As a medium, TV has rarely been held up as a go-to destination for excellent action sequences and sprawling adventure plots filmed on location across the globe. For a long time, particularly inventive fight scenes and large-scale epics were somewhat restricted to the big screen, where budgets are higher and production schedules are more relaxed.
But in the past several years, a new vanguard of action- and adventure-heavy series has advanced the threshold of what was once considered possible to achieve on TV. And the action and adventure genres are now experiencing something of a renaissance, led by the success of shows like Game of Thrones, the hit HBO fantasy series that overlaps with both.
While Game of Thrones draws by far the most viewers and cultural buzz, there are many other worthwhile series out there that offer exciting action and an epic scope. Here are five underappreciated options that run the gamut from fun diversions to essential viewing.
The Last Kingdom is basically Game of Thrones, but with much faster pacing and twice as many battles
Set in ninth- and 10th-century Britain, The Last Kingdom — which aired its first season on BBC America in 2015 and has a second season coming out on Netflix in May — feels like a cousin of HBO’s Game of Thrones, thanks to its heavy medieval warfare and power struggles in the halls of nobility. But where Game of Thrones is much more measured in its pacing, The Last Kingdom moves at a positively breakneck speed.
The series is an adaptation of Bernard Cornwell’s 10-book Saxon Stories, about how wars against invading Vikings led to the various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Britain uniting as England. And while other shows of its ilk might have spent a solid chunk of time introducing characters and building out a world, The Last Kingdom’s eight-episode first season manages to cover two whole books’ worth of material. The first episode alone fits in the entirety of a young boy’s coming of age before undergoing a huge time jump and then setting up conflicts for the season to come.
Essentially, The Last Kingdom follows the Game of Thrones model of alternating between political maneuvering and battles, but with an emphasis on the fighting rather than conversations about strategy. This laser focus on action often sacrifices the potential for more in-depth character work, but the show generally isn’t trying to be too deep. It’s a ride, and a well-executed one.
The first season of The Last Kingdom is streaming on Netflix. Season two debuts on Netflix on Friday, May 5.
Into the Badlands is a fun salad bowl of Kung Fu tropes
AMC’s martial arts drama about warring feudal barons in a post-apocalyptic America couldn’t be accused of striving for prestige status; the show’s over-the-top sensibility of elaborate costuming, souped-up Mad Max-esque vehicles, and an inability to slow down for longer than a single scene wouldn’t allow it. The show is intended more as a corrective, pursuing the tradition of the 1970s drama Kung Fu, but with a lead (Daniel Wu) who’s actually Asian.
Most episodes of Into the Badlands follow Wu as his character fights rival soldiers, bandits, assassins, slavers, or whoever else happens to be dumb enough to get in the way of his attempts to secure a future for himself and the woman he loves. Even when the show pauses so characters can plot against one another or indulge in some romance or introspection, there’s always the sense that it is impatient to simply get to the next fight scene. Which is perfectly forgivable, since its fight scenes are a blast.
Behind the scenes, Into the Badlands is run by a host of action veterans — most notably including Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon choreographer Ku Huen-Chiu, who masterminded the fights in the first season. That well of experience comes through, as the series’ martial arts mayhem exhibits a level of professional polish you’d expect more from a feature film than a TV show. The ever-game actors (and their seamlessly integrated stunt doubles) pull off some truly wild acrobatics. For pure “someone actually did that” excitement, Into the Badlands can’t be beat.
The first season of Into the Badlands is streaming on Netflix. Season two is currently airing on AMC, with new episodes debuting Sundays at 10 pm. Previous episodes of season two are available to stream on the network’s website.
Black Sails boasts superlative large-scale battles
This action drama set in the golden age of piracy pulls double duty as something of a prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic adventure novel Treasure Island (yes, really). The series — which wrapped its fourth season on Starz earlier this year — was criminally underappreciated during its tenure on the air. But as a tale of feuding pirates and royal sailors, one of its strongest elements is that it features at least two or three major confrontations per season, and it always makes the most of the resultant spectacle.
And no two battles on Black Sails are alike. One scenario may see the show’s main characters and their crews using two ships to capture a third; another might see them staging a major assault on a seaside town. But what’s key about all of the show’s battle scenes is that it takes pains to establish the situations and strategies employed by all the various players before each sortie begins. And more importantly, it understands that the best way to present a battle is as a standalone story of sorts.
This means avoiding the trap of simply piling adversity against whichever side we’re meant to root for before ultimately relieving it — and instead indulging in the back-and-forth of changing fortunes and the reveals of hidden plans. The climactic battle of season three offers an excellent example of this approach, with Royalist forces striking at pirates entrenched on a beach, forcing them to retreat into a jungle; only then do the pirates reveal their true strategy. It’s rousing stuff, and often involves ship-to-ship combat that was filmed on real ships instead of green screen-heavy soundstages.
What’s more, Black Sails also excels at a different type of, er, action: The show features nearly half a dozen bisexual characters in its main cast, and treats sexuality in general with a refreshing matter-of-factness. Not only do the characters usually enjoy the sex they’re eagerly having — often a rarity on shows where violence is prevalent — but their constantly shifting relationships nicely tie into overall changes in the show’s plot. Many serialized genre dramas restrict romance to subplots and view it as subordinate to the overall concerns of the story, but on Black Sails, romantic relationships are part and parcel of both who the characters are and their roles in the wars at hand.
All four seasons of Black Sails are available to stream through Starz’s streaming service.
Spartacus is a (sometimes literal) orgy of blood, sex, and style
Another Starz show that was sadly underwatched in its day, Spartacus remains one of the finest action series to ever air. Highly reminiscent of the 2006 film 300, shot as it was against green screens and with a commensurately hyper-stylized aesthetic, this swords and sandals epic is 39 episodes’ worth of absolute excess. No spray of blood is too powerful; no sex scene too gratuitous.
What sets Spartacus apart from so many other action shows is that its violence is handled with an especially bravura eye, so that it amounts to far more than gory juvenilia. (Creator Steven S. DeKnight went on to be showrunner for the first season of Netflix and Marvel’s Daredevil.) Meanwhile, just like on Black Sails, the horniness is absolutely equal opportunity — but there’s a lot more of it. You’ve got straight sex, gay sex, orgies … take your pick. There are male characters around for the show’s entire run who never wear shirts. It’s like Magic Mike with decapitations.
Intriguingly, the intense physicality of Spartacus also has a thematic point. The series’ overall story arc sees its title character and his gladiator comrades rebelling against their Roman overlords, and makes a valiant effort to show how the ruling class sees slaves not as humans but as tools. Two forms of objectification — the kind we usually think of with the ogling of bodies, and the more literal, “one human owns another” kind — are contrasted with one another. On a meta level, the show might even inspire the viewer interrogate how those two forms interrelate.
What keeps Spartacus from being pointlessly exploitative is that it also emphasizes the humanity of even the most minor characters. That’s something far too many genre shows can forget in their pursuit of thrills.
All four seasons of Spartacus are streaming on Netflix.
The animated Samurai Jack is the best action show currently on the air
More than 12 years after the cult favorite cartoon’s original run was cut short, Samurai Jack has returned for a new season to finally wrap up its story. And it hasn’t missed a single beat, effortlessly recapturing everything that has always made the series great. Following the namesake lead as he travels a dystopian future while trying to find a way back to the past, Samurai Jack combines unparalleled action visuals with a singular tone and an offbeat sense of humor. (In the premiere of the new season, for example, Jack fights a music-themed bounty hunter who commands a flying sword by scatting.)
The show displays a consistent and utterly unique ability to tip between the rush of fight scenes and long stretches that exist solely to explore how a community works, or to study someone working some mundane task, or to simply revel at scenery. Samurai Jack is unafraid to go long stretches without any dialogue — sometimes entire 30-minute episodes. That’s nearly unheard of for television in general and animated shows in particular. Series creator Genndy Tartakovsky is as much a master of the calm as the storm.
And when the storm hits, nothing on TV (and a good chunk of film, really) can touch Samurai Jack. Tartakovsky has a kinetic sense informed by multiple strands of Southeast-Asian action cinema, as well as anime, American Westerns, and comic books. Across 50-some episodes and counting, no fight is the same, with Jack facing off against a dizzying array of robots, monsters, demons, and assassins wielding all sorts of weapons and powers. Every move and cut has dramatic weight, with the animators having meticulously plotted out each beat of each duel. It’s intoxicatingly perfect action cinema.
The first four seasons of Samurai Jack are streaming on Hulu. Season five is currently airing on Adult Swim, with new episodes debuting on Saturdays at 8 pm. Previous episodes of season five are available to stream on the network’s website.