The Best Cult TV Shows Of All Time – Part 1
Defining a cult television series is more about the audience it attracts, a fanbase that grows over time created by a shows mythology rather than by its viewer ratings. These shows have in most cases come from the science fiction or fantasy genre, perhaps because they represent mirror images of our own world created with a different historical context, logic and sensibility that conveys an alternate universe often reflecting many of our own social issues, especially the controversial ones, without them being a threat to expose. So here, for your consideration is my first list of the best cult TV series of all time.
THE TWILIGHT ZONE
The Twilight Zone (1959-65) is not just a cult classic but it remains the most critically acclaimed anthology series of all time. Every episode was a complete story presented to the audience with an opening narration beautifully articulated by Rod Serling who set the stage for what would usually turn out to be an unexpected ironic twist. Each story was unique and presented by Serling who wrote many of them and adapted them to a visual format that covered a complete tale in just 23 minutes without commercial interruption. The many notable actors who starred in different episodes early in their careers are too numerous to mention, although Robert Redford is one and William Shatner is another. The series also left a significant impact on some of the most respected filmmakers of our time such as Steven Spielberg and JJ Abrams. Serling created some of the most memorable characters and stories ever captured on film. After six decades, The Twilight Zone continues to redefine the boundaries of our imagination.
Star Trek (1966-1969), set in the twenty-third century, the series centered on the voyages of the Star Ship Enterprise – 1701 in a future where the prime directive of the Federation Of Planets was non interference in the culture of other worlds, a fundamental anthropological premise. Its opening prelude was “Space: the final frontier, these are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to go boldly where no man has gone before,” with a multi-ethnic crew during a politically turbulent decade when racial prejudice and segregation was endemic. Created by Gene Roddenberry, a prolific and imaginative writer who knew how to veil the volatile issues of the 1960’s within a science fiction format at a time when other genres avoided anything controversial. He used science fiction to veil stories often with political and social overtones that remained below the radar of the “sensors.” The series created some of the most iconic fictional characters of all time: Kirk, Spock, McCoy and Scotty, and although it was not a commercial success and was cancelled after three seasons, it exploded in syndication and inspired six films with the original cast. It was produced by Desilu and it would never have been made without the financial support and approval of Lucille Ball. It remains the only series produced by Desilu to be aired on NBC.
BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER
Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), a singular creation of Joss Whedon who envisioned a world that symbolically told the story of the universal passage into maturity. He imagined an alternate reality filled with demons, half demons and vampires. Then there was the “chosen one” portrayed by Sarah Michelle Geller, born to be the one who as an awakened “valley girl,“ had the power of Shiva ( the destroyer). The series was a growing up saga with an exaggerated view of various arch-type struggles we all experienced growing up. Much of the episodes grappled with Buffy dealing with the burden of uncertainty and its impact on adolescence, something many people identified with.
The First season (13 episodes) introduced her at the time she first learned that she was “the chosen one” at 16, what it meant, the responsibility it entailed, and the sacrifice this burden placed on her to fulfill her destiny. The episodes were extremely well written with witty and often sharp dialogue that always had a crisp edge to it. Then there was Angel, the mysterious dark magnetically handsome stranger who appeared out of the night, played by David Boreanaz. We learn that he is a good vampire with a soul , and as the first season ends and the second season begins, Whedon takes us into the journey of unrequited love. A forbidden relationship doomed to go nowhere. A slayer falling in love with someone from a race she is destined to destroy.
How does one balance the conflict and frustration over the loss of personal fulfillment from a burden difficult to bear on one hand, and having a normal life like everyone else on the other. What about the futile hope of wanting something taboo, especially if it’s contrary to the values of one’s mission in life? Every development in their love story was magnified through the lens of a teenagers struggle to grow up. Infatuation, then love for someone her instincts tell her she should destroy. This was among the daunting challenges Buffy faced during its seven season run.
Once we get past this issue and the trust and love that develops between them, then on her 17th birthday, in the Valentine’s day two part episode, (Surprise/Innocence), during a stormy night with lightning and pouring rain, one touch leads to another, and they mate. The next turn of events was totally unexpected and remains one of the most bizarre twists in television history. As a result of their consummation, the gypsy curse which had restored Angel’s soul so that he would feel guilt, pain and suffering for all his past crimes was broken as Angelus, the evil vampire returns in all his vindictive rage to torment Buffy for the remainder of the second season.
A very common fear is that in relationships, the expectations we start with may not lead to the kind of liaison we hoped for, a common let down, and If sex isn’t as cataclysmic as fantasized, interest changes, possibilities refocus and the disappointment can become a source of deep depression and self depreciation. On the other hand, if it is fulfilling but still doesn’t lead to our expectations, we can feel powerless and not in control of its direction. In the worst case scenario, we attain fulfillment and the person “completely changes” their attitude and interactions to us, in which case the feeling of making one’s self vulnerable, then being betrayed, becomes the prominent feeling. In any given situation that may happen, risk of rejection is always there.
STAR TREK – THE NEXT GENERATION
Star Trek – The Next Generation was less a spinoff and more of a future look at the United Federation of Planets seventy-five years after the original series. This one focused on the Enterprise 1701-D with a new cast and crew headed by Patrick Stewart as Captain Jean Luc Picard who came to the captains chair as an accomplished mediator. This element completely changed the dynamics of the storytelling that made this series different from the original one.
TNG was also the first series created specifically for syndication with first run episodes. Up until 1987, only three television networks were producing first run series offering nationwide exposure – ABC, CBS and NBC. In syndication, TNG had to be sold individually to local TV stations nationally and internationally. It was not only a success with the original fans, but also attracted new viewers that hadn’t seen classic trek. It was well received by the critics and made lots of money for the advertisers. It also proved that a series produced for syndication could be competitive with the three national networks. This opened the door to change the face of television forever. Star Trek-TNG remains to this day the most popular syndicated television series of all time and sparked the creation of cable networks that developed their own first run series.
Let us also not forget the touch tone interface so integral to the TNG technology, perhaps the inspiration for the Ipad. Not only did the series alter the course of programing, it brought Patrick Stewart from the relative obscurity of the British Stage to world wide notoriety, and after TNG’s seven year run Stewart went back to his Shakespearean roots in London and found to his delight that the fame he garnished from TNG brought more people to see his plays.
Stewart regards his years on Star Trek – TNG, now celebrating its twenty sixth anniversary, as his most important career move. He was knighted in 2010 by Queen Elizabeth the second for his contribution to the dramatic arts. There is no doubt that the series gave him opportunities he never would have had if he not done the series. When asked by Leonard Nimoy about a quote attributed to him, Stewart acknowledged that he had said, “If I knew what I was getting into, I would have said no and it would have been a mistake.”
Falling Skies will begin its fourth season on TNT during the summer of 2014. Its an interesting series set in a post apocalyptic world after an alien attack has killed 98% of Earths population. The planets electrical grid has been destroyed by the invading force and the survivors struggle to avoid extermination. The series focuses on a group of militia and civilians, The Second Mass, who spearheads guerilla warfare against the invasion force. Steven Spielberg is the executive producer and it stars Noah Wyle with well written scripts and great acting. The survivors deal with the stress of persevering an alien invasion from outer space. Wyle is well cast as Tom Mason, a history professor at Boston University, specializing in military tactics during The Revolutionary War. One of his three sons, Ben, has been harnessed by the alien overlords and their large insect army. Part of the alien plan involves kidnapping children to harness them with large leach like creature inspired by the 1959 horror film, The Tingler, produced and directed by William Castle and starred Vincent Price. The harnesses are bio-technically created and renders the children as slaves, similar to the Borg Collective.
What makes this show so memorable, aside from the excellent performances and writing is the focus on character development. You care for the survivors and in many ways Wyle magnifies the alien war through the lens of the American Revolution and other conflicts by using historical anecdotes to inspire opposition to the invasion force. The series is also unpredictable. Not only are some of the guest characters killed off, but some of the regular cast members die as well, exploring the precariousness of life, friendship and love during wartime. The seasons are just 10 episodes apiece, and proves that it is possible to create a series with a good premise that can be told in less than the 26 episodes per season.
This completes my first list of cult TV shows. Most would probably agree with the first four, some may not view Falling Skies as qualifying on this list, however its one of my choices primarily because it has all the elements of a cult series as it its fan base grows. Perhaps in ten years it will appear as a more likely choice.