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We watch a lot of TV in my household. Since narrative television, especially in the “genre” camps, has been going through a renaissance of high quality, popular content, this is a good problem to have. I seem to spend almost as much time getting into new shows as I do continuing on with ones I’ve been watching for years. I try a lot of stuff or I will revisit stuff with good word of mouth after it’s been on a while if I somehow missed it from start date.

The reason I write this article is because, every now and then, there are shows that come out that deserve a bit of championing. Some of them don’t really need it, even when they do deserve it, while others might because they are risky or underwatched shows that need every viewer and all the internet buzz they can muster. I didn’t write about Last Resort and I should have. That was a great show that was canceled (though it got to have a conclusion of sorts which is better than most get). I did write about Caprica but that was only after it got canceled. Not writing about Last Resort was a concession to that show’s cancellation. I couldn’t quite dredge up a semi-bitter PSA like I did with Caprica.

But rejoice. This article is about good shows that have a strong chance of being successful (if they aren’t considered successful) already. These aren’t black sheep TV shows, either, but stuff you may have heard about. In this write-up, I’ll talk about four recent shows that are at various stages of airing (one is wrapping up it’s first season next week, another is only just through it’s second episode) and why I think you should be watching them.

Vikings (History Channel)

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Confidently coming out of nowhere, Vikings is History Channel’s foray into the gritty medieval landscape populated by Game of Thrones and the various attempts of Starz to rebottle the lightning that is Spartacus (which, incidentally, ended its run gracefully this month). Because it launched a few weeks before Thrones, it felt like Vikings was meant to be a salve on the anticipation of that (amazing) show’s third season. Though it does feature the blood and back-stabbing of it’s extremely distant cousin, Vikings submits itself as a relatively historically-accurate tale of the semi-mythic Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel) who is an intellectual, curious war-leader who bucks tradition and carves himself a place of power by maneuvering an autocratic Earl (Gabriel Byrne) and revolutionizing the raiding traditions of his clan.

Vikings just cleared the 8th of its 9 episode first season so I’ve had more time to get into it and assess its quality. It’s also the one show on this list that probably doesn’t have as much exposure, though I have been surprised by bringing it up or being asked if I watch it. The reason people like it has almost everything to do with Fimmel. The other members of the cast are great, especially Gustaf Skarsgard as Floki and Kathryn Winnick as Ragnar’s wife and battle companion Lagertha. Fimmel is a chemistry machine with every other actor, especially Winnick, and the show maintains a puckish and somewhat risque sense of humor about sex and gender roles, domestic responsibilities, etc.

The bulk, though, is a pseudo-political drama about Ragnar’s rise to power and status among the vikings. There’s court intrigue, albeit at a small scale, rivalries with other men and leaders (even a Robert Baratheon-like English king), and plenty of smartly orchestrated and shot battles. On the whole, Vikings is much smaller in scale than some of the other big shows of the last few years, but that shouldn’t bother you when it’s as appropriate and well-used as it is here. The other thing to enjoy about it is the way it is both affectionate and critical of Christianity (from the perspective of fatalist pagans) as well as including cultural clashing, curiosity, and authentic references to Scandinavian beliefs, customs, myths, and history.

It’s probably the best show or movie that is about or includes vikings. Ever.

Orphan Black (BBC America)

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Set in Toronto and featuring a lightly science fiction backstory, Orphan Black‘s big draw isn’t the clone intrigue but its effortlessly complex tone and characterization. Like a more mature, less ambitious (not in a bad way) Dollhouse, this is a show that wants to be about the mutability and malleability of identity while also featuring plenty of drama, mystery, and did I mention the characterization?

The heart and soul of Orphan Black is Tatiana Maslany. I don’t know where they found her (yes I do, fucking Regina) but she is immensely talented. Her performance, in which she must play several distinct versions of the same woman (sometimes opposite herself or selves) convincingly, can’t be overestimated. The kicker is that the core version, our main protagonist and heroine, is Sarah who is a rough-and-tumble British-born punker chick. Without an iota of hesitation, Tatiana Maslany can swing from accent to accent, mannerism to mannerism. In the four episodes that have aired, we have seen five or six versions of her and each one makes you sit back and marvel that this is the same actress.

If that wasn’t enough, Sarah is supported by a charming and fairly dynamic cast of supporting characters. While she’s ostensibly trying to figure out who is killing all her fellow clones and trying to prevent it from happening to her, the show is also about Sarah’s journey from self-absorbed asshole to someone a bit more balanced and “good”. You love her in spite of her flaws, and she has many, because she is relentlessly competent and resourceful. The show walks a super fine line in keeping her resourcefulness believable and so much of the enjoyment of watching it is in the surprise and joy you feel as they pull it off every fucking time. It’s also important to mention that this is a show that is content to take its time with the big mythology stuff (such as it is) and slowly tease out the science fiction elements as it deals with the day to day challenges of pretending you are a cop clone of yourself. I usually get bored of episodic, procedural shows but Orphan Black only follows that model at the loosest possible level and is therefore completely engaging in spite of its “slowness” (it does not feel slow, trust me).

Defiance (SyFy)

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I was a bit tipsy as I watched the 85-minute premiere of Defiance. This is an incredibly ambitious show in terms of sheer scale. However, it does the smart thing and wraps that scale around a solid core of familiar, flexible tropes that it is already (only two episodes in) beginning to tickle. As it goes on, I suspect Defiance will actively target its own molding and the archetypal tropes, characters, and situations that inhabit its wonderfully realized world.

There are some easy nitpicks to make about this show. It has very human-looking aliens (in the Star Trek tradition), for one thing. Almost all of its characters feel pretty stock at this point, for another. But that said, you’ll find yourself marveling at the scale and attention to detail. This is a show built on world-building. It won’t be the Game of Thrones of scifi TV but it is definitely coming from the same place when it comes to crafting a detailed, authentic-feeling world. It’s also a huge mainstream show almost tailor-made for serious science fiction TV fans. It calls back to all the “bunch of aliens working together dysfunctionally” shows (Farscape, DS9, Babylon 5) while also soldering a healthy slice of the Western genre on top of it all. Its excuse for changing Earth into a bizzarro frontier? Alien terraforming! This may seem hand-wavey, but it never feels like it. This is a show where you know they have a “show bible” thicker than two stacks of the good book wherein every single seemingly insignificant detail is thought through and explained. Not everybody cares about stuff like this, but SyFy’s audience definitely does.

It is early days for Defiance yet and it could still go the way of Terra Nova or Revolution (up its own ass, in other words) but there are no red flags for this and the second episode did not have the customary sophomore slump. If anything, it was more interesting than the first one. I am optimistic with this show and had a lot of fun with it so far. But it’s probably the biggest question mark in this list, fair warning.

Hemlock Grove (Netflix)

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Unlike the other shows, Hemlock Grove is not being schedule-released on cable. Netflix bought the show, developed by Eli Roth, wholesale and all the episodes are available on their streaming service. Of the four shows in this article, this is the hardest one to broadly recommend. Grove is a weird show, clearly inspired by the boom of teen and adult horror lit shows (True Blood and Vampire Diaries for example), it feels more dangerous and edgy than almost anything else I’ve watched on “TV” lately. This isn’t just a matter of blood, guts, boobs, or adolescent drug abuse. It’s something atmospheric in the show itself. It feels like a Stephen King book but not the usual sort of show that gets made out of them. Roth apparently drew inspiration from Twin Peaks and from what I understand of that show, atmosphere and creepy creep was paramount.

Hemlock Grove has its mysteries, both supernatural and potentially science fictional, and it is taking its time getting into them. Like Orphan Black, it has a coy and clever sense of itself as a genre show. Case in point: everybody knows that the show features werewolves (as Orphan Black features clones) but they didn’t know that there’s a seemingly evil medical company experimenting on people, mind control, physically deformed empaths, and Famke Janssen (actually good for a change).

The kids in this show, of which there are many, feel like kids. The pro adult cast (Janssen, Lili Taylor, Dougray Scott and even Battlestar Galactica‘s own Chief Galen Tyrol aka Aaron Douglas) elevates things beyond the usual droning teen angst. There’s also that there’s pretty much no droning teen angst. Instead, it simply feels like some of the characters happen to be teenagers. I don’t think Hemlock Grove is meant to be about the “teen condition” or any kind of coming of age story. It’s a mystery show, but with interesting and clever treatment of the tropes it is using.

I mean, even though I liked the pilot, what has totally sold me on this show is the vulnerable, somehow sweet budding friendship between Roman (Bill Skarsgard and get this, he’s another son of Stellan Skarsgard and brother of Alexander and Gustaf, of Vikings, who are both actors) and Peter (Canada’s Landon Liboiron, who was also in Terra Nova). These kids just recognize something in each other and even though there’s caution and curiosity, there is also an overwhelming sense of fatefulness shadowing them. Seeing how this plays out, whether it’ll be a Kal-El and Lex Luthor deal, is going to be one of the main draws of the show for me.

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So anyways, let me know if you check these shows out and want to chat about them. I want to know what you think about them, what you like or dislike, and so on. It’s cool that everybody loves and talks about Game of Thrones but let’s share the love!

By the way, I also sometimes watch bad shows and don’t continue. Da Vinci’s Demons? Bad. Sorry Starz. Keep trying!

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