Even though Joss Whedon’s “Firefly” lasted only one season compared to “Dollhouse’s” two, this series’ premise brought about a different kind of controversy. Super-skilled people known as Actives or Dolls are “programmed” to be whatever a wealthy client wants them to be for a job: an assassin, a thief, a sex slave, an expert. Once they’re done with the gig, the Dolls’ memories are wiped and they sleep in an underground bunker, treated as mere objects and given codenames like Echo (Eliza Dushku), Victor (Enver Gjokaj) and Sierra (Dichen Lachman).
There’s no denying that the series starts out with a sense of ickiness as these people become mere inanimate tools. But once the series hits its stride, it’s an incredibly moving and sympathetic look at the deep-seated, transformative effects of trauma. Combined with the claustrophobic yet complete world that Whedon dreams up, the ballsy, profound show is one that was before its time and may have fared better on cable or today’s streaming services.
14. “Better Off Ted”
Technically, “Better Off Ted” is much more a comedy than full-on sci-fi. But the show belongs on this list because of the imagination that fueled the inventions being created by Veridian Dynamics, the fake corporation at the heart of the show. From weaponizing pumpkins to cryogenically freezing its employees, Veridian gave the short-lived ABC sitcom an out-there edge, one that added just enough darkness to make the show far more than just another workplace comedy.
If you haven’t seen this Brazilian dystopian series yet, get thee to a Netflix immediately. Set in the not-so-distant future, “3%” imagines a world in which overpopulation and the depletion of natural resources creates a society where only a few can enjoy life’s simple necessities. Every year, the people living in poverty who turn 20 are offered the chance to take a series of tests called The Process, in which only 3 percent will pass and get to live among the privileged and elite on the Offshore.
These extreme circumstances reveal what lengths people will go to for survival, and The Process exposes the darkest and most heroic parts of human nature. Picking a favorite candidate is often an exercise in futility when these characters reveal more of their true nature. Mysterious, suspenseful and at times horrifying, “3%” is an addictive look at humanity and one that reflects back on ourselves.
John P. Johnson/HBO
Dolores. Maeve. Bernard. Dr. Robert Ford. The Man in Black. These names already evoke a sense of excitement; vivid memories of distinct visuals, like a fly crawling over an unblinking eye or stunning twists, like, well, virtually all of Season 1. HBO’s new drama about a theme park populated by robot hosts is just that: new. But Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy showed us plenty we’d never seen before in a gorgeous, invigorating, and thought-provoking journey to the darkest and lightest sides of humanity. The key to making it all tick wasn’t buried in the basement of a church: It was in each character, who — whether they’re man or machine — we already care about deeply. And that’s exactly the point.
Isabella Vosmikova/USA Network
Dark from the beginning, the alien occupation drama created by Ryan Condal and Carlton Cuse got even darker during Season 2. (If suicide bombings make you uncomfortable, it might be best to avoid this one.) But the way in which “Colony” uses the metaphor at the center of its premise to explore what living under occupied rule might do to a family, to a society, has kept this show engaging over both seasons. We’re anxious and excited to see what might come next.
Up next: picks 10-6, including two very different versions of a superhero.