Just because a TV show deals with magic doesn’t make it magical.
Fantasy is a tough genre to get right, particularly when it’s targeted at the mainstream audience. That’s probably why so much TV fantasy comes in the sitcom form (Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Wizards of Waverly Place), marrying the magic to a genre TV viewers are familiar with. It wasn’t until the 1990s that Hercules and Xena showed a more straightforward fantasy TV series could be a hit. Even so, a lot of shows tried to ape their success and failed miserably.
Some fantasy shows tank because they took a great premise and executed it with thudding ineptitude. Other shows have a standard genre premise - wandering swordsman, witch living next door - and do nothing to make it stand out from the pack. There are always TV series that die because the acting is horrible. Of course, some shows achieve failure in all these ways simultaneously — bad premise, bad execution, bad acting.
While some bad fantasies live on in infamy, others are lucky enough to slip into obscurity. For this list we’ve dredged up 17 shows that are both bad and forgotten - except by die-hard fans. Some of them were forgotten because they’re older, some because they vanished almost as fast as they aired, some because even though they stuck around they just weren’t worth remembering.
Here are 17 Terrible Fantasy Shows You Completely Forgot About.
The Dresden Files should have been a slam-dunk. By the time SyFy broadcast the series in 2007, Jim Butcher had published eight popular novels about modern-day wizard Harry Dresden, a snarky smart-aleck who stood between the denizens of Chicago and the forces of black magic. The books are still going strong after 15 novels; the TV series didn’t last out the year.
The biggest weakness? While star Paul Blackthorne was menacing as a villain in season 3 of 24, and is currently busy as Quentin Lance on Arrow, he was no Harry Dresden. Butcher's Harry is a protagonist in the hardboiled PI mode, tough even when terrified, always ready to mouth off to superiors or adversaries. Blackthorne’s Harry was amiable to the point of blandness. The series had the magical sizzle, but no sorcerous steak.
Kevin Sorbo has a lot to answer for.
Sure, Sorbo’s Hercules was a fun show, and it spun off Xena, Warrior Princess. Unfortunately it also generated a wave of less entertaining fantasy adventures. Most of them, like Hercules, played it tongue-in-cheek but Beastmaster treated its heroics with complete seriousness. Dar, who had a mystical ability to communicate with animals, battled against assorted tyrants and mages with the help of his sidekicks, both human and animal.
The original Beastmaster was a Native American space explorer in an Andre Norton novel, but Marc Singer's Beastmaster films transferred the concept to fantasy (though keeping roughly the same animal team of meerkats, big cat, and hawk). Singer's Beastmaster III was an unsuccessful TV pilot that would have been a lot more fun than the series we actually got.
SyFy’s Teen Wolf showed a TV series about a teenage lycanthrope can be fantastic. So there’s no excuse for Big Wolf on Campus doing such a poor job.
High school footballer Tommy Dawkins was his school's alpha male until a werewolf bit him. Now the full moon or emotional stress gives him bad hair, bad facial hair ,and incredibly furry eyebrows. In comparison to The Wolf Man Tommy has it easy — no blood lust — but he did have to fight off mad scientists, vampires, and other threats while hunting for a cure.
Oh, and ducking out on his girlfriend when he changed made for a miserable love life. None of it added up to thrills, and the humor was just as weak as the spooky stuff.
Sometimes mixing the supernatural with high school life gives us Buffy or The Vampire Diaries. Other times it gives us Guinevere Jones.
This 2002 Canadian/Australian series was based on a series of young adult novels by romance writer Jayne Anne Krentz. In the opening episode Gwen and her mother flee the powers of darkness from Canada to Australia. After they arrive Mom goes insane and Gwen discovers she’s a reincarnation of Queen Guinevere. She's also destined to become a mage and battle the dark forces. Quite an accomplishment for a remarkably dull protagonist.
Over the series two seasons, Gwen underwent training by Merlin, battled evil sorcerers and fae, and grappled with the weight of her past-life memories. Despite Gwen saving the entire world from Morgan le Fay in the final arc, this ranks as TV's most forgettable Arthurian adaptation.
Adapting Mortal Kombat into a TV series probably looked like a genius move. The game was hugely popular, the first movie based on the game had been hugely popular, so how could a series miss? Once again, high-concept didn't trump poor execution.
The story involved the mighty martial artist Kung Lao and his allies attempting to protect Earth from the dark forces of Otherworld and their malevolent leader, Shao Kahn. Kung Lao had defeated Shao Kahn’s champion in a Mortal Kombat tournament, but the threats from the dark side were far from over.
The series certainly had plenty of action and magic, but it was lacking in stuff like characterization and acting talent. Nor could it compare with the levels of violence the video game offered fans. The show lasted for a year, playing in syndication and on TNT before fading away.
Most of the shows on this list died fast. Touched by an Angel ran for nine years, making it the most successful of TV’s many angel-centric series. It still fell short of being good.
Most previous shows in the subgenre treated angels as mortal souls working for heaven and played the premise for laughs. The angels of Touched were never human, and the show took things seriously. Each week, the angel Monica, on the orders of her heavenly superiors, would assume an identity in the mortal world to help a troubled soul through an impending crisis. Her backup team included an angel of death so if worst came to worst, characters could be gently ushered into the afterlife.
For fans of the show, the stories were heartwarming and uplifting. For everyone else, the stories were cloying and saccharine, except when they were bland.
In 1997, before Heath Ledger launched his too-short film career, he starred in Roar. It’s a safe bet his fans will never speak of it in the same breath as Brokeback Mountain or 10 Things I Hate About You.
The premise: protagonist Connor (Ledger), a young Irish warrior in the early fifth century, leads a band of former slaves to throw off the yoke of Rome, imposed by the vassal queen Diana and the centurion Longinus. Longinus is the real threat because he's an immortal. Almost four centuries earlier he speared Jesus on the cross. God punished him with never-ending life unless he's slain by the same weapon, the Spear of Destiny. The "roar" of the title was a sort-of metaphor for the life force of Ireland.
Despite Longinus and other magical threats, Roar never rose above the level of a 1950s sword-and-sandal flick.
This show must have made perfect sense to the TNT cable channel. People love Robin Hood, they love Hercules-type fantasy, so why not write Robin Hood and his Merry Men into a whimsical Herc-style fantasy show! It couldn’t possibly miss, right?
Wrong. It's no good riding a trend if you suck, and 1997’s New Adventures vies was one of the worst fantasy series of the '90s. Matthew Porretta, despite appearing in the big-screen Robin-spoof Men in Tights, seemed completely contemporary and utterly out of place in Merrie Olde England.
Robin's battles against dragons, demons, sorcerers, and Mongols (they just showed up in the middle of England to pillage) were less than thrilling. The series shifted to syndication and finally died in 1999 without ever becoming good.
You might imagine that by the 21st century, nobody would try a Tarzan-style “white jungle god” adventuring in Africa. Sheena, which ran from 2000-2001, proved otherwise.
Baywatch alumni Gena Lee Nolin played the latest incarnation of the jungle goddess. Sheena began as a comic strip character, then turned into a 1950s TV series. An orphan growing up in Africa, Sheena was adopted by the last of a race of African shapeshifters. From her mentor, Sheena learned the secret to transforming into animal shape, or into a half-animal beast-woman, giving her more physical power than past versions of the character. Who knows what she'll be able to do in the upcoming reboot?
One TV historian commented that Sheena's ratings were even more minimal than Nolin's outfits.
James O’Barr’s The Crow started as a comic book, successfully jumped to film (a remake is on the way) and then unsuccessfully transitioned to this 1998 TV series.
A year after hoodlum Top Dollar and his gang murdered Eric Draven and his true love Shelly, a crow spirit guided Eric’s angry soul back to Earth. Eric spent the show’s one season hunting down Top Dollar and his gang, transforming into the super-strong, unkillable, butt-kicking Crow for action scenes.
The Crow: Stairway to Heaven had some good ideas. For example, when the cops realize Eric’s alive (sort of) they assume he murdered Shelly then faked his own death. By and large, though, it wasn’t that different from any other story about a tough guy with a mission of vengeance going going mano-a-mano with the underworld. It certainly wasn't different enough to survive past one season.
As this fantasy hit the airwaves in 1983, we can’t blame it on Hercules. Given the title, it might have been inspired by the popularity of Dungeons & Dragons. Alas, instead of a genuine fantasy adventure, the show's tongue was so far in cheek it must have broken the skin.
The title warriors were heroic Erik (Jeff Conaway) and malevolent Blackpool (Duncan Regehr), both aided by various wizards (Clive Revill as the wizard of evil walked off with the acting honors). Erik, however, probably struggled harder putting up with his betrothed - the spoiled, whiny Princess Ariel. Despite the spoofy tone the show wasn't funny, but it didn't work as an adventure either. It's no surprise it only lasted three months.
An actual Dungeons and Dragons cartoon debuted the same year on Saturday morning. If Wizards and Warriors had been one-tenth as good, it would have been awesome.
Although fantasy sitcoms thrived in the 1960s, the genre didn't produce another hit until Sabrina the Teenage Witch in 1996. The networks kept trying, though, which led to viewers suffering through flop attempts such as 1983’s Just Our Luck.
Like I Dream of Jeannie, Just Our Luck had a mortal protagonist, Keith, saddled with a genie, Shabu. Like every other fantasy sitcom, the presence of magic made Keith’s life worse. If Shabu granted Keith's wish, it went horribly wrong. If Keith didn’t make a wish, Shabu used his magic anyway and things went horribly wrong. Rinse, repeat.
The show did stand out in having a black genie - albeit a stereotypically super-hip, streetsmart black genie. That this made Shabu a black slave to a white master apparently didn't register with whoever created the show.
CBS’ 1981-2 Mr. Merlin comes off like the fantasy-sitcom version of Chico and the Man, a successful 1970s series about a gruff garage owner bonding with a young protege. In this much less successful series, the crotchety garage owner is Merlin — yes, the Merlin — who reluctantly takes on typical TV teen Zack as his apprentice. Zack unwittingly qualified for the gig when he pulled a crowbar out of a concrete block — why mess with tradition?
The stories hewed to standard fantasy sitcom shticks. Zack bungles his magic, trouble happens. Zack uses magic for his own benefit, trouble happens. Zack and Merlin argue because one of them's a teenager and the other is 1,600 years old. Everything got resolved by the episode's end.
The series is available on DVD but it's not likely to replace Harry Potter in anyone's hearts.
If Buffy's “high school girl kills vampires” premise could work as a series, there’s no reason “dead jerk earns salvation by fighting monsters for heaven” couldn’t work too. But G vs E (good vs. evil) was a flop, notable only for how fast and how deep the 1999 series went into the memory hole.
After a monstrous Morlock kills self-centered jerk Chandler Smythe, Chandler learns he’s too big a jerk to enter Heaven. To redeem himself he signs on with the Corps, heavenly agents who battle Morlocks and Faustians (mortals who sell their souls to Hell). His partner, McNeil, had been dead a lot longer, seeing as he was a 1970s blaxploitation-style black detective.
G vs E was meant to be at least somewhat funny. It failed. And failed at being anything else.
CBS scored a 1974 Saturday-morning hit with Shazam!, a lackluster adaptation of the comic book hero. That inspired the network to create TV's first female superhero, Isis, for a Saturday-morning companion series.
Joanna Cameron played Andrea Thomas, a high-school teacher of Egyptian descent. A magic Egyptian amulet lets her transform into Isis, a sorceress whose elemental magic let her overcome petty hoods, help out her students, and fight for the environment.
In The Secrets of Isis, the titular character was stuck fighting mundane threats and making sure Thomas’ students learned life lessons (1970s Saturday mornings were big on that). The show didn't last as long as Shazam, although it did spawn a short-lived DC comic. Another version of Isis turned up years later as Black Adam’s lover.
No, Robin Hood wasn’t the protagonist of this 1999 Fox Family series. Instead, the hero was his teenage descendant, Robyn Hood. A magical amulet transports Robyn back to Sherwood Forest in days of old, and boy, do they need her. The bad guys have joined forces with a witch, evil has triumphed and the good guys are all shackled in a dungeon. As this changes history, Robyn’s entire bloodline will cease to exist if she doesn’t save her ancestor. Fortunately the forest is full of other next-gen swashbucklers — Alana Dale, Phil Scarlet, Little Joan — willing to help set things to rights.
There’s a long movie tradition of expanding swashbuckler franchises by adding a next generation (Son of Robin Hood, Son of Monte Cristo, Sons of the Musketeers). Like most of them, Back to Sherwood never matched the first generation’s success.
Conan is a character people know of even if they’ve never read a single Conan story, but he’s had crappy luck in adaptations. The only truly fun version was the 1992 animated series Conan the Adventurer. 1997-8’s Conan was exceptionally not fun.
Even though Conan had the same premise as the cartoon — Conan and his allies battle an evil wizard-tyrant — it was dull, plodding, and woodenly acted. Neither series, of course, was true to Robert E. Howard's character. The print Conan was a thief, outlaw, pirate and mercenary who had no interest in saving the world; it happened sometimes, but only because the bad guy was between Conan and what the Cimmerian wanted.
Did we miss a terrible forgotten fantasy show? Let us know in comments.