Online Critique Groups

Written By: Paul Toth - Mar• 10•14


A critique group (also known as “writer’s circle”) is a sort of writer’s club that exists to improve the work of all involved. The idea is simple: each member of the group passes a page, chapter, or entire novel to one or more other members, who then provide feedback on the material. Imagine a half-dozen authors sitting around a table. Each one passes a page they’ve written to the person on their left, who marks it up and then passes it on to the next guy. After a while, each page is decorated with a mass of (hopefully useful) scribbles the author can incorporate into their next draft. Of course, there are endless variations on this theme, with notes compiled between meetings, varying amounts of discussion and in-person interaction, and different approaches to providing feedback and follow-up. Ideally, the quality of each writer’s work is improved by incorporating and/or reacting to a variety of perspectives.

If all this sounds like it could be the basis for an online community, you’re right. A number of sites have been created to take the critique group experience online, and some have done a passable job of it. The advantages are obvious. Instead of being limiting oneself to interacting with writers who happen to be in the same geographical area, it’s possible to form groups with a global basis, where who critiques whom is a matter of common interests rather than physical and schedule-based limitations. Writers can avail themselves of advice from hundreds, even thousands, of different members, and the basic critique mechanics can be enhancing by forums, messaging, and a variety of social networking mechanics.

If you’re anything like me, this all sounds awesome, and under the right circumstances, it can be.

But What if Someone Steals My Work?

Yes, it happens, and yes, it sucks. Plagiarism is rarer than you might think, though—exceedingly rare, as far as I can tell—and for many, the risk is more than balanced by the rewards. For me, the “tipping point” came when I listened to a successful romance speak at last year’s San Francisco Writer’s Conference. She claimed that everyone, including pros, needed to be involved with these groups. They were that valuable.

Now, when I say she’s successful, I mean she’s seriously, ridiculously, two-books-on-the-New-York Times-bestseller-list-at-the-same-time successful. Net seven figures on one self-published novel successful. A writerly goddess, in financial terms.

I joined an online critique group the next day, and haven’t looked back. If I managed to corral an agent, and my work sees the light of day in the mainstream publishing world, these sites will have played a significant part in making that happen.

There’s a Bunch of These Things. Which One Should I Join?

I could tell you that:

  • They each have their strengths and weaknesses, and it’s a matter of individual preference.
  • There’s no reason you have to choose just one. Many writers are members of multiple groups.
  • You don’t need to commit right off the bat. Try a few and see which one floats your boat.

And all of this would be true to some degree, but it would be a cop-out. Not all critique sites are created equal, and the underlying philosophy and goals vary significantly. I’m going to try to tell you enough about my own perspective and experiences to help you figure out which are worth looking an initial look.

To my knowledge, there are three sites that stand out, based on the quality and size of their membership, the usefulness of their feature set, and their overall effectiveness. Of course, mileage may vary, and you may find that groups I haven’t bothered to include here are more useful to you than any of the ones I’ve selected. C’est la vie, caveat emptor and all that.

Critique Circle

This site seems to have been around for quite a while (since the 90s, if had to guess, which is what I’m going to do, since I’m too lazy to do the research). This has plusses and minuses. On the plus side, the community is huge. Its membership is probably the largest of the groups I’ve encountered, with what appears to be thousands of active members. This means that it’s easy to recruit a large, diverse set of fellow authors to review one’s work, and there’s a seemingly endless variety of stories to explore. Pretty much every genre, category, and subcategory I can think of is represented.

Unfortunately, the site also looks and feels like it was designed in the 90s—albeit with the occasional technological upgrade. It’s perfectly usable, but after using some of the more functional sites out there, working with Critique Circle feels like trying to text while caught in a Chinese finger trap. Sure, you can do it, but you might not want to.

Inline critiquing is best example of this. You can just pick an arbitrary place in the text you’re reviewing and type in a note, you have to insert the note as a separate block of text that sits between the lines (usually between the paragraphs) of the story being critiqued. It might not sound that bad, but if you want to do something very precise like suggest that the author change a few specific words in a specific sentence, it can be a pain. You’re essentially forced to re-type a good-sized portion of the text you want to focus on. For people like me who like to provide extremely fine-grained commentary, this is not a great way to do things.


The mechanics of Critique Circle are simple. It’s essentially a “do unto others” approach based on a point system. You start with enough points to post a piece of work (a chapter, short story, or whatever). After that you earn points for each review you do, and spend points to post more work. The system is straightforward, easy to understand, and works nicely. When you receive a critique, you rate it based on a variety of criteria, and those rating accumulate into point scores that are displayed when members view your profile. This is useful in that helps identify those who are trying to game the system. If someone has exceedingly low scores, you may not want to review their stuff, knowing they aren’t likely to put much effort into a thank-you crit.

One of things I really like about Critique Circle is the fact that its members aren’t squirmy about reviewing longer works. You can post ten or fifteen thousand words at a time and get several cogent critiques within a matter of days. This makes it great place to workshop novelettes and novellas, since you aren’t forced to organize them into bite-sized pieces and reviewers will will work through the story as a whole, rather than looking at a fragment.

The Lowdown

It’s a good site. Thousands of writers find it useful, and will undoubtedly continue to do so. But it’s not my personal favorite.

Full Disclosure

I’ve posted a couple of stories on the site, and contributed a dozen or critiques.


The most interesting about this site is the fact that it’s owned by a major publisher—Harper Collins. Verbiage on the site claims acquisition editors look at some of work posted there, though, as you might expect, working toward this goal is a difficult and highly political proposition. As near as I can tell, the effort is about thirty percent competitive brownnosing, thirty percent hard work, and thirty percent dumb luck. Somewhere in that other ten percent is the actual quality and marketability of the work being posted. If it seems like I’m being critical of Harper Collins staff who run the site, I suppose I am, but creating a site that does what this one purports to do (finding talent) is an inherently difficult task, and they’ve probably done about as well as can be expected.


Mechanically, Authonomy is an iPod. At first glance, it’s sleek and functional, but bust the thing open and you find yourself trying to make sense of some very messy guts. Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that site has multiple goals, obscured by marketing lingo (“We’re more than community of book lovers!”) and nested within one another like brightly colored Matryoshka dolls. This, in a nutshell, seems to be what Authonomy is trying to do:

  • Enable a critiquing community much like that provided by Critique Circle.
  • Provide a collection of free online work—novels, mostly—that Harper Collins can use to promote the larger business.
  • Outsource the slush pile, and do it at a near-zero cost.

The fact that site is designed to do several semi-overlapping, semi-contradictory things leads to some oddities. First, anyone can post as much work as they want to, without any expectation or obligation to write critiques, or indeed to anything that’s of use to other members of the site. This would seem to violate the spirit of a critique group, and in a way it does, but there’s still plenty of incentive to review other members’ work.

Namely, good old fashioned scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch-yours politics. Unlike other sites I’ve seen, Authonomy assigns precise numeric rankings to both books and members. You might, for instance, be the #8 (eighth-highest-ranked) author, with the #5 (fifth-highest-ranked) book. The highest-ranked books are the ones that Harper Collins looks at, so in one sense the site is essentially a big, never-ending competition to have the highest-ranked book.

Of course in the spirit of social media, the judges of the novels—the ones who actually determine the rankings—aren’t a group of external judges, but the site members (contestants) themselves. It’s like a horse race in which the jockeys all vote to determine which horse was the fastest. This means that members are constantly trying convince one another to review one another’s work, and give them high marks. The whole “craft” aspect of things, in which authors attempt to approve one another’s work, is secondary, and this is reflected in the design of the site. Don’t go to Authonomy in the hopes of honing your manuscript or sharpening your skills—that’s not (primarily) what it’s for.

The example method used for ranking novels is somewhat mysterious, but rating assigned by site members appear to play a significant part. Any member can rate any work on the site, by give it one to six “stars.” Note that you don’t necessarily have to read the book, much less form an objective opinion—anyone who wants to can click on the desired stars. If this sounds like a system that’s open to all manner of abuse—well, I’m sure it is—but bemoaning this isn’t particularly productive.

Authonomy doesn’t provide the ability to do full-fledged critiques, but you can leave comments, and the more conscientious members attempt to provide the sort of feedback you’d see in a critique. Remember, though, the ultimate goal is pump up the ranking of your own novel, and everything revolves around that, and this is a system that doesn’t exactly encourage honest criticism. One obvious strategy is to jump from novel to novel, telling every author that their work is “frikkin awesome!” in an attempt to garner their support, and this seems to be more or less what a lot of members do. Some don’t even pretend to read other members’ books, they just blast out a bunch messages asking everyone to plump their work. Sometimes these messages take the form of outright begging (“PLEASE save my book!!!”).


The Lowdown

If you’re willing to put some money on a long shot, Authonomy may be worthwhile. Just be ready to deal with the site for what it is—part of the Harper Collins marketing machine. It’s meant to serve the purposes of the publisher, not the author, and the two may or may not intersect. And while site looks sharp, it’s neither terribly functional nor particularly reliable. I’ve seen the thing barf out random programming error messages on at least a dozen occasions.

The site has forums, but they’re nigh-useless. Authonomy is about competition, not community.

Full Disclosure

I currently have part of one my novels on the site, and am participating on a regular basis. At the time this was written, my member ranking was somewhere around #500 (Woo hoo! I’m number five hundred! I’m number five hundred!). Because of Authonomy’s competitive nature, I spent almost a year work shopping my novel on other sites before posting it here.


Superficially, Scribophile is a lot like Critique Circle. That is, it hews pretty close to the classical concept of a critique group: authors reinforcing one another’s efforts by providing notes on each other’s stuff. As you’d expect, the core of the site is critiquing: post your work, and post reviews of other people’s work. A variety of features compliment the core capabilities—forums, groups, and detailed member profiles among them.

The design, functionality, and overall quality of the site are remarkable. I wouldn’t just rank it among the best sites for writer’s, I’d rank it among the best sites period—right up there with, Twitter, and other highly touted destinations. Navigating amongst the various areas is quick and intuitive, and the inline critiquing feature is amazingly good. In some ways, it’s superior to Microsoft’s Word’s “Review” feature set. You can suggest edits by adding and deleting text from the original manuscript, with deleted segments highlighted in red, and suggested additions highlighted in green. This means that it’s possible to place a comment regarding a particular word or phrase right next to that word or phrase. To someone like me, who likes to leave detailed feedback, this is a godsend.

The Scribophile forums invite a lot of impassioned discussion, and are moderated by a capable group of volunteers. Writers are an opinionated lot, and just about every perspective imaginable shows up in forum posts. Things can contentious, and for this reason both religion and politics are verboten (though these subjects can be discussed in the groups, each of which essentially has its own forum).


The Scribophile economy is based on karma. You earn points of karma by writing critiques. If this sounds similar to Critique Circle it is, but there are a few additional wrinkles:

  • You don’t start out with much karma, so you can’t post your work on the site until you’ve posted some critiques (usually two or three of them will do the trick). Some new members find this annoying, but I think it’s a reasonable approach.
  • The amount of karma you earn for each critique varies. You get a base amount, plus a bonus based on the length of the critique, plus an additional (small) bonus based on how much the recipient of the review liked it. This is good in that encourages members to be thorough and constructive, and though the system is obviously open to abuse, I’ve found it’s rare in practice.
  • Shorter posts are encouraged (3K words or less), and if you follow this guidance, it can cost a great deal of karma to post longer works. This isn’t unfair, but it is painful when you have a novelette or chapter that doesn’t have scene breaks in places that readily accommodate this sort of parsing.

Members are assigned a numeric “reputation” score based on Facebook-style “likes,” but it’s purely for purposes of amusement and isn’t hooked into any of the site’s other mechanics. Profiles include a writerly “title” such as “Ink-Slinger” that correspond to the score, which helps contribute to the site’s whimsical don’t-take-yourself-too-seriously vibe—something I personally find appealling.

The Lowdown

Scribophile is great if you’re looking to give or receive in-depth feedback on your work. As is the case with other the sites I’ve mentioned, what you get out of it is going to be proportionate to the work you put in. So if you want to be considered a serious writer by others on the site, be prepared to build up some sweat equity. While not every crit you receive will be insightful, or even useful, it’s worth sticking with it for those that really open your eyes. I make revisions (though they’re often minor) in response to about twenty percent of the crits I’ve received, and three or four percent have prompted me to make major changes—sometimes across an entire chapter or scene.

Full Disclosure

I’ve been active, on and off, on Scribophile for about a year. I’ve written a lot of crits (around a quarter million words worth of them), and doing so has been a major learning experience. My involvement on the site is currently minimal, as my attention has turned elsewhere.

Pompeii Movie Review

Written By: Paul Toth - Mar• 09•14

Conan the Barbarian + Gladiator + Spartacus = … Pompeii?

Pompeii is a gladiator epic/romance (though not a movie about romance among gladiators, which would be something altogether different) set against the backdrop of an ill- tempered Vesuvius. The hero, a brash, inexplicably well groomed Celtic slave with wavy-haired good looks, is intent both on revenge and romancing a becoming young noblewoman (played by Emily Browning). Before Vesuvius finally blows its top, raining destruction on virtuous and villainous alike, there’s much of both (romancing and revenge, that is) to be had.

Pompeii is a film with no pretensions of originality. Kit Harrington’s Milo—our noble Celt—has a backstory lifted directly from John Milius’ 1982 Conan the Barbarian. Both Conan and Milo are the last survivors of a brutally exterminated tribe, both were enslaved, both were trained to fight in the arena, both are simple men yearning for vengeance and freedom, yada yada. Both of them even put beat-downs on unfortunate equines—one out of pique, and one for more noble reasons.

Once the story moves to the gladiatorial arena at Pompeii, the screenwriters leave Conan behind, seeking inspiration from cable TV’s Spartacus: Blood and Sand (renamed “Spartacus: War of the Damned” in one of the all-time television WTF moves). Not only are cocksure Milo’s struggles are reminiscent of those endured by a newly enslaved Spartacus, but there’s a near one-to-one correspondence between the supporting cast of the cable series and Milo’s various tormentors and frenemies. There’s the sly, venal slave master, the hulking Nubian badass (though in Spartacus he’s an overseer rather than gladiator), the cruel fellow gladiator, and the raven-haired beauty who beckons, wistfully, from beyond the pain and filth of the arena. There’s even a scene in which a horny Roman pays to feel up one of the gladiators, in a tame, if not-so-subtle homage to Blood and Sand’s numerous scenes of toga-clad debauchery.

As previously mentioned, revenge is central to Pompeii, and the Conan-esque backstory provides the motivation for vengeance aplenty. The objects of Milo’s simmering hatred are conveniently close by, in the person of a crass Roman senator (Kiefer Sutherland) and a towering centurion played by Shasha Roiz, of Caprica and Grimm, and the paths of the three inevitably cross. At this point, the film becomes a bit less Spartacus and a bit more Gladiator. Though Milo never displays the expert tactical chops of Russell Crowe’s vengeful throat slasher, his ability to win over the crowd, excel in arena—both as leader and combatant—and provoke his enemies into subverting arena competition to seek his death—are reminiscent of Gladiator in the extreme. Just as in Gladiator, events somehow twist in such a manner as to put the hero’s arch-enemy in the arena with him. Wildly unlikely, you say? Hey, audiences bought it once, so they can apparently buy it again.

Not Quite

All of this begs the question, who did Pompeii want to be when it grew up? Did its intrepid screenwriters set off to rip of everyone equally, or was there a particular story they were burning (get it, get it?) to retell? As it turns out, there was one movie, above all others, that’s spinning in its cinematic grave, eager to rise like an undead pharaoh and shove the Pompeii pretender from its celluloidal throne. And it’s not a gladiatorial slashfest, it’s the most box-office-orific forbidden-love-plus-natural-disaster tale of them all, Titanic. Yes, Titanic. Like Titanic, Pompeii features young lovers from different sides of the proverbial tracks, brought together in a passionate, if ultimately doomed, embrace. The concept of eternal love—one that tragedy has frozen in time at the moment of its flowering (before the arguments about whose turn it is to do the dishes, who’s not being supportive of the other’s career, and the daily relationship grind that doesn’t go on for an eternity, but can seem to) is a key fixture in both stories.

So, does Pompeii succeed at its ultimate goal? Does it rise above the blood-stained sand to tell a transcendent tale of love gained and lost, with the two events converging at what’s essentially the same lovely, longing, horrible moment? You be the judge. I’m too busy working on my latest screenplay, Hindenburg, to figure it out.

First Light

Written By: Paul Toth - Mar• 04•14

Introduction to First Light

First Light is a fantasy novella. It’s fan fiction, inspired by a game called Mage Wars. This is the first chapter.

If the tale proves interesting to the fantasy fans that ply the web, I may post additional chapters.

Mage Wars is a product of Arcane Wonders, and was created by Bryan Pope.

At First Light

Mage Wars fan fiction By Paul Toth

Mage Wars is a product of Arcane Wonders, and was created by Bryan Pope.

Chapter One

By the time Prilya cried out, ordering the clerics to flatten themselves against the vestibule floor, it was too late. Ornate double doors splintered, bursting inward, and gouts of roiling red-orange flame engulfed the men. The priests howled—a wordless, warbling lament—and fell to the floor, writhing like worms on a hook. For the briefest of moments, Prilya wondered if she would live long enough mourn them, and then gasped and stumbled as a blast of searing air nearly knocked her off her feet.

Pain, more than she’d ever felt.

Scorched skin, screaming, on her face and arms.

Her eyes hurt so badly she could barely blink, and singed strands of hair raked her neck. People screamed behind her, and she glimpsed flurries of activity to both sides, but for a time she could pay attention to little except how much she hurt. She grit her teeth and whispered a prayer to Illinyana-Toh-Vidyas, foremost goddess of the Skyborne, and felt the coil of panic writhing in her gut grow still.

Perilya’s first instinct was to run—to flee to the temple’s ruined antechamber—but instead she stooped, unslung her weathered oxskin carryall, and loosed its ties in a rush. Those attacking the temple would be hampered by the flames filling its entrance. She hoped so, anyway. She ought to be time enough to arm herself. If not, she would soon be praying for a quick death.

Three men appeared, bulling their way through the splintered, still-burning remnants of the temple door. For a few moments, they were barely visible in the haze surrounding the ruined vestibule, but Prilya could see them well enough to tell their clothing and armor lacked emblem, sigil, or heraldic device. There had come to deal deaths that no one would claim. No lord, or king, or nation, would ever be called to account for the veins these warriors opened, or the widows they made. They were assassins without allegiance or greater purpose, men who struck from the shadows and then faded away, nameless. Gray men.

By the time they emerged from the smoke, coughing through wetted rag masks, Prilya had her etti-ya—a long, narrow rod clad in Ettilene silver—in hand. She held it behind her back, clasped in one hand, fingers curled around the device’s leather grip. The etti would never evoke fear in the manner of the bloodstained broadswords in the advancing cutthroats’ hands, but it served her well enough.

The men drew within a half dozen paces of Prilya, their scorched rawhide boots dark with ash.

“Entilyet eh-ya yay,” she whispered. “Miyaspih toh.”Forgive me, goddess, for the harm I do in your name. A prayer in a dead language. Words never meant to be formed by a human tongue.

Five paces.

Prilya cowered before the men, trembling. She spoke in wavering, fearful tones and made placating gestures with her free hand. “Don’t hurt me, I pray of you. Please. Please. I’m just an acolyte.”

Three paces.

The Gray Men hesitated for half a breath, gazing at her wordlessly, and then one stepped forward. The point of his sword arced toward Prilya’s gut. He moved languidly, as if skewering a tasty bit of venison floating in his stew, and the other two barely seemed to have noticed her. Their dead-fish eyes scanned the nave, and she supposed they sought more formidable opponents than a singed, tow-headed girl in soiled travel robes.

Spinning on the balls of her feet, Prilya let the sword pass to her left, staying close enough to its path for the flat of the weapon’s blade to brush her belly. At the same time, she swung her etti in a tight, sidelong arc that came to a halt when its lip impacted the attacking Gray Man’s face. She ululated as the rod struck home, and the uppermost symbol on the device flared to life.

The shock of impact traveled down Prilya’s arm, partially numbing it, and light filled the hall. For an instant, she peered through the clothing and flesh of the interloper she’d struck, gazing at the black bones beneath. His skull clove in two, with a crack the width of a baby’s finger opening from nose to crest. As the light faded, passing out of the world in less time than it took to blink, Prilya’s victim crumpled like an abandoned marionette. His body twisted, slumping, between his companions, whose hands had risen to shield their eyes.

Prilya slid to one side, rising onto her toes. Thankful she’d braved the disdain of the elder Sisters by dressing in soft doeskin scoe, she executed the tight, energetic spin of a peasant girl dancing—skirts a-flouncing—at her first Festival.

Breathe in. Her hip almost brushed a Gray Man’s grimy vambrace as rotated past him.

And out. As she pirouetted into position behind the assassin, she bent her knees and dropped into a deep crouch, still spinning.

In again, and hold, silent. She swung the etti wide, spinning it end-over-end. It gathered force like a falcon nosing into a deep dive. When she barked a single word of power—a vengeful supplication addressed to a vengeful goddess—an engraving halfway up the rod flashed. At that moment, she drove the etti into the lightly armored flesh behind the Gray Man’s knees.

Her target straightened, turning toward her, and for a moment Prilya grew cold, afraid the Goddess had ignored her entreaty. But then his eyes widened. The killer’s legs bent, and then bent some more. He slid to the ground in a contorted heap. The man grunted, struggling to gain his feet, but Prilya knew he would never walk again.

The last of the interlopers—a hulking fellow with a harelip—peered at each of his fallen comrades in turn. His eyes widened and his jaw worked, and for a moment Prilya wondered if the man might flee. She whispered a quick prayer to the Venna-Ja, the foremost Departed of her order. Each blow Prilya struck diminished her. Better by far that the man should surrender to the temple guard than force her to take him down or perish in the attempt.

“Fivven ka-taro,” said the man she had just struck. She recognized the curse, an Ilander tem used to deride women who didn’t know their place. The words spewed from between grit teeth. He scrabbled, still trying to rise, rage and despair contorting pale, close-set features. “Vaun ya ti- fothen. Ya. Finnit-tuh.” His legs wobbled sickeningly, like sticks broken in half and reconnected with soggy strings. Prilya wasn’t sure what the words meant, but the man’s violent intent was clear. Kill the girl. And hurt her bad while you’re doing it.

Harelip’s eyes narrowed and his jaw snapped shut. He turned to face her, holding his weapon—a longsword with a row of cruel serrations halfway between hilt and tip—at the ready. He advanced with the precise, angular steps of a man who was no stranger to the battlefield.

Prilya gave ground. If the Gray Man got close enough, he could simply grapple her, snapping her neck or crushing her beneath his weight. She made a quick feint with the etti, breathing an activation that caused it to glow with an enough intensity to convince her attacker she meant business.

He took a single long stride, striking so quickly he nearly parted her arm at the wrist, and Prilya hopped back.

Prilya shivered. He’s deadly up close, and almost as dangerous from a stride-and-a-half away. She followed up with another feint, and then another, barking activations that lit this symbol or that.

Again, the Gray Man responded, working his way forward with a series of narrow sweeps and overhand jabs. To Prilya’s eyes, his balance and focus appeared impeccable. A combat instructor’s dream. “It’s almost a shame I have to slay you,” she hissed, meeting the killer’s gaze.

Prilya licked her lips, which tasted of cinders and blood. She had the measure her opponent. The big man continued to exhibit perfect technique, but appeared predictable in the extreme. The Ilander practice of honing elite warriors by tasking them with thousands of hours of drills had its drawbacks. Any attack she made would elicit an easily anticipated response.

She bent at the knees and grunted, pretending to aim a blow at the man’s thighs, and when he tried to cleave her elbow she straightened, jerking the etti back and up, into the path of his cut. She spat three sounds in rapid succession, “thogh—fen—ouh,” coughing out the last of them at the moment her etti met the Gray Man’s weapon. A triangular etching in the silvery rod’s trunk seemed to leap from the weapon, forming a widening, evanescent projection, and the man’s blade shattered.

Shards flew in all directions. Just as Prilya intended, the largest piece—a jagged, glittering awl—drove its way up through her opponent’s gorget. Blood spewed from the wound, forming a frothy inverted fountain that made her want to gag.

As the Gray Man staggered in one direction, Prilya lurched in another, gasping. She reached for her side, and her hand came away wet. She allowed herself a pained cry. One of the sword fragments had pierced the flesh between armpit and hip. A reminder from the Goddess, perhaps, that speaking Her words in anger would have consequences.

“Or perhaps I just have bat leavings for luck,” Prilya muttered. At least she’d managed to injure herself in a building full of healers. It seemed unlikely the wound would prove fatal, but the pain in her side was beginning to rival that emanating from her blistering extremities. She gulped, blinking away tears.

As Harlip sagged, gurgling out his last breath, Prilya took a moment to gaze around the nave. Beams of light descended through broad, rose-tinted windows and then disappeared among streamers of gray-black smoke and ash. Most of the parishioners had fled. She assumed they huddled, praying, in the transept chapels. A few braver souls made their way toward her: a pair of sacramental guardsmen in their distinctive brown woolens; bald, bent-backed Chancellor Benis; and (thanks be to the Holies!) High Priestess Emmera Van Laszis, Prilya’s mistress. The woman’s jaw was set, mouth little more than a pinched pink line, and the fleur de lis atop her golden scepter shone so brightly the onrushing guards were forced to avert their eyes.

Prilya sighed, releasing a hot, shuddering breath. Mistress Laszis would set things right, with the injured given care and the guilty punished. And she would make sense of things, somehow, so that Prilya might come to understand how clerics in a great temple—one within the walls of an imperial capital—could be slaughtered beneath the midday sun.

The sound of impossibly sharp, heavy footfalls filled the air—sharp impacts more like those of hooves than boots—and Prilya turned toward the burning antechamber. Something was coming, following in the Gray Men’s wake, but she couldn’t make out anything through the smoke. Several heartbeats separated each step, as if whatever had entered the chapel was either very large, moving slowly, or both.

Gulping, Prilya took a step back, raising her etti. She tried to ignore the wet warmth flowing across her belly and thigh. Her hand shook, and when she commanded it to cease, it went on shaking anyway. Insubordinate wretch.

A figure emerged. It stood on two legs, and a pair of arms hung from its shoulders, but in every other way it bore little resemblance to a man. It was thing hewn from the stuff of nightmares. Twelve feet of hoof, scale, and curling, fluted horn. A chest the size of a mountain pony expanded, and when the demon expelled its breath, Prilya choked on the smell of flyblown entrails. The beast took another step, bringing it within a wagon-length of Prilya, and its sickly yellow eyes found her.

“I’ve come to rend the flesh of a high priestess,” said the demon, its voice a scabrous growl. “You hew to the likeness I was shown, but you’re little more than a child.” He took another step, leaning in, and opened a mouth writhing with black, eyeless eels. “It’s hard to tell, with you fleshy, short-lived warts, though. Are you a high priestess, little verruca?”

Her whole body shook, and Prilya barely resisted the temptation to hurl herself to the floor and beg the unclean thing for mercy. She had read of such beings—beasts from the innermost halls of the damned—but had never seen one, or known anyone who claimed to have done so. The varieties of demons summoned to do battle in the arena were little more than malevolent lapdogs next to this creature. How could she fight such a thing? How could anyone—

“It’s me you’ve come for, puss-bag.” High Priestess Laszis strode toward the demon, scepter held high. Her corn silk tresses flashed with reflected light, framing fierce patrician features. “You must be the clown prince of Hell, for only a fool in motley would challenge me here, amongst the shrines of the martyrs. In this place, I am suffused with god-borne purity and strength. Nay, monster, I breathe it.”

The demon chortled—a low, grinding sound like bone meal being milled. “Purity.” He smiled, revealing incisors like recurved pachyderm tusks. “Really, now. We know a thing or two about sin in the lands from which I hail, priestess. And I have it on good authority that the word ‘pure’ hasn’t been on good terms with you for some time. I believe you and it are… how can I put this… estranged. Apparently you aren’t quite as favored by the self-righteous prigs who rule the higher realms as you used to be.”

Prilya shook her head. Lies. The denizens of the underworld were known for that, more than anything. Surely the woman who had plucked Prilya from obscurity, rescuing her from the banal life of a plowshare lordling’s daughter, wouldn’t breach the holy covenants.

She waited for her Mistress to repudiate the demon’s accusations, but the tall, straight-backed woman stood stock still, mute, and grew red in the face. The light bathing her countenance seemed to dim, if only a little.

Guardsmen appeared, gathering in a knot around Prilya’s mistress. As one, they turned to her. From the unsteadiness in the men’s stances, Prilya could tell they were as frightened as she, but their expressions bespoke grim determination. Command us, was the unspoken missive. If we perish at your side, our lives will have been well-lived. Chancellor Benis, who lagged a dozen strides behind, looked equally ready to defend the faith.

Shamed by their bravery, Prilya drew a deep breath and lunged at the demon. Words of righteous power gathered on her lips, and holy symbols inscribed on the etti hovered before her mind’s eye. Minith. Litti-atrackan. Moiy. She’d once cracked a limestone boulder with moiy.

Prilya heard Laszis’ voice raise behind her. “No!” the priestess howled. “I command you to stop, you little idiot.”

“I can’t hear you,” Prilya whispered, speaking to no one in particular. “Ears must have been injured in the explosion.” She dove forward, picking up speed despite the waning strength in her legs.

“Me!” The priestess was screaming now, voice hoarse. “You came for me beast, not this babe.”

Again, the demon eyed Prilya, and his smile made her guts crawl. “Now then, children, don’t bicker. Your mother and I love you both.” He lifted a scaly paw. “But you…” The paw hurtled toward Prilya, and an instant later she could see nothing else. “You, I will show my love later.”

The world blurred around her as her feet left the floor. She was dimly aware of her etti taking wing, hurtling through the air like a silvery canyon-eagle. Then she was kissing a marble pillar, which struck her as strange because she had yet to kiss a boy, and why ought she kiss an architectural feature, however nicely formed, before bestowing her affections on a young man? In any event, the pillar didn’t appear to appreciate being kissed, because it broke her nose.

Everything spun, and Prilya found herself lying on a wall (how odd!) that tore her shoulder from its socket. A moment later, she came to rest on the floor, which seemed friendlier than the rest of the nave, because it didn’t insist on punishing any of her other parts. Prilya could barely move, but she stretched out her arms, resting cracked, bleeding palms on the surrounding floor tiles. They felt cool. Nice floor. Good floor. We’ll be friends always.

Prilya felt consciousness begin to depart, slithering from her grasp like one of the clever trout that plied the streams near her parents’ ancestral hold. Her eyelids sagged, and she barely managed stay alert long enough to watch the battle commence.

Laszis drew streamers of shimmering power from the domed Altar of Altheigh, shaping them into bolts that skewered the demon, passing all the way through him and bursting from his scaly back. Gaping wounds bathed the floor in blue-back ichor, but he still stood.

Prilya’s eyes closed, and for a time her surroundings took their leave. When they returned, she managed to lift her eyelids just enough to see that guardsmen lay scattered about the hall, backs broken. Her attention turned from the dead men to Laszis, who etched the air with a clatch of runes that—incredibly—drove the demon back, hooves screeching against ancient flagstones.

The last thing Prilya would remember of that day were the horrid eyeless eels that slid from the demon’s mouth. They tore at her mistress’s limbs even as the High Priestess slew the beast, parting torso from head. She’d managed to drive the flaring crest of her scepter through the creature’s barrel-thick neck.

Later on, Prilya would be glad she hadn’t seen her mistress die.


…to be continued…

Top Ten Best-Written TV Series

Written By: Paul Toth - Dec• 07•13

In creating this list, I’ve tried to focus specifically on writing, rather than the numerous other facets that contribute to making a television program list-worthy. This means that some phenomenal series, such as Game of Thrones and Fringe, didn’t make the list because their greatness (to my mind) stemmed as much from other factors—such as remarkable acting and visuals—as the quality of the scripts. This isn’t to say these shows aren’t well-written—they most certain were (are are). It’s just that a few other series managed to strike an even greater number of appealing notes.

Obviously this list reflects my personal biases. There’s a lot of speculative fiction, far more drama than comedy, and a heavy tilt toward more recent stuff. Obviously there are plenty of series from yesteryear that had phenomenal writing. Shows like M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore show, and All in the Family. I think the art of writing for screen has evolved, though, and today’s authors have the advantage of learning their craft while standing on some wonderfully broad shoulders.

Many television series have featured stellar writing. These, in my opinion, are the best of the best.

#10: Season 1, The Wire

David Simon deserves kudos for every season of The Wire, one of greatest crime dramas ever to air. The show’s journey into an urban heart of darkness is a mesmerizing, intoxicating jaunt that leaves one gasping for breath and dead-bolting the doors. Season one in particular is reminiscent of Pacino and Deniro’s Heat in that it turns the traditional cops-and-robbers paradigm on its side by placing equally prominent (and equally flawed) characters on both sides of the law.

Much has been made of the series’ deft social commentary, but the most remarkable aspect of Simon’s focus on the dark side urban America lies in the fact that it never feels preachy. This contrasts sharply with shows like the US version of Life on Mars or the 70s procedural Quincy, in which the protagonists rarely seem climb off the soapbox.

The series is particularly daring in that in that portrays members of the law enforcement community as eminently fallible creatures. Plenty of film and TV shows include detectives with flaws, but these tend to fall into a predictably narrow band—namely, one in which the character possesses a surfeit of some admirable trait: He cares about the victims, but too much. She’s dedicated to the job, but too much. He or she is too brave for their own good.

Not the cops on the wire. They’re venal, bureaucratic, and above all, lazy. In other words, they’ve got feet of clay like the rest of us, and the result is relatable characters that are a perfect fit for a gritty milieu that feels dangerous and tense and sometimes frustrating. And that frustration makes it all the more uplifting when a character actually manages to grab the bull by the horns and get something done.

The one red mark on season one’s ledger is probably its almost comically dense profanity. Never have so many used the f-word so much. Thankfully, the swearing is toned down to slightly more believable levels in subsequent seasons.

Season one treats the viewer to any number of great moments, and some of the best come in the pilot, where we see the planets align—one by one—in just the right way to spur an aimless, politicized police force into taking action. In a situation where smart, organized criminals seem to hold all the cards, we’re treated to a whiff of hope.

#9: Season 2, Chuck

Both season one and season two of Chuck are superb, but because of season one’s truncated schedule, season two gets the nod. Schwartz and Fedak blend comedy, action, romance, and drama so effectively that the show’s relentless goofiness almost never derails its tales of high-stakes intrigue.

Season two presents a half-dozen different multi-episode story arcs, several of which rank among the series’ best. They often run concurrently, providing the series with a narrative richness rarely seen on broadcast TV. These include the emergence of the shadowy “Orion,” who turns out to be Chuck’s (the eponymous main character) estranged father; a romantic entanglement with Jill, Chuck’s ex, who’s also a member of a nefarious organization known as fulcrum; and an overarching romantic arc that culminates in a beautifully executed love scene between Chuck and the series’ female lead, Sarah.

Chuck and Sarah’s evolving romance is an area in which the season’s writing proves particularly inspired. The will-they-or-won’t-they subplot, in which the path to emotional fulfillment is blocked by succession of unpleasant characters and unforeseen events, is a staple of modern television, but Chuck’s creative staff carries out this strategy with a panache that sets the season apart. Both Sarah and Chuck fall for alternative partners, and in both cases the subplots involving their love interests are neatly tied to central espionage storylines. Life and death scenarios serve to intensity romantic arcs, and vice versa.

The single greatest impediment to Chuck and Sarah becoming a couple is Sarah’s reticence, and the stark contrast between her reserve and Chuck’s earnest puppy-dog affections serves as excellent source of tension. The writers parlay this tension into a series of superb comedic and dramatic moments, several of which play out against the backdrop of Sarah’s checkered past.

Writers often draw upon the antics of peripheral characters for comic relief, and Chuck has an entire stable of characters who serve in this role. Season two sees the introduction of “Jeffster,” a pop duo featuring Chuck’s ferociously inappropriate Buy More coworkers. The resultant dialog (and performances) are at the very least amusing and in many cases knock-down-drag-out funny.

#8: Season 3, The Walking Dead

Despite the outrageous of The Walking Dead’s premise (zombie apocalypse), it feels real, and this is strength from which many of its other strengths flow. The show is peopled by characters with whom we can readily identify because they’re more-or-less everyday folk. Seeing people like oneself thrown into bizarre, horrific circumstances makes it easy to imagine being in such circumstances, and, depending on your taste in entertainment, this can be an intensely appealing experience. Most speculative series’ are peopled by larger than life characters, from the gorgeous witches of Charmed to the superbly effective officers of Star Trek, to the X-Files’ fanatically diligent FBI agents. They’re generally sympathetic, but I don’t think most of us really identify with them. The Walking Dead takes an altogether different tack, to superb effect.

The series is adapted from the graphic novels by Robert Kirkman, and season three merges the strongest  storyline from Compendium One (collecting the first five years of graphic novels) with a variety of new material. At the season’s outset, a small group of zombie-apocalypse survivors take refuge in an almost- abandoned prison. Unbeknownst to the protagonists, a larger group of survivors has secured several blocks of a nearby downtown area and turned it into a livable settlement. Eventually the two groups meet, and their interactions are tainted by the fact that the townies are led by a wily homicidal maniac known as “The Governor.” The struggles between the two groups dominate this part of the series.

Every season of The Walking Deacd emphasizes the moral dilemmas that arise when people are forced to contend with other members of a fragmented, desperate population. In season three, characters facing these dilemmas make choices with terrible unintended consequences. By daring the viewer to put themselves in the characters’ shoes, the writers create a provocative, immersive experience few series have matched.

One particularly potent example of these ethical conundrums comes to mind: Early in the season, the survivors find the prison isn’t altogether uninhabited. A half-dozen prisoners are still there—able to fend off the zombies, but unable to escape. Rick, the group’s leader, finds he must choose between letting one of the prisoners fend for himself outside the prison walls or allowing him back inside, where he might a pose a threat to Rick’s family and friends. Rick shuts the prisoner out, and the chain of events that follows eventually results in the horrific death of two survivors, including Rick’s wife. The ensuing barrage of guilt and unhinges him, and for a time renders him incapable of leading. The drama of the arcs potency lies in the fact that most of us can probably see ourselves at least considering taking the same course of action as Rick.

Season three is also marked a remarkable richness of conflict. As usually, there’s the human vs. zombie storyline, that plays out in different ways for each of the two groups of humans. Both bands of survivors develop deep divisions, and resulting acts of deception, breaches of trust, and the escalating acrimony form a counterpoint to the inter-group warfare and the personal struggle between their leaders. In addition, a third, smaller band (which faces its own divisions) must choose who it will align with. As if that wasn’t enough, several characters, including Rick, and a relative principled survivor named Andrea, must face internal conflicts that contribute to the death of one and deteriorating mental condition of the other.

#7: Season 1, Justified

Inspired by Elmore Leonard’s short story Fire in the Hole (the late Leonard also produced the first few seasons), the series gives us one of the most well-drawn protagonists (Raylan Givens) in the history of the medium. Mixing a lengthy set of ostensibly contradictory traits in one persona might seem like a recipe for disaster, but Leonard manages to do so in a manner that is not just credible, but downright compelling. His Kentucky marshal appears tip-of-the-hat laid back, but is tense, confrontational and, as his ex-wife puts it in the pilot, “the angriest man I know.” He has a disarming wit and backcountry charm, but takes pains to distance himself from his blue collar past. And while he’s capable of being presumptuous to the point of outright arrogance, he addresses even the most loathsome of contract killers with a soft-spoken politeness—at first, anyway.

It might seem like plot arcs involving a coal country marshal would be simple, but Justified spins a tangled web, with Givens at the center of a splay of nuanced relationships. In the pilot, we’re introduced to his old love interest (who works at the same courthouse he frequents), his new love interest (involved in one shooting death before the marshal arrives, and another in his presence), a one-time friend turned violent supremacist, and (obliquely) his felonious father. Watching this show feels like diving into the deep end, and as the season progresses, its interwoven arcs only become progressively (though pleasingly) more involved.

Plenty of series feature quirky characters—in the world of sitcoms it’s practically a requirement— but quirky doesn’t necessarily equate to good, or even appealing. There’s a fine line between characters whose quirks makes them eye roll-worthy and those whose idiosyncrasies help render them sympathetic and compelling. In my book, Bones’ protagonist is an example of the former (though, judging from its longevity and ratings, many disagree) and Justified is a superb instance of the latter. From Boyd Crowder, the marshal’s nemesis and eventual born-again frenemy, to Ava Crowder, Raylan’s precocious, shotgun-toting, sexually aggressive pseudo-semi-girlfriend, Justified gives us one personality after another that commands the screen. Its characters can both make us believe in them and shock us witless, sometimes in the same scene.

#6: Season 1, Battlestar Galactica

I hereby bestow upon the Battlestar Galctica pilot the title “Best Pilot, Television Movie, or Miniseries of all Freaking Time” (yes, I know, it already has a title). It’s that good, and it’s the main reason season one makes the list instead of seasons two or three, which are in some ways stronger contenders. In it, the human race (such as it exists in another place and time) is nearly wiped out, and its remnants must go on the run, forever at the precipice of extinction. They fighting for lives against an implacable enemy host consisting of artificial beings called Cyclons. And as if things weren’t bad enough, the fleet of spacecraft in which the humans have taken refuge includes only a single warship—one that’s been infiltrated by Cylons. Also, the mad scientist who betrayed mankind has taken charge of their R&D efforts. It’s not quite as grim as The Walking Dead, but close.

Battlestar Galactica is, at its heart, a story about war—what is does to us, how it changes us, and how it may in time be the end of us. Season one uses several simultaneous developing arcs to explore these themes, each of which brings to bear a different type—a different flavor, if you will—of intensity.

Flavor One: The Galactica, a massive, venerable ship that has become a sort of space arc, is at the center of numerous battles against the Cylons. These are never “paste obligatory action scene here” affairs, but well-crafted sequences in which conflict propels the plot in a readily understood way. In each case, there’s a great deal at stake, and we’re consistently brought to the edge of our seats as human pilots duke it out against squads of vicious sentient drones.

Flavor Two: While his compatriots fight for their lives in deep space, Helo, one of the Galactica crewmembers, is stranded on a Cylon-occupied homeworld. He believes Boomer, another crew member, is stranded with him, but in reality he’s being manipulated by Cylon doppleganger. In its own way, this dance of deception is as high-octane as the life and death struggles aboard Galactica, especially since we, the viewers, know what’s going on and Helo does not. When he literally ends up in bed with the enemy, it’s space opera at its finest.

Flavor Three: In the episode Bastille Day, we see another face of war when humanity turns on itself, with prisoners representing an oppressed faction attempting to gain concessions by taking hostages. Those who lead the fleet must either negotiate with criminals or risk open combat, and the possibility that many of the remaining members of the human race may die at one another hands. This episode is excellent example of way characters are challenged during the series—not just with tests of fortitude and battle-readiness, but with challenges to their wisdom and essential humanity.

In addition to the pilot, season one includes another of the series’ finest single episodes, You Can’t Go Home Again. In it, a shipwrecked Starbuck must find her way back to the fleet. It’s a model man-vs.- nature story in which wit, determination, and intestinal fortitude allow an isolated individual to win out against seemingly insurmountable odds. The story pegs the intensity needle early on and never lets up, culminating in a triumphal penultimate scene worthy of a standing ovation.

#5: Season 5, 24

Though equally suspenseful series have since come along, 24 was the first television show that excelled at scooting us to edges of our seats and keeping us there—act after act, scene after scene. While the show’s real-time formula appears simple, it is anything but. Each episode builds tension and reaches dramatic peaks in multiple associated arcs, with one arc sloping gently while another peaks and yet another plateaus (often with some sort of high-stakes confrontation). The result is like somehow spreading’s one’s consciousness across multiples selves on multiple simultaneous roller coasters. Pure vertigo.

Not all seasons of the show are equally noteworthy. They range from mediocre to outstanding, with as many at low end as the high. Three seasons distinguish themselves, though: 1, 2, and 5. In each case, there’s sufficiently rich content that the writers don’t’ have to resort to repetition or filler to fill in the spaces between key developments. They also manage to present wildly unlikely scenarios with enough convincing detail to allow for suspense of disbelief—a major challenge with all larger-than-life fiction.

The season sets a brisk pace from the first episode, in which two supporting characters are murdered and a third barely survives the same fate. It’s easy enough to throw a bunch of gratuitous violence in an episode, but the deaths in 24 are hardly random—rather, they sit in center of a weave of plot threads that extends back into previous seasons into forward into the central season five arc. The violence is shocking, but it’s also the logical outgrowth of the struggle between Jack Bauer, the protagonist, and a well-placed nationalist cabal. By the end of episode, the stakes are high, the pace is set, and a number of sympathetic characters are already in jeopardy.

#4: Season 4, Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad is the tale of Walter White, a good-hearted, intelligent man whose various faults (pride, self-delusion, and a sort of reluctant ruthlessness) join desperate circumstances to brew a foul elixir that poisons all who imbibe it. Walter White’s ruinous journey destroys the lives of his family and associates, and eventually hastens his demise. Along the way, he immerses himself in a life of crime that involves him in a series increasingly high-stakes conflicts, facing off against other members of an underworld in which he eventually comes to play a prominent role. Despite the fact that Walter dooms himself and everyone around him, he’s a sympathetic character, and the show’s various subplots, driven by his particular blend of desperation, cleverness, and iron-willing determination, are fascinating.

Every season of Breaking Bad is riveting, but season four stands out as remarkable because of the deadly duel White ends up waging against Gus Fring, one of his co-conspirators. One of things that makes the conflict so compelling is the fact that it’s borne, not out of Walter’s flaws, but out of his more noble traits—namely, his loyalty to Jesse, his partner in crime. Because Water clings to this particular principle, he and Gus end up at odds, and Water barely escapes death at the hands the cultured but deadly kingpin’s henchmen. For most of the season, we’re waiting for terrible things to happen to Walter, and they often do. When Walter decides to fight back, things give even dicier, and the resultant suspense in spellbinding.

#3: Season 1, Twin Peaks

Several of the series on the list—Dexter, Breaking Bad, and The Walking Dead, made it largely because of the level of intensity they bring to screen. Twin Peaks—at almost twenty five years old the elder statesman of the batch—isn’t here because of intensity, though, it’s here because of mystique. The series is chock-full of strange character and stranger moments, but they blend together in a purposeful, beautiful pattern that’s engrossing rather than random or silly.

My favorite scene in the series comes when FBI agent Dale Cooper, the closest thing the ensemble has to a main character, sets out to gain insights into a homicide by throwing rocks at bottles. The method comes to him in a dream about the Dalai Lama, of course. As absurd as the whole thing, is, it doesn’t just come across as absurd, it comes across as, well, almost deep. The calm, intelligent, insightful-sounding way Agent Cooper choreographs the whole thing makes him seem like seem competent to the core, and for a moment—just a moment—we can almost belief his crazy-ass method will work, at least in the off- kilter world of Twin Peaks.

One of the most remarkable things about series was the fact that it reached the screen at all—especially considering it was a network show. It came in at the tail-end end of the 80s, a decade in which networks embraced true lowest-common-denominator programming, resulting in one bland sitcom and PI show after another. Even some promising series, such as Star Trek, The Next Generation, were pretty bad until they left the eighties behind.

Twin Peaks had a short run—a single full season, another partial season, and an obscure theatrical movie that tied up the remaining threads. So season one gets the “best of” designation by default. It’s a scenario familiar to fans of the next series on the list…

#2: Season 1, Firefly

So much has been written of Joss Whedon’s opus it sometimes seems there’s little left to say. Like Twin Peaks, it was cut down in its prime—though, unlike Twin Peaks, it probably had a lot of gas left in the tank (Twin Peaks appeared likely to move from its youth directly to its dotage). At least its jilted fans had well-received theatrical finale to enjoy.

Season one of Firefly truly hits on cylinders, and manages to do it in episode after episode. It has distinctive characters with back stories that are revealed in tantalizing bits and pieces. Like Battlestar Galactica, the show has intrinsically high stakes because the characters are at odds with a vastly more powerful foe. Finally, the show blends humor, action, romance, and speculative elements almost as artfully as Chuck. Being funny is hard. Being funny without derailing a tale’s dramatic tension and sense of high stakes requires outright mastery of the form. And Firefly’s writers demonstrate that mastery time and time again.

As much as any series on the list, Firefly makes wonderful use of subtext—something I never saw done within the confines of the small screen until the remarkable ER made its debut in the early 90s. Though the season is action-packed, some of its best scenes involve Mal, a freelance spacecraft captain, and Inara, a high-end prostitute. The two rarely say what they mean to each other—not really—but a complex mélange of one-upmanship, bruised feelings, attraction, and growing respect is nonetheless evident. A thousand things neither character will ever say are there to be discerned by the viewer. Wielding unspoken words as if they were a rapier striking right to the heart is a magical feat few writers can pull off.

Like most of Whedon’s series, Firefly’s dialog crackles. When gauging the quality of such things, I like to play a little game called “Is it obvious?” After each line, I ask myself if it was obviously the next thing I would expect the character to say. If the answer is “yes,” it means the line was either predictable, or I ended up feeling I should have predicted what the character would say. Either way, conversations that consistently make me say “yes,” end up feeling flat and unremarkable. Lines that fail to surprise also generally fail to evoke, provoke, and draw us in. Again and again, watching Firefly leads me answer the “obvious” question with a resounding “no.” The characters keep surprising us, keep drawing us in, and keep us wanting to know, see, and experience more of the series has to offer.

#1: Season 2, Dexter

It’s a series about serial killer who stalks other serial killers—a premise that could easily have led to a repetitive gore-fest or become nihilistic and depressing. Instead, we got a classy, smart show with loads of thought-provoking moral ambiguity and more suspense than any other entertainment I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing. Like many modern series (and most of those on this list), Dexter eschews an episodic approach, making use of multi-episode story arcs that sometimes extend the entire length of season.

For Dexter, this is important because its approach to suspense involves posing a threat that intensifies over time, building from one episode to the next until the protagonist seems inevitably doomed. This strategy is masterfully applied in season two, which develops multiple threats and evolves them in tandem, with plot elements in each of the arcs interacting with elements in the others. The result is something a time-traveling Hitchcock would probably have enjoyed to no end: a tale of suspense that unfolds in masterful fashion.

The show’s protagonist (“Dexter,” of course) presented what I can only imagine must have been a daunting challenge for the writers. He’s an emotionally stunted sociopath incapable of the full range of normal human responses. How do you make such a character relatable, much less sympathetic? And with such a narrow emotional range, how do avoid having him end up boring? This is TV, after all, and it’s not enough for a character to be interesting for a couple of hours—he has to keep the viewer coming back—week after week, for months.

Once the show went into it second season, with a dozen episodes in the can, the problem was no doubt compounded. Several strategies seem to have been employed to address the issue, but the most important of them, in the long run, involved finding a way to let the character evolve in a compelling and believable way. Over time, we can see a sort of feedback loop, in which Dexter’s interactions with those in his life gradually engender stronger, more genuine emotional responses, which in turn allows those relationships to deepen. There were any number of ways the writers could have fouled up this tricky process, but they didn’t, and the result is a character that continues to intrigue and engage for years.

Honorable Mention

Season 1, Game of Thrones

An amazing series, but amazing as much due to set design, acting, directing, and special effects as writing. While the scripts are stellar, especially those in season one, they weren’t quite good enough to beat out the other shows on this list.

Season 3, The Sopranos

Great writing, season after season, but not quite as exceptional as other shows that are good for similar reasons. Not as thought-provoking as The Wire, or as suspenseful as Dexter, or as compelling a character study as Breaking Bad. One of my favorite series of all time? Yes. Top-ten writing? Not quite.

Season 2, Mad Men

Whip-smart dialog, brilliant narrative slight-of-hand, and great hairy boatloads of subtext. The best episodes are wickedly subtle and deft. Beautiful writing, no doubt, but I don’t find the stories quite as enthralling as those presented by the series that made the list. And yes, it’s all subjective.

Season 2, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

If I was making a list of the top ten best-written series, rather than the best-written seasons, Buffy would certainly make the grade. Focusing on seasons made it difficult to select this show, though. The

best individual episodes come later in the series, but the most consistent writing occurs earlier on. The most appealing overarching arc comes in season two, but season three has the greatest preponderance of compelling plot twists. In the end, I couldn’t think of a specific season worthy of edging other contenders off the list.

Season 1, Journeyman

Never heard of it? Sadly, most haven’t. A great series, with spectacular writing, that never found an audience. It was a strong contender.

I’m interested in hearing from readers. What would your top 10 list look like?

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