Can you name the top high fantasy TV shows? It is harder than it seems. We can all come up with a few off the top of our heads, but once you name the obvious, you begin to realize just how few “High” or even “Low” fantasy shows there really are out there in broadcast TV and streaming land. And when you consider just how popular fantasy is these days, the fact that there are so few shows centering on the genre is a bit of a puzzler. The influx of superhero shows demonstrates it isn’t a budget issue, and the wild popularity of that show on HBO shows people want to watch them… so what gives?
While I mention high fantasy in the title, I’m going to include some shows that blend with low fantasy as well so long as they do have some high fantasy trademarks. Low fantasy shows are those that take place in a very Earth-like setting with the inclusion of magic. There’s a lot of blending that goes on between high and low fantasy, and certainly some disagreements on where to draw the lines, so I’ll judge shows by (1) inclusion of magic, (2) residing in a sword-and-sorcery environment at least part of the time and (3) the inclusion of other fantasy-style races or magical beings.
Hercules and Xena
These mid-to-late 90s shows don’t really stand the test of time, so it is hard to recommend their viewing, but they are easily among the most famous sword-and-sorcery shows of all time. Featuring the campy style of Sam Raimi (of Evil Dead and Army of Darkness fame), Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and its popular spinoff Xena: Warrior Princess deserve a mention on this list. Of the two, Xena is the easiest to watch in our modern era of big-budget TV shows without cringing, and once you get past the low-end effects and B-flick feel, it is even enjoyable.
The Legend of the Seeker
My admission: I didn’t watch past the first few episodes. It wasn’t that it was bad, it simply didn’t catch hold with me at the time. Based on the Sword of Truth novels by Terry Goodkind, the series wasn’t received well by critics, but it did respond well to fans of fantasy. The series should be considered ‘loosely adapted’ as it does diverge quite a bit from the books, but it keeps with the central themes and overall setting. The Legend of the Seeker may not be the most entertaining fantasy series out there, but if you are dying for some high fantasy, it’ll do the trick.
The Shannara Chronicles
What do we feel about the Shannara Chronicles? I’ll put it this way. The fact that it makes it on a top list shows that there hasn’t been a plethora of great high fantasy to hit the broadcast TV and streaming services.
That’s not to say that the series is bad. Once you get past the first few episodes, which had their beyond-the-normal-amount-of-cheese-factor scenes, the Shannara Chronicles is quite enjoyable. It’s just not spectacular. At times, it seems as much Dawson’s Creek as it does an action-adventure fantasy series. Pretty people saying lines and looking… well… pretty. But it has a good story supporting it, and while the acting isn’t great, it is adequate to the task.
Of everything on this list (including the you-know-what-is-at-number-one), Cursed is the most D&D of them all. The setting is Arthurian, which some would rule out as “high” fantasy, but considering the emphasis on the different fae races, the magic and the swords (including that sword), I would definitely put it in the high fantasy column along with any Camelot-themed show where monsters and magic are real. (And if you need a bigger hint: there is at least more Arthurian show on this list!)
Cursed is a bit of an interesting pick. Again, not spectacular, but it definitely has its moments. The art direction is fantastic, it is a great story that loosely follows the myths without stepping in their footsteps, and it has plenty to like. Perhaps it’s only shortcoming was the lack of a certain compelling nature during the first half of the series. Not bad, mind you. I just didn’t feel a need to continue binging it like I felt with the shows I’m about to mention. But by the mid-point, the addiction factor does start to kick in and you can’t wait for the next episodes.
If I wanted to explain the idea of “cheesy but good,” I could think of no better example than Merlin. The dynamic between Merlin, played by Colin Morgan, and Arthur, played by Bradley James, is what drives this show. There’s a playful chemistry that really comes out on the screen. The stories are… well… generally cheesy. And at times you have to wonder how Arthur doesn’t figure out Merlin’s secret. Is he just that dense? Perhaps Giles…*cough*… I mean Uther Pendragon dropped him on his head too much as a kid?
No matter. Cheesy stories. Somewhat B-level effects. It all works. I wouldn’t say it is Buffy. I mean, there’s no musical episode or anything, so it doesn’t have that Buffy-like quality that exists in shows like the modern Doctor Who, but it definitely nails the cheesy goodness that leads to a fun time. It also includes a lot of high fantasy tropes and adventures you think could come right out of a D&D session.
Speaking of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Magicians is the epitome of a Buffy-like show to the point of wondering if they didn’t steal Joss Whedon’s brain to make it. (That actually might explain some things…) The Magicians takes place in part in our world (or a version where magic exists) and in part a fantasy land. I think enough takes place in the other world that we can classify this one as “high” fantasy even if it is definitely a blend between the two. In this regard, I’ve put The Magicians on this list and left out Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell — a truly fantastic show that simply doesn’t have enough fantasy elements to make the list.
How to explain The Magicians? Take the old child’s tale of our world where magicians really exist and go to a school to learn magic, a student magician who is obsessed with a fairy-tale like fantasy setting from beloved children’s books, and the eventual travel to said world. Now take a giant sword of dark fantasy and create a blood-spurting gash into that picturesque world.
It’s wicked. But, especially starting with season 2, it’s actually pretty funny and a really great time. It can take some getting used to right at first, but it’s definitely one of those shows where — despite maybe wanting to stop watching after the first few episodes — you should at least watch the entire first season. And by then you won’t be able to not watch the rest.
Badass. There’s really no other way to put it. I’ve never read the books and only dabbled with the game, so I’m judging the show on just the show, not any comparison to the source material. Again, badass. Definitely mature. Don’t watch it with your kiddos in the room. Henry Cavill as Geralt and Anya Chalotra as Yennefer really nail their parts.
A great part of this story is that while Geralt is obviously a badass, he’s not without his failings. He’s also constantly going up against powerful monsters where a single misstep (or roll of a 1 on that 20-sided dice) can mean death. It also has a tricky story-line that slowly comes together in the end.
Everything about this show is A+. It has great acting, great sets and art direction, excellent effects and an awesome story. Basically, it is what we all hope the future of TV and streaming will bring.
Game of Thrones
There’s no real getting around the number one spot. Even if the last couple of seasons weren’t quite up to the preceding seasons, they were still the best of fantasy on TV. The show definitely felt the loss of the source material after they passed by the novels, which caused the show to introduced a bit of a Hollywood-like “oh did this guy really die, no we’ll bring him back in the next episode” that the preceding seasons lacked. (Yeah, if someone dies in the first few seasons, you can bet they are dead.)
Hey. We all know that horse. We’ve kicked it. And beat it. It’s dead.
But Game of Thrones was its own thing. It was cross-genre. You didn’t have to like fantasy or dragons or political intrigue. It was just an awesome show and most people who started watching it quickly became addicted to it.
Game of Thrones is not without controversy, especially when you consider the showrunners leaned heavy into rape scenes that didn’t quite play out that way in the novels, but anyway you slice it, Game of Thrones is easily the best fantasy TV series of all time without even much competition.
It’s also the best zombie apocalypse show, which I point out to some friends every time they start talking The Walking Dead. (Hey… I loved The Walking Dead… season 1 and half of season 2.). The only thing Game of Thrones lacked was a final scene where Jon Snow climbs to the top, looks out on the frozen northlands, and yells, “You want me on this wall… you need me on this wall!”