When I was a kid back in the mid-1960s in Minneapolis, I used to watch a Saturday afternoon movie program called “Epic Theater.” This show featured what we now call ‘Sword and Sandal Epics.’ These Italian movies (poorly) dubbed into English all featured good guy muscle men (Mr. Universe types) parading around in togas and sandals, engaging in epic battles with bad guy muscle men (or, of course, hideous mythical monsters), and saving or sometimes battling a bunch of scantily-clad women.
Now why would I love these kinds of movies? Here are my reasons.
It was Minneapolis in the late-60s and I was 12 years old. There wasn’t a lot else to do on a Saturday afternoon.
“Scantily clad women.”
This thought: “You know, if I start working out, I could look like one of these muscle men instead of a skinny, nerdy kid with frizzy hair who plays the piano and French horn and reads Jules Verne novels.”
They didn’t make many of these movies, so “Epic Theater” solved that problem by airing them over and over again. Did that bother me? Not in the least. I think I’ve watched Hercules and the Captive Women about 30 times now. I’d be sitting there thinking “That’s gonna be me someday, all muscly and saving scantily-clad women.” Then in high school, I lifted weights once. Ugh. I think I’d rather stay skinny and nerdy and not rescue any women than get all sweaty lifting these stupid things.
Thus it is no surprise that my life would never form the basis of any kind of epic TV series or movie. A show about me would feature a lot of grocery shopping and reading the newspaper.
No, for true Epic Theater, you need a large-scale story with an immense and complex cast of characters, engaged in heroic deeds (or anti-heroic deeds, for that matter). What we’ll be discussing today are Epic TV Series. These are TV shows that chronicle grand stories of monarchs, rebels, armies, and apocalyptic events. The Epic has a long history in film, but only in recent years has the Epic come to television. And in a spectacular way. This is true Epic Theater.
Game of Thrones (2011 to present)
This series is one of the most beloved and closely followed TV shows of all time. Now in its ninth season, Game of Thrones is another landmark series from HBO, and is one of the largest drivers of HBO’s subscription efforts in recent years. The show is based on George R. R. Martin’s fantasy novels series, A Song of Fire and Ice, from which creator David Benioff and his long-time writing partner D.B. Weiss made this brilliant show. For many people considering watching Game of Thrones, the biggest issue often is: Nah, I missed too much already. Well, here’s your solution: rent the entire series of DVD and catch up. Now I am not saying this will be a quick project. We’re talking about 80 or so episodes you will have to watch to catch up. I don’t see this as a problem, frankly, and neither will you. Each episode is gripping and incrementally moves the overall arc of the story forward. The fact that it will take you a month to get caught up is a month well-spent, in my opinion.
Westworld (2016 to present)
It’s a saga of the Old West. Or is it? Based on Michael Crichton’s 1973 film of the same name and premise, Westworld is about… an amusement park? Created by Jonathan Nolan (Christopher Nolan’s brother) and his wife, Lisa Joy, this series is a tribute to the idea that spouses can work together on an outside project. Which is pretty amazing. Westworld focuses on a recurring cast of “hosts” in the park who dress up in Old West costumes and help their wealthy customers experience life within a story from those days. It’s a very odd concept, but the show is brilliantly executed. I constantly get sucked into the story of each in-park adventure and then am jolted back to reality when they remind me it’s just a story created for that guest. It’s not real. I highly recommend this series.
The Walking Dead (2010 to present)
Zombies? You’ve got zombies?! I’m on board! I love zombie movies, even the bad ones. What’s scarier than the walking dead? Eeek! If they bite me, then I turn into a zombie too and won’t care at all anymore about whether the US will qualify for the 2022 World Cup! That sounds like a terrible fate. This show is based on the graphic novel series of the same name by Robert Kirkland, Tony Moore, and Charlie Adlard. It was an outstanding graphic novel series, and has been brought to television with the same kind of addled brilliance. It has an enormous cast and an utterly engaging way of telling the stories of a group of survivors wandering around the Atlanta exurbs after a nuclear holocaust. Like Game of Thrones, however, this is not a series to be watching when the kids are around. Lots of gory violence. I mean, come on, these zombies aren’t just gonna go away on their own. They just galump along looking for live human flesh to eat. Please be careful. And carry a large axe.
Vikings (2013 to present)
You might have missed this one. And that’s because it’s been on the History Channel. But it’s really quite good. Created by the English screenwriter Michael Hirst, who apparently has that wonderful English talent of writing every single episode of a long TV series (The Crown has been entirely written by Peter Morgan, and Downton Abbey by Julian Fellowes). This series tells the story of the legendary Ragnar Lothbrok, a simple Norwegian farmer who becomes a Viking and eventually becomes the scourge of England and France. He rises to the level of king, then dies, and his sons take over the family business of pillaging. Now to be fair, this series looks something like Game of Thrones, but it isn’t quite as gripping. But it does have lots of action, adventure on the high seas, and battle scenes. Which, excuse me, is reason enough for me to watch just about anything.
House of Cards (2013 to present)
Yes, they still are making this show. But the other question you may have is why am I including it in a post about Epic TV. Well, it does lack a few features of the Epic. It has less violence and consists of lots of talking and—in the early seasons—Robin Wright mainly in yoga pants. Hardly the sort of thing one normally associates with the Epic. And yet, this dark and brooding tale of Frank Underwood, an obscure Southern Congressman conniving his way to the Presidency, abetted by his Lady MacBeth-type wife, Claire, has epic tale written all over it. The show is now headed in a new direction with Claire Underwood in the lead, following some unfortunate circumstances around Kevin Spacey. Trust me—this series has as many “Gasp! Did That Just Happen?” moments as Game of Thrones. Time for you to catch up and then see what’s in store for the no-longer-yoga-pant-wearing Claire Underwood.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.