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‘The Expanse’ Steals Gracefully From All Your Favorite Shows

Like ‘Game of Thrones’? How about ‘Battlestar Galactica’? Maybe you’re more of a ‘True Detective’ fan. Good news: SyFy’s ‘The Expanse’ cribs perfectly from each of those shows, and more.

(SyFy/Ringer illustration)
(SyFy/Ringer illustration)

This sentiment has been articulated over and over in the age of reboots, sequels, and franchises, but it bears repeating: You don’t really want a new Star Wars movie, or a Firefly reunion, or a Game of Thrones spinoff — you want something new that made you feel the way your original favorite did.

SyFy’s The Expanse will make you feel the way your original favorite did. You notice how I didn’t specify which original favorite? That’s because it doesn’t matter what your original favorite is; The Expanse will take you back to the way you felt at the Battle of the Blackwater, or when they revealed the final five Cylons, or when Mal threatened to throw Jayne out the airlock. Explaining why requires some mild spoilers, so you should just take my word that it’s really good and go watch all 22 episodes before the Season 2 finale on Wednesday. Until then, here’s how it’s exactly like all of your favorite shows.

‘Game of Thrones’

The Expanse is set in the 2200s, and while it’s not necessarily about an internecine factional political conflict, that’s the backdrop against which the story takes place. Humanity has colonized Mars, the asteroid belt, and several outlying moons, and split up into three factions: Earth, Mars, and the Belt, and at different points in the series you’re supposed to be rooting for all three.

The only consistent good guys in the show are four survivors of the Canterbury, an ice freighter that is destroyed while answering a distress call in the pilot. Through several contrivances, these survivors find themselves a new ship, the Rocinante, and spend the rest of the series so far chasing a MacGuffin called a protomolecule, which is a super-high-energy crystal that could threaten the existence of humanity. So while most of the universe is engaged in a geopolitical (cosmopolitical?) ax-throwing competition, a few dedicated misfits are staving off the extinction of the species at the hands of some mysterious outside force. Only — listen, I know Game of Thrones is a big deal around here, and I like it, I really do, but the White Walkers are about the dumbest thing the American TV-watching public has swallowed wholesale since Friends convinced us to root for Ross Geller. As glow-in-the-dark existential threats go, the protomolecule just feels so much better thought out.

‘Firefly’

Let’s get into the crew of the Rocinante. The captain of the ship is James Holden, former executive officer of the Canterbury and, because he’s apparently the only person in this universe who’d never seen Alien or Sunshine, the man who ordered the ill-fated rescue mission that killed all his friends. Holden’s a former Earth military officer who evolves over two seasons from Not Giving A Shit About Anything to Caring Earnestly And Deeply About Everything. Holden is played by Steven Strait, who looks like a cross between a spacefaring Jay Baruchel and a spacefaring Ben Whishaw, only with enough muscles that he’s not afraid to take his shirt off.

His crew: Naomi (Dominique Tipper), an engineer with Francisco Lindor’s haircut and a former member of the Outer Planets Alliance (OPA), a sort-of-terrorist, sort-of-paramilitary, sort-of-governmental group that controls many of the asteroid-based space stations; Alex (Cas Anvar), a bearded Martian pilot with a “hey, man, let’s all get along” attitude that masks inner demons; and Amos (Wes Chatham, the cameraman from The Hunger Games who isn’t Fulton from Mighty Ducks), who is The Muscle.

So … a disgruntled ex-military do-gooder captain, a principled second-in-command, a pilot who talks like a stoner, and a deadpan enforcer. The crew of the Rocinante also frequently finds itself fleeing various authorities, depending on what faction they’ve jilted most recently, and what illicit cargo or passengers they’re protecting. And the people they encounter, particularly in the Belt, speak a mélange of English and other languages. So that’s [ticks off names from list]: Malcolm Reynolds, Zoë, Wash, Jayne, the secret cargo that the government’s after (River Tam is knowledge of the protomolecule in this metaphor), and the Sino-English hybrid language from Firefly, all accounted for. Except in The Expanse, they don’t bring prostitutes onboard, and the dialogue lacks Joss Whedon’s cuteness.

The Belter dialect feels like a good place to mention that if you love a good accent, The Expanse is the show for you. This show is crawling with awesome accents. We’ve got some standard American accents, Naomi’s Alex Iwobi accent, and Alex’s … well, the actor who plays him, Anvar, is a Canadian of Iranian descent but somehow Alex sounds like a Nashville-bred Fonzie. Then there’s the Belter accent. Apparently when you mix English, Spanish, and a couple of other bits and pieces together, what comes out sounds like Afrikaans.

For instance, Jared Harris has a guest arc as OPA bigwig Anderson Dawes. This is huge — this little pokey SyFy series getting Jared Harris, thespian giant, central figure in many of the great moments of Mad Men. And look at him, with his tattoos and V-neck T-shirt — the coolest incarnation of Jared Harris yet! Then he sits down and this comes out of his mouth.

That’s the wildest accent I’ve ever heard. This show is the best.

‘Battlestar Galactica’

BSG is the easiest comparison, just because of the network. It seems like once a decade SyFy takes a swing at a space opera and really gets ahold of one. I binged the first season of The Expanse just as the second season was getting going, and when I ran out of episodes I went back and rewatched some BSG just to come down off the Expanse high.

But if you like dimly lit shows about extremely morally serious people who have extremely cool-looking uniforms but are in a little over their heads, you were probably watching The Expanse already.

Speaking of cool uniforms, the Martian Congressional Republic Navy has — and I say this without exaggeration — the best TV space military uniforms ever, beautiful black-and-orange jumpsuits with Nehru collars.

(SyFy)
(SyFy)

That makes those awesome gray-shouldered latter-day Deep Space Nine uniforms look like something out of Doctor Who. I trust the Martians because they dress like trustworthy people.

Jumpsuits, by the way, are huge on The Expanse. The crew of the Rocinante is outfitted in a variety of jumpsuits, bearing the logos of companies or organizations they’ve worked for, or pretended to work for, over the course of two seasons, and every single one of them looks warm but breathable and is positively festooned with pockets. They must be the most comfortable crew in the history of space travel, and if we’re wishing for things from the future, I’d trade in my flying car to live in a society where people wear slightly baggy jumpsuits everywhere.

‘Mad Men’

Not only does The Expanse feature Harris, it will please you to know that they recast Bobby Draper again. Season 1 focused mostly on Belters and Earthers — there wasn’t really a first-person representative of the Martian government. Season 2 introduced a Martian marine, Gunnery Sergeant Roberta “Bobbie” Draper, played by New Zealander Frankie Adams. (I’d assumed that Adams, being an imposing, ass-kicking Kiwi with her last name, was somehow related to Thunder center Steven Adams and his sister, Olympic gold medal shot putter Valerie Adams, but this is not the case.)

And if you thought Harris’s weird Belter accent was cool, Bobbie’s is even better. You know the people behind The Expanse know what they’re doing because they cast a New Zealander in a role that requires her to say “Mars” a lot. Or as she says it, “Maeeehhzzz.” It’s worth watching the show all on its own.

‘True Detective,’ Season 1

Mixed in with the cosmopolitical struggle and the space piracy is a separate story thread, a detective noir in which Joe Miller, played by Thomas Jane, tries to find a missing woman named Julie Mao.

You know this show is serious because they went out and got Thomas Jane to play Miller. Most of the regular cast is played by relatively unknown actors, but this is Thomas Jane. He was the lead in Hung. He played Mickey Mantle in 61*. He was the Punisher. And you know Jane is serious about the show, because he let them give him, Thomas Jane, the lead in Deep Blue Sea, this preposterous haircut.

(SyFy)
(SyFy)

So we’ve got this tortured loner plays-by-his-own-rules detective with a bad haircut, chasing a missing woman, surrounded by people with awesome names, like Dimitri Havelock. We’re a set of deer antlers and a six-pack of Lone Star from Jane’s version of the McConaissance. The Rea-Jane-kening.

All joking aside, he’s really good in this show. You get to know the crew of the Rocinante as a working unit, but Jane’s Miller gets you invested just by bouncing this story about a woman you don’t really care about off a revolving cast of cops, criminals, and outright nobodies who blend together in the blue-filtered Belt scenes to the point where you never learn their names. The only thing tying it all together is this asshole who hides his bad haircut under a Jason Mraz hat, but that’s enough.

There’s an arc in Season 2 that includes not only the best space action sequence I’ve seen on TV since Battlestar Galactica, but a really incredible performance from Jane as Miller. He just sort of cries out to be loved, and as a viewer, it’s really hard not to.

‘Parks and Recreation’

Do you love shows in which transparent holographic super-cellphones are the primary mode of communication, and that concentrate heavily on government bureaucracies that are actually run by their enthusiastic female seconds-in-command?

Which is not to say that U.N. Deputy Undersecretary for Executive Administration Chrisjen Avasarala is a Leslie Knope figure — she’s ruthless, calculating, and frequently deceitful. Mirror Universe Knope, only instead of a goatee she has a collection of colorful robes. She’s absolutely hypnotic.

I’m not sure what allows Shohreh Aghdashloo, as Chrisjen, to command the screen the way she does, but watching her is like watching LeBron take over a playoff game. Or, to go back to Game of Thrones, it’s like Chrisjen is always Tywin Lannister behind the writing desk.

The Expanse isn’t going to come home with a sack of Emmys, and it’s not going to redefine the genre the way Star Trek did, but it’s an incredibly well-shot, well-acted drama that, while based in familiar ideas and sci-fi tropes, still manages to take us to places we’ve never been before. It’s not Firefly, and it’s not Battlestar Galactica. But it makes me feel the way I did watching those shows for the first time, and that’s even better.