Monday, March 04, 2013

Ask JKM a Question: Most Overrated Cult-TV Series?

A reader, Jason, writes:

Here's an Ask JKM that might stir the pot a little: what genre TV show and / or series do you think is the most overrated?

Granted, this is a matter of opinion.  It's my experience every show or movie is someone's favorite.  I certainly know that some of my favorites will never grace a serious critic's Top Ten.  Nonetheless, there are some projects whose importance is blown way out of proportion.

Personally, my vote for most overrated genre TV series is "The X-Files."  I know it's a favorite of yours, but I just couldn't get into it.  For me, it will forever be a monster-of-the-week show wrapped in an overly dense mythology.  Plus, it spawned a series of imitations that cluttered the airwaves for years. 

I'm very curious to hear what you have to say on the matter.”

All right, Jason, you are trying to stir the pot.  You’re going to get me in trouble!  But that’s okay.  It’s actually a great question, and I’m glad you posed it.

You’re right, of course, that I have a high opinion of The X-Files.  It’s one of my favorite series of all time for many reasons, and I encourage you to stick around for my 20th anniversary blogging celebration, and re-consider your own assessment of it.  I’ll be tackling “Gender Bender,” at long last this week. 

For me, the series offers qualities that earn it the stellar critical reputation, namely the two-lens view-point of every episode (belief vs. skepticism).  Secondly, I appreciate the program's reassertion of the Gothic Paradigm (as a Romantic response to Enlightenment/rationality) but for the Clinton Age rather than the Victorian one.

But okay, your question wasn’t really about The X-Files.


The question of “overrated” is an intriguing one because there’s actually some nuance to it. 

First: a work of art can be overrated without necessarily being bad. 

So being “overrated” sounds like a colossal insult or put-down, when in fact what is being expressed is the notion that the critical response is out-of-proportion to the actual value of the art in question.

For me, the most overrated cult-television series in history has to be the remade Battlestar Galactica of last decade, from producer Ron Moore. 

Again, I’m not saying that the series itself is terrible, or without value and merit. 

I’m saying that the critics rated it too highly, given the actual value of the thing.  I mean, this program, while still on the air, was termed the greatest science fiction series in history by many respectable critical outlets.

Battlestar Galactica was, before the historical tally could be considered, thus termed superior to The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Star Trek, and Doctor Who.   

As I've written here before, I find the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica to be a very entertaining program, one that I happily put on a par with something like 24 (2001 - 2010).  In other words, Battlestar Galactica is extremely addictive and engaging, but in the final analysis not much more than a great thrill ride.  I enjoy watching the series, but I can't, frankly, understand why it has been raised to such a rarefied, over-hyped pedestal among genre fans and critics.

In the first place, the series boasts an utter lack of imagination about the universe at large.  In the world of this Galactica, it's just us (humans) vs. them (Cylons), with nothing in between.  No alien beings, and no truly alien environments.  Personally, I find that worldview extremely depressing.   If we reach the stars and find out there are only liberals, conservatives, and religious zealots, then the human adventure isn't just beginning...it's over.

Alas, the visualizations of Battlestar Galactica's world share the program's thematic dearth of imagination.  Human beings half-a-galaxy away drive Hummers, wear business suits and tank-tops and quote lines from old Earth movies ("I feel the need...the need for speed.") 

The aesthetic strategy of the re-imagined series seems to be "world-building is notoriously difficult, so we're not even going to try."  Is this approach really worthy of praise, even if it is true?

I can fully understand and appreciate the budgetary and creative reasons driving this production philosophy, but that still doesn't make the strategy any more noble or efficacious. Whatever their relative flaws, series such as Star Trek, the original Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers, Space:1999, Babylon 5, and Farscape at least attempted to imagine what other worlds and alien cultures might look like.  They didn't always succeed, but the effort was made to transport audiences to new, imaginative realms.  Not so here.

The much-ballyhooed social commentary of the Ron Moore-developed Battlestar Galactica is also a bit too on the nose.  With talk of "no fly lists," and politicians telling other politicians to "go frak themselves," the series makes no attempt to cloak its War on Terror political sensibilities behind imaginative or timeless metaphors.  What you see on the surface is all there is.  No analysis, interpretation, or deciphering is really necessary.  Everything is spelled out.  

Then spelled out again.  

But here's the biggest problem: This is a series that ended a four year long, very intricate sweeping mystery with the simple cliché “God works in mysterious ways,” essentially, and the fact of a technologically-advanced, star-faring people accepting a life-style without indoor plumbing.    Next to Lost, this may be the biggest "fuck you" to dedicated fans in sci-fi history.

There are many, many fine episodes of the series, of course. 

I’m an absolute sucker for “Scar,” for example, which is a kind of outer-space allegory for World War I aerial combat, or the Red Baron milieu.  I think that episode, and many others, work like gangbusters.

But every week a title card comes up on-screen as Battlestar Galactica opens.  It re-affirms that the Cylons have a plan. 

By the end of the series, it’s clear that the Cylons may have had a plan, but the writers did not.  

And since Battlestar Galactica is a serialized program, unlike a standalone program for example like Star Trek, any critical evaluation of the series must factor in how successfully all the elements are brought together at the series’ conclusion. 

I would submit that Battlestar Galactica failed this test in terms of believability, and in terms of fidelity and consistency to the clues presented along the run of the series.

Thus, Battlestar Galactica is my choice for most overrated genre TV series.

15 comments:

  1. Anonymous7:00 PM

    John, brilliant thoughts regarding both the new Moore BSG and Lost. I agree absolutely. Moore's BSG never encountering alien races like the original series was a disappointment. Moore's BSG last episode "Daybreak" was a lost opportunity to have the Colonials build the ancient city of Atlantis. They could have cut to present day archeologists in north Africa digging up the fleet[if it had landed on the Earth] buried under sand dunes. What a wonderful 'Chariots Of The Gods' ending that would have been with CNN breaking news... 100,000 year old spaceships uncovered!

    SGB

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    1. Hi SGB:

      I felt tremendously letdown by the conclusion of BSG. You can't say there's a plan, and then end the show without a plan. And it exceeds believability that highly-advanced people would settle for a life with no indoor plumbing. I just don't believe it.

      I prefer your Chariots of the Gods ending. That would have been better, I think...

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  2. I had to rush over to a proper keyboard and get away from the infuriating typing options of my ipad.

    Okay Jason, it's like you're pointing a stick into the porcupine with that question and your distaste of The X-Files.

    I'm kidding because I thought it was great, because clearly you are not alone among many in sci-fi fandom and I applaud you for coming right out and saying so. BTW, loved your Battlestar ending. As much as I enjoyed the third portion of Daybreak, it does seem a little lazy when you consider a TV denouement like yours would have been exceptional.

    Great question and a great answer.

    So John, based on just a hint, could Lost qualify as your second choice? :)

    I would definitely say The X-Files ranks with me and I have dear friends who feel the same as Jason, but I love The X-Files for many reasons some cited here by John including its atmosphere and mood. The X-Files had such a grand plan mixing alien science fiction concepts with political conspiracy. It was just wall to wall intrigue combined with two of the smartest and gifted leads to come along in awhile (for me).

    But Battlestar Galactica is a great choice John. I've always had a sense you were not the greatest fan of BG and I can certainly see the logic of your answer. Fair enough completely. It's much starker space politics without the fantastical exploration of all of those series you mentioned. Given that prism I can't see how Battlestar would move beyond the thrill ride in space for you. Personally, I understand what you mean. It's dark and not especially exciting on the fronts you mentioned.

    It had some terrific character/ space drama episodes. You Can't Go Home Again and Unfinished Business were pretty terrific installments and there are others. Nevertheless there were just as many entries that seem wildly unfocused and unwieldly in their political machinations particularly as the series moved forward.

    As you said, I still liked it too, but I do understand very much your problems with it and just how lauded it was when it was on television. Everyone and their brother raved about it like they hadn't seen another science fiction series before like it.

    I share a similar opinion of BG and I think your argument is fair based entirely on jason's question.

    If I had to pick a Most Overrated, I might go the same way, because I found the final two seasons fairly disappointing. I certainly understand the appreciation fans had for it for its political and spiritual underpinnings that seemed so densely woven into the fabric of the series as it moved along.

    I fall somewhere in the middle on it but it was definitely overrated.

    Just to throw my hat into the conversation, while I loved certain episodes of Babylon 5 and would recommend the series, I know some feel its one of the best five series of all time. I'm not sure I could go quite that far. It was an incredibly intelligent show with a dense mythology and no shortage of world-building. Straczynski combined storytelling complexity, politics and great characters with an imaginative exploration of the universe. Again, its quite literary approach had some wonderful episodes, but some not so compelling stuff in there too.

    Part of the difficulty with B5 for me is the dense political drama. I see enough of it within our own inept government that I do enjoy the escapism of other series while some of the best employ big, philosophical ideas.

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    1. SFF:

      I think you have been reading my mind again, sir! :)

      Lost and Babylon 5 were actually my second and third choices for most overrated series. Again, not because they "suck" -- they don't -- but because they don't live up to the critical reputation that has grown up around them. I can't believe that in your comment, you handled both of those series, in the very order I would have selected them!

      best,
      John

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  3. Johm,

    I swear between you and SFF, I have responded to more blog posts this year already then I did all of last year! Both of you post some fantastic blogs and the best part is we can post our thoughts and have a rational, intelligent discussion without all the craziness that comes with these types of posts.

    Now, with that being said, I am going to have to agree with Jason that the X-files in my opinion was a completely overrated series. As stated before, I know it's a favorite of yours, but for me, it's just an OK series.

    Granted, I was fascinated by the concept of the show when it first premiered on FOX. I thought the idea of alien cover ups and conspiracies where something very interesting and appealing to me. At the same time, there were several other shows that didn't have the same dynamic as Mulder & Scully, but the same ideas and concepts.

    Both the alien mythology and the conspiracy arc became tiresome to me after the first season and I found myself drifting away from the show. Not until a couple of years ago did I purchase the complete series set to give it another shot because of all the hoopla around the show since it had been off the air. I was able to get through the first 2 seasons pretty quick, some good episodes, nothing with a wow factor for me. It took much longer to get through the next 3 seasons and I find myself stuck at the end of season 5 without any interest in going further. I think the one thing that really bothered me with the series was the relationship between the two main characters. It always bothered me somewhat that Scully was in my opinion, always the second fiddle in the series. Just as smart and capable as Mulder, but always second fiddle. Yes, the X-files were his baby, but that scenario just irked me a bit...maybe growing up with 4 women in my house had something to do with my feelings about that.

    The one aspect that really put me off on the series was the constant will they/won't they scenario with Mulder and Scully. We've seen it a thousand times before the X-files and a thousand times since. It so cliche and for me, takes away alot from the core of the show. I look at a series right now like Elementary with Johnny Lee Miller and Lucy Lui. There characters have a boundary that they won't cross and you can say there are some "moments" where the writers can go down that road, but they don't and I think the series is much better for it. I am hoping it stays that way throughout that series. For me, the relationship took away from what was happening with the cases the two were working on. I am sure I may be in the minority with this point, but that's what has always bothered me with that show.

    As far as BSG goes, I can definitely see your point. I will admit I was a bit skeptical about the reboot once I heard about it, being a fan of the original. I do have to say that I found the series fantastic, very raw on an emotional and spiritual level. I thought the writers did a fantastic job with most of the series, there are some episodes that fall below the standards of the best ones and the ending was a bit weak, but overall, I felt the desperation and sense of hope throughout the series. Scar is definitely a standout as is the two parter Pegasus.

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    1. Troy,

      It's great to read your commentary, even if we don't see eye to eye on The X-Files.

      I do think that you made a good point about BSG, terming it very "raw on an emotional and spiritual level." I can't and don't disagree with that assessment. There were weeks there where I HAD to see what was going to happen, but I was almost always disappointed by the outcome. I feel the show is a great rush, and emotionally and spiritually "raw" just as you say, but that when you step back, the components to make it a truly great show are missing.

      But different people place a value differently in terms of art, and what they are seeking. Your comment suggests well that even though I didn't appreciate some aspects of the series, other aspects did work well, and strike viewers powerfully.

      Best,
      John

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  4. LOST is a funny one. I think it does deserve all the insanity and praise that it gets. No other show in that last 25 years has changed the game as much as that series did. The first season was simply unreal. It was going to be very hard for the show to keep up with the brilliance of season 1. Here is why I think that LOST was brilliant. Yes, it did get confusing and sometimes a bit hokey, but you still stuck with the series because you had to ride with it until the end. I don't think any show has made as many people as frustrated as LOST did, yet a HUGE portion of them still stuck with it!

    I think the question that I pose to you and your readers, what shows do you THINK should be considered cult favorites that should be put on a higher pedestal then they are..if that makes sense.

    As always, thanks for your brilliant blog John. I was typing fast and my mind was racing fast, so I hope what I said makes some sense and is somewhat intelligent! :)

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    1. Troy,

      I feel that LOST has one of the four or five best pilots in TV history, bar none. I feel that many episodes in the first season are indeed extraordinary. But after that, the series, for me, seems to drop the ball, and play a game, much like a soap opera, where the goal is to keep information from us. By the time we got to the end of the series, there seemed to be no meaningful resolution of many mysteries. Like BSG, the lousy ending casts a retroactive stink on the earlier episodes, at least in my opinion.

      I'm loving your comments, however, and I can't deny that LOST started out brilliantly and kept us hook for a long while. That is a testament to its quality, but I feel the show is overrated because it didn't love up to that quality in the long run.

      best,
      John

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  5. Gentlemen.
    Agreed. Wonderful to have these conversations.
    Troy I was thinking of you when I wrote but I was not going to mention it, I'm glad you wrote about it and I think a good argument can be made that The X-Files was overrated. I guess you have to be pretty well-received like Lost, BSG and The X-Files to be considered overrated and receive the potential for a re-evaluation from time to time.

    As you said John, soap operatic definitely applies to BSG and Lost and I certainly love those elements of the series too but they were indeed there in buckets.

    And I liked Pegasus too. Great space drama with some adrenaline pumping action. Wonderful geeks stuff that I love.

    It's certainly great to see your difference of opinion on The X-Files Troy juxtaposed with Carter's Millennium. While I pretty much love all of the Ten Thirteen productions, your argument does indeed point to stark differences between Carter's two best series. You can certainly see similarities between The X-Files and Millennium for obvious reasons (writers, directors, creators, etc) yet they are boldly unique in many ways. It's just interesting you are more in tune with their differences and I can certainly appreciate that. I love how those two series often intersect. You can look at so many episodes and see how close they work on an artisitic level yet they are special entities on their own. Just really interesting. BTW, reading Back To Frank Black and I am absolutely loving the interviews my friend! Wow!

    Once again John we are on similar pages with those series.

    I really loved BSG for the reasons Troy states but still felt a little empty too. Lost, for me was a little better, but tailed off in much the same way BSG did. I loved that first season. I enjoyed Season Two and Three very much. It began to wane a little for me after that.

    Interesting. We had to have been cloned from a mutual zygote friends.

    Finally, if I understand Troy's point correctly (and it sounds like a question for another day or similar to John's recent question and answer about what to bring back NOW etc.) then I would have to place Space Above And Beyond higher on that list based on my extreme affection for all stories Wong and Morgan. It's a love affair. Also, I'd like to see a little more love for Falling Skies this summer. Fingers crossed.

    Cheers gents!

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  6. Gentlemen,

    Although we may have different opinions on some things, not many, it's an absolute pleasure to discuss them on this site and yours SFF with intelligent conversation. People making a point and being able to supply facts or statements to back them up instead of the usual, oh man, it sucked responses.

    I truly enjoy reading your responses. It's a great thrill.

    I thank you both for that!

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  7. SFF,

    yes, you got my intent with that question correct. I agree SAAB should definitely be put on a higher pedestal. I think if more people knew about it..that would be the case.

    I can point to shows like Brimstone, Haunted, Freaky Links and several others that also deserve bigger kudos!

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  8. Moncynnes9:32 AM

    I don't want to pile on the new BSG, but I never warmed to it. I couldn't put my finger on why until Christopher Mills summed it up perfectly in his Space:1970 blog:

    http://space1970.blogspot.com/2010/03/reality-is-overrated.html

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  9. Hi John,

    On the surface I would not disagree with your pick for 'most overrated cult tv series of all time', but admittedly I am hardly an authority on cult shows.

    I tried watching the new BSG a few times, but it always left me cold in addition to prompting me to think: "This is the show some people are raving about? What the?!..."

    My own review was scathing...
    http://barrysmight.blogspot.ca/2008/01/cattlestar-galactica.html


    I've seen three episodes of The X-Files and, again, was left cold. (Everyone who loves a show says, without fail, "It's the best television series of all time... the best written.")

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    1. I hope you noticed that I didn't say that "it's the best...the best written."

      Instead, I gave concrete reasons for my enjoyment and appreciation of The X-Files, which I maintain are valid.

      But yes, people do tend to say that about the show's they like. It is easier to make a blanket statement than to craft a specific argument.

      I read your review. Hysterically blunt. And damned accurate. Thanks for the link!

      best,
      John

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  10. Sorry, John, my reference about 'writing' was not in regards to your posting's finer points. It was an afterthought and add-on to my own reactions to those shows.

    Another good post, sir. I'm glad you liked my rant!

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