Game of Thrones debuts Sunday, and despite the hype and HBO’s impressive track record with original series, we’re still not sure whether we’re going to watch it. Here’s the issue: We’re pretty much allergic to the fantasy genre, with all its funny names and arcane lore. We’re sure the Lord of the Rings movies are fantastic, but we’re also pretty confident we couldn’t sit through them. The same goes for many of TV’s best loved genre shows, from sci-fi staples like Star Trek to the paranormal X-Files to prolific procedurals such as Law & Order. Then again, Game of Thrones could be an exception — a series whose focus on story and character helps it transcend the conventions and limitations of the genre, like the ten great shows we’ve listed after the jump.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Back when vampires were relegated to classic literature and role-playing games, before many Twilight fans were even born, Buffy Summers was kicking undead ass. Although the show was steeped in the supernatural, with plenty of scenes featuring our heroine and her friends fighting evil creatures and deciphering ancient occult texts. In addition to vampires, we meet werewolves, witches, goddesses, and various folks who fall into the category of “Big Bad.” But at the heart of Buffy, and what made so many viewers fall in love with the show, are the relationships between its smart, funny high school- and college-age characters and the imaginative way it tackled teenage and early-adult issues, from losing your virginity to dealing with a close family member’s death. In fact, although Buffy was his first (and still best-loved) show, just about every one of creator Joss Whedon’s series, from Angel to Firefly to Dollhouse, could hold its own on this list.
We’re not going to lie — the name Battlestar Galactica worried us. Was this going to be another Star Trek? But eventually we heard so much praise for the show that we had to check it out. And guess what? It really isn’t just for people who plan all their vacations around events with “Con” in the title. The sci-fi show, a reboot of the late-’70s TV series of the same name, takes place 150 millennia ago, after the cybernetic Cylons have wiped out all but 50,000 humans. Of those survivors, Battlestar Galactica is the only remaining military vessel. Are your eyes starting to glaze over yet? Don’t worry — what makes Battlestar fascinating is its strong characters (we’re big fans of Katee Sackhoff’s ever-evolving Starbuck), and its fascinating political and theological bent.
The Walking Dead
The Walking Dead isn’t just a zombie show; it’s also a comic-book adaptation. And yet, despite its impeccable geek pedigree, the AMC series has mass appeal. The story of police deputy Rick Grimes, who reawakens from a shooting-related coma only to realize that the world he knows has been destroyed, in the space of a few months, by a disease that rapidly turns its victims into flesh-eating monsters. Although there’s a good amount of blood and entrail-chewing, what elevates The Walking Dead from typical B-movie fare is its emotional realism and the focus on Rick, his family, and the small, diverse group of survivors struggling to stay alive post-zombie apocalypse.
While it could potentially fall into any number of well-worn dramas, from murder mystery to horror serial to police procedural, Twin Peaks is first and foremost a David Lynch creation. It may rely on the “Who killed Laura Palmer?” drama to create suspense, but what makes the series really unique are its baffling characters, stunning setting and cinematography, and Lynch’s delicate balance of the amusingly campy and the truly eerie.
There is a new, American version of this series, but please — start with the British original. A vampire, a ghost, and a werewolf are 20-something (or look like they’re 20-something) roommates trying to live normal lives among regular humans. While the premise is hilarious, the show itself is actually fairly serious: while the vampire’s attempts to quit sucking blood resemble a drug addict’s struggle to get clean, the werewolf must try to minimize the damage caused by his animal rampages, and the ghost must simply come to terms with her new, lonely (after)life. Set in Bristol, the series will appeal to just about anyone who likes smart, character-driven drama.
Let us not speak of what Heroes became. Instead, let us remember what is once was: a really fun show about ordinary people-turned-superheroes, styled with comic-book flourishes. The large ensemble cast, individual stories, and frequent plot twists made Heroes addictive, while the characters’ real-world backstories kept it from veering too far into the realm of the superhero. Yes, its quality declined after the first season, cutting its viewership in half by the time it was put out of its misery, at the end of Season 4. But those first 23 episodes are definitely worth watching, and actually work as a standalone to the remainder of the series.
If you haven’t watched this Cold War-era British spy show, you’re in for a retro treat. Like James Bond with sci-fi bent, it’s all ’60s fashion, stylish quips, and badass lady agents. Two words: Emma Peel.
The world let out a collective “WTF?” when we heard that the next project by Six Feet Under creator Alan Ball would be an adaptation of Charlaine Harris’s supernatural romance series The Southern Vampire Mysteries. But we never should have doubted Ball: True Blood is campy, pulpy fun from beginning to end, its cast helmed by Anna Paquin and full of wonderfully colorful characters, from tough, flamboyant Lafayette to vampire pinup Eric.
Yes, it’s about the FBI. But no, it’s not one of those endless, Law and Order– or CSI-style procedurals that are on about a hundred times a week and whose archives it would take you forever to exhaust. And its supernatural bent might scare off those who could never understand X-Files mania. Fringe is rescued from parallel-universe, techno-jargon obscurity by the same person who made 2009’s Star Trek reboot compelling for those of us who can’t quote a single Spockism: J.J. Abrams. It’s Fringe‘s plot that keeps us hooked, not the pseudo-scientific geekery.
Life on Mars
When a TV series is named after a David Bowie song, you can bet we’ll at least give it a shot. The British series (which spawned a short-lived American remake) combines elements of sci-fi and police procedural, following Manchester cop Sam Tyler, who gets hit by a car in 2008 and wakes up as an officer back in 1973. As in Abrams’s Lost, we don’t know whether Tyler really went back in time or if he’s dead, crazy, or in a coma and dreaming. It’s a great show all around, but fans of ’70s British fashion and music (and who isn’t?) will be especially appreciative of its wardrobe and soundtrack.