End of Season Report: The Expanse, Season 2

23 May

“I’m into hard sci-fi. Fantasy is bullshit,” Roman DeBeers declaims in Party Down. My feelings certainly don’t run nearly that strong and I’m as big a fan of Game of Thrones as anyone, but there is a thirst for hard sci-fi that really can’t be quenched by anything else.

There’s plenty of sci-fi on TV these days – Westworld, Black Mirror, and Stranger Things for example, which is great for us and great for the genre. But what I (and hopefully Roman) means by hard sci-fi is more than just sci-fi. It’s sci-fi with planets, with space stations, with arcane political configurations, conflicts, and alliances. It’s filled with absolutely nonsensical explanations for technology that still has to be explained and rapid fire series of shouted commands from ship captain to crew that mean nothing in modern English.

And it’s this niche that The Expanse, while never quite expanding too far beyond, satisfies. As a non-science fiction junkie, merely satisfying that niche is not at all a low bar; I won’t watch a sci-fi show simply because I love the genre and I haven’t regularly watched a show on Syfy since Battlestar Galactica. (I haven’t tried the Magicians yet, but that’s not even science fiction anyway and I watched one season of Helix, but I don’t like to talk about that).

As the most successful in the genre this century, BSG is the precedent that every modern hard sci-fi show looks towards. And while I could write a few thousand words on BSG, which I’ve seen all of and have a complicated relationship with, merely chronicling the similarities and differences between The Expanse and BSG should suffice for this moment.

BSG desperately wanted to be important; more than a genre show in both a popularity sense and in a sense of being imbued with more and deeper literary layers of meaning. The Expanse wants that in some degree; it’s almost impossible to make a hard sci-fi show without feeling like it wants to say something about politics and humanity and the future. But The Expanse doesn’t nearly have the pretensions that BSG had. There’s nothing inherently wrong with BSG’s huge ambitions; if you meet them, it’s admirable and incredibly impressive. But BSG’s quest for importance didn’t really hold together on its own, while admittedly, asking some legitimately interesting questions about humanity on the way. More importantly, though, the process of trying to satisfy those ambitious likely exacerbated BSG’s difficulties with some of the more rudimentary pieces of building a successful TV shows, like having developed characters and episode-to-episode consistency.

The Expanse’s plot has, so far, at least, less unnecessary stops and starts as BSG. While the very best BSG may have topped anything in The Expanse, The Expanse has never had an episode anywhere near the worst BSG episodes. The plot moves, and there’s a good sense of forward momentum which would make The Expanse an excellent show for binging. In general, the less pressure to be important, makes The Expanse a relatively less heavy and easier to enjoy show. While The Expanse is hardly light fare, it wouldn’t have to go far to not suffer under the weight of BSG, and merely meeting that burden makes it a more watchable show.

The Expanse does share some of BSG’s flaws. Particularly, choosing plot over character, which is sadly typical of the sci-fi genre. The characters tend to be mere passengers for a wide-ranging plot. Even after two seasons, we know almost nothing about most of the characters with the exception of Shoreh Aghdashloo’s Chrisjen Avasarala, an important diplomat for earth. There’s an utter lack of comic relief as well; like salt, even just a few more grains of humor would go a long way towards making The Expanse even more enjoyable.

Overall though, if you like sci-fi but don’t love it, like me, but want that piece of your diet filled, The Expanse is the place to go like nowhere else right now. It’s not a mystery show, or a dystopian show, or a post apocalyptic show, or a conspiracy show – it’s about complicated interspace politics, and it’s a fun view.

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