When people think of great television, they think of dramas, procedurals, comedies, and science fiction, but not fantasy. No, fantasy is seen as the genre reserved for the nerds and the geeks, the people who cosplay at comic book conventions. But what many people get wrong is that fantasy doesn’t just apply to stories with magic and dragons. Sure, those aspects are a large part of the genre, but above all, fantasy represents the purest form of escapism. And isn’t that what entertainment is all about?
Some of the greatest novels in history are fantasy-based, such as Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter – both of which have turned into iconic movie franchises, but what about television? There are many novels that could become great shows; it’s rare, though, that a network would take a chance on a genre that has seen few successes. But what’s to say those few shows aren’t as fantastical as their plots and settings? While there haven’t been many fantasy shows, there have been some truly amazing ones, and here are the 12 Best Fantasy TV Series Of All Time.
12. Dark Shadows
Some people will recall the critical and commercial 2012 flop, Dark Shadows, directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp as the titular vampire Barnabas Collins. When word got out that Burton and Depp would be reuniting after their live-action Alice in Wonderland, fans were expecting another hit. After all, Dark Shadows is based on a famed Gothic soap opera from the ’60s, created by Dan Curtis and starring the likes of Joan Bennett and Grayson Hall. However, Burton’s Dark Shadows was anything but a hit.
Although the series wasn’t initially a success, it generated massive popularity after the aforementioned Barnabas Collins appeared in the show’s second season. Despite Burton’s movie being a flop, it managed to remain largely faithful to the TV series it’s based on, focusing on the everyday lives of the misfit Collins family who, of course, lived with an immortal vampire.
As the first prime time series to feature a coven of witches, Charmed excelled where virtually all other shows have failed. Perhaps that is due to the amalgamation of magic, sci-fi, fantasy, and comedy; all perked up with accurate pop-cultural timing. But, Charmed‘s, well, charm really comes from its leading stars, who carried the series for eight seasons on The WB before concluding in 2006.
Charmed, which famously starred Shannon Doherty (who was later replaced by Rose McGowan), Holly Marie Combs, and Alyssa Milano, as the trio of Halliwell sisters, who were collectively known as The Charmed Ones, became the longest running hour-long series in history to feature all female leads, until it was dethroned by Desperate Housewives. Charmed‘s success and cult status amongst fantasy/sci-fi fans paved the way for future witched-themed shows like Witches of East End, The Secret Circle, and Eastwick, though all three ended up being cancelled after one or two seasons.
10. Penny Dreadful
Showtime’s hit British-American horror drama Penny Dreadful – from John Logan and Sam Mendes, the guys behind Skyfall and Spectre — is more supernatural than it is fantasy. However, its use of public domain works such as Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Hyde, justifies the series being on this list.
Starring the likes of Reeve Carney, Eva Green, Josh Hartnett, and Timothy Dalton (yes, James Bond), Penny Dreadful‘s exhibition of Gothic horror mysteries are truly captivating. One thing to note is, the series doesn’t rely on jump scares for its horror aspect, instead opting for subtlety. Considering its setting, its characters, and its stories, the creatives made the right choice.
When a broadcast network airs a show on a Friday, fans usually interpret that as a warning of an impending cancellation or a lack of confidence. Rather than suffering from that suspected fate, NBC’s Grimm – a modern-day police procedural fantasy drama, based on and inspired by the Grimm’s Fairy Tales – has excelled in its Friday slot and has even been renewed for a sixth season.
One aspect in which many shows tend to falter is increasing the stakes for its heroes (and the world) by compromising the personal story audiences were initially attracted to (e.g. The CW’s Arrow). While Grimm has taken the story worldwide and drastically upped the ante, the plot always boils down to the core characters and how it affects their lives. That’s in part why it has been able to maintain a steady supply of devoted viewers.
Like Dark Shadows, Bewitched is another show that aired on ABC in the late ’60s/early ’70s, which also went on to develop a cult following. The comedy series, which starred Elizabeth Montgomery as suburban housewife Samantha Stephens, who – while imbued with magical powers – marries a mortal man, is universally considered to be one of the greatest shows ever created.
Bewitched finished its eight-season run as the second highest-rated show in the U.S. and has since spawned numerous spinoffs and remakes, including a 2005 film directed by Nora Ephron and starring Nicole Kidman and Will Ferrell.
Though the movie was a flop, Bewitched remains a beloved franchise, one that networks such as CBS and NBC view as ripe for remaking. The peacock network is currently in development on a modern-day Bewitched remake by Sony Pictures Television, which, as of 2014, was scheduled to premiere by the end of 2016.
7. Avatar: The Last Airbender
Get that image of M. Knight Shyamalan’s abysmal The Last Airbender movie out of your head. That was an atrocity. The animated TV series Avatar: The Last Airbender – created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko – is by far and away a masterpiece, the quintessential series in its genre. In addition to being critically and commercially successful (having achieved an average of 5.6 million viewers), Avatar has been nominated for and won several Annie, Peabody, and Primetime Emmy awards.
Set in an Asian-influenced world where martial arts and elemental manipulation are complementary components, Avatar: The Last Airbender centers on twelve-year-old Aang and his fight to maintaining peace across his world — which consists of four elemental-focused nations. The series premiered on Nickelodeon in 2005 and ran for three seasons, and has since spawned a film, video games, and comics, as well as the television sequel, The Legend of Korra, which itself has been a hit.
A relatively unknown series, Starz’s British-American fantasy show Outlander – based on Diana Gabaldon’s series of historical, science-fiction, mystery, fantasy time-traveling novels and short stories of the same name – has proven time and time again that it is one of the most imaginative and daring shows on television.
Beginning in World War II, the pilot episode quickly transports the series’ protagonist, married nurse Claire Randall, played by Caitriona Balfe, back in time to 1743, where she meets her husband Frank’s evil ancestor, Jonathan Randall. While the series tends to stray from its source material from time to time, Outlander remains faithfully a fantasy show. In many ways, with less gaudy sex scenes and a heightened focus on emotion, Outlander can be seen as a lighter version of Game of Thrones.
5. Xena: Warrior Princess
Just like Bewitched, Xena: Warrior Princess is one of the most widely recognized TV shows in history. Famously starring Lucy Lawless as the fictional warlord-turned-warrior, Xena: Warrior Princess established a devout cult-following after the series concluded in 2001, and has even inspired novels, comic books, and video games throughout the years.
Xena initially appeared in a three-episode arc on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and was supposed to die in her final episode, but audiences loved the character so much, Hercules producer Robert Tapert elected to give Xena her own series. Which ended up being the right decision, seeing as Xena: Warrior Princess not only surpassed Hercules‘ ratings, but also became the highest-rated syndicated drama in only its second season, and it remained in the top five throughout the rest of its run.
Though it’s been 15 years since the series ended, it’s fandom has not dwindled away, which is why NBC is currently looking to reboot the series with a new warrior princess at the helm.
4. Once Upon a Time
ABC’s Once Upon A Time – created by LOST and TRON: Legacy writers Adam Horowitz and Eddy Kitsis – has been in a slump these past few seasons, and has shown very few signs of improving, but its magnificent first two seasons warrant it being on this list.
With a simple, yet unique premise of storybook characters being cursed by the Evil Queen, and ripped from their world to a land without magic, Once Upon A Time has done the seemingly impossible: bring fairy tale characters to life on the small screen. It all began with a small town in Maine called Storybrooke, but now, five seasons in, audiences have traveled to Oz, Camelot, Wonderland, Neverland, and more.
Several Hollywood studios – not just Disney – are currently engaged in a new trend of adapting fairy tale characters and stories into live-action movies. But the thing is, Once Upon A Time has already mastered that, and the series is showing no indications of stopping anytime soon.
Instead of concluding the series after its fifth season, as creator Eric Kripke had originally planned, Supernatural acquired a new showrunner, shifted in scope, yet remained faithful to its premise. Six straight seasons later, it’s gearing up for an unprecedented twelfth season. Supernatural is not only the longest-running fantasy series in television history, but it’s also The CW’s longest-running series, which is primarily because it’s the last remaining series left over from when the network used to be The WB.
Starring Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles as brothers Sam and Dean Winchester, respectively, Supernatural is a modern Western, which focuses on the Winchester brothers exorcising supernatural forces from America, to put it vaguely. Throughout its 11 seasons, the Winchesters, along with some of their friends and family, have battled the Devil, the King of Hell, angels, and vampires – any and all creatures you can think of. The only thing Supernatural hasn’t been able to do is spawn a successful live-action spinoff series.
2. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Before Hollywood became of aware of its lack of leading female characters on TV (the exception being Xena), Sarah Michelle Gellar was showing audiences what it meant to be a strong female on screen, by playing the badass Buffy Summers: student by day, vampire slayer by night.
Created by Joss Whedon, and based on the Whedon-scripted movie of the same name, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one of the greatest shows to grace the small screen. Casual audiences who would mistakenly view Buffy as being a teen drama would miss out on an epic fantasy tale of Slayers battling supernatural forces like vampires and demons.
To say Buffy the Vampire Slayer has impacted the entertainment industry would be an understatement. Its enrichment of geek culture can only be compared to franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek, and comic book publishers DC Comics and Marvel Comics.
1. Game of Thrones
While there are plenty of ground-breaking fantasy novels, there have been little to no ground-breaking fantasy TV shows – Sci-Fi has been the genre dominating on that front.
Sure there are some great fantasy shows, of which many are mentioned on this list, but HBO’s Game of Thrones – based on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, and adapted for television by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss – is the only series of its kind to not only alter the television landscape, but also open the door of the fantasy genre to casual audiences. No show has been able to do that before. With its politics, its dragons, and its overall gruesomeness, Game of Thrones is truly in a caliber of its own.
Massive in scale, yet precise in detail, Game of Thrones has transcended the fantasy genre, and will go down in history as one of the greatest television shows ever created.