Failure is a part of the human condition. No matter how lucky or sheltered you have been, at some point you have felt what it is like to fail. Whether on a test, on a job interview or in a relationship, you could have done everything right and still find success to be elusive. SF&F stories, especially those with mainstream appeal, tend to downplay failure because we want our entertainment to be a form escape, not something to remind us on how tough life can be. Recently, however, stories have become more realistic and the “good triumphs over evil” cliche has been downplayed or removed altogether. I have found that television is a great place to find examples of realistic failures even if the setting is fantastical or futuristic. So, in no particular order, here are my five favorite shows about failure…
1) Babylon 5
Babylon 5 is perhaps best remembered for being one of the first SF shows on television to have a complex, story arc that tied the majority of the episodes. It is set primarily on the the giant space station designed to be a place where the different species of the galaxy could work out their problems diplomatically. An idealistic goal to be sure that predicatably failed as the badly as our League of Nations. They even admitted as much in the opening of the third season: The Babylon Project was our last, best hope for peace. It failed.
Multiple wars were fought in the five seasons the show ran, with our characters often powerless to prevent. That, however, didn’t make it a bad show. If anything it made it more compelling. We saw the characters’ plans fall apart on both macro and micro levels as they dealt with issues of both galactic importance and simple interpersonal drama. It truly emphasized the opera in space opera and showed how easily the hopes and dreams for the future could be shattered.
2) Game of Thrones
What Babylon 5 did for SF, Game of Thrones has done for fantasy. Yeah I know people will say George RR Martin wasn’t the first to write a realistic fantasy like A Song of Ice and Fire, but he is certainly was the one to find major mainstream success. People still remember how shocked they were when Ned Stark wasn’t saved and instead was beheaded. We have been conditioned all our lives to believe the good guys will pull out a “W” at the last minute and to see our hero have such an unremarkable end is unbelievable to say the least.
More importantly, Ned wasn’t the only character we saw fail. Rob Stark failed to avenge his father and free the North, Catelyn Stark and Brienne of Tarth both failed to protect the ones they loved and we saw Stannis fail again and again to win the Iron Throne. Even Daenerys Targaryen, who we watched hatch dragons, seize an unstoppable army and liberate thousands of slaves, failed in her goal to be a good ruler in a world that has little want for such. The fact that all of these problems pale in comparison to an army of ice zombies on the verge of wiping out all of human civilization perhaps warns us that all of the characters’ failure to see the big picture may doom them and all they love to death.
3) Attack on Titan
Anime in my experience has often been more willing to tackle adult issues than Western fiction (I learned what a “love triangle” was from watching Robotech) and no show more embraces this characteristic than Attack of Titan. Set in a post-apocalyptic world devastated by unstoppable giants called Titans that feed on humans, the remnants of humanity shelter behind three massive walls hoping to forget the danger lurking outside their gates. We see a world where humans have lost the will to fight and have become nothing more than cattle. Those who still struggle to find victory are more often than not broken and unlikable.
Take our protagonist Eren Yeager whose hatred of the Titans begins after watching his mother devoured by one and turned him into a suicidal zealot who is just as much a danger to himself as others. Compare this to Jean Kirstein, who is originally introduced to us as the traditional “douche” character we are not supposed to like, who later in the show matures, shows budding leadership skills and provides a rational and logical counterpoint to the raw emotions we see in Eren.
On top of that you rarely ever see the characters succeed. In the face of the sheer brute power of Titans, body counts are high and the outlook is grim. Even when they due snatch victory from the (literal) jaws of defeat, the price if often so high that whatever little was gained is almost worthless when compares to what was lost. Not exactly a show to life your spirits, but hey, at least it has a killer theme song!
4) Sealab 2021
I have been getting pretty heavy with this list, so lets lift our spirits a bit by reminiscing about Sealab 2021. This was a bizarre and, frankly, cheap show that premiered at the beginning of Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim lineup of programming. It mostly used stock footage from an older show, but it had different voice actors. Hell, I remember one episode that was just a shot for shot remake of an episode from the original show, until the end credits when a sub they had just saved crashed into their undersea habitat and destroyed it.
In fact the Sealab being destoryed, and all of its crew along with it, was a running gag of the series. Meanwhile, most of the characters ranged from incompetent to batshit crazy, and even the intelligent characters were powerless to stop the morons they worked with or else so self-centered they were blind to the impending catastrophe. Despite all of that, it was still an entertaining show that featured a new way to fail spectacularly on every episode. You never saw such an amusing group of idiots on TV and I highly recommend checking it out when you get the chance.
5) The Venture Bros.
I know I said at the start that this list was in no particular order, but no show in my opinion captures the pure emotional impact of failure than The Venture Bros. In fact the creators of the show have stated time and time again that the show is about failure in all its glory.
On its face The Venture Bros. is simply a parody of adventure shows like Jonny Quest, but when you really watch the show, it is so much more. The main character, Dr. Venture, not only fails as a super-scientist, but also fails as a father to his two sons, especially when you see his arch-nemesis, The Monarch, knowing and caring more about what is going on in their lives than their actual father. On top of that the show highlights the failed promises of the “sci-fi” future we were promised where technology would solve all our problems and we would all have awesome jet packs! Now instead we have technology, but the old problems still persist.
The show is also quite progressive in other ways, especially in how male and female characters are portrayed. The men usually come off as arrogant which only makes their incompetence and deep emotional scars that much worse. Women, on the other hand, have a more realistic outlook on life and often surpass the accomplishments of the men, whether the men will admit to it or not. Finally, its not rare to watch a character be taught a lesson and still walk away from the moment without learning a single then. Isn’t that just like real life?
Just to cover my ass: this list is just my opinion. I am sure there are other TV shows out there that better capture the power of failure than the ones I listed. If you think as much, please share your favorite shows in the comments.