The creative and imaginative elements of fantasy makes it the perfect subject area for television. With a TV show, there is a great deal of room to explore setting and characters, allowing for the development of a fantastical world.
While all the best fantasy TV shows create a portal to an alternate universe, they vary in many other ways. A fantasy show can be about a group of witches or a pack of werewolves. It can be about kings and dragons. It can be about a storybook come to life. Each show is so unique that rather than ranking them, we’re listing our favorites below in order of air date.
Did we miss one of your beloved series? Let us know in the comments below!
Xena: Warrior Princess
Xena was originally a guest star on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, but she made such a large impact in her three-episode arc that she was granted her very own show. Initially set in ancient Greece, Xena begins to move through time and around the Earth as the seasons progress. The travels always revolve around Xena’s mission.
Xena is a warrior princess who spends her days warding off evil in an effort to atone for her dark past. A reformed villain, Xena is on a mission to right her wrongs by helping people in need. Her traveling partner — a bard with whom Xena shares a romantic tension that's never truly explored on the series — joins her in all of her ventures and often acts as her moral compass.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Buffy Summers is the “Slayer” (the one woman in her generation destined to fight the forces of evil). A teenage girl, Buffy initially wants none of the responsibility of being her generation’s protector, but with her group of friends–the Scooby Gang–by her side, she eventually embraces her role. Throughout the series, the Scooby Gang shifts a bit, but at the core with Buffy are Xander Harris, a mortal and Buffy’s most loyal friend, and Willow Rosenberg, a witch with whom Buffy sometimes has a contentious relationship.
In addition to a lasting cult following, Buffy left a legacy with its portrayal of one of the very first lesbian couples on US television. Despite some out-of-date special effects, Buffy is just as captivating and enjoyable as ever. The strong character development and plotlines make the show timeless.
Charmed follows three sisters, each of whom is a witch with a special power. The trio protects the world from evil spirits, while simultaneously trying to live normal lives in present-day San Francisco. Keeping their true identities a secret presents a nearly insurmountable challenge as the series progresses.
With its all-female leads, Charmed was a groundbreaking show. After developing a cult following, it broke viewing records for The WB and its influence can be seen on more recent fantasy shows like Eastwick, Witches of East End, Hex, and The Secret Circle. Charmed’s impact was so great that it led to the creation of a video game, board games, soundtracks, novels, and a comic book series, all inspired by the three sisters.
The bond between brothers brings a sentimental element that sets Supernatural apart. Yes it has the demons, the angels, the monsters, and the legends of a great fantasy, but it also has the drama of the relationship between two brothers shaped by their mother’s violent murder.
Sam and Dean Winchester travel around the country tracking and killing monsters. The brothers have been training for this their entire lives, but they often find that the lines between good and bad, monster and human, aren’t always so clear. The only downside to this show is that it has gone on for a bit too long and started to go downhill around season 6.
Not to be confused with the less-successful American remake, which couldn’t seem to translate the original’s British humor across the pond, The BBC’s Being Human was a massive hit. It seamlessly blends the humorous daily lives of three flatmates and the complications that arise from their identities as, respectively, a vampire, a werewolf, and a ghost. The basic premise of the show is that the three protagonists are opting to live amongst humans and attempt to suppress their supernatural characteristics.
Being Human makes the cut on this list thanks to the lighthearted comedy that accompanies depicting flatmates living together. This sort of comic relief is not overtly present in the majority of fantasy shows, but in this case, it is incorporated seamlessly.
As is the case with a great deal of HBO shows, there’s a steamy sex scene or two sprinkled throughout each episode of True Blood. The series has the perfect mix of sex appeal and dramatic plot twists. The show centers on a waitress in a small-town who just-so-happens to be able to read minds and also just-so-happens to fall in love with a vampire who survives on synthetic blood. As the series progresses, werewolves, witches, and fairies came out of the woodwork in the same way that the vampires “come out of the coffin.”
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What makes True Blood truly stand out is its underlying political message. The show made statements about vampire marriage, vampire-mortal relationships, and a slew of other social conflicts that were clear metaphors for the gay rights movement.
American Horror Story
American Horror Story (AHS) is not for the faint-hearted. Each season is a self-contained miniseries and each plotline is creepier and more horrifying than the next. The seasons have ranged from Murder House and Asylum to Freak Show and Cult.
The most incredible part of AHS is the powerful development of the new world in each and every fairly short season. With no continuity between seasons, the cast and crew start from scratch every time. The few actors who carry through from season to season do an impeccable job of transitioning believably between supernatural beings, haunted mortals, and sideshow freaks. Moreover, each season deals with serious societal issues including mental health, oppression, discrimination, and addiction.
Game of Thrones
Game of Thrones has virtually become synonymous with fantasy television — and for good reason. Despite starting out as a show catered to fans of the book series by George R. R. Martin, Game of Thrones broke into mainstream programming with a bang, attracting audiences who had never even heard of the series.
A medieval-adjacent world where every day brings a new battle, there is never a dull moment in Westeros. In the first season, on the continent of Westeros, Ned Stark becomes the chief advisor–the Hand of the King–to King Robert Baratheon. He is tasked with solving the murder of his predecessor, but in the process stumbles across the information that got the Hand of the King killed. Meanwhile, on the continent of Essos, Viserys Targaryen, the exiled son of the former king, attempts to claim the throne back for his family. A tale of kings and queens, knights and renegades, Game of Thrones ties traditional fantastical elements into plotlines reminiscent of the royal betrayals in history books.
Calling all fans of CSI and Law & Order: Grimm is a fantasy twist on your run-of-the-mill police procedural drama. In a world where the dark stories of the Brothers Grimm are reality, guardians known as Grimms have their work cut out for them. Grimms are the designated protectors of humanity, fighting the Wesen, the mythological creatures who threaten the existence of humanity.
The life of Nick Burkhardt, a homicide investigator with the Portland Police Department, is turned upside-down when he discovers he is one in a long line of Grimms. It is his duty and destiny to battle dangerous Wesen that only Grimms can see. Luckily, Nick isn’t alone in his fight. His partner, Detective Hank Griffin, who remains in the dark about Nick’s ancestry for the beginning of the series, and Monro, a good Wesen, are always by his side.
Once Upon a Time
If you loved fairy tales as a kid, this is the show for you. Once Upon a Time brings to life all of your favorite–and not so favorite–storybook characters. The fantastical residents of the fictional town of Storybrooke, Maine, were cursed by the Evil Queen Regina, brought to the real world, and stripped of their memories. Their only hope is the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming who was sent to the real world before the curse could affect her.
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Once Upon a Time does a fantastic job of developing the storybook characters beyond the pages and physically presenting them as humans in the real world. Each episode has an intriguing dual plotline that shows an element of the characters’ past lives and ties it into the events in the real world.
Featured still from "Game of Thrones" via HBO