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Nick's 2014 TV discoveries

TMW's genre TV guru Nick Sauer talks us through his discoveries of last year.

Words by Nick Sauer

This is my second article on new and not so new stand out television series that I have discovered over the course of my viewing for the previous year. As I stated in my first installment last year, this idea was inspired by Rupert Pupkin's blog titled, simply enough, Rupert Pupkin Speaks. If you are interested in older obscure films you owe it to yourself to check out his site.

This is a series that jumped onto my radar based upon the unanimous stream of praise it received from every genre TV reviewer I know. At the beginning of last year it was pointed out to me that season one was conveniently available on Netflix streaming service in the US. Catching up to the actual broadcasts in the second season proved to be an easy task as all of the reviewers were spot on. Arrow is the story of the DC comics character Green Arrow. 
The opening pilot, which is one of the strongest I have seen, sets the stage for the series with Oliver Queen being rescued from a deserted island after being presumed dead for the past five years. The story then alternates between Oliver's return to society, radically changed from before his disappearance, and flashbacks to what happened to him on the island, which we learn is not as deserted as Oliver leads people to believe. The flashback format has continued throughout the series with each season taking us one more year forward in the lost five years of Oliver's life. 
Two other features of the series that really stand out for me are the near total lack of standard comic book super powers and the set-up that Oliver has an entire team of people to back him up in his excursions as the vigilante Arrow. Another thing that I really like about the show is how they re-invent goofy old villains like the Clock King into realistic and genuinely frightening criminals. While this is not DC's first foray into television, it is easily their best, and I would have to say that this series is, for me, the best super hero genre show to date.

The Flash
Keeping with the CW network's DC comics series, The Flash is a spin-off series of Arrow. Unlike Arrow, this is a full on super powered superhero series. Calling it a discovery is a bit of a misnomer given that I "discovered" it along with about seven million other people who were eagerly anticipating the premiere based upon the hints we had seen in Arrow
An experimental reactor created by Dr. Harrison Wells at Star Labs almost immediately fails on start up, sending out waves of energy that seem to have ripped apart the very fabric of space time itself. This incident puts our hero Barry Allen in a nine month long coma, while at the same time endowing some people exposed to the blast with super human abilities. This ultimately includes Barry himself upon his return to consciousness.
This is definitely more of a four color comic book type of series than Arrow. Having said that, the series does try to ground itself a bit in reality. Like Oliver in Arrow, Barry has the Star Labs reactor team backing him up as well as his adoptive father, who is a detective in the Central City police department. One other feature I really loved was the casting of John Wesley Shipp as Barry Allen's father. Mr. Shipp played The Flash himself in the one season 1990 series on CBS.

Penny Dreadful
Showtime didn't do itself any favors with their in-channel advertising for this series. The spots during Masters of Sex made it look like yet another horror series trying to capitalize, no doubt, on the success of FX's American Horror Story. Then I went to the movie theater with my wife Diane and saw an advertisement for it there (yes, they do this in America) that completely changed my plans to skip the show. It turns out that Penny Dreadful, while definitely a horror series, is also a spin on Alan Moore's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The hero aspects are even more subdued than they were in the comic and the characters' enormous talents come with some equally large down sides. 
The thrust of the series is the African explorer Sir Malcolm Murray's search for his lost daughter Mina. This quest serves as the catalyst that brings together the uniquely talented individuals that Murray needs. Given the highly idiosyncratic nature of the characters, the subtext to the main story focuses on how these unique individuals are able to function in society at all. The pacing at times is much more relaxed than some people may enjoy, but it very much worked for me.

Real Humans
This one sort of came out of nowhere. IO9, which is a cool website if you're into genre stuff in general, had this article listing the ten shows that had us in their first five minutes. Arrow, along with a bunch of stuff I had already seen like Orphan Black was in the article's excellent list. Then there was the one entry I had never heard of in the form of a Swedish show called Real Humans. One trip to the internet later and I'm checking out this pretty amazing show, complete with English subtitles, no less.
It takes place in  either the not too distant future or an alternate dimension where Hubots, human looking robots, have become regular household appliances. What unfolds is a true science fiction story in that the impact of this technology on just about every aspect of our society is examined. There is definitely an R.U.R. vibe to the proceedings and the overall story is extremely well thought out with a healthy number of surprises along the way. Any fan of SF television in particular really needs to check this series out. A more thorough review of the series is available at my blog. In addition, AMC will be producing an American version of the series this year.

True Detective
The only non-genre show on this years discovery list but, easily my favorite. This was another show that could have featured better in-channel advertising as HBO really didn't give any hints as to what True Detective was all about. Diane and I are both fans of Woody Harrelson's work so we decided to check it out on a lark and boy am I glad we did.
While the first episode is good, the second is the one that really locks you into the series. Imagine a modern detective noir series inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert W. Chambers, but with all of the supernatural horror elements replaced by very real world ones. The show maintains the overall creepy feel one would expect and even makes heavy use of flashback like Lovecraft's original Call of Cthulhu
For anyone who wants more information on the series my review is conveniently available right here at The Movie Waffler. HBO has announced a second season in the same anthology format as American Horror Story where each season is a separate story, but I feel the writers will have an extremely difficult act to follow after this awesome first season. 

Ultra Q
This 1965 Japanese TV series which is relatively unknown in America was done by the visual effects genius Eiji Tsubaraya, who is probably best known for his work on Toho's original Godzilla franchise. Also, this series would one year later lead to the now classic 1966 first Ultraman series. Unlike Ultraman, Ultra Q was shot in black and white and was, I had always been lead to believe, an anthology series. So, it was a total surprise to me that Shout! Factory decided to release it on DVD with English subtitles.
As it turns out, it's not actually an anthology series after all, although it definitely seems inspired by The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone. A number of the episodes actually feature a control voice style opening and closing narration. 
The series features a young up-and-coming female reporter and her two friends who run a private plane transportation service. It also features a number of recycled kaiju costumes from Toho's then rather impressive collection of movie monsters. The series comes across as Kolchak: The Night Stalker with the humor a bit more on the slapstick side. I'm ultimately really glad to have this on DVD as I'm sure it is something I will be returning to for multiple viewings.

The X-Files
In what can easily be labelled as the ultimate in late to the party moves, I finally started this series from the beginning. Most people are shocked when they learn that I didn't watch this series back when it initially aired. My sister and friends did try to get me into it at the time, and as a result I had seen a dozen or two episodes, but my biggest problem was that it was a network show. Although I didn't actually think of Fox as a true network like the big three at the time, I was still in the middle of my most recent falling out with broadcast television over the cancellation of Max Headroom in 1987. Fox briefly joined the club after their cancellation of 1989's Alien Nation series, which I had become quite fond of. Ultimately, Alien Nation would be the first show that Fox would acknowledge their mistake over by releasing a number of Alien Nation made for TV movies five years later, but the damage had already been done, so I decided to give The X-Files a pass at the time. Watching it now, I made a horrible mistake. What allowed me to correct this is that our local warehouse club, BJ's, started selling the complete season for $10 each so I picked up the first on a lark and based on my viewing now have all nine. I'm enjoying the ride, with my only complaint being the older television 4:3 aspect ratio I have to put up with.

Z Nation
Z Nation totally blindsided me. Diane recorded the pilot episode, which I watched with her for pretty much one reason. When a movie production company or producer decides to take on the television medium, I'm always curious to check out the results. Earlier in the year I went through Roger Corman's Black Scorpion series that he made for the SciFi Channel at the time, for largely the same reason. Z Nation was produced by The Asylum, which is the group responsible for the somewhat infamous SyFy original movies. It is clearly an attempt to ride on the coat tails of The Walking Dead's success. Having said that, it's actually a surprisingly entertaining one. It definitely takes its own direction and benefits greatly from not taking itself too seriously, while at the same time not being afraid to really dig deeply into some areas that The Walking Dead would handle a little more superficially. It also probably didn't hurt that the cast includes the actor DJ Qualls, who I have always greatly enjoyed for his character Garth on Supernatural. Although I never binge watch or mainline any series myself, this one seems like a good candidate for just such an activity. SyFy has already announced a second season for this year.

For more from Nick, visit his blog - Fantastic Television