Science fiction has gotten so high and mighty on TV that it can be easy to admire but hard to love. Westworld and Mr. Robot may win Emmys and prompt think-pieces, but their self-reflexive chill keeps the audience at arm’s length — few things are as annoying as getting lectured by androids and the showrunners who spawned them.
And then there’s Syfy’s space opera The Expanse, which is easy to laugh at — and easy to love.
Now nearing the end of its ten-episode second season, the show has been slowly but surely accumulating fans. It’s TV’s proud answer to the B movies of yore, with grandiose ambitions on a shoestring budget and sketchy special effects counterbalanced by oversize, hammy acting. This is a series you could have a drink with, assured that it won’t start yammering about Joseph Campbell.
Based on books by James S.A. Corey (the pen name of authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck), The Expanse is set two hundred years from now and rests on a trifold premise: You’ve got an Earth where the ice caps have melted and the U.N. rules supreme; a militaristic Mars that’s fed up with Earth, its old colonizer; and the asteroid belt, which is basically the West Virginia of the future and hates Earth and Mars — coastal elites! — because it’s exploited by both.
Season one started off with scruffy Belt detective Joe Miller (Thomas Jane) investigating the disappearance of an heiress, which of course led him down a rabbit hole of intergalactic conspiracies and power plays — this may be the future, but The Expanse is steeped in the grand noir tradition of a dick whose pursuit of a missing dame lands him in something huge.
A parallel storyline concerned hunky freighter captain James Holden (Steven Strait) and his crew of interstellar truckers (think Firefly but with less self-awareness and hotter bods). Not having seen Alien, they answered a distress call and found themselves in the same something-huge that Miller stepped into — let’s just say it involves a devastating “protomolecule” that could annihilate humanity.
Meanwhile, on Earth, U.N. Deputy Undersecretary Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and her fellow high-powered bureaucrats mulled a war with Mars with the potential to wipe out humankind (if the protomolecule didn’t get there first, that is).
Eventually, the three plot strands joined up into, you guessed it, something huge.
The second season, which started on February 1, has further developed the Martian perspective, primarily through the introduction of gung-ho Marine Bobbie Draper (Frankie Adams) and her more levelheaded commander. We’ve also been treated to more U.N. double and triple crosses, plus space-opera antics courtesy of Holden and his Rocinante crew. (The ship’s name fits squarely into a sci-fi tradition of harvesting literary and classical references, e.g., Nostromo, Prometheus, and Pegasus.)
While The Expanse has been increasingly celebrated, it’s also been greeted in some quarters with a familiar refrain: It’s so good that you forget you’re watching science fiction.
“It’s the first sci-fi show I’ve ever watched that really, truly doesn’t feel like sci-fi,” Liz Shannon Miller wrote in IndieWire. “By that, I mean that it’s the sort of show where its official genre feels almost inconsequential in the face of the complicated character-driven story being told.”
This underhanded praise echoes that of the literary critics who used to say that Jim Thompson was so good you forgot he wrote noir, or that Stephen King, once he started getting “legit” reviews, was so good you forgot he wrote horror.
Unlike, say, Star Trek: The Next Generation or the Battlestar Galactica reboot, The Expanse is not driven by character — the show is evenhanded in that everybody has the complexity of a cardboard cutout — but by tropes, and those are very much science fiction.
Sci-fi has always explored big ideas, and The Expanse reveals its creators’ awareness of this history without being a meta commentary. It simply embraces the possibilities the genre affords, telling galaxy-wide stories and raising thorny issues — here, world-building, the dynamics of colonization and exploitation, the power of the mind, and the need for shapely actors to strip down to tank tops at the slightest provocation.
The last contributes to the show’s wonderful B quality, especially since Syfy lacks HBO’s or Showtime’s budget. You won’t find marquee names here, but solid character actors doing what they do — props, in particular, to the unsinkable Chad L. Coleman, late of The Wire and The Walking Dead, and to Jane, who spends half his time soulfully nursing a tumbler of coffee. The closest The Expanse gets to the A list is Aghdashloo — an Iranian playing a woman from the Indian subcontinent, as if this were a Roger Corman movie where ethnicity and role sometimes match and sometimes don’t. To compound the overall B vibe, this Oscar nominee for House of Sand and Fog, an early collaborator of Abbas Kiarostami and Ali Hatami, gives a deliciously grand performance built on penetrating stares, opaque proclamations, and outlandish outfits.
In a recent episode, the show killed off a major character, inviting comparisons to the “red wedding” bloodbath on Game of Thrones. But that character, like all the others, had not acquired much density, so the loss was a shock but no gutpunch. The Expanse is space opera at its all-plot purest, but it still could be more, especially if it comes up with its own Kara “Starbuck” Thrace or Captain Jean-Luc Picard. In the meantime, this shaggy, fast, and cheap series delivers pulpy thrills. Low gravity suits it well.
The Expanse airs Wednesday nights on Syfy.