There is no doubt in my mind that TV has gotten measurably better in the last decade or so. Something, I imagine, having to do with people figuring out how to really create art in a medium that is relatively young by historical standards. Setting aside the vagaries of the physical medium of TV (which Netflix, with House of Cards just proved pretty convincingly didn’t matter, if HBO hadn’t done that already…) there’s the episodic nature of it, the idea that this isn’t something you go watch in a theater but that you experience at home, either by yourself or with others.
Sometimes TV Series are canceled before they even get to the point of even closing off the story in a good way, usually after one season. Every once in a while those canceled series still stand the test of time, and even if the story is left unfinished they’re still worth watching. I thought I’d add a two here that fall in that category, with the caveat that if you get into them you should fully expect to be frustrated when you reach the end.
Rubicon (13 episodes, 1 season, 2010)
Perhaps what I appreciate the most about Rubicon is the silences. No dialog, just long stretches in which people do what they do in everyday life… like being in their apartment by themselves, for example. Not constant action and interaction between characters…. But people being alone and still moving the story forward. This is extraordinarily difficult to pull off and Rubicon does it really well. Almost everything in Rubicon is against the grain. It’s a conspiracy thriller set in our post-9/11 world with a distinct 1970s vibe, where people carry around huge piles of paper, memos, and reports and rarely use computers. Subtle character building instead of in-your-face exposition. Steady but slow story building, with strands emerging until it all comes together in the last few episodes. As far I can tell it is only available through Amazon Instant Video, but you may be able to find it through, um, other means. AMC has dropped the ball on not having this on iTunes, or DVD/Blu-Ray. Then again, they nearly destroyed The Walking Dead in Season 2, and almost managed to kill Mad Men over some silly argument around a few extra minutes per episode, so I’m not that surprised. I’m rooting for them to do better, though.
If you like movies like The Conversation (1974), Three Days Of The Condor (1975) or The Parallax View (1974) then you are sure to enjoy this series. Note the dates on those movies — not a coincidence.
SGU: Stargate Universe (40 episodes, 2 seasons, 2009-2011)
Stargate became, to some degree, the heir of Star Trek as a TV Science Fiction franchise, but SGU took things to the next level. The writing is spectacularly good, and the “cliche problem” is almost non-existent, as are occurrences of Deus ex machinas (I say again: almost). SF classics like Rama and 2001: A Space Odyssey are clearly strong influences here. It is available pretty much everywhere, including Netflix. It ends with a semi-cliffhanger that will almost certainly never be properly resolved (maybe a Kickstarter campaign could fix that… but I’m not holding my breath).
If you like the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica then this series is a must-watch. It is one of the few series I’ve seen that does Science Fiction right (two others that come to mind at the moment are Caprica and Firefly, both cancelled as well — perhaps the subject of a follow-up post). Watching SGU makes you wonder if its writers and producers were also following Ron Moore’s “Battlestar Galactica Series Bible” (Google that, if you don’t know what I’m talking about).
The BSG Bible has more to say about the “cliche problem” I mentioned before:
Story. We will eschew the usual stories about parallel universes, time-travel, mindcontrol, evil twins, God-like powers and all the other cliches of the genre. Our show is first and foremost a drama. It is about people. Real people that the audience can identify with and become engaged in. It is not a show about hardware or bizarre alien cultures. It is a show about us. It is an allegory for our own society, our own people and it should be immediately recognizable to any member of the audience.
(My emphasis). SGU does “break” those rules now and again, certainly more than BSG ever did. But it does it not do it because it’s out of things to say, but in the interest of the overall story arc, which in my mind makes it acceptable. For BSG, for example, Edward James Olmos revealed later that he had a clause in his contract that no strange aliens or monsters would ever appear on the show, because he wanted to insure that the story stay focused on human drama (basically if a monster or alien showed up, he would just drop dead of a heart attack at that point). Apparently, this made the writers nervous when the introduced the concept of Hybrids but Olmos was fine with that because it fit the story and was a natural outgrowth of it (thank the Gods! heh). What SGU does is generally within that framework.
So, enjoy! And be prepared to scream (silently… or not) at your TV at the end. You are going to wish these series had arrived at an appropriate conclusion.