-mash of blood, sex and mystery in America’s deep south, all beautifully observed and rolled together with a style and confidence that makes the vast majority of mainstream hour-long dramas look plain dull. And, in an advertising-heavy world which has all but seen the death of the great title sequences of yesteryear, True Blood‘s opening credits rank right up alongside HBO stablemate The Sopranos. There is no higher compliment.
5. Ashes To Ashes (s3), BBC1 (from late March, TBC): Yes, yes, yes: it isn’t as good as the original Life On Mars. But it’s still bloody brilliant. Politically incorrect and an unashamed throwback to its audience’s youth, ATA has always been more about rollocking good fun than the science-fiction conceit which threw Alex Drake back to the 80s. The might of the Hollywood machine – Harvey Keitel and all – made a terrible, soulless hash of LOM, underlining just how difficult it is to do this kind of thing well. Gene Hunt will shortly be firing up the Quattro for the last time – we won’t realise quite how much we miss him, Alex, Ray, Chris and Shaz until they are gone.
6. V, Sci Fi (from April 13): Despite an alarming ratings slide during the initial four-episode run- something which seems to afflict all new genre shows these days – I am really looking forward to seeing this remake of the classic Kenneth Johnson-penned mini-series, due to land in the UK next month. The original was a whip-smart Nazis-as-aliens allegory focussing on how ordinary people band together to resist a seemingly all-powerful oppressor, which sadly descended into a by-the-numbers mission-of-the-week episodic series. I’m hoping for the former rather than the latter, obviously.
7. FlashForward (s1), Five (from March 22): Returning in a fortnight’s time, this series (based very loosely on the Robert J Sawyer book of the same name) started spectacularly but had started to lose a bit of pace by the time it went on hiatus. The basic premise remains strong – what would happen if everyone in the world blacked out for a couple of minutes and saw a glimpse of their future lives? – but the plot needed an injection of 24-style pacing to move things along with greater alacrity. Hopefully that is what we will see, although the murmurings coming out of the US suggest that a second season is far from certain. Enjoy it while you can.
8. Heroes (s4), BBC2: Another series very much on the bubble, Tim Kring’s vision of ordinary people suddenly blessed with extraordinary abilities has struggled to recapture its initial magic and yet still has much to offer, not least an array of specially commissioned additional online content which includes comic books, webisodes and RPGs (role-playing games). Heroes has mapped out an impressive canvas for telling complex, multi-faceted stories which can be enjoyed either as a standalone TV series or as a more immersive online experience, which may well provide a template for future series to adopt and build upon.
Beyond this list, I haven’t mentioned Being Human and Vampire Diaries (among others too numerous to list here), both of which come highly recommended by many genre fans but which I have never got round to watching. There just aren’t enough hours in the day – still, it’s a nice problem to have when you have programming of this quality to select from. It’s a good time to be a genre fan right now.