As part of the campaign to replace reality shows with more stories that we as humans so desperately need, I’m constantly on the lookout for the most well-written and best told stories on the air. From veteran programs in their tenth season, to struggling new fledglings, these are the eight best T.V. shows that story lovers should be watching.
1. The Walking Dead
“We are the walking dead.” This quote from main character Rick Grimes in a recent episode of the show’s fifth season pretty much says it all. When watching the early episodes, the title seems obviously attributed to the zombies that have destroyed civilized society—“walkers” or “roamers” as they’re known in the show and comics. The group of survivors the series follows, greatly diminished in numbers since they began their journey, has been through so much, and has been so beaten down, that they have all but lost hope in anything beyond their horrid mere existence. They have become the walking dead, trudging along sun-soaked highways with no food or water, depleted ammo, walkers on their trail, and the haunting memories of loved ones lost, and far worse dangers than walkers. You’d like to think that if the apocalypse really did come, the last remaining humans would band together and help one another survive. The Walking Dead gives us a more realistic and much sadder portrayal of human nature. As Rick says, “People measure you by what they can take from you, by how they can use you to live.” If you think the show is too far along for you to catch up, I’m telling you, the time to start watching is now. The group just found a supposed safe haven, but they’ve been burned before, and fans know by now to trust no one. The latest episode left me craving more, and the season finale in a few short episodes will be one not to be missed. The Walking Dead airs on Sundays at 9pm on AMC.
What’s that you say? You’ve had your fill of Batman from the Nolan trilogy and the New 52? Don’t have room in your life for a sub-par T.V. show where Bruce Wayne is just a kid? Wrong. You are so wrong. Yes, that’s what I said at first too. But then I actually watched an episode. This is a dark, and truly disturbing take on the inhabitants of Gotham while they’re still young and haven’t yet evolved into the super villains or heroes we are familiar with. It features a young Bruce, whose parents die in episode one, Alfred, Harvey Dent, Jim Gordon and the GCPD crew, as well as a host of young villains-to-be including Selina Kyle, Oswald Cobblepot, and Edward Nygma who fans will recognize as Catwoman, The Penguin, and The Riddler. We’ve even met a young Joker, and while I’m always a little biased toward Heath Ledger, I have to say: where do they keep getting these awesomely insane, creepy actors to play the joker? But the one who really steals the show is Jada Pinkett Smith as Fish Mooney. I can’t even satisfactorily describe her character’s storyline right now; you have to see it to believe it. And if you’re worried the dark and disturbing factor won’t be on par with what we’ve seen from Christopher Nolan or the New 52, stop worrying. Gotham airs on Fox, Mondays at 8pm.
3. Better Call Saul
If you are hesitant to watch this because a spinoff of Breaking Bad could never live up to that show’s genius, then let me just remind you of one critical factor: Vince Gilligan. I’ve got enough evidence by now to know that I’ll watch anything this guy is involved with and like it. He’s just a brilliant writer and storyteller. Anything he has a hand in is going to be stellar. The way he develops his characters, examining them through a moral lens, is unique on television. I’d never before seen a character transformation like Walter White’s, and Saul’s, while different, is just as fascinating. This show follows beaten-down lawyer Jimmy McGill on his descent into dishonesty. Sure, he’s not a saint to begin with, but he does struggle to do the right thing. The audience is already seeing a common Gilliganian© theme: you can be good and suffer, or do one bad thing and live a little easier. The problem is, that easily justified one, small, bad thing inevitably snowballs down a dark path there’s no coming back from. Saul’s journey down this road is packed with humor, suspense, and drama. Don’t miss it. Better Call Saul airs Mondays at 10pm on AMC.
4. The Flash
What a glorious time we live in when there’s a comic book adaptation on various networks almost every day of the week. If the disturbing terror and corruption of Gotham isn’t your cup of tea, you might enjoy the delightfully cheesy antics of The Flash. The show, despite having its sad moments, is more upbeat, colorful, and pleasant. Besides the awesome visual effects of Flash speeding around the city in a blur, saving the day, there are really engaging stories being told that are ripped from the comics and expanded. Even more interesting are the character dynamics. The cast of characters is a numerous and complex one. Each character is well developed, has their own agenda, and has different complex relationships with some characters than others. On The Flash you’ll get a moderated dose of unrequited love, romance, action, and mystery. Check it out. The Flash airs on the CW on Tuesdays at 8pm. It’s on break now, which gives you a chance to catch up, and will return March 17th.
5. Criminal Minds
This one has been on awhile, and I’ve been a fan since almost the beginning. When new, it was described as another procedural crime drama, albeit a good procedural, but so what? Here’s what sets it apart: this show has a fandom as strong as any superhero or comic book one. The characters are all memorable and lovable individuals, and work together as a team for justice. They are heroes, sacrificing their time, personal happiness, and often safety, to bring home lost children and save innocent lives from nightmares no one should ever have to live through. In fact, they are so heroic that team leader Aaron Hotchner’s son opts out of dressing like Spiderman for Halloween and instead:
The stories are well-crafted, disturbing tales guaranteed to make you think, and keep you on the edge of your seat rooting for the BAU (Behavioral Analysis Unit) to catch the real monsters of the world. This show is currently in its tenth season, and by now the reluctant viewer should be saying “Okay, I’ll watch it. It’s been on for ten years. Maybe it’s good.” Criminal Minds airs on Wednesdays at 9pm on CBS.
6. 12 Monkeys
This latest SyFy endeavor is a remake of the 1995 movie starring Brad Pitt and Bruce Willis, and is so much better than I expected it to be. Cole comes from an apocalyptic world where a man-made virus has eradicated nearly all life on Earth. He travels back in time (“splinters”) to enlist the help of Dr. Cassandra Railly to find the source of the virus and stop it before it can be unleashed on humanity. Of course, the implications of this are already huge. If Cole is successful, won’t he disappear or at least create a different version of himself? But if you were living in Cole’s time, 2043, you would take the risk to change it too. Cole and Cassie trace the virus to a creepy conspiracy known as the Army of the 12 Monkeys, but are so far (early in season one) no closer to changing the future, though the latest episode left me hanging and biting my nails on that front. What I love most about this show is it not only attempts to preserve human life, but human art and history. What is the point of survival, if that’s all we have? You can watch 12 Monkeys on SyFy, Fridays at 9pm.
7. Agent Carter
While Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. left me underwhelmed, its Agent Carter is the antithesis. Not only do I love a female hero in a lead role independent of Captain America to carry her, and with no super powers to speak of other than physical strength, brains, and wit, but the stories are action packed and suspenseful. I suggest going to ABC.com to watch 10 must see moments from the season finale, and then hope it gets renewed.
This show is currently floating in the limbo between cancellation and renewal, the decision being made in May. To lose this show would be a travesty, and I urge you to watch the first 13 episodes online, and if you like it, to show your support using #saveconstantine. The possibility of cancellation stems more from a poor timeslot on Friday nights when its main demographic is out of the house, and less from lack of interest in the show which already has a devoted cult following including over 2 million followers on Facebook. Constantine is based on a DC comic about a smoking, drinking “antihero” exorcist trying to save his own soul from a haunting mistake in his past, and it’s one of the coolest, creepiest shows I’ve seen on T.V. since The X-Files. It’s smart, sexy, story-driven, character-driven, dark, engaging and most importantly, different from anything else on T.V. right now. If these writers are given a chance to hit their stride, this show could be big. As part of the enthusiastic fan response to save the show, they’ve been writing professional messages to NBC and signing petitions. If you do watch the show, and like it, you can join the movement here: Remember, a vote for Constantine is a vote for less reality and more stories.
“The thrill is in the chase, never the capture.” – Doctor Who, “The Unicorn and The Wasp”
I cannot stress enough the joy that exists in wanting. My favorite writers share the idea that romance is less about kissing and having sex, and more about the anticipation of a kiss, and building sexual tension. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, this can go on for years. Chris Carter was able to stretch the relationship between Mulder and Scully on The X-Files for seven, right up until David Duchovny’s departure from the show. In other words, he kept us waiting until the last possible moment, and if viewers weren’t grateful, they should have been. Good writers know there’s an art in giving characters space to miss each other, time to want each other, and the magic of the tease.
Yet when I recite the quote above to my writing workshop full of high school girls, one of whom just read me a first-kiss scene that she is particularly proud of, I am met with skeptical stares. “No kissing in the first book of a series,” I’ll say, “and if it’s a standalone story, absolutely no kissing until the end.” It’s easier said than done, and even I’ve been tempted to write that sensual, romantic first-kiss scene too early in my novel. To myself, my students, and writers everywhere, I urge you: Don’t do it! Build romantic suspense instead.
The X-Files did this so well, it is in fact, the best I’ve ever seen. All the affection had to be shown through the characters’ concern for one another. Chris Carter mastered the art of keeping from the audience what they thought they wanted, which was for the characters to get together and accomplish their goal. What audiences really want is to want the characters to get together. We wait seasons for them to kiss, but once they do, that anticipation dissipates and things get boring fast. You can never get that first kiss or the feeling of wanting it back. Afterwards, characters become a sort of mundane couple sickening us with their constant cloying cuteness. Think Jim and Pam on The Office. I remember reading a fan comment about four seasons into the show that said: “For once in a show I just want the characters to get together and be happy. Is that so much to ask?” No! Bad fan! And yes, it is a lot to ask for, because you are essentially asking the writers to terminate the anticipation you feel when tuning into their show every week. Will this be the episode they finally get together? Think about it. Did you enjoy the show more when Pam was an unattainable goal for Jim, or when they were happily married and working on baby number two? This question is rhetorical given that we’d already seen the latter storyline with baby number one. Pam gets pregnant because there is nothing left to do with their story. The best parts are over. Remember when Jim was in emotional agony because Pam was engaged to Roy? Remember feeling that pain with him? That was good stuff.
I know I’ve been talking T.V. shows here, but it applies to books as well. A book becomes a series when the first one hooks us, usually because our main character meets a new and intriguing person and they spend the length of that book chasing one another and a goal. By the time we reach book two or three, and the characters have already gotten together, most of their time is spent kissing and arguing over who’s prettier. Think Edward and Bella in Eclipse. However, if done correctly, we’ll still be waiting with bated breath for Katniss to choose Peeta or Gale, or to see what happens between star-crossed lovers June and Day in Marie Lu’s Legend series. Lu kept me waiting until the very last page, and I thanked her at the end.
But using T.V. as an example seemed appropriate since this Friday I found myself on the page of one of my favorite new shows, 12 Monkeys, discussing the relationship of the two main characters with another fan. In order for me to get to this stage in a relationship with a new series, several factors need to be in place. First, the concept has to hook me. In order to get me to the second episode (a rarity for me), it must be well written with well thought out story lines. But how do we reach the stage where I’m on the internet talking to other nerds about the show? Thirdly, and most importantly, there must be interesting characters that want something and make me want it for them. That’s anticipation.
We’ll keep tuning in for a stolen glance…a meaningful moment…a hand hold…a hug, that moment where their lips almost touch but some awesome story-related snafu interrupts it.
This fan and I shared concern that Cole and Cassie might kiss by the end of the first season. There were a few moments already that showed the characters growing closer, and it’s romantic to be sure. We love to see them dance, appreciate art, and be generally adorable despite the time-oriented plot device keeping them apart. I’m loving the development, but I do hope they keep that first kiss at bay. So far, the writers are doing a good job of emotionally attaching me to Cole and Cassie, making me want what they want, a difficult feat in so few episodes. I want Cole and Cassie to be happy together. I just hope the writers continue to keep from me what I want. Because that’s what I really want.
Perhaps, like the students taking my workshop, you’re reading this right now with eyebrows raised, thinking I’m off my nut. Don’t believe me? This theory is backed by science, which you can read more about in the Daily Mail, and upheld by writers long before me. After all, it was Robert Louis Stevenson who said, “To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.” My fellow story lovers, I wish you long and hopeful travels wrought with anticipation.