While the dramatic twists and turns of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power have proven an addictive watch for viewers that have never picked up a J.R.R. Tolkien book, there is nothing like a fantasy show, ripe with deep mythology, to really stir the rabid followers of some well-read source material.
With 9,000 years of Tolkien's mythology and copious footnotes available, creators JD Payne and Patrick McKay created something wholly original, introducing viewers to a largely matriarchal group of warriors, from newly aligned elven commander Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) and Queen-Regent Míriel (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), to human healer-turned-community leader Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi), and brave Harfoot adventurer Elanor "Nori" Brandyfoot (Markella Kavenagh). Although each character was on a set trajectory as the story began, dark forces and events beyond their control started to merge these trails into what surely will become an epic battle between good and evil.
But the Payne and McKay-crafted, 50-hour journey is only just beginning, and one season in, fans are already eagerly and enthusiastically expressing their opinion, either praising or adamantly disagreeing with the approach taken by the showrunners. Alas, we are in for a long break before more of these on and off-screen battles begin to take shape. So, for viewers itching to immerse themselves in magical worlds with archetypal heroes based on thought-provoking source material, Metacritic has compiled a list of 10 shows that should satisfy the craving of fans of fantasy, mythology, science fiction, and lore.
Best for: Fans of medieval fantasy, violence in storytelling, political intrigue, complex family relations, and, perhaps most importantly, dragons
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Over the course of nine years (eight seasons), David Benioff and D.B. Weiss brought viewers along for the bloody history of Westeros, based on the Song of Ice and Fire book series by George R.R. Martin, which ultimately asks just one overarching question, '"Who will take the Iron Throne of the Seven Kingdoms?" Will the continents be ruled by Jon Snow (Kit Harrington), introduced to the audience as Hand of the King Ned Stark's illegitimate son, who joins the Night Watch, rising in the ranks to become their Lord Commander — or by Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), the Mother of Dragons who walked through (a lot of) fire to become a near-indestructible ruler? Or would it be a member of the Stark family, who each grew from spoiled, privileged children into bona-fide warriors, albeit with varying strengths. Say what you want about a final season that did not satisfy every viewer, but record-breaking numbers of people were there for the journey that turned relative unknowns including Richard Madden, Gwendoline Christie, Clarke, and Harrington into people we now follow faithfully, wherever they land.
"The storytelling by executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss and their writing staff is increasingly assured and judicious; the first-rate cast continues to mine the full depth of the material; and the show itself is visually commanding." — Maureen Ryan, Huffington Post
Best for: Fans of costume dramas and approachable fantasy, with a heavy dose of romance
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Outlander has, from the very beginning, established itself as an epic romance, following the journey of Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe), a strong-willed Englishwoman who mysteriously is catapulted from 1940s Scotland to 1743, where she is forced to marry the young, handsome Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) for her own safety, before the two realize that they are, in fact, soulmates. Based on Diana Gabaldon's best-selling novels, the six seasons to date have been far from tranquil for the star-crossed lovers, but the extreme relationship tests are what we are here for. In the seasons that follow, Jamie and Claire travel to France to attempt altering the course of history, face the trials and tribulations of unbearably long separations and journey to the new world where they face the challenges that arise when one partner possesses centuries worth of hindsight. The sexy time travel drama is such a hit that it even gave birth to a whole new term — "Droughtlander" — and when you've plowed through six seasons, with a seventh not yet in sight, you will understand why.
"Outlander is by far the best of these Starz costume dramas I've seen. It knows the stories it wants to tell and the strongest way to tell them." — Alan Sepinwall, Hitfix
Best for: Fans of family-friendly fantastical adventures that on a deeper level serves as commentary on organized religion
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In the adaptation of Philip Pullman's book series we are introduced to a world not entirely dissimilar to ours, albeit one where every human has an animal companion called a daemon that is the manifestation of their soul. In what resembles the Victorian era, a young Oxford resident Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keen) comes across a conspiracy involving her adventurer uncle Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) and charming socialite Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson), who has recently adopted her. When Lyra discovers Mrs. Coulter is the leader of a church-funded project that is abducting children, her quest to save a missing friend uncovers a bigger mystery in a vast universe full of parallel worlds and marvelous creatures. Pullman's book series has been adapted for the screen before, as The Golden Compass, a film adaptation starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig that appeared to please just about no one. But while the film was criticized for diluting the book's disapproval of organized religion, the TV show is a dense package, full of information that bears fruit for the books' loyal enthusiasts.
"His Dark Materials is worth the trip. This is a beautiful, brooding vision of Pullman's universe, which retains the mix of childish wonder and darkness that make his books so beguiling to young adults." — Ed Cumming, The Independent
Best for: Fans of Game of Thrones
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Game of Thrones introduced viewers to the Targaryens, a preternatural race that reigned over Westeros for 300 years before the family's demise. The show's prequel goes back to the Targaryen family at their height of power, wealth and influence, showing what Daenerys lost and is trying to win back through the course of the original show. But you don't have to be a fan of Game of Thrones to understand the high stakes of its prequel. Game of Thrones newcomer Ryan J. Condal and the director of many of the origin series' most pivotal episodes Miguel Sapochnik, quickly draw a connection to what comes around 200 years later (War and Winter, as it was), but the matter of who will lead the Seven Kingdoms in this direction immediately becomes a matter of life and death. What sets the prequel apart is the matriarchal approach, centering on Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen (Milly Alcock) — King Viserys' (Paddy Considine) firstborn child, if not quite heir apparent — and her friendship with Lady Alicent Hightower (Emily Carey), the daughter of the King's Hand. The two women will soon go from best friends to being at odds with each other, once Alicent (Olivia Cooke) marries King Viserys and gives the Targaryen family a male heir, possibly knocking Rhaenyra (Emma D'Arcy) off her position as the potential first queen regnant of the Seven Kingdoms.
"If it remains insulated from the pressure to compete with GoT, House of the Dragon' could be a worthy successor in the vein of Breaking Bad spin-off Better Call Saul. Ambitious, visually arresting, and endlessly captivating." — Chris Mandle, i News
Best for: Fans of Russian and Slavic influences in epic storytelling instead of the usual medieval fantasies, along with a dose of teen drama
Where to watch: Netflix
Seasons: 1 (so far)
Developed by Arrival screenwriter Eric Heisserer, Shadow and Bone is based on the Grishaverse book series and the Six of Crows duology by author Leigh Bardugo. The show focuses on young Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li), an orphan from the country of Ravka, who when attacked by monsters on an expedition discovers that she is a Grisha, people known as magic users whose gifts allow them to manipulate matters on a molecular level. Alina turns out to be one of the most powerful Grisha of all, a Sun Summoner that can control light and is destined to destroy the dark territory called the Fold. In her journeys, Alina forms a relationship with the handsome General Alexander Kirigan (Ben Barnes), who claims to be the regretful descendant of the Grisha that created the Fold and wants to align with her. But other than her childhood friend Mal (Archie Renaux), who can Alina truly trust now that dark forces are out to get her?
"Though it's full of worldbuilding lore that might hinder newcomers, Shadow and Bone is the best sort of adaptation for longtime fans: one that might just possibly be better than the source material." — Petrana Radulovic, Polygon
Best for: Fans of witch- and vampire tropes, complete with smoldering looks and love against all odds
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Based on the All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness, A Discovery of Witches follows accomplished historian and reluctant witch Diana Bishop (Teresa Palmer), who is forced back into the world of magic when she discovers an enchanted manuscript that introduces her to a coveted treasure and a spell only she can break. As her discovery stirs the underworld, she is suddenly approached by daemons, witches, and vampires, but it turns out not everyone is out to get her. Diana forms an unlikely alliance with vampire geneticist Matthew Clairmont (Matthew Goode), which soon leads to sparks between two powerful, educated, headstrong parties who, in theory, know better than to embark on a supernatural romance. Will they form a forbidden relationship between species that should in theory not mix? The answer, we believe, is "duh."
"While the longing looks and cravings for blood might make some roll their eyes, every second of A Discovery of Witches is pure catnip for fans of this genre, and it's nice to be able to dive into a decadent love affair for a few hours of escapism at the end of the day." — Lindsay MacDonald, TV Guide
Best for: Fans of esoteric fantasy worlds and faithful adaptations of seemingly unadaptable source material
Where to watch: Netflix
Seasons: 1 (so far)
It has been a long journey for The Sandman from page to screen, but if The Sandman can wait a century to put his kingdom back in order, the comic book's most loyal fans could certainly wait a few decades. David S. Goyer, the screenwriter behind Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy and the creator of the science fiction TV series Foundation, has since 2013 been working on getting Neil Gaiman's iconic comic books adapted for the screen. Now, Gaiman's creation finally arrives in a form that feels truer to the source material than fans of the comic thought possible. The series stars Sweetbitter and Irma Vep-actor Tom Sturridge as Morpheus, the king of dreams, who at the beginning of the series is captured and held hostage for 106 six years by occultist Sir Roderick Burgess (Charles Dance). When Morpheus, a.k.a Dream finally escapes the Burgess estate, he discovers that his world is no longer as he left it and sets out to restore order to his kingdom. On his fantastical journey Dream encounters otherworldly characters, including Lucifer Morningstar, the ruler of Hell, played by Game of Thrones' Gwendoline Christie. He reconnects with his kind and wise sister Death, played by Killing Eve's Kirby Howell-Baptiste and tries to find common ground with occult detective Johanna Constantine, portrayed by Doctor Who's Jenna Coleman.
"It's to the show's credit that it is able to translate the comic book's lyrical but sometimes labyrinthine story to the screen in a way that feels natural and welcoming." — Robert Brian Taylor, Collider
Best for: Fans of contemporary social and political commentary through the gaze of fantasy and science fiction
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What starts off as an intergalactic murder mystery, turns out to be so much more on the show from showrunner Naren Shankar and writers Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck (who wrote the rather extensive book series that The Expanse is based on under the pen name James S.A. Corey). A lesson in working together with your adversaries for the greater good, Earther captain James Holden (Steven Strait), Belter engineer Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper), Martian pilot Alex Kamal (Cas Anvar), and Earther mechanic Amos Burton (Wes Chatham) are joined together by fate as the lone survivors of an attacked spaceship, forced to create a new home base aboard a hijacked Martian gunship they name the Rocinante. Their missions throughout the years, from teaming up with unorthodox detective Joe Miller (Thomas Jane) to investigate the nefarious applications of a mysterious bioweapon called protomolecule, to exploring a ring system built by the aliens that created the deadly substance, turn this once reluctant team into a real family. But the real appeal of the intricate space drama is how it never shies away from complex ideas of power and the dangers of tribalism, constantly turning the tables on who is justified in their use of brutality for the purpose of independence.
"The Expanse has few peers in the medium in terms of its intricately crafted visuals and world-building, and is rightly hailed for its attentive devotion to correctly portraying basic principles of physics and science without overwhelming the viewer." — Melanie McFarland, Salon
Best for: Fans of mythology-heavy fantasy complete with action, adventure, monsters and unlikely alliances
Where to watch: Netflix
Seasons: 2 (so far)
The fantasy drama from The Umbrella Academy writer-producer Lauren Schmidt Hissrich, based on the book series by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, centers on Witcher Geralt of Rivia (Henry Cavill), a monster hunter who destiny has determined is the protector of Princess Cirilla of Cintra (Freya Allan), a girl with magical powers she can't yet control. In the adventures that lead him to his ultimate mission, Geralt falls in love with a quarter-elf sorceress Yennefer (Anya Chalotra), whose journey also is destined to intersect with the young girl's. If the first season serves to thoroughly introduce the key players of this magical plane, the following chapter brings those players together to really shake up the game, joining these unlikely warriors in their quest to fight the forces that threaten Princess Ciri and the Continent. For viewers who aren't familiar with the source material, Schmidt Hissrich makes sure that Easter eggs for superfans are balanced with an adequate amount of exposition in this action-packed saga.
"It's a no-holds-barred beat-'em-up brimming with bad monsters, bad men and bad hair." — Ed Power, The Telegraph
Best for: Fans of epic high-fantasy world-building, horse-riding, and saving the planet from dark forces
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Based on the 14-volume saga created by Robert Jordan, which has become one of the best-selling fantasy book series since The Lord of the Rings, The Wheel of Time takes viewers to a world that simultaneously represents the distant past and the distant future. It follows Moiraine (Rosamund Pike) a member of the organization of women called Aes Sedai that can channel the One Power, which rotates the Wheel of Time. But after years of peace with women at the wheel, so to speak, prediction dictates that a primordial evil called the Dark One will break free and destroy civilization, forcing Moiraine to set out and find the reincarnation of The Dragon, who is prophesied to either save the world from evil or break it. The highly popular series has already been renewed for two more seasons at Prime Video, so for those who have committed to the lengthy journey, there is little chance of this battle for good and evil ending prematurely.
"Like any good fantasy epic, The Wheel of Time is one that promises very impressive returns, provided audiences are willing to settle in for the long haul." — Carly Lane, Collider