#3 -- Sherlock (BBC)
Starting Year: 2010
When I heard that my two favorite Doctor Who writers--Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss--were co-creating a new BBC series, I was intrigued. When I found out that series was an adaptation of the trending Conan Doyle classic Sherlock Holmes, I already knew how great it'd be. Apparently I was right, because Sherlock has been a resounding hit both in England and America for the past two years.
While Robert Downing Jr. plays a splendid old-school Holmes for certain, the star of Sherlock on the BBC takes the role into the 21st century. What makes Sherlock so great is it is a modern rendition of the old story, set in present-day London rather than in the 19th century. It combines a cool, updated setting for the iconic characters of Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick John Watson, while at the same time paying homage to the original book series at almost every glance. Benedict Cumberbatch plays the role so well it'll leave even Downing Jr. your second pick for the role, and Martin Freeman has rightfully won an award for "Best Supporting Actor" for his portrayal of Watson. The show is worth watching for the relationship between these two greats on screen alone.
BBC's Sherlock is an intriguing update to the iconic character with great acting and even better writing, but it is also a love letter to the original books. Some tributes are more obvious than others (the first episode, for example is called "A Study in Pink" and strongly resembles the famous classic Holmes case "A Study in Crimson"), but it can be a lot of fun to watch an episode and see how much it adopts from the original. Every episode is as long as a film (with only 3 in each season), and full of action, drama and, of course, mystery. And like the classic stories, they each create and resolve a new plot for each new mystery while simulataneously building on the overall relationship of Sherlock and Watson. Ulimately, though, the biggest similarity between the new show and the books is this: they are both fantastic.
As of now, both seasons of the show are available for view on Netflix. Don't leave yourself any mysteries; check out why it has done so well for yourself and look forward, as this writer does, to season 3!
#2 -- Game of Thrones
Starting Year: 2011
All's fair in love and war. And politics. Game of Thrones is a show that is in some ways unrealistic fantasy and then in others hyper-realistic. It tells the story of many "houses" (you can consider them family clans) that are either vying directly for rule of the "Iron Throne" or are heavily involved with the dilemma. It's hard to decide who has the most right to the throne: should it be the strongest king? The fairest king? The rightful heir? How about a queen, for once? Hard to say. Everyone has a favorite, and for different reasons.
Of course, there's more to the plot than just drama and violence. The show also has witty quips of comedy--you'll love Peter Dinklage as the primary source of this--and some rather *ahem* risque sex scenes. But that's all part of medieval politics; this show, like the books, holds nothing back from its audience's eyes. That means that war is realistic in that it. Is. Brutal. Love is realistic in that it is complicated by affairs, lack of social acceptance and one-sidedness. And death is realistic in that nobody, and I mean nobody is spared from it. Part of the suspense of the series is that you really never have any idea which of your favorite characters may just randomly die in the next episode (unless you read the books, of course). You can never prepare for the next scene, and that really adds to the drama of the show.
Echoing some classic british lore (such as Shakespeare), the force of Game of Thrones comes not from the fact that it has top-notch acting and explosive medieval action sequences; instead it comes from the sheer drama of brutal politics. "Politics are boring," you might be thinking. But in Thrones politics tend to be less about heavy debates and more about sex, deception and people losing body parts. It's definitely not one for the kids, but it isn't senseless and gratuitious bloodshed and pornography, either. Game of Thrones conveys its plot without holding back any of the intricacies of politics. It shows us a world we never think to delve into, where the surface level is one thing, but the background is often far more complex and interesting. Whether veteran warriors or dainty princesses with chips of ice on their shoulders, everybody in Thrones has an agenda.
If every political scheme leaves behind a trail of slimy shadows, Game of Thrones grabs your hand, shoves your finger in the trail, and forces you to eat it. And you know something? It tastes better than it looks.
#1 -- The Walking Dead
Started in: 2010
Unless you've been pinned under a dead body for the past 2 years, you know about The Walking Dead. It's probably the most-watched show that AMC has ever aired, and it all started with a comic book by the same name. Winning awards for acting and make-up effects, The Walking Dead gives a new face to the zombie horror genre. The show involves Rick Grimes, a deputy with idealistic morals, finding himself in charge of a diverse group of survivors during a zombie outbreak. He must do his best to keep everyone alive, while at the same time maintaining his own sanity. As it turns out, the world's deceased starting to come to life overnight to eat the living makes that a bit hard to do.
One of the best things I often hear said about The Walking Dead is that it's not cheesy. There is a sort of trademark of zombie horror films and shows to be campy horror--that means kind of absurd or ironic to the viewer while still being terrifying for the characters. Walking Dead ignores this trend, and makes a zombie apocalypse into a serious and rather frighteningly realistic experience. For one thing, The Walking Dead is colorful. Zombie filmography usually involves darkness and heavily contrasted environments, but this show is full of bright sunlight, birds chirping and warm countryside atmosphere. This offers a sense of realism and a sense of deceptive comfort that often catches the viewer off-guard when zombies come out of nowhere to attack in broad daylight.
The other really notable thing about The Walking Dead, and I've said this to people time and time again when explaining the show to them, is that it's really not about the zombies. It's about human nature, and what people go through to cope with the apocalypse. What people often don't think about when considering the possibility of a zombie outbreak is how it will change them; how it will make them do things they never thought they'd be capable of. The Walking Dead does this for you. People will rise (or fall) into positions that you would never expect them to, all to survive the horrors around every corner.
Just don't expect the story to be full of happiness and triumph. What characterizes the show from the onset unto the third season now is that things don't usually end well for Rick and the gang. Things tend to go wrong, and after they go wrong, they go worse. Rick finds himself more often than not scraping for what's left of the groups morale in order to keep them alive for the next course of action. This theme, while a bit morbid, is the most interesting thing about the series. People are hurt, people are lost. People come and they go from the group, and many, many die. But the group still lives on, despite all the hardship. Rick and key members of the group persist through time after troubling time, and they have been through horrors most of us can't imagine from the edge of our couch seats. The Walking Dead does more than offer a top-notch drama with great acting and even better writing; it gives us a window into a world where surviving is nearly impossible, but the characters do what ever it takes.
In a time where the zombie outbreak genre is changing rapidly, Walking Dead strives to keep the old formula and just evolve it into a new movement for the horror niche. It does away with the new, "fast" zombies and keeps the old lumbering, dumb zombies who can't run or open doors. The show is known for it's award-winning stage-make up; nearly all of the zombies are real stand-ins and there is almost no CGI in the entirety of the show. That combined with excellent filmography techniques most of us probably take for granted, and these slow, dumb zombies appear far scarier than you might expect. They can seem harmless at some points, and relentlessly dangerous in others, but there is no question that excellent effects both with the cosmetics and filming techniques are what create this atmosphere of suspense. Not special effects and computer-generated graphic magic.
The Walking Dead is living (well, sort of) proof that the genre still has two limping legs to stand on. It manages to capture the horrors of a zombie outbreak in ways that have never been done before--approaching the point of masterful drama--and it does all this with the almost whimsically unrealistic notion of the dead rising to eat the living. Whether it's an excellent break-out cast, exceptional writing and directing, a surprisingly realistic take on what happens during an apocalyptic event or a combination of all of those things, something about The Walking Dead just... works. The action seems to pick up as the series grows, and with it new and surprising dangers that often stem from the survivors themselves rather than their dead predators. And when we see how things can go wrong again and again, we might ask ourselves: can Rick's group really survive? Will there be anyone left in the end? If nobody makes it, will it be the undead horde or humanity collasping on itself that ultimately kills them all? These are all questions the show addresses, and makes it a great show for horror fans and drama entusiasts alike.
My top pick for the year 2013, The Walking Dead will keep you watching from the pilot episode to the current season arc. I recommend at the very least giving it a shot, because missing out on this show would not only be denying yourself a fantasic update to the zombie apocalypse genre, but an engrossing commentary on human nature in times of great trial. In a time where the zombie niche in Hollywood is slowing to a monotonous crawl, this show will make it new and exciting, and prove that the dead can still rise.
And take a shambling stroll forward.