We live in a wonderful time for television special effects—it seems like most shows these days are able to consistently impress us with computer generated monsters and awesome superpowers. While television special effects don’t have the same budget as big blockbuster films, it’s now cheaper and easier to create special effects than ever before. Show runners have also learned to stretch the special effects budget by relying on practical effects for most episodes and wowing us with incredible CGI sequences. And shows like The Flash and Vikings have raised the bar on what we expect from our television.
But not all shows measure up to this new standard. And now, when a show’s special effects fail, it’s notable instead of the norm. So here are 10 Recent TV Shows With Terrible Special Effects that take you right out of the action. While it's true that even shows with generally great special effects can sometimes falter, these are the shows where we've found that the bad definitely outweighs the good.
10 Once Upon a Time
Once Upon a Time may be one of ABC’s most popular family shows, but even after five seasons, it can’t seem to master the art of special effects. The show combines the modern world with Disney fairy-tale legends, following Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison), the daughter of Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Prince Charming (Josh Dallas), in present-day Storybrooke, Maine.
While it’s one of the better fantasy shows to ever appear on network television, the show consistently relies on shockingly bad special effects, particularly with regard to the use of green screen any time the characters leave Storybrooke. It’s not just that the effects are comparatively bad to other television shows; it’s that they actively take you out of the story and are impossible to ignore. The series even spawned a spin-off, Once Upon a Time in Wonderland, which unfortunately, relied even more on special effects to produce the CGI heavy Wonderland. It was cancelled at mid-season.
9 Teen Wolf
Perhaps it’s not surprising that an MTV show doesn’t have the greatest special effects, but since Teen Wolf relies so heavily on special effects for their wolf transformations, which they continue to show on screen, it earns a spot on this list. Werewolves are an admittedly tricky CGI creature to nail, and not many movies, much less television shows, are able to pull it off. But with the crazy glowing eyes and the clearly computer generated transition, Teen Wolf’s werewolf transitions may be some of the worst.
As the show’s popularity has grown, it appears that the special effects budget has grown right along with it. While the effects slowly get better each season, the first season’s effects are downright hard to watch, including the main season one villain, The Alpha.
8 Warehouse 13
For a long time, shows on SyFy were notorious for their terrible special effects, though the more recent shows like Defiance have started to test that rule. But Warehouse 13, which ended its five season run just last year, relied on cringe-worthy special effects almost every episode. The series followed Secret Service agents at a top-secret warehouse filled with supernatural objects.
The premise required a fair amount of CGI to show the objects in the warehouse causing all types of mayhem, like making characters fly or turning them to stone. But bad special effects are also used for just plain old background shots -- every single wide shot of the warehouse reminds the viewer they are watching a show on the SyFy channel. Despite being one of SyFy’s best rated programs when it premiered, the special effects remained consistently bad throughout the series.
7 Hemlock Grove
Hemlock Grove is one of the only series that started with pretty good special effects, only to see a dramatic decline in quality over time. The series is a Netflix original horror television show about a town with vampires, werewolves, and other horror classics. While parts of season 1’s production and sets felt cheap, the special effects were comparatively impressive, including the werewolf transformation.
However, season 2 had a noticeable decline in special effects, possibly due to the mediocre reception the series received. The lackluster graphics began turning what could have been shocking scenes into silly ones. The effects in the third and final season didn’t improve, either. Despite excellent acting by the cast and great storylines, Peter’s CGI werewolf and Roman’s gaping jaw were consistently unconvincing and unrealistic.
6 The Librarians
The Librarians television series is a spinoff of a trilogy of TNT made-for-TV movies that had developed a bit of a cult following. Following the premise of those movies, the series is about a group of savants who come together to procure powerful, magical relics.
The premise is actually reminiscent of another show on this list – Warehouse 13 – and unfortunately, the special effects are only marginally better. Fortunately, The Librarians ventures to the outside world much more often and thus doesn’t rely on indoor special effects as much. The show is genuinely fun to watch, but it all falls apart any time any sort of CGI is required. Season 2, which is currently airing, doesn’t appear to have upped the special effects budget.
5 Terra Nova
Terra Nova has the unique honor of being one of the most expensive television series of all times and still having terrible special effects. At a reported 4 million an episode to make, the ambitious time-travel/dinosaur series (which boasted Steven Spielberg as an executive producer) used an incredible amount of special effects, for both small world-building and for creating dinosaurs.
While many of the effects are done well, the main draw of the show was always going to be the dinosaurs, which ended up looking like they came out of a poorly rendered video game in almost all of the episodes besides the pilot (which cost $14 million USD alone). The CGI failed on numerous occasions to make the dinosaurs feel like an actual threat, and the series was cancelled after just thirteen episodes.
4 Doctor Who
The longest running science fiction television series, Doctor Who has been around since 1963 (though not continuously), so it’s only natural that the earliest seasons had terrible special effects. In fact, it’s well known that one of the main villains on the show (the Daleks) look like giant salt shakers with a plunger and the inside of a paint roller for arms. The series follows an alien Time Lord known as the Doctor, as he travels through time and space via what looks like a blue British police call box known as the Tardis. The Doctor has been played by several actors, with the regeneration of the character built into the plot of the show.
The latest incarnation ("New Who") started in 2005, with Russell T. Davies as show runner and starring Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor, and it continued the long tradition of spotty and hilariously bad special effects. The Tardis flew around an obvious green-screen, with cartoonish results. Admittedly, the special effects have started to improve, particularly when Matt Smith took over as the Eleventh Doctor, but the less-than-stellar special effects remain part of the charm of Doctor Who.
Premiering in 2008 and cancelled in 2012, Merlin is no longer airing, but the consistently bad CGI right up to the end of its five year run earns it a spot. The series was a reimagining of the Arthurian legends, with the main focus being on Merlin (Colin Morgan). It originally aired on the BBC and premiered in the US in 2009 on NBC, though it finished out its run on SyFy.
The first season’s cheesy graphics are almost understandable since it was 2008. But even in the pilot, Merlin was able to produce a pretty impressive dragon, so the fact that the rest of the CGI continued to be awful all the way up to the end is almost inexcusable. Full of awkward green screen effects, cramped action shots, and clearly computer-animated monsters, the special effects are almost mesmerizing in their badness.
Supernatural, which premiered in 2005, is one of The CW’s longest running television shows (it originally aired on The WB). Part horror-part fantasy, the series follows the Winchester brothers (played by Jared Padalecki and Jenson Ackles) as they chase and hunt down supernatural creatures. The show generally relies on practical effects, which it does exceedingly well, but over its eleven season run it still hasn’t nailed the use of CGI.
Computer generated effects are mainly used for a handful of supernatural creatures, and some of the real stand-outs in the bad special effects department are the seventh season Leviathans. The creatures mainly consisted of a human body with a giant mouth for a face, which was more funny than scary every time it was rendered on screen. A similar result was achieved when the show rendered a Wendigo, which is why Supernatural works best when it sticks to mostly human baddies.
Bones is another of those shows that doesn’t rely on special effects often, but when it does they are jarringly bad. The series, which started in 2005 and is still ongoing, follows forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan, aka Bones (Emily Deschanel), as she works with an FBI agent (David Boreanaz) to solve crimes.
Most of the CGI required for the lab is passably good, but the one place the special effects department commonly, and almost famously, falters is with any driving scene. Agent Booth and Bones tend to end up in a car a lot as they travel to and from crime scenes, yet it always looks like actors in a prop car in front of a green screen. But Bones isn’t the only show that can’t do a driving scene – The CW’s Ringer has a spectacularly bad boating scene in the pilot that can be attributed to the same type of poor special effects work.
Can you think of any other