After years of being overlooked by mainstream audiences or shoved into the darkest corners of the internet, fantasy programming seems to be everywhere. New shows in the genre are on the rise as TV networks and streaming services attempt to find the next Game of Thrones, which broke a number of different barriers when it became a massive hit that captured viewers’ attention around the world, racking up Emmy nominations and awards in the process.
While it’s not possible for every show to hit the sky-high marks of Thrones, it’s important to celebrate and embrace new and existing fantasy programming. Audiences are finally seeing the merits of said shows, which, like the similar science-fiction genre, allow us to escape into new and exciting worlds or realms and explore complicated topics like unchecked power, or the never-ending battle between good and evil through epic adventures and deep character explorations.
Netflix has definitely gotten a head start on the next wave of ambitious fantasy programming, with a handful of can’t-miss shows already available, but there are a handful of others that are worth watching too. So whether you’re looking for something to check out with younger viewers or just looking for yourself, these fantasy series will allow you to escape into a new world without ever leaving your couch.
Watch on Netflix
Adapted from Leigh Bardugo’s popular Grishaverse trilogy and the subsequent Six of Crows duology, Netflix’s new series Shadow and Bone features a familiar Chosen One narrative with broad enough appeal to attract even those who think they don’t like fantasy. Set in Ravka, a fictional country based on Russia that is divided by the ominous Shadow Fold—an area of oppressive darkness where hideous creatures feast on human flesh—an orphan named Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li) discovers she alone possesses the power to save her country from the forces of darkness that threaten to destroy it when her ability to summon and control light makes itself known.
As Alina contends with those who would like to use her and her unique ability and those who want to snuff it out completely, the show digs into larger themes of destiny and abuses of power without ever shying away from some more difficult topics like racism and oppression. While it isn’t going to blaze any new trails in the fantasy genre, the eight-episode first season does set itself apart from other shows with a story that is packed full of emotion and backed by a distinct mythology.
Watch on Amazon Prime
“The wheel weaves as the wheel wills,” and for Amazon Prime Video’s fantasy series, it wills it quickly. Running an economic eight hourlong episodes, The Wheel of Time is a brisk entry to Robert Jordan’s massive novel series, which evidently contains 2782 distinct characters. Amazon’s version doesn’t have quite that many, not yet, but I can genuinely say that as a newbie to the franchise it took me several episodes and many tabs to understand what anyone’s name actually was. And yet, this adaptation—developed by Rafe Judkins—does everything it can to be accessible to viewers unfamiliar with the source material.
It doesn’t hurt that the fantasy beats are familiar: There is a battle between light and dark, as well as a Chosen One (the “Dragon Reborn”) who will fight to save humanity—or destroy it in the process. There are critters and creatures and a magic that can only be wielded by women, plus a cult looking to eradicate the use of magic, pretenders to the would-be throne, and a hellish army of darkness. Navigating all of this are four young adults (any of whom could be the fabled savior) shepherded by a powerful sorceress named Moraine (Rosamund Pike).
The Wheel of Time teases out so much, but whether or not it eventually fills that out—or if its surface-level telling of this story will lead viewers to a deeper connection with the series itself—is uncertain regarding its future seasons. For now, it’s a fun ride. —Allison Keene
Watch on HBO Max
Let’s get the big one out of the way: If you consider yourself a fan of fantasy or you want to get into it and have yet to watch HBO’s Game of Thrones, the Emmy-winning adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s popular A Song of Ice and Fire book series, it’s an obvious place to start. Set in the fictional realm of Westeros, the show is a sprawling epic that draws on political conflict and elements of fantasy to tell a fascinating story about power, who wields it, and how. Initially slow-moving as the series introduces the many players involved and their complicated motivations and swiftly changing allegiances, the show is unmatched in its world-building. Its deep and complex mythology involves everything from dragons to White Walkers, a supernatural zombie-like threat from the north that threatens the very existence of humanity. While the final season has received its share of fair criticism for poor pacing and shoddy plotting, the ambitious nature of the story and the scope of spectacle throughout its run makes Game of Thrones one of the best and most exciting fantasy shows in television history.
Watch on Netflix
Watch on Hulu
Watch on Amazon Prime
A lot of fantasy is based on existing myths, legends, and folklore, and although you might think you know the story of the famous King Arthur and Merlin, you’ve never seen it told quite like this before. The fan-favorite Merlin, which aired on the BBC from 2008 until 2012, is set in a version of Camelot in which magic has been outlawed. The story begins when Arthur Pendragon (Bradley James) and the wizard known as Merlin (Colin Morgan) are young men who cannot stand each other, but after the latter becomes the former’s personal servant, they put their issues aside and become fast friends. And this is a good thing for both men, since Merlin has to often use his gifts in secret to save Arthur—often without him knowing—so the latter can one day fulfill his destiny as the man who will restore magic to the kingdom. If you’re looking for a lighter fantasy show than some of the others on this list, this is a really good, quite fun option with plenty of bromance.
Watch on Netflix
Fans of high fantasy will appreciate Netflix’s The Witcher, as it prioritizes an epic narrative and insightful character moments over the sex and spectacle that other shows seem to rely on (although it has some of that, as well). Adapted from a series of novels by Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski and a subsequent video game franchise, the series is set in a fictional world in an area known as the Continent, where gruesome supernatural creatures exist alongside humans, mages, and other more familiar beings found in fantasy. Henry Cavill stars as Geralt of Rivia, a monster-hunter-for-hire known as a witcher whose main antagonist might actually be the plot. But with numerous quests to go on and monsters that need to be defeated, the show balances a lot of fascinating world-building with an overarching story involving Geralt’s destiny being tied to that of a young princess (Freya Allen’s Ciri). A warning though: Some viewers complained the series is difficult to follow, so for those who haven’t read the source material, the key to enjoying The Witcher is to know that—SPOILER ALERT!—the first season is told out of order, with multiple timelines that begin to converge near the end of the season. Knowing this doesn’t really spoil anything that happens, but it will likely increase your enjoyment.
Watch on HBO Max
The first book in Philip Pullman’s beloved His Dark Materials trilogy was adapted for the big screen in 2007, but unfortunately not very well, which is why plans for the other two books were shelved. Luckily, HBO’s recent attempt to tackle the complex subject matter, while not perfect, does a much better job of bringing to life the intricate world depicted on the page. With deep contemplations about the dangers of unchecked power and dogmatic belief wrapped up in a compelling coming-of-age story about the young and spirited Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keen), the fantasy show is probably best suited for older viewers or young adults who’ll understand its lessons, but it is not completely out of the realm of enjoyment for younger viewers either.
Set in an alternate-world Oxford, where souls manifest as animals known as daemons who live and walk alongside their humans, the series follows Lyra as she sets out on a quest to find Oxford’s missing children. This thrusts her into a larger conspiracy involving dangerous people known as Gobblers, the possibility of multiple worlds, and a mysterious particle known as Dust that is only attracted to adults. Much like how Shadow and Bone has built out its world by introducing characters from another set of books, the writers of His Dark Materials have taken some liberties in their adaptation too, introducing characters from the second book of the trilogy in the first season, helping to build out a story and a world that only gets more interesting as it goes. Also, there are armored talking polar bears and appearances from both Lin-Manuel Miranda and Andrew Scott, a.k.a. the Hot Priest from Fleabag. Just in case those things might be of interest to you.
Watch on Netflix
Netflix and RiotGame’s Arcane, based on the decade-old League of Legends multiplayer online battle arena game, is a revelation. Stunningly crafted in a mix of 2D and 3D by French animation studio Fortiche Productions, Arcane is created and showrun by League video game architects Christian Linke and Alex Yee. For 10 years, the duo and their studio have cultivated a passionate and massively dedicated community of eight million players who have immersed themselves in the games, tie-in comics, and music videos that make up the complex mythology of the world. But as so many videogame-to-movie adaptations have proved, even hit games have a rough time translating to a new medium. It’s the perpetual challenge for even the best creatives: finding the right balance of fan service while engaging non-gamer audiences.
Not unlike other heavy world-building series like Game of Thrones or Shadow and Bone, Arcane mostly concerns itself with political and familial conflicts in a world where magic exists. If you happen to be a gamer, the art deco-meets-steampunk aesthetics of Piltover and Zaun will immediately draw parallels to the lauded Bioshock games. If you’re not, it doesn’t matter because a huge part of the appeal of the series is getting lost in how visually immersive every frame of this show is. The textures, lighting, and color palettes—dank and neon in the under city, which juxtaposes against the more pastel and metallic topside—are a feast for the eyes.
Even if you have no interest in picking up any kind of gaming console, do yourself a favor and give Arcane a try. It has more mature storytelling and emotional resonance than many live-action shows do right now. And it deserves to be lauded as the new benchmark for what can be done when it comes to successfully translating worthy videogame universes into a different medium while refusing to dumb down or simplify complex storytelling. Arcane is a world worth getting lost within. —Tara Bennett
Watch on Netflix
The Magicians was initially sold to viewers as “Harry Potter for adults” because it’s set at a secret school for magicians (no, not that kind) and folks apparently have limited imaginations and interests. The Syfy show is so much more than that. Based on the books by Lev Grossman, the series stars Jason Ralph as Quentin Coldwater, a grad student who finds out the rich magical world that was depicted in his favorite fantasy books growing up is actually real, and threatens the real world as we know it. At the beginning of the show, he enrolls in Brakebills University to be trained as a magician, thus joining several other young twenty-somethings on an adventure that cleverly flips the script on some of the genre’s most obvious tropes. Often darkly funny while still tackling serious topics, The Magicians got off to a slow start, but if you stick with it, you’ll be rewarded with one of the best fantasy shows of the last decade.
Watch on Hulu
Watch on Disney+
When you think of fantasy, you probably don’t immediately think of a show like Gravity Falls, which is an animated series that ran from 2012 to 2016 on Disney Channel and Disney XD. It isn’t set in a fictional world (unless you think Oregon isn’t real) and it doesn’t follow the more typical tropes of the genre, either. But the Alex Hirsch-created comedy about two twins, Mabel (Kristen Schaal) and Dipper Pines (Jason Ritter), who spend the summer visiting their strange great uncle Stan (Hirsch) in a town where the bizarre is also the norm, is a one-of-a-kind show that blends poignant coming-of-age stories with comedy, satire, and elements of fantasy to create a story that is fun for all ages. With an overarching narrative involving a mysterious journal that might explain all the odd things that go on in town—including the appearance of an interdimensional being who takes the form of a top hat-wearing triangle—the series also features plenty of smaller adventures that capture the twins’ attention and help make the summer one to remember. If you’re looking for something that is extremely easy to watch, full of laughs, and not quite as out-there as some of the other shows on this list, Gravity Falls cannot be beat.
Watch on Netflix
A prequel to Jim Henson’s 1982 cult film The Dark Crystal, Netflix’s TV series Age of Resistance is one of the most impressive feats of puppeteering and practical effects we’ve ever seen. It’s truly unlike anything else on this list and probably unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. And because the events of the show occur prior to the events of the film, you don’t necessarily need to have seen the film in order to enjoy the series. That being said, having some background knowledge might help you keep everything straight as this is an intricate and unique world that doesn’t play within the sandbox that many of these other shows do. Set on the planet Thra, the series primarily follows three members of the elf-like race of Gelflings (voiced by Taron Egerton, Nathalie Emmanuel, and Anya Taylor-Joy) as they embark on an epic quest to unite the different Gelfling clans against the reptilian Skeksis, who have damaged the crystal that acts as the beating heart of the planet, and allowed a sickness to spread across the land as a result. This one might not be for the casual fantasy fan, but it remains must-see TV regardless because of the incredible work on display.
Watch on Netflix
If you’ve already watched a lot of the shows on this list and you’re looking for something a little off-kilter but more accessible than, say, Gelflings, Matt Groening’s animated parody of medieval fantasy stories, Disenchantment, is worth a look. Aimed at adults and set in Dreamland—a fully realized world full of fantasy and magic—the show follows the adventures of a a central trio: a princess named Bean (Abbi Jacobson) who loves beer and is reluctant to take on the responsibilities of adulthood; an elf named Elfo (Nat Faxon) who obviously has a crush on Bean; and a feline-like demon known as Luci (Eric Andre) who has been sent to keep an eye on Bean. Early on in its run the show relies on episodic adventures to set the stage, but towards the end of Season 1 the show finally embraces serialized storytelling, showing off its true potential as an engaging and funny series that knows how to poke fun at, but still have fun within, the fantasy genre.
Kaitlin Thomas is an entertainment journalist and TV critic. Her work has appeared in TV Guide, Salon, and TV.com, among other places. You can find her tweets about TV, sports, and Walton Goggins @thekaitling or read more of her work at kaitlinthomas.com.
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