TV and movies are getting closer to each other every day, and that’s especially true when it comes to action sequences. For a long time, truly great action was reserved for films, where it seemed that budgets could go higher and better set pieces could be designed. Now, that distinction is a lot blurrier, and there are plenty of television shows that could rightly be hailed for their remarkable action sequences.
The best action, regardless of where it’s displayed, combines thrilling choreography with a certain sense of logic. Many modern movies have forgone the latter, deciding that it doesn’t always matter if the audience knows what’s happening. Action direction should always be clear and effective, and we should never lose track of what’s happening. There are plenty of TV shows where that’s true, and their creativity outstrips many more generic action movies.
Following an ex-thief who assumes the identity of a small town sheriff, Banshee is rife with action, in part because of its ability to deftly weave fight scenes into the story that it’s telling. Most of the combat on Banshee is hand-to-hand, but that doesn’t necessarily limit the shows ability to deliver thrills. Instead, it seems to give them more options, and allows the people who choreograph the show’s many fight scenes to depict fights as they might actually occur in the real world.
The brutality of these fights never made them unwatchable or disgusting. Instead, they brought the viewer into the situation, and showed us a more realistic version of the over-stylized combat we often see on film. Banshee’s action sequences were rife with a kind of realism that many action movies never really achieve. The action on Banshee also did what all good action should; it reinforced the story and the characters at the show’s center.
This series was tailor-made for maximum action. Based on a French film from the early ’90s, Nikita follows the titular woman (played by Maggie Q) who’s trained as a spy and assassin, and eventually turns against the people who trained her. The series follows her as she fights against the organization known as The Division. Nikita battles super spies who are constantly being recruited and trained by The Division, as she attempts to stop their various nefarious enterprises.
Thanks to its premise, Nikita is filled with action on a weekly basis. The assassin at the show’s center is constantly forced to battle other spies, and each one of these fights is choreographed in a wonderfully succinct way. Spy shows are great because they combine a variety of action elements, including explosions, gun fights, and the typical hand-to-hand combat that’s a staple in almost every genre. Nikita works because it combines these elements, and has Maggie Q at the center of its strong execution.
13. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
It’s easy to see why any content that Marvel produces should be on this list. After all, these are shows set in a world filled with superpowers, and sometimes to exist specifically for the lavish fight scenes that typically serve as a season’s climax. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a step apart, however, in part because the group of people at its center aren’t actually superpowered. They’re normal spies who just happen to live in a world filled with superpowered people.
Still, the show provides plenty of remarkable action sequences, although its most notable one probably came in the second season, when Skye took down an entire room filled with enemy agents in a single, beautifully choreographed long take. These kind of takes are remarkably hard to pull off, and the fact that the series managed to execute one as well as it did suggests how carefully calibrated Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. often is.
Telling the famous story of Spartacus pretty much requires compelling action scenes, and the Starz series Spartacus certainly didn’t disappoint on that front. Examining the story of the legendary Spartacus, and the slave uprising that he led against the Roman Republic, Spartacus gave us action sequences that rivaled anything presented to audiences at the multiplex. Because Spartacus and his compatriots spend much of their time inside the gladiator arena, the fights on Spartacus were often quite violent and brutal, but they were presented in an engaging manner.
The violence inside these arenas has already been depicted in a number of forums, but Spartacus’ take on it managed to capture both the horror of it and the way in which it could be used for entertainment. After all, Spartacus’ audience is interested in the very violence that the Romans were also hungry for, and Spartacus always knew how to weave that violence into its story.
You’d think shows with enormous budgets would be predisposed to have better action, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes, there are scrappy shows that manage to fit in plenty of compelling action on a more limited budget. That’s the story of Chuck, the spy dramedy that ran for five seasons on NBC. Chuck put a heavy focus on hand-to-hand combat and gun fighting, and the choreography was always sublime.
The show wasn’t always interested in realism (after all, it’s about a guy with a supercomputer in his brain). Even so, the show always used its action beats to reinforce the dynamics between the characters. When the show did opt for an explosion, the results were often hilarious, in part because of the tiny budget the show was produced on. Still, Chuck was often enormously ambitious, and proved that its limited budget didn’t have to hinder its storytelling or its action sequences.
Perhaps the best looking of the CW’s superhero properties, Arrow is remarkable for the physicality of its action. Whereas Supergirl and The Flash have the advantage of superpowers, Arrow is more grounded in the real world, and that only adds to its use of action sequences. Of course, it also helps when you have a cool accessory, and a tricked out bow and arrow makes for better action staging than most people might think.
On the whole, Arrow’s story of a billionaire who begins fighting crime isn’t exactly a unique one, but it helps when the show’s visuals are as distinct as this show’s are. Arrow is among the best offerings the CW has, and that’s in part because its action sequences are logically choreographed, and always follow a clear progression. The realism that Arrow strives for also helps, as it highlights the real movements that someone in Oliver Quinn’s situation may have to make.
9. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Although it’s a bit older than most of the entries on this list, Buffy the Vampire Slayer still more than holds its own. The show follows Buffy, a superpowered hero who’s tasked with fighting vampires, demons, and a variety of other creatures that invade Earth from the underworld. Buffy most often finds herself in hand-to-hand combat, and much of the choreography during these fights is consistent, while also providing a sense of whimsy that many action movies can ignore.
During season six, things got more effects-heavy as Buffy’s former friend Willow became the primary antagonist after she became addicted to magic. These effects may be a bit dated now, but the fight between Buffy and Willow still holds up as one of the show’s very best, in part because it combined the mystical elements of the show with the very practical, hand-to-hand combat that the show had been using since the very first episode.
8. Black Sails
Telling a prequel story set before the events of Treasure Island, Black Sails follows the best pirate in the world during the 18th century, as he works against imperial forces that seek to colonize the world. Like many stories with pirates at the center, we come to appreciate and be horrified by the behavior these men exhibit.
Ultimately, Black Sails earns its spot on this list because it depicts a type of action that is rarely seen on the small screen. Battles at sea are often costly and expensive, but Black Sails manages to find a way to integrate its on-land action with the sea that many of the show’s characters call home. After all, a pirate story really isn’t complete until we see them on the water, and Black Sails executes these sequences thrillingly. This is a show about a life of lawlessness, about the pleasures of rebelling, and about the death of that very specific way of living.
Another spy show, Alias was a thrilling experience for all of its five seasons. Following Jennifer Garner as Sydney Bristow, the show focused on a young woman who discovers she has a family history of undercover spy work, and begins conducting that work herself. Initially, Bristow believes that she’s doing this work for the CIA, but she ultimately discovers that her employers have no ties to that organization.
Throughout its run, Alias provided consistently engaging action in the mold of the best spy romps, often employing hand-to-hand combat as a tool for taking down opponents. The brilliance of Alias is the way Bristow’s personal and professional life become tangled over the course of the show, and many of the series’ best action beats come from a reinforcement of the character dynamics at work on the show. Alias was always really good television, and its action was a big part of the reason why.
6. Prison Break
Initially, Prison Break’s premise was as simple as its title. The show follows a pair of brothers who are locked in prison together. One was falsely accused of committing a crime, and the other got himself locked up so that he and his brother could formulate an escape plan together. Prison Break follows their attempts to break out of prison, and their eventual run-ins with the law outside of prison.
Over the course of the series, the pair naturally find themselves in a variety of fights, both with their fists and with guns. The danger with some action shows is that these scenes can sometimes feel a bit repetitive, but Prison Break never fell into that trap. Instead, it managed to find new and clever ways to stage its action sequences and fights, and each one felt thrilling in a new way than the last. Prison Break was inventive in plenty of ways, and its treatment of action was definitely one of them.
Hannibal was too stylish and thoughtful for its own good. The excellent NBC drama told the stories of Hannibal Lecter and his strange, intense relationship with Will Graham. During the show’s three season run, it gave us plenty of marvelously staged action sequences, perhaps most notably during the second season finale, when Hannibal is finally unmasked as a serial killer and forced to go on the run.
Hannibal was often interested in the grotesque, but its fight sequences were just as beautifully presented as every other odd image the show gave us. Here, logic is the key. Although the show was often deeply stylized, its action was always presented clearly, and it became nearly impossible for the viewer to lose track of what was happening, no matter how complex it might be. Hannibal was often incredibly tense, and when violence erupted, as it so often did, the result was always deeply thrilling.
There’s a lot to love in the way that Daredevil presents its action sequences. Perhaps the most notable action sequence is the famous hallway fight scene, which is one extended take that features Daredevil taking on several rooms filled with enemies in order to save a young boy. The sequence is marvelously choreographed, and it demonstrates the heavy influence that Kung Fu films have on the series.
Daredevil’s fight choreography is heavily pulled from these films, and it’s one of the best thing about Marvel’s first Defender. The acrobatics that the show often employs during his fights are a wonder to behold, in part because Daredevil is always required to use his fists to solve his problems. He’s just a normal blind guy who’s trying to save the world, by any means necessary. Daredevil’s action is a beautiful thing, and it has yet to be topped by any of the other Defenders.
3. The Walking Dead
The Walking Dead is built on tension and pulse-pounding action, and its big-for-TV budget gives it plenty of room to stage large-scale assaults that most shows, and many movies, only dream about pulling off. Some of the show’s best sequences feature a remarkable number of extras, all donned in horrific zombie makeup. The scenes in Atlanta at the end of the pilot are truly terrifying, and that’s largely because of the enormous scale of them.
Still, the show might be at its very best when it is depicting the human conflicts that often escalate into violence, as it did during Rick’s battle with the Governor during the show’s third and fourth seasons. The invasions of both Woodbury and the Prison still hold up as the very best action sequences the show has created, in part because they combine the ever -resent danger of walkers with the aesthetic sensibility and brutality of a war film.
Being special agent Jack Bauer is a lot of work. 24 may be old enough for a reboot, but the original still holds up as one of the very best action series ever made. The show used its storytelling mechanism, which was designed to depict one hour in real time, to tell its story at breakneck speed, which means that there was always plenty of action to be witnessed.
Bauer got plenty bloody over the course of the show’s run, but he always manages to save the day eventually. 24’s action was so interesting because of the way it worked in conjunction with the show’s idea of depicting events in real time. The result was often thrilling, combining Bauer’s attempts to save the country, the president, or the world into a show that was hard to miss, in part because of the inventive ways that Bauer would find to get out of his current predicament.
1. Game of Thrones
Game of Thrones may be the show that’s most regularly compared to blockbuster cinema, and there’s a good reason for that. “The Battle of the Bastards” features some of the best action that’s ever been put to film, and it’s just the latest example of why Game of Thrones had to top this list. Even before that episode, the show had already consistently proven to have some of the best depictions of action on television. The battles at Blackwater and Castle Black proved to be thrilling and engaging, even when the show was on a much tighter budget.
Since the show’s budget has expanded, its action sequences have become truly cinematic, beginning with the terrifying attack on Hardhome by the White Walkers during the show’s fifth season. This sequence was truly spectacular, and it was only topped in season 6, when the creators decided to devote an entire episode to a battle for Winterfell between the forces of Jon Snow and Ramsay Bolton.
Which actions sequences on TV make your jaw drop? Let us know in the comments!
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