September 2017 is SYFY's 25th anniversary, so we’re using it as an excuse to look back and celebrate the last 25 years of ALL science fiction, fantasy and horror, a time that has seen the genres we love conquer the world of pop culture. For us, that means lists! ALL THE LISTS! We’ll be doing two “25 greatest” lists per day all throughout September, looking back at the moments, people, and characters that shaped the last quarter century. So keep checking back.
Please note: Our lists are not ranked; all items have equal standing in our brains.
What items in our lists were your favorites? Did we miss something? We welcome respectful debate and discussion, so please let us know in the comments!
Some of the best fantasy in the past 25 years did not require a ticket to see it. It only required television, cable, the occasional Netflix login, and maybe an HBO GO password. Taking enormous leaps forward in both scale and story, fantasy has flourished on the small screen, and there looks to be no end in sight. Grab your stake, clean up Arthur’s mess, and fall in love with a ghost as we take a look at the 25 best fantasy series from the past 25 years.
American Horror Story
If you want a series that will scare you, unsettle you, and occasionally make you laugh, then look no further. Beginning in 2011, AHS has become something of an institution. It is a horror anthology, with each season playing out like a miniseries unto itself. The subject matter varies from season to season, dealing with covens, asylums, freak shows, and most recently, cults. Given life by Glee creator Ryan Murphy, he has made sure that every season is full of actors that will keep you watching. The brilliant Sarah Paulson pops up often, and we’re not complaining.
The adventures of everyone’s brood-happy vampire with a soul continues in this spin-off of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Relocating to LA, Angel starts his own detective agency, and is assisted by psychic visions that come from various supporting players. The show brings on some Buffy alums (Cordelia Chase, and “rogue demon hunter” Wesley Wyndam-Pryce) in the first season, while adding some original characters, such as the karaoke-loving demon Lorne, and scientist Winifred Burkle. The show was darker and more procedural, and it ran for five seasons. If you’re curious, the final season is where the gold is. The show adds the beloved character Spike, contains an episode where Angel is hilariously transformed into a puppet, and has one of Joss Whedon’s best written episodes (of anything) with “A Hole in the World.”
It’s a Batman show without Batman… or at least it started that way. The first entry in Greg Berlanti’s CW “Arrowverse” series features the super-rich Oliver Queen returning home after being stranded on an island for five years. He immediately goes into business as a vigilante, and shows that he is quite skilled with a bow and arrow. Where did he learn to use them? Well, it turns out that things on the island of Lian Yu weren’t as simple as we may have thought. We watch Oliver transition from a deep voiced intimidator, (The Hood) to a force for good, (The Arrow) and ultimately a symbol of Hope (The Green Arrow). The action is great, and the CW’s penchant for relationship drama is a good fit as well. If you stuck with this show into its second season, you most likely found it addictive.
Avatar: The Last Airbender
Running from 2005 to 2008, this beautifully animated series tells the story of a world divided into four tribes, each based on the four elements. Within each tribe are people known as “benders,” and these special individuals have the power to manipulate the element of their tribe. Only one person in the world is capable of “bending” all four elements, that that person is the “avatar” of the show’s title. We mostly follow young Aang, the last of the airbenders, and the latest incarnation of the avatar. With beautiful stories and an excellent voice cast, the show spawned a comics series, a live action movie, and a sequel series, The Legend of Korra.
Being Human (UK)
Can a vampire and a werewolf successfully share the same flat? Watch this gem from the BBC to find out! Why stop with just those two, though, when you can add a ghost into the mix? That’s exactly what this show does. Oftentimes the show is full of supernatural oddity, but sometimes it just follows the mundanity of normal flat living. It is anchored (in the beginning) by wonderful acting turns from Aidan Turner, Russell Tovey, and Lenora Critchlow, and is perfect for anybody looking for a hybrid of Buffy, Sherlock, and Spaced.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
This is an all-time classic. We’ve already mentioned the excellent spin-off show, but this is where it all begins. When Buffy Summers moves to the town of Sunnydale, she is looking for a fresh start. This proves impossible, however, for Buffy is the Slayer — one girl chosen in every generation to fight the forces of evil. The downside: her high school resides directly above a hellmouth. The upside: she is not alone! Joined by a shifting roster of friends dubbed “The Scooby Gang,” Buffy is helped by her best friend Willow, (a witch) a reformed vampire, (Angel, then later Spike) Xander, (comic relief, some military training from the time he dressed up as a soldier on Halloween and was briefly transformed into an actual… too long, moving on) and her librarian/wizard mentor, Rupert Giles. Some of the early CG effects don’t look great these days, (the mayor-worm thing) but who cares? This show is timeless, and it is led by a female protagonist who was truly ahead of her time. It would appear on this list for “Once More With Feeling” alone.
The power of three! Beginning in 1998, this show dealt with three sisters discovering that they are witches. Thankfully, the Halliwells are good ones. Known as three charmed ones, these sisters worked best when their powers were put together. Prue, (Shannen Doherty) Piper, (Holly Marie Combs) and Phoebe (Alyssa Milano) often had to work out how to manage their personal lives with their lives spent fighting demons and warlocks. They replaced Prue at the end of season 3 with their half-sister Paige, (Rose McGowan) but the show went on for another five seasons. It’s a fine example of how the power of sisterhood can triumph over any darkness.
Game of Thrones
Will this show ever be topped? In terms of the fantasy genre, it is unlikely. What began as a niche show for fans of the book series has turned into a behemoth. Both a critical and ratings success in the beginning, it now seems like everyone watches this show. It’s hard to get away from it. The world of Westeros (and Essos) has permeated our pop culture landscape in a way that few other properties have. Whether you read the books, or have never read a book in your life, you can appreciate this show. It is a landmark in terms of depicting epic events on television, but the true Valyrian steel of the show is the acting. Given life with remarkable performances from Peter Dinklage, Lena Headey, Emilia Clarke, Charles Dance, Maisie Williams, and practically everyone else, it is the characters of this fantasy show that elevate it way above “dragons and nudity.” This is a monumental achievement in storytelling, no matter what genre we’re talking about.
After being petrified for over a thousand years, a group of gargoyles have come to life after being brought to New York City. Waking only at night, the group takes on the task of protecting the city during these evening hours. Not only do the heroic gargoyles have to cope with the supernatural threats to the city, they also have to deal with life in the modern world. Another marvel of animation and voice-acting, the show drew many comparisons with the brilliant Batman: The Animated Series, and often weaved in Shakespearean themes. Plus, it features a castle on top of a skyscraper, and it doesn’t get much cooler than that.
The Good Place
This show is anything but basic. The terminally selfish Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) dies in a most undistinguished manner, and this show finds her navigating the afterlife. In this world there is a good place, and a bad place, and Eleanor has found herself in the good place. The problem is, the powers that be have made a mistake. She doesn’t belong in the good place at all, and the result is an endlessly unspooling comedy of errors and ethics. This show is famous for its sudden twists, and it would be awful of us to spoil them here. This was one of the best shows of last year, and the second season has just begun. The first season is also on Netflix, so now is a great time to jump in. The entire cast is full of gifted comic actors, but Kristen Bell leads them with a playful twinkle, and Ted Danson (as the good place architect) is probably doing the best work he’s ever done. Go forkin’ watch this shirt right now!
25 years ago, we’d have been surprised if you told us that the “fantasy police procedural” would be fairly common…yet here we are! Portland based detective Nick Burkhardt (David Giuntoli) discovers one day that he is not all cop. Well, he’s not “just” a cop. He is also a Grimm, which is one in a line of guardians who are sworn to keep the balance between humanity and the mythological creatures known as “Wesen.” The show mixes good ol’ cop drama with Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and tosses a bit of original mythology into the broth. Grimm ran for six seasons, and is so strange, it has to be true!
We know, some of you may be yelling right now, saying that Lost is sci-fi, and not fantasy. You’re not wrong. This classic ABC series that launched a thousand online fan debates had aspects of both. Whereas the first five seasons would be comfortable in the sci-fi stable, the last season particularly lends itself more to fantasy. Why is this? Well, half of it taking place in the afterlife is a good place to start. It also features the tale of the near immortal Richard, (magic) as well as the mythology of the island itself. A “cork” of sorts that keeps evil at bay, the sixth season reveals that the entire show up to that point has been dealing with men of science trying to mess with powers that are well beyond their abilities to comprehend. This kind of genre mix doesn’t happen often on TV, and we’re (mostly) glad that Lost took that plunge.
Do you enjoy Harry Potter, but think that it’s a bit safe in terms of sex and drugs? If so, have we got the show for you! An adaptation of the Lev Grossman books, this SYFY show gives you characters who are some of the biggest magical screw-ups this side of Hogsmeade, and the adults aren’t much better. We follow a group of students who go about their education at the magical Brakebills, but we also see the other side of the coin, following a magician who was not allowed to attend. As if school life and the world of “hedge-magicians” wasn’t enough, the second seasons spends a lot of time in Fillory, a Narnia-like world that is discovered to be real in the first season. Some alcoholic students become kings. Two students are changed into animals and have sex in the arctic. A ram-horned god takes a dump in the “wellspring” of all magic, and spontaneous Les Miserables like musical numbers can pop up from time to time. Certainly, at least ONE of these circumstances will appeal to you.
Merlin is a young boy (and a squire for the future King Arthur) in this British adaptation of the classic Arthurian legends. Magic has been outlawed in the court of Arthur’s father, Uther, (a very un-Giles like Anthony Head) and so Merlin must keep his magical leanings a secret. He learns what he can from a dragon friend (voiced by John Hurt) and mostly spends his days taking orders from the incredibly ungrateful Arthur. Merlin almost always saves the day, but he never gets the credit for it, thanks to some demented Inspector Gadget story logic. The effects aren’t great and the chainmail sweatshirt things are painful to look at, but Colin Morgan’s performance as Merlin makes up for all of it. For anyone craving more Arthurian mythology, (also including Guinevere and Morgana) this show should do the trick.
Once Upon a Time
Most fairy tales contain some kind of mystical forest. It’s often a place that represents the unknown, and it’s where the real adventures begin. What if every fairy tale took place in the same forest? Well, that’s more or less the premise of this popular ABC show. Going back and forth between our real world and the realm of fairy tales, the show illustrates the plights of such classic characters as Snow White, Belle, Rumpelstiltskin, and Captain Hook. Some of these characters are right in line with what we remember, while others take more subversive turns. The writing is at the level where the viewer never gets lost, no matter how many characters and curses get thrown into the mix.
The lovely Claire Randall and her husband are visiting Scotland, and one day Claire goes for a walk. Encountering some interesting standing stones, she is suddenly whisked way back in time, all the way to 1743. She finds herself in the company of handsome Scottish stud Jamie Fraser, and also being hunted by her husband’s hugely evil ancestor, Captain “Black Jack” Randall. To stay alive, she ends up marrying Jamie—but soon the two develop a passion and chemistry that almost melts the television screen. Full of gorgeous Scottish vistas and great performances, (including Graham McTavish and a double-cast Tobias Menzies) it is the bonfire hotness of series leads Caitriona Balfe (Claire) and Sam Heughan (Jamie) that have made this fantasy a must watch.
The concept of this all too brief Showtime drama is similar to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, in that it is a chronicle of classic literary characters (both old and new) coming together. Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll, and Dorian Grey are all on hand, as are some new creations. Timothy Dalton is excellent as Sir Malcolm Murray, the man who more or less brings the group together, and the great Simon Russell Beale adds his genius to the proceedings playing an Egyptologist. The entire show belongs to Eva Green, however, as her performance as Vanessa Ives is the series’ shining accomplishment. Sometimes the enigmatic Miss Ives is at the center of the drama, and other times she is the cause of it. Her incredibly layered and nuanced portrayal of a most complicated woman make this Victorian fright-fest necessary viewing. “Eva Green’s Penny Dreadful starring Eva Green” would have been a more fitting title.
Jesse Custer is on the search for God in this crazy adaptation of the Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon comic. Played by Dominic Cooper, Jesse is joined by the vampire Cassidy (Joseph Gielgun) and his ex, Tulip O’Hare (an amazing Ruth Negga), on his search. The first season played out more like a prequel to the events of the comics, but the second season finds our characters fully on the hunt. The show is a wacky, mysterious good time, and the three lead performances (and chemistry) of Cooper, Gielgun, and Negga make it irresistible. Open your heart.
Ned (played by Lee Pace) has a gift — he can bring the dead back to life with a touch. Sounds wonderful! He tries it on Chuck, (Anna Friel) the love of his life, and she is brought back as well. The catch? If they ever touch again, she’ll go back to being dead for good. Bryan Fuller created this show in 2007, and it was full of colorful characters and heart. It was narrated by the voice of the Harry Potter American audiobooks (and Broadway legend) Jim Dale, and his voiceover set the fairy tale tone of this show that was taken away before it had chance to fully blossom.
When it debuted in 2001, this show about young Clark Kent (played by Tom Welling) had one major rule—no suits, no flight. We were dealing with Clark’s early days of figuring out his powers, as well as his often tumultuous love life. We watched him fall in love with dream girl Lana Lang, (Kristen Kreuk) then finally get together with her. We then watched him break up with that dream girl, and then repeat the cycle a few times. Lana even took the ever vexing step of marrying a young Lex Luthor (Michael Rosenbaum) for a season. Tom Welling’s endearing performance (and Rosenbaum’s friendly menace) kept this show grounded no matter how crazy the storylines got. By the time Welling’s Clark finally kissed Lois Lane (Erica Durance) and changed into the famous costume at long last, the impact hit us because we had been there for every step of his journey.
This Netflix original series from the Duffer Brothers was an instant hit. It’s a retro blend of IT, E.T., and many other kids-on-bicycles-saving-the-day tales. Its serialized storytelling had most people binging, because nobody could get enough of this 80’s infused tale of a disappearing child, a crazy horror-fantasy zone called "The Upside Down" and a mysterious girl with superpowers. From the title sequence, to the music, to the kids in the basement playing D&D, this show is certainly drenched in nostalgia — but nostalgia only gets you so far. The earnestness of the actors, along with a well-written storyline, will keep you engaged.
Initially premiering on the WB in 2005, this supernatural-horror-fantasy was later brought to the CW, and is still going strong. It is about to enter it’s thirteenth season, so it must be doing something right! It features the ongoing trials and adventures of the Winchester brothers, (Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles) as they deal with, well, all things supernatural. Vampires, ghosts, spirits, nothing is off the table for this show. It’s gained a rabid fan base over the course of its run, and the reason is that it is wildly entertaining.
Alan Ball (Six Feet Under) created this adaptation of Charlaine Harris’ “Sookie Stackhouse” book series in 2008. It starred Anna Paquin as thought-reading waitress Sookie Stackhouse, and she existed in a world where vampires lived out in the open among humans. The reason this was possible is the faux-blood beverage of the show’s title, and it could be ordered at most restaurants. Sookie’s life is turned upside down when she meets Vampire Bill Compton (Steven Moyer) and the events of the show are set in motion. In the beginning the show dealt with serious themes of equality, human rights, and the notion of “coming out of the coffin,” but after Alan Ball left, it turned into an all-out bacchanalia of lunacy and madness. Both sides of the show are enjoyable. We go deep into a fascinating vampire culture, get to know werewolves, have an unfortunate season with witches, and even meet some fairies along the way. Anna Paquin keeps the show steady (even during its moments of utter madness) and the occasional appearances from stage legend Denis O’Hare are pure magic.
X-Men: The Animated Series
This animated series (running from 1992 to 1997) is still the X-Men gold standard for many X-fans. Due to its serialized nature, the show was able to go into greater depth with its characters and storylines. It usually told original stories, but the series did hit on variations of old classics. Sentinels, Magneto, The Mutant Cure, Weapon X, and of course, The Dark Phoenix Saga, all get their due here. The result is something both new and familiar, and the animated format is able to depict the powerful mutants exceptionally well.
Xena: Warrior Princess
Xena, as played by Lucy Lawless, originally appeared in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. She proved very popular, so she soon received her own show. We’re glad that she did! The series finds Xena taking on various quests and attempting to redeem her dark past. She is joined by best friend and possible soulmate Gabrielle, and it is the relationship between the two of them that really makes the show what it is. Gabrielle taught Xena about the powers of sacrifice, yes, but we're they more than friends? Everyone wanted to know. As the show ended with Gabrielle bringing life back to Xena, (in the form of a full on kiss) many believed that they were a couple. Had the show been made today, perhaps there would be no ambiguity about that, but it was important that it came out when it did. It ran from 1995 to 2001, and helped to establish the importance of strong female protagonists, as well as helping to deepen the conversation of homosexuality on television.
These were OUR choices from the last 25 years. What are yours? Let us know in the comments which fantasy series you’d put on your list!