Picking the best network on TV in any given year is usually a bland proposition — it’s almost always FX, and when it’s not, it’s probably HBO. (Netflix could also make a claim for 2016, but those three networks are about it for this year.)
Far more interesting is the question of which TV network has had a breakthrough year. It could be a network that wasn’t previously known for scripted programming that launches several big new programs (as AMC did between 2007 and 2009), or it could just be a network that finally lives up to its potential (as USA did in 2015).
Breakthroughs are hard to maintain, but in this era of peak TV, there seem to be multiple networks having them with every new year. (This year, for instance, TBS had just such a breakthrough launching several fun new comedies alongside its fleet of sitcom reruns.)
It’s much more difficult to be a network that lost its luster — like, all of its luster — and then somehow finds its way back to a place where it's making consistently interesting programming. The big comeback is one of the hardest things to do in TV, where even one flop show can have pundits writing think pieces declaring a network’s demise. (See also: HBO’s Vinyl.)
That’s why it’s somewhat remarkable that the biggest breakthrough and best comeback in 2016 belongs to a network that had been in critical purgatory for nearly a decade.
Syfy has seemed lost since 2009, when the network’s hit series Battlestar Galactica ended its run and the network rebranded, casting aside its former, more obviously genre-driven moniker of "the Sci-Fi Channel."
Over the past several years, it’s imported a handful of good shows (mainly from Canada), and it’s occasionally aired a fun reality show. But if you wanted great science fiction, horror, or fantasy, you were more likely to find it elsewhere.
Until 2016, that is.
Syfy’s new strategy makes a lot of sense
After Battlestar, Syfy retreated from big, ambitious storytelling, returning to episodic series with smaller stakes. This move wasn’t all bad; some of the resulting programming was often quite entertaining. (I was a fan of the small-town sci-fi drama Eureka myself.)
But it often felt as if the network had traded the political resonance and brutal choices of Battlestar — which could be pretty episodic itself, mind you! — for an endless supply of ice cream. Where the network had once tackled big questions about the war on terror or what it means to be a human being, it was now content to offer froth.
In 2014, Syfy president Dave Howe noticed that the two biggest shows on TV — AMC’s The Walking Dead (horror) and HBO’s Game of Thrones (fantasy) — probably could have been Syfy originals but weren’t. Both were based on much-loved science fiction source material and rose to megahit status, and shouldn’t a sci-fi version of either of them be the next logical step in geek culture’s absorption of the known universe?
So he decided to try to rectify that. As he told the Hollywood Reporter, he planned to get back to the approach the network had abandoned in the wake of Battlestar’s end and veer away from allowing cheesy movies like Sharknado to be its claim to fame (even if the network wasn’t going to stop making Sharknado sequels, either).
It took time for that approach to bear fruit. The 2014 space opera miniseries Ascension was a costly dud, and a variety of Syfy’s other programs struggled. But the network eventually landed on a very basic idea, one that both HBO and AMC had used to launch their genre hits: Adapt great source material.
Again, some of those projects — like 2015’s Childhood’s End, a miniseries version of the great Arthur C. Clarke novel — struggled to attain the weight of their literary forebears. But the strategy has worked far more often than it has failed for Syfy.
Spacefaring political drama The Expanse, fantastical coming-of-age tale The Magicians, time-travel mind melter 12 Monkeys (which aired its first season in 2015), and eerie horror anthology Channel Zero have adapted everything from novels to films to online tales of terror — and they’ve all been very good to great TV as well. Add to that a number of solid Canadian imports (led by the very enjoyable Killjoys), and you have a recipe for success.
Adapting great books and films is an easy way for Syfy to bootstrap gravitas
In a way, Syfy has stumbled onto something that other TV adaptations have boasted as a secret weapon: When they’re good, they enjoy the advantage of having additional source material fans can dig into and dissect, and when they’re bad, the TV series themselves often get the benefit of the "maybe it was all a problem with the books to begin with" doubt.
But no matter what, they reap the benefits of borrowed gravitas from that source material. Seeing a copy of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians in a bookstore with a "Now a major TV show on Syfy!" sticker on the cover suggests, on some level, that the network is serious about its mission to program great genre stuff.
Now, eventually the network will have to stop adapting books and movies — not all of which are natural fits for TV shows anyway — and start developing its own projects. (It would also be nice to see it come up with a comedy or two.) Yet even the source material Syfy is selecting is getting more adventurous, as with Channel Zero, which adapts online "creepypasta" stories (scary tales told on assorted message boards and subreddits) into compact, six-episode horror miniseries.
So far, none of its new shows have succeeded to the level of Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead in capturing the public’s mass consciousness. And the network’s hot streak has not come without flops, most notably the "aliens are terrorists, sorta" series Hunters, which came and went earlier in 2016. That show, too, was based on a novel, but not one as well-known as Grossman’s Magicians series or the novels behind The Expanse.
And anytime a network launches as many good-to-great shows in as short of a timespan as Syfy has, there’s something good going on behind the scenes. In particular, the network benefits from sharing a both a president (Chris McCumber) and a production arm with its NBCUniversal corporate sibling USA, which has boasted a similar run of good shows. (Disclosure: NBCUniversal is an investor in Vox Media.) This consolidation has slowly but surely turned Universal Cable Productions into a mostly reliable provider of solid TV — and a place that’s drawing bigger and bigger names as it builds its reputation. (Not every Syfy show is produced by NBCUniversal — The Expanse, for instance, is produced by Alcon Media.)
Syfy’s shows don’t always hit the mark consistently, but they do so often enough to leave me excited about whatever’s coming next. I’ve written frequently about my embrace of the wild religiosity of 12 Monkeys, and while The Expanse is slightly more sedate, it boasts some of the best space action on TV since, well, Battlestar Galactica.
Meanwhile, it’s The Magicians that gives me the most hope for where the network is heading in 2017. After a muddled, messy pilot, the series very quickly pulled itself together to become the kind of TV treat I looked forward to with every new week.
And, notably, the show embraced both the best qualities of novels — in that it had a ready-made world and set of characters to explore — and television, in the way it turned each new episode into a new opportunity to expand its plot and its characters.
If Syfy, and its programming, can keep walking that line, it might just bring itself back to the prominence it lost throughout the past decade. And if it keeps adapting interesting stories into compelling TV, it might even find itself with a bona fide hit. 2017 will tell the tale.
Updated: To add more information on Syfy and USA's relationship.