An embarrassment of genre riches: update

Three months ago, I listed eight genre series which I was very much looking forward to over the coming months. Like the fool that I am, I also confidently stated the following:

TV trends often go in cycles, and ‘genre’ shows seem to be very much on the up at the moment … It’s a good time to be a genre fan right now.

Here is the report card on my chosen eight – a mixed bag which amply demonstrates exactly why I should stop making such bold predictions.

1. Caprica (season 1 – on mid-season hiatus): It may have been born as the prequel to Battlestar Galactica, but within a handful of episodes Caprica had already outgrown the constraints of its parent series. Tackling topical and philosophical issues such as religion-fuelled terrorism, racism, society’s growing immersion in virtual worlds and the essence of what it means to be alive, Caprica is unflinching, stylish and intelligent. And it has Cylons. What more could you want? Score: 4.5/5

2. Doctor Who (season 5 – renewed): The regenerated series has faced a fair amount of criticism since its relaunch; some justified, some merely a matter of personal taste. Personally, I love Matt Smith’s gangly, bumbling portrayal of the last Time Lord, which reminds me a lot of Patrick Troughton. I also like new companion Amy Pond, with the resolution of the season-long storyline of “the girl who waited” being immensely satisfying. Generally, though, the writing has been uneven, ranging from simple but beautifully conceived horror (the season-long theme of people being forgotten because their entire existence has been erased, the Dream Lord in Amy’s Choice) to the utterly ridiculous (Spitfires in space in Victory of the Daleks, the whole of Vampires of Venice). But that is nothing new: every Doctor Who season I have ever watched (dating back to the late 70s) has had its share of clunkers, and the majesty of the two-part The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang finale more than compensated for the low points. The simple fact is Smith’s Doctor is a different man to David Tennant’s. That is no bad thing. Quite the contrary, in fact – it’s been a breath of fresh air. Score: 4/5

3. Lost (season 6 – ended): The much-anticipated 2.5 hour finale became a huge global event, being simulcast in key international territories around the world. Of course, it was never going to live up to the hype. Many – myself included – loved it; others hated it. In the end the determining factor seemed to be whether you were more invested in the show’s characters (lovers) or its mythology (haters). After a slow start, the season gathered momentum and resolved most of the major mysteries en route. In its closing hour, the show presented us with a decisive triumph of good over evil before finally sending the now dead survivors of Oceanic 815 into the hereafter (but see also Ashes To Ashes below). At the same time, long-term fans were given the opportunity to wallow in the six-year journey with brief flashbacks and a final look at characters we have loved. (Rose and Bernard lived happily ever after on the island – yay!) It didn’t satisfy everyone, but the end was beautiful nonetheless. Score: 4/5

4. True Blood (season 2 – renewed): Continues to stand head and shoulders above its other vampire and supernaturally-based rivals. Unafraid to portray its characters in a fictional Louisiana backwater town as, well, simple people (as opposed to the urban sophisticates which populate most network shows), the residents of Bon Temps are nevertheless among the most rounded, three-dimensional and true-to-life characters anywhere on TV, despite a second season arc which spun all the main characters in dramatically different directions, with the first season serial killer mystery replaced by one involving a maenad. True Blood does for vampires and country hicks what The Sopranos did for mobsters. A modern gem. Score: 5/5

5. Ashes To Ashes (season 3 – ended): As I’ve said previously in my comments on the final episode, Ashes was always at its best when played slightly tongue-in-cheek, and less convincing as a police drama or when the focus shifted on to its underlying mythology of why its lead characters had been cast back in time. There were some great character moments for Ray and Chris in particular which foreshadowed later revelations, but the need to explain the mystery of Gene Hunt and the consistent, unconvincing insinuations that he killed Sam Tyler were a millstone around the show’s neck. Only in the final fifteen minutes was this weight lifted, with the entire team coming together one last time to save the day, before continuing their journey into the afterlife without Hunt. That ending – which eerily echoed that of Lost less than 72 hours later – partially redeemed this final season, but in truth this was a pedestrian and largely predictable final run. Score: 3/5

6. V (season 1 – renewed): Like Caprica, this is a thoughtful, character-driven show, and one at odds with its lizards-with-lasers origins. Slow to start, the story picked up pace significantly in the latter half of the season as a gentle set-up gave way to the World War II resistance allegory hitting its stride, cranking up the level of jeopardy and seeing characters shifting allegiances before a final, game-changing ending which was a wonderful subversion for fans of the 80s’ version. (The Visitors’ climactic reddening of Earth’s skies echoes the original, where a toxin lethal to the Visitors was dispersed by the human rebels from hot air balloons.) The series’ ratings were shaky, but the premise is certainly intriguing enough to be worthy of a second chance. Score: 3.5/5

7. FlashForward (season 1 – cancelled): Launched by ABC in a blaze of glory as the natural successor to Lost, the series based on the Robert J Sawyer book of the same name dazzled initially with its brilliant premise – the entire world blacks out and gets a brief glimpse six months into their future – and then rapidly fizzled out as the story sagged and ground to a halt in a fog of all-too-familiar character angst and conspiracy theories. I’ve still to watch the second half of the season, having lost enthusiasm after reading the barrage of near-universal criticism. However, it seems this was a potentially great series that never really worked out what it wanted to be. Score: 2.5/5 (provisional)

8. Heroes (season 4 – cancelled): It came as little surprise when NBC pulled the plug on the show in the face of lemming-like ratings and a critical battering. For much of its first season, it had been widely hailed as the best new show on TV, although the back half did meander somewhat before arriving at a disappointing climax. But the show soon lost its way, drifting away from its character focus and replacing it with unoriginal conspiracy-of-the-season plotting and unconvincing mythology – a pale X-Files imitation with superpowers. Increasingly, core characters – most notably the series’ uber-baddie, Sylar – switched motivations and then flip-flopped back again to suit the story or, worse still, disappeared altogether for long stretches. The running joke of Nathan Petrelli apparently dying at the end of every season wore so thin that, by the time the character did genuinely die, we hardly cared. Plot arcs and characters’ abilities were recycled repeatedly. And ultimately it was a relief rather than a pleasure to get to the end of the final episode which, at least, provided us with some satisfying closure. A shame: Heroes was a great opportunity, never fully exploited. Score: 2/5

So, that’s two series ended (Lost, Ashes To Ashes), two cancelled (Heroes, FlashForward) and three ongoing (Doctor Who, V, True Blood), with the fate of Caprica to be determined. Not a great ratio, really. Hopefully the new crop of US network shows for the 2010/11 season will introduce us to some new gems – there’s precious little new on the horizon in the UK – but the modern TV universe is a fickle one and it’s very much a case of survival of the fittest. Genre shows, with their complex, serialised storylines and their costly effects budgets, are very much first in the firing line when it comes to cancellation. So whichever idiot it was who said earlier that genre shows were on the up was sadly very much mistaken. Let’s just hope that my sense of growing pessimism is equally wrong.