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OK, I've finally gotten over my depression/irritation over our loss to Memphis State in the Elite 8.

So let's talk about hot cyborg chicks!

By your command...

Tonight is the debut of the first half of the final season of Battlestar Galactica.

With The Wire getting sent to the rowhouses, BSG is now the best drama on television. Given the ravages of the writers' strike, that might sound like damning with faint praise, but it really isn't. Think about the shows airing on broadcast or cable right now - do any of them attempt to tackle such breadth and depth of subject matter that the Sci-Fi network's flagship takes on every week?

Here are some of the themes that BSG is interested in:

  • The effects and ramifications of genocide
  • The efficacy of faith and religion
  • The rules and rationalities of warfare
  • The bounds of loyalty and faithfulness (familial, racial, romantic, sexual, political, military)
  • The fine lines between genius and madness
  • Order versus chaos
  • Destiny versus free will

Other than that, it's just your run-of-the-mill sci-fi show.

BSG had the benefit of being utterly of the moment. Its miniseries debut, in which the Cylons launched a surprise nuclear attack on the 12 human colonies, came in December of 2003. At that point in time - with 9/11 still fresh in society's consciousness, and a new war under way in Iraq - the images of mushroom clouds and implacable, religiously-driven enemies were very much on our society's mind.

Whether by design or pure luck, the series delved into the implications of both our enemies' actions and our own through its following seasons. It seemed every nook and cranny was explored.

And we saw all these narratives via some of the most sympathetic and compelling characters ever to inhabit a sci-fi show. Actually, that's dismissive: These characters rank among the best of all contemporary television drama. There's Commander Adama (steady Edward James Olmos), acting on every possible militaristic fiber in his being, charged with protecting humanity at every cost. There's President Rosslin (steely Mary McDonnell), desperately trying to reconcile the needs for revenge, reconciliation, political idealism and the basic components of everyday survival. There's Gaius Baltar (brilliant James Callis), striving to - and proving utterly incapable of - finding a technological solution to warring factions of science and faith, and going batshit insane as a consequence.

Smart, charismatic, crazy. Vote for Baltar!

In between, you have the banal yet epic everyday struggles of faithful sons like Lee Adama (Jamie Bamber) and daughters Kara Thrace (Kattee Sackhoff); loyal lieutenants like Col. Saul Tigh (Michael Hogan); good soldiers like Lt. Sharon Valerii (Grace Park) and Lt. Karl Agathon (Tamoh Penikett); civilian workhorses like Galen Tyrol (Aaron Douglas) and Doc Cottle (Donnelly Rhodes); and countless other well-drawn characters.

As much as any show on television, BSG acknowledges and celebrates the utter messiness of existence, whether in physical or philosophical forms. It doesn't engage in the normal sci-fi prattle of how matter and anti-matter interrelate, or whether time travel is possible, or how holograph decks operate, or other mundane subjects. Because it pretends to be a part of a different universe, it allows itself to truly be about our own world and all its ridiculously sublime glory.

In celebration of the final season, I'll offer my best five episodes, all of which I'll stack up against the best of The Wire, The Sopranos, Deadwood, Hill Street Blues, Mannix, or any other drama series you care to throw at me.

  • "33", Season 1, Episode 1 - Coming out of the miniseries, this was as spare, stark and tense as any hour of television you can get. The few survivors of the initial attack are pursued relentlessly. Every tactical move they make is countered by their pursuers. Our protagonists discover that they can escape the pursuit, but only by sacrificing a significant number of their fellow survivors (at this point, the entire human race is about the population of New Braunfels). A tremendous exercise in existential rationality, if not reason.
  • "Kobol's Last Gleaming", Season 1, Episodes 12 & 13 - Extraordinary motivations come into focus at the end of Season 1. President Rosslin has represented the rationality of politics to this point. But she's also been diagnosed with terminal cancer. During her treatment, she's seen visions of a planet that leads to humanity's salvation. Has she gone completely 'round the bend? Or is it that in a time of ultimate irrationality, she has become more clear than ever? Does humanity take a risk and follow the charismatic visionary, or do they rely upon the tried-and-true structure of a militaristic approach via Commander Adama? The Cylon sleeper agent Sharon Valerii (aka Boomer) inserts herself into the equation by gunning down Adama. Tremendous cliffhanger leaves us wondering if the military way is the proper avenue to survival, or if it's the charismatic way that's better, or if there's any way at all.
  • "Resurrection Ship", Season 2, Episodes 11 & 12 - At this point, we've met the ruthless Admiral Cain (Michelle Forbes) and seen how her maniacal devotion to both the survival of humanity (seen in the spooky discipline among her crew) and the revenge/retaliation upon the Cylons (including torture) have come to fruition. Cain - along with Tigh - is easily the most complicated of all BSG characters. She's the commander you demand to have on your side ... and the one you vilify for carrying out your basest desires. To put a very simple spin on it, she's the Dick Cheney of the BSG universe. Her demise is both deserved and lamentable. In addition to the deft characterizations, these two episodes offer epic sci-fi/FX action.
  • "Lay Down Your Burdens", Season 2, Episodes 19 & 20 - A weasley Gaius Baltar wins the election over a wisely cheating Laura Rosslin. Baltar promises a new era free of conflict from the Cylons, who seem to have given up the chase. A Cylon sleeper agent ignites a nuke. Humanity retreats to its new digs on New Caprica, eager to get on with life without outside interference. The Cylons show up, unexpected, and impose a new era of strict colonial rule based on their love and eagerness to reform the conquered populace. As for humanity ... well, we're fucked. As the final image suggests: Arbeit macht frei. (Also: Whenever Dean Stockwell shows up, understand that you're in for a real shitstorm.)

    Oh man, are you in trouble now...
  • "A Measure Of Salvation", Season 3, Episode 7 - It was hard to pick a Season 3 episode, but I ultimately had to go with this one. In this ep, Adama and Rosslin are presented with an opportunity to kill off the entire Cylon race by allowing a virus to run its course. This episode, to me, encapsulates our entire society's ongoing struggle with Islam, Islamic radicalism, and - further - fundamentalism of all stripes. Do we allow the more primitive strains of religiosity to follow their own course, hoping against hope that they see the errors of their ways? Or do we interfere and attempt to excise their affronts to secularism and small-"l" liberalism before they infect larger portions of the populace? In BSG, humanity's leaders opt for Plan A. They're probably right to do so ... unless they're wrong.

Clearly in my choices, I've opted for some of the more philosophical entries in the BSG series. That's how I roll. But lest any newcomers fret that the show is just a bunch of talky exposition, let me assure you that there's all kinds of juicy spaceship battle action and almost nekkid hot robot chick action.

Producers Ron Moore and David Eick do not skimp on the visceral. They - along the cast and crew - know that none of the intellectual underpinnings have any relevancy without the flesh-and-blood immediacy of firefights and hate-fucking that routinely occur throughout the series.

As with The Wire - and with any other series worth your while - it's best if you start at the beginning. The miniseries and previous seasons are readily available (you can check out Season 3, episodes 16-20 at Hulu for free).