#5: Battlestar Galactica
When I sat down to write about my five favorite television shows, I knew my top four immediately. No questions, no concerns, I just knew. But this fifth and final spot...that was much more tricksy. I considered nostalgic favorites like Lois and Clark, steadfast friends like Babylon 5, and more recent obsessions like Legend of the Seeker and The West Wing. And technically speaking, I probably *enjoy* many of these more than BSG. So why did I ultimately choose this show? For one very simple reason: It surprised me more than any other series I've ever seen.
As you can see from some of the shows I already listed (and some yet to come), I love sci-fi. I've always been drawn to possible visions of our future and how our exploration of space will shape it. I really, REALLY wanted to be an astronaut when I was a kid. But I tend to shy away from darker sci-fi. I don't like envisioning a future where we're constantly being attacked by aliens, or battling our way across the universe. Even some of the darker moments of shows like Babylon 5 and Stargate focus more on hope than desolation. Knowing that BSG centered on a tiny group of rag-tag survivors after the near-genocide of the human race, I quickly made the determination that this was Not a Show For Me.
So I didn't watch it. But my husband did, and he loved it. I hadn't seen him so addicted to a show for the entire time I'd known him. He respected my choice not to watch it, but last year - nearly a decade after it first premiered - he finally worse down my defenses. He just wanted me to "give it a shot." If I watched a few episodes and truly didn't like it, that would be the end of it. I finally agreed, mainly to get him to stop bugging me about it. I figured all I'd lose was a couple hours of my time.
Ironically enough, I can still say that the show is made up of everything I would normally dislike. It's filled with death, terror, and an abject hopelessness that is absolutely horrifying to watch at times. Every time a tiny scrap of hope appears on the horizon, it gets torn to pieces. I can't truly relate to any of the characters, because all of them have done things that I doubt I could forgive. I honestly don't know how most of them look at themselves in the mirror every day, after everything they've done. (Also, I don't think I've ever hated a character as much as I loathe Gaius Baltar. Truly.) There were times I felt physically ill from some of the scenes.
But I kept watching it, day after day, week after week, because I'd become so bloody invested in this fight for survival. Within all the blood and tears and death, I found something achingly beautiful in the show's portrayal of the human spirit. Every horrible decision they made, every time they executed one of their own, every time they lost a battle, they came one step closer to winning the war. And they did. Against all odds, they survived. They fought tooth and nail, they sacrificed anything and anyone necessary, they had their very souls crushed in front of them, but they never stopped fighting, and in the end, they lived.
Looking back, even though so many of the decisions the characters made left me feeling sick to my stomach, I have to admit that it gave a completely accurate view of a civilization at war. The debate between freedom and civil liberties vs. doing whatever it took to keep people alive was a theme I found fascinating, if depressing. Character development throughout the series blew me away (even if I hated some of them for how they changed). I developed SUCH a strong emotional attachment to the show, even if most of those emotions were negative.
But at the end of the day, I had to step back and admit that through all the darkness, the show ended with a ray of light, and that maybe the main message WAS always about hope...even if it took the entire series to get there.
And that's frakkin' awesome.
#4 Xena: Warrior Princess
I've been fascinated by mythology since before I can remember, and - like most of my contemporaries - my first exposure consisted of Grecco-Roman tales. When Xena's parent show, Hercules, premiered, I was immediately hooked. While not always the most accurate, either to the myths themselves or history in general, the show was amusing and kept me interested. But it wasn't until the Xena spin-off that I truly fell in love.
It might be cliche, but as a woman, I've always been drawn to female-centric shows, especially when it comes to women kicking ass and taking names. But what really drew me to the show was Xena herself, and her never-ending search for redemption. I've not come across many characters like her, characters who are so mentally and physically strong, who can serve as role models for others, who can be lauded as true heroes, and yet who will never see themselves worthy of such honors. So many shows give us main characters with troubled pasts, but rarely does that past color the entire storyline the way Xena's does. She may be on a quest for forgiveness, but she doesn't believe she actually deserves it. One of the most emotionally scenes for me will always be when Xena has the chance to be cleansed by healing waters, and she refuses, because she doesn't see herself as worthy. That kind of self-loathing is heartbreaking, and yet she continuously tries to do the right thing, to make up for her past, knowing that nothing will ever be enough.
Xena's relationship with her partner, Gabrielle, is another aspect of the show I adore. Of all the characters. Gabrielle undergoes the most change, while still managing to keep to keep the core of who she is and what she believes in. She goes from a physically weak girl to a warrior, but the show doesn't romanticize it (something else we don't often see). When Gabrielle makes her first kill, it haunts her. She's plagued with nightmares, she hates herself for it, and she wonders if, like Xena, she can ever forgive herself. She makes hard choices but always confronts them. Certainly her most difficult hour came when she was forced to kill her own daughter, though she gentled it by sacrificing herself as well (at least temporarily). Through it all, Xena and Gabrielle's friendship remains steadfast. In Gabrielle, Xena sees her first real chance at redemption. She sees Gabrielle as a being so pure, so good, that if someone like her can love as someone as dark and tainted as she believes she is, there must be some hope for her.
Of course, the show isn't always so serious. I can love it for its complete historical inaccuracies, which leave me in stitches. The mash up of world mythologies and Christianity can be hysterical, as well as surprisingly enlightening. One of my favorite episodes when I need a laugh has Xena pretending to be a beauty queen in the "Miss Known World" pageant. A clip show, nearly always the most boring episodes of any series, has Xena and Co. being hounded by a television reporter who trails her to the Norse god Odin's golden apples. There's even a musical episode! Not many shows can do both deadly serious and seriously funny as well as this one, but that's no small part of what makes it such a spectacular series.
Also, Lucy Lawless is a flawless human being. So there's that.
#3 The Tudors
As an historian, I often have issues with "historical" television and books. Xena didn't bother me because it never even pretended to be accurate. But I knew a show like The Tudors would be well produced, well acted, and "close enough" to historical fact that I was afraid I'd be twitching every time I saw something that wasn't right. And while this did happen occasionally, I was swept away so much that I hardly noticed until I was analyzing the episodes later.
I love many, many things about this series, but the factor I want to emphasize the most is the phenomenal acting. A part of me was ever so slightly worried that I would find the show boring because - you know - I already knew how everything ended. There were no surprises, no cliff hangers, none of the "OMG WHAT'S GOING TO HAPPEN NEXT????" angst that is the lifeblood of so many series. But these men and women performed so well that knowing what was coming had absolutely no negative effect on my enjoyment. In fact, there were times I actually caught myself visualizing outcomes that I KNEW wouldn't come to pass. Natalie Dormer's portrayal of Anne Boleyn, for example, was so spectacular that she had me convinced that she'd get a happy ending. When her execution kept getting pushed back, she had that brief moment of true hope that Henry would spare her, and I found myself sharing that hope sooooo clearly....until I remembered that I already knew how the story would end. That's the sign of a truly amazing actress. The acting also managed to get me interested in people I never cared about before. For example, I'd read extensively on Elizabeth Tudor, but I'd never really been interested in her older sister, Mary. But Sarah Bolger BLEW ME SO FAR AWAY with her portrayal of Mary that I immediately went out and bought several biographies of her, and I now have a huge appreciation for her struggles and sacrifices, as well as her contribution to England's history.
Like Battlestar, The Tudors often left me with a sour taste in my mouth. I always knew Henry was a complete bastard, but seeing it acted out right in front of me just really drove home how selfish and brutal he was. I often found myself unable to watch the formal executions, and more often than not I just wanted someone to stab him with his own sword. But I did come away with a new appreciation for everyone who lived with him and served him. Whether I liked them or not, I could appreciate how difficult their jobs were, and how every day was a true struggle to survive, since his capricious nature meant no one was ever safe, especially his poor wives. Despite this, however, the show managed to portray all six of these women as strong, self-sufficient, and powerful in their own rights. That was incredibly uplifting.
Lastly, I need to commend the wardrobe and set designers. This is definitely one of the most beautiful TV series I've ever seen.
#2 Once Upon a Time
This is my current obsession. I knew I would love it from the moment I first saw it advertised, simply because I adore fairytales more than I can adequately express. And while the show has definitely has its ups and downs, and there have been times I've wanted to violently shake some sense into the characters, overall it's been a fantastic ride.
What I love most about this show is the phenomenal way the writers have brought so many various fairytale characters into the same world, and actually made it work. Previously, only The 10th Kingdom had done that well (at least in my opinion) and I was thrilled to see it on a much larger scale. But they even went one step further and din't just mash the tales together - they actually altered them to fit the series...and it WORKED SO WELL! Suddenly we have Little Red Riding Hood doubling as the Big Bad Wolf, the Evil Queen from Snow White as Ursula, and Rumpelstiltskin as Belle's Beast and Cinderella's fairy godmother. Twisting all these tales together creates a beautiful tapestry that never bores me, even when the plot occasionally drags.
The show also gives provides some amazing original characters. I fell in love with the main character, Emma Swan, and her son, Henry, from the very first episode. Emma has spent her entire life feeling rejected, believing that she was abandoned by her parents and framed by the man she loved, and suddenly she found herself with a bigger (and crazier) family than she ever could have imagined. Her transformation from tough loner to savior to lost girl was both beautiful and heartbreaking, and I feel like her growth really gives the show its heart.
But - speaking of hearts - I'd be lying if I didn't admit that mine belongs utterly and completely to Robert Carlyle, who plays Rumpelstiltskin and his alter ego Mr. Gold. When we first meet this character, he's locked in a cage and is completely insane (or at least wants everyone to believe he is). Time and time again, he proves that he is the true mastermind behind nearly everything that happens. He's the consummate puppet master, and he manages not only to get people to do what he wants, but to get them to think it was all their idea in the first place. Depending on what point in his life the show is focusing on, he is a flamboyant, all-powerful trickster, a poor and cowardly spinner, or a cool-eyed businessman in Armani. Carlyle plays them all perfectly, and the show feels...empty when he's not around.
Of course, my already deep love for the series and the Rumpelstiltskin character grew exponentially when it was revealed that Rumple was also the Beast, and his relationship with Belle has basically taken over my fandom life. I haven't shipped a couple this hard since my original OTP of OTPs (Jareth and Sarah from Labyrinth), and I've basically been ruined for fanfiction forever (or at least the foreseeable future).
Really, though, Rumpelstiltskin is just the best example of what really drives this show, which is amazing acting and flawless portrayal of so many beloved characters. Sebastian Stan as the Mad Hatter and Barbara Hershey as the Queen of Hearts were absolute PERFECTION, and that's saying something, since Alice in Wonderland is one of my favorite stories. Robbie Kay as a devilishly antagonistic Peter Pan saved me from what I thought would be a horribly boring Neverland arc, since I've never been a fan of the Pan story. Having him as a villain was absolutely and completely brilliant, not to mention closer to the original story. And I was thrilled to see Sarah Bolger as Princess Aurora <33
In short, OUaT would have captured my interest just by existing, because fairytales in the real world is pretty much a perfect recipe for me. Adding in these wonderful mash-ups and astounding acting ensured I'd fall in love with it.
#1: Star Trek: The Original Series
Before I begin, I'd just like to point out that if we're being technical, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine should be numbers two and three on this list. But most of the reasons I'm going to discuss here about why I love TOS apply to the other shows as well, so I figured there wasn't much sense in listing them. But the Star Trek franchise has impacted my life so much in general, I felt the need to throw that out there.
In some ways, I feel rather wrong when I talk about Star Trek in a fandom sense. My husband once pointed out that it had gone so far beyond fandom for me...it was simply a way of life. And he was right. Star Trek literally changed my life. As much as I've adored other television shows and movies, none of them have ever truly done that. (And actually, the only other form of media that did was a book called Beauty, by Robin McKinley, but that's another story.) Star Trek came to me in 1992, which was one of the worst years of my life. I was having a horrible time adjusting to middle school, with its added pressures and rigid schedules; I developed my first signs of anxiety and panic attacks, which persist to this day; and I lost my grandfather, which was the first time I had to deal with the concept of death with a close family member. In short, I was extremely depressed and didn't have much hope for the future.
Remember when I talked about Battlestar and mentioned how I prefer my sci-fi to be based on hope? This is why.
For the first time in my life, I saw an absolutely beautiful vision of our future. Previously, everything had been dark and dreary, and full of brain-eating aliens. Now I had a show telling me it wasn't like that at all. Humans were exploring the galaxy peacefully, seeking out new worlds and new civilizations, but for the purpose of education and knowledge, not for conquering. I'd never seen anything so uplifting. It gave me hope, not only for myself, but for my entire race.
But Star Trek's legacy goes so much deeper than that. When I expressed an interest in the show, my dad - a devout Trekkie himself - informed me that I had 25 years of catch-up learning to do. If I didn't learn about why and how Star Trek came into existence, I'd never really get the full impact. So I taped re-runs that aired on Fox at midnight. I read actor biographies and interviews with creator Gene Roddenberry and his production crew. I learned that Star Trek gave hope not only to me, but to a generation of people who sorely needed it. The show depicted an interracial crew that included a Russian during the Cold War. It showed a black woman on the bridge of a Starship, and when she considered quitting because her lines were being reduced to "Hailing frequencies open, sir," she was informed point blank by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that she COULD NOT LEAVE, because her very presence gave hope to a generation of black children. (One of these children, by the way, was Whoopi Goldberg, who famously yelled to her mother to come in and see the show, because there was a black lady on it and she wasn't a maid! Whoopi later appeared on TNG in a recurring guest role, in order to pay tribute to her role model.) And of course, the show gave us the character of Spock, an "alien" who displayed some of the best human traits we could ever ask for.
And what hits me so hard every time I think about it is that all of these men and women are STILL using their fame for good. George Takei is currently one of the most vocal celebrities in the country for marriage equality. Nichelle Nichols works with NASA to promote women's roles in space exploration and STEM fields. Leonard Nimoy was just diagnosed with a lung disease and is encouraging his fans to quit smoking so they can "live longer and prosper." In a beautiful twist, Whoopi Goldberg was informed during an interview that her role on TNG changed the life of a man with Aspergers in much the same way Nichelle's role on the original series changed her life.
The list goes on and on, but you get the idea. This is not just a random show people enjoy. This literally changes lives every day, and that is so beautiful that it brings tears to my eyes.
Creator Gene Roddenberry once said that in his vision of the future, "there will be no hunger, there will be no greed, and all the children will know how to read." I honestly can't think of anything more beautiful, can you?