The 14 Best Fantasy & Sci-Fi TV Shows of 2020
They're out of this world.
When you think about it, 2020 felt like a year out of science fiction, what with a global pandemic sparked by a mysterious virus and an election season that challenged all thresholds of common sense. It only made the actual sci-fi offerings of the year became more comforting in their escapism, especially when that escapism involved idiot vampires, sad ghosts, evil superheroes, inscrutable technology, deep space, brain-breaking time travel, and a little green guy who hides a lot and eats forbidden eggs. Avoiding the many not great p*ndemic-themed shows that unfortunately came out this year, these series ported us to alternate dimensions that brought us some version of joy.
The Boys (Amazon Prime)Season 2. 8 episodes.
The Boys, already the savviest show about the state of pop culture, went even darker and harder in its second season. Despite operating in the same genre as Marvel and DC, The Boys is less about world saving and more about greedy corporate entities that trade on public fears in order to sell their product—the product in this case being superheroes. This batch of episodes introduced You're the Worst's Aya Cash as a no-bullshit feminist using the language of women's rights for her own evil aims, a fucked up narrative not just there for shock value: It gets to the root of something genuinely insidious in the entertainment industry.—Esther Zuckerman
Dark (Netflix)Season 3. 8 episodes.
In the final season of Netflix's German-language sci-fi brain-buster, the forces of good and evil vying for control of the very nature of time itself in the past, present and future of Winden wend further along their possibly unending temporal loop that we now know also spans a parallel universe. Jonas, having been rescued by Martha 2 in the second-season finale, is more determined than ever to stop the villainous Adam and return things to normal. But undoing a knot that has held Winden in balance for five generations requires a sacrifice, resulting in one of the most shocking and emotional conclusions to a TV show you'll see this year.—Emma Stefansky
Devs (FX on Hulu)Limited series. 8 episodes.
Devs! Shout it out! If you love a bonkers yarn involving murder, quantum theory, and Nick Offerman in a villainous beard, boy, do I have a miniseries for you—this moody, visually stunning techno-thriller, entirely written and directed by Alex Garland and starring Offerman as a creepy tech CEO, Alison Pill as his chief designer, and Sonoya Mizuno as a software engineer who investigates the mysterious death of her boyfriend on his first day of work at the secretive company. Fans of Garland's previous work, especially the 2007 Danny Boyle sci-fi horror movie Sunshine he scripted, will be mesmerized, even as the plot folds in on itself and threatens to venture into Black Mirror territory.—John Sellers
The Expanse (Amazon Prime)Season 5. 10 episodes.
With the addition of a mysterious terrorist, a missing protomolecule specimen, and a bunch of rocks hurtling towards humanity's homeworld, Season 5 of The Expanse turns things up several notches. Overwhelmed by the opportunity presented by the exoplanets reachable through the Ring, thanks to the protomolecule mysteriously left behind by an unknown and seemingly all-powerful alien race, the solar system is on tenterhooks once again, plenty of factions vying for control of the wormholes, disturbing the tentative peace between Earth, Mars, and the Belt. Adding a further wrinkle is the appearance of Belter terrorist Marco Inaros (Keon Alexander), driven to near insanity by the slights and hardships he suffered as a citizen of the asteroid belt, who plans to declare war on Earth by launching stealth-cloaked asteroids at the planet's surface. The crew of the Rocinante, traveling separate paths for the first time, must figure out how to save the solar system from descending into war once again.—Emma Stefansky
The Haunting of Bly Manor (Netflix)Anthology series. 10 episodes.
The Haunting of Hill House, horror auteur Mike Flanagan's well-regarded 2018 Netflix miniseries, unearthed the roots of a family's trauma using the very spirits that haunted them as children in a mansion that was like flypaper for people's souls. Compared to that season, the second installment of what has become an anthology show with many of the same actors playing unconnected characters is barely frightening at all. But that's far from a criticism. There are plenty of ghosts in Bly Manor, based on Henry James' gothic mystery novel The Turn of the Screw, in which a governess comes to believe that her two young charges are being possessed by the ghosts of two lovers who had died on the grounds before she arrived, but the show spends less time on crafting its (very effective) scares and more on exploring what force could possibly be powerful enough to turn a dead person into a ghost. Death is a tragedy; a soul unable to move on even more so.—Emma Stefansky
His Dark Materials (HBO)Season 2. 8 episodes.
After Lord Asriel opened a rip between dimensions in the Season 1 finale, the second season of the show, now following the action of Philip Pullman's The Subtle Knife, finds Lyra traversing the ghost town of Cittagazze, a crossroads world populated only by children in which she finally meets Will Parry for the first time, and hunts with him for an object of power that would give them both protection. Meanwhile, the Magisterium is at war with the witches of Lyra's world, and the villainous Lord Boreal is up to no good in Will's, tricking the two children into working for him in a world that's too dangerous for him to cross into. Famed aeronaut Lee Scoresby has traded his hot air balloon for a boat and is searching for a famous traveler who might have some answers for him about all of these parallel worlds. Perhaps most excitingly, this season introduces the physicist Mary Malone, who inadvertently discovers exactly what Dust is, and how dangerous this knowledge could be in the wrong hands.—Emma Stefansky
Lovecraft Country (HBO)Season 1. 10 episodes.
Set in the 1950s, Lovecraft Country follows the Freemans and the Lewises, two Black families from Chicago who find themselves caught up in a centuries-long battle between warring lodges dabbling in the esoteric dark arts. It begins with Korean War vet Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors) receiving a letter from his father, Montrose (Michael K. Williams), which sets Atticus off on a cross-country rescue mission with childhood friend Letitia Lewis (Jurnee Smollett) and his uncle George (Courtney B. Vance). Atticus soon learns that he is a pawn sought by a white secret-society patriarch (Scandal's Tony Goldwyn) for a scheme to become the most powerful wizard in the country. That encounter sets off a quest to discover what's really going on, and the monsters and ghosts Atticus, Letitia and their families encounter are only a smidge scarier than the segregated reality they live in. A solid mix of Watchmen-style allegorical world building and X-Files monster-of-week intrigue make this fantasy series from Misha Green a mind-melting must-see.—Emma Stefansky
Lucifer (Netflix)Season 5A. 8 episodes.
With Lucifer down in Hell doing his King stuff, Chloe is hard at work trying to get over him. But you can't keep these two separated forever, and it's only a matter of time before Lucifer is back on Earth solving murders and flirting unsuccessfully. Matters are complicated somewhat by Lucifer's evil (good?) twin the archangel Michael coming down from Heaven to impersonate his devilish brother and generally cause a lot of fuss on Earth. The first part of the extended fifth season leaves lots of room for its characters to have some adventures of their own, including a black and white film noir detective episode and a mojo-switching mystery, before bringing the house down in a climactic balls-to-the-wall angel-vs.-devil brawl.—Emma Stefansky
The Mandalorian (Disney+)Season 2. 8 episodes.
In its second season, The Mandalorian kicked into an even higher gear than the first, which itself was among the most rapturous viewing experiences of 2019. Having accepted the mantle of transporting Grogu, née the Child, aka Baby Yoda, back to his own people, whoever and wherever they may be, Mando's mission became clearer, his allies more colorful, and the line between good and evil blurrier with each subsequent episode. The show preserved the brisk, planet-hopping flavor of Season 1 while delving deeper into Star Wars lore without getting too bogged down in its own mythology. An exciting array of guest stars, surprise character appearances (including that super-famous one in the raucous finale), and delightfully crafted aliens (two words: Frog Lady) kept things fresh while still retaining that essential Star Wars spark. This is the way.—Emma Stefansky
Raised by Wolves (HBO Max)Season 1. 8 episodes.
After a catastrophic, planet-destroying war between two religious factions, a pair of androids lands on a sanctuary world, bringing with them the means to restart human life according to the teachings of their faith. But the human children can't survive on this planet, dying one by one, and so Mother, an android who secretly possesses horrifically destructive powers, breaks into a refugee ship populated by her enemies, the Mithraic, and kidnaps their children before crashing the ship into the surface of the planet. Mother attempts to rebuild her family, but a few Mithraic soldiers have survived the crash, and are prepared to get their children back at any cost, convinced that this is the legendary planet promised to their faith. Produced by Ridley Scott (who also directed the pilot), the show at times feels like an alternate universe take on his Alien sequels, with a flair for thrillingly original mythology-building and plenty of gooey robot milk-blood.—Emma Stefansky
Star Trek: Discovery (CBS All Access)Season 3. 10 episodes.
Star Trek: Discovery is truly one of the most creative and daring sci-fi shows on TV, and its third season transports the crew of the Federation's trusty science vessel into the future—waaaaay into the future—where worlds that were once closely united have been flung apart to drift in the vastness of space by an unknown and catastrophic event. Naturally, the only ones who can figure out what happened are Michael Burnham, Saru, and their crew, residing inside a starship that contains the intellectual wealth of an entire universe. Three seasons in, every character aboard the Discovery is given plenty of room to grow, as well as leaving a few seats open for some exciting new members. Come for the far-future space odyssey, stay for the enormous cat named Grudge. (Who is a queen. A queen.)—Emma Stefansky
Star Trek: Picard (CBS All Access)Season 1. 10 episodes.
The number of times I said "Tea. Earl Grey. Hot." while waiting for the launch of this series focused on the continuing adventures of Patrick Stewart's Captain Jean-Luc Picard is at least as high as the number of shows and movies in the sprawling Star Trek franchise. The ten episodes in Season 1 don't reinvent the Star Trek wheel by any stretch of the imagination, but Picard, which finds the now-retired Enterprise captain in full-on "one last mission" mode as he attempts to save Data's "daughter" from scheming Romulans, hits many satisfying nostalgic notes while also successfully forging its own, intriguing path.—John Sellers
Tales from the Loop (Amazon Prime)Anthology series. 8 episodes.
Based on Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag's haunting digital paintings of misty, dreary scenes featuring giant, abandoned robots, this Amazon Prime anthology series of interlocking stories is set in a small midwestern town in the mid-1980s. That's prime Amblin Entertainment and Stranger Things territory, though the show steers clear of worn-out nostalgia tropes and instead explores the Loop, an underground facility kind of like a particle collider that purportedly allows the impossible to become possible. With episodes directed by Mark Romanek and Jodie Foster (among others), and examining topics such as the effects of time travel on the human soul and the inevitability of death and grief, each part, like each Stålenhag painting, is a curiosity to be studied and, if you can, understood.—Emma Stefansky
What We Do in the Shadows (FX)Season 2. 10 episodes.
Season 1 of this vampires-in-Staten Island mockumentary walked so that Season 2 could sprint like a werewolf in the night. It's one hit after the next this time around as we learn more about vampire housemates Nandor (Kayvan Novak), Laszlo (Matt Berry), Nadja (Natasia Demetriou), and Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch). The 10 episodes get into their fear of ghosts and distrust of witches, chain-email paranoia, and Laszlo's surprising history with the song "Come On Eileen." The episode guest-starring Mark Hamill, in which Lazlo goes on the lam and becomes a Pennsylvania town's most passionate high school volleyball enthusiast, is not to be missed. What We Do in the Shadows has ascended from cult delight to one of the few must-watch comedies on TV.—Leanne Butkovic
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