With most states encouraging residents to stay home and continue social distancing until at least the end of April, it’s tempting to fall into comfort-food TV and just binge out on brain candy. But why not use that time to keep your brain sharp and dig into some super-smart sci-fi — the kind you never had the chance or the time to do so before — so you’ll come out of this lockdown savvier than ever?
If you’re looking to challenge your mind during this period of self-isolation, we’ve put together a list of some of the smartest high-concept sci-fi shows you can binge out on to stay frosty with wild twists, clever plotting, and generally Big Ideas. Of course, this is in no way a comprehensive list, and there are plenty of smart genre shows we didn’t touch on, from hits like Lost to high-concept flops like FlashForward and The Event (may they rest in peace).
We tried to drill into shows that were, you know, generally good to start with — then move into shows that had really smart execution, ambitious ideas, and little details you really have to dig into to make sure you stay ahead of the curve.
From robots to alt-realities and clones to anthologies, here’s what we’d recommend to make sure you come out of this pandemic a bit smarter and looking for the real story underneath all your favorite TV shows.
It was called "the Game of Thrones set in space," back before Game of Thrones kinda missed the mark during its final season. But this space opera is ambitious, smart, and loaded with fascinating characters and dense world-building that has been thought out down to every level. It’s dealt with things such as planetary politics, the sci-fi of a mysterious new molecule, and the space travel of a mysterious portal to other worlds.
The series started life on SYFY, then jumped to Amazon Prime for its latest season (with more to the story expected). If you haven’t seen it, it’s probably about the best active genre show you’re not watching.
Stream It On: Amazon Prime
Noah Hawley became a household name in TV circuits with his TV remake of Fargo, and used that newfound clout to make his very own Marvel show at FX.
But this is not your usual Marvel show; it's miles away from more traditional fare like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., or The Gifted (RIP), or even Daredevil. Legion is a twisty psychological thriller based around mutant David Haller, aka the son of Professor X of X-Men fame.
It’s a story about facing the evil and fear inside of yourself, and when the action does turn into superhero stuff, it never goes the obvious route.
Stream It On: Hulu
It’s perhaps the OG modern, high-concept sci-fi series. The SYFY remake of the classic show has been regarded as one of the best sci-fi shows ever made, landing on plenty of “Best Of” lists over the years, and for good reason. It takes the somewhat wacky concept of humanity being on the run from evil robots and made it tense and timely. This included getting into the politics of those few survivors and even looking at how they live life under the regime of the robots for a while by employing insurgent tactics and turning against one another to simply try and survive.
Sure, the ending is a wild left turn, but the show remains a modern classic. So dig into Ronald D. Moore’s acclaimed take while we patiently wait to see what Peacock does with that mysterious reboot/revival of BSG as a new streaming original.
Stream It On: SYFY.com
This one didn’t score nearly as much acclaim and buzz as the main series, but this Battlestar Galactica prequel series was a brilliant expansion of the universe — even if it only lasted one all-too-brief season.
The series is set almost 60 years before the events of BSG, focusing on the creation of the Cylons while this version of humanity was at its technological height. A bit of hubris before the fall we all know is coming.
It asks questions about what makes a person human, all wrapped in the wild tech drama of a well-constructed sci-fi world.
Stream It On: Amazon Prime (For Purchase)
This short-lived Starz original series lasted only two seasons, existing largely under the radar for pretty much its entire run. With it now available to binge, though, it’s a great show to discover, even if it’s after the fact.
The show starred J.K. Simmons as a lowly office worker who comes to realize he’s working at the communication point between a parallel Earth. We get multiverse politics, a deadly virus (ahem), and some tense action as Simmons’ agent — well, both of them — go deeper into these divergent worlds.
Stream It On: Amazon Prime
It’s basically a wilder take on The X-Files, featuring insane sci-fi conspiracies, an alternate reality, and plenty of doomsday scenarios. But it's the father-son dynamic between stars Joshua Jackson and John Noble that really make it work, held together by the FBI agent trying to make sense of this bizarro world in Anna Torv.
Stream It On: Amazon Prime (Free via IMDB TV)
In Black Mirror, Netflix has brought us The Twilight Zone for the streaming generation — and, yes — we realize there is actually a new Twilight Zone series on streaming (which is pretty good, too).
Black Mirror tells some of the most ambitious one-off stories you’ll find anywhere, looking at weird worlds in which social media run society, or where punishment has become far more cruel and unusual than we’ve ever imagined.
You’ll laugh, you’ll cry. But most importantly, your brain will be well-teased.
Stream It On: Netflix
If there’s any show that ever punched above its weight, it’s Orphan Black. The BBC America original came largely out of nowhere, but became one of the most critically acclaimed shows of the past several years thanks to the insane performances of star Tatiana Maslany.
Maslany plays a half-dozen or more characters on the regular, as a group of cloned women tries to unravel the mysterious conspiracy of their existence and what it all means for their futures. It only got better as it went along, and now the full series run is available to binge.
Stream It On: Amazon Prime
This short-lived NBC series only lasted one 13-episode season, but it was one heck of a thrill ride. The show was created by Kyle Killen (who has created a few high-concept shows, most of which have been canceled quickly) and starred Jason Isaacs as a cop caught between two realities.
The only problem is that he’s not sure which one is real. The realities diverge after a car crash tragically kills his wife. Or did it kill his son? Yeah, that’s the question.
Issacs' character walks between these two worlds, never sure which is the “real” one. Or are they both real? Yeah, this is a fun one to keep you guessing.
Stream It On: Prime Video (For Purchase)
OK, sure. It’s an obvious pick — but it doesn’t change the fact that HBO’s high-tech theme park-gone-mad series Westworld is a fun show that grapples with some really smart ideas.
The first season is a masterclass in storytelling, and though Season 2 was a bit rockier, Season 3 (currently airing) looks to have the robotic mysteries back on track. Come for the cowboy action, stay for the deep thoughts about what makes us human and if humanity really is the monster in all of this craziness.
Stream It On: HBO