In the past, Game of Thrones has been widely regarded as the best show on television. Airing on HBO affords it an amount of creative license that network TV simply hasn’t been able to compete with in recent years. Lax content restrictions on premium cable have given the show the ability to feature all manner of nudity, swearing, and violence. The result is a series operating with a tool-belt basic cable competitors haven’t been able to match. In just the last year though, a collection of shows have stepped up to challenge Game of Thrones.
This is a collection of television that deals primarily in long-form drama. Some have a story driven by shared elements with Game of Thrones. Others choose to head in a different direction altogether. What they all prove is that you don’t have to be a premium cable series in order to succeed in the realm of sci-fi and fantasy. If you find yourself tiring of George R.R. Martin’s glacial pace, these alternatives might just sate your appetite.
1. Sleepy Hollow, FOX
While Sleepy Hollow has seen a decline in recent episodes, there’s no denying that its first season was pure fantasy magic. It’s the first fresh retelling of the Headless Horseman story we’ve seen…well, ever, anchored by a spectacular performance by Tom Mison as the time-traveling Ichabod Crane. It’s since descended into a monster-of-the-week procedural that’s left it unfocused and at times hard to watch, but Season 1 is where the real gold can be found anyway.
2. The 100, The CW
The 100 has followed a path opposite to that of Sleepy Hollow‘s. An up-and-down first season was followed by two seasons of growth, putting the show in a pantheon of prestige TV no one could have predicted it would reside. The story follows the exploits of 100 teenaged criminals sent down to an irradiated Earth in the not-so-distant future, and their quest for survival. As it’s gone on, it’s turned into one of the most suspenseful and progressive sci-fi shows ever made, and there are no signs it’ll be slowing down anytime soon.
3. The Walking Dead, AMC
The Walking Dead has actually been around for one season more than Game of Thrones, and in that time it’s become the most-watched show on television across any network. The story slowed to a crawl around Seasons 3 and 4, and many wondered if TWD could really drag itself out much longer. In Season 6, the introduction of an infamous villain from its source material graphic novel has breathed in new life to a series that was in desperate need of a Hail Mary. Recent episodes putting a fan-favorite character in peril though may undo that progress, but we won’t know for sure until the upcoming season airs.
4. Agent Carter, ABC
Agent Carter surprised us all when it quickly became Marvel’s best network TV show, surpassing even Agents of SHIELD in the process. It’s the most grounded take on the Marvel Universe we’ve ever seen, and with Hayley Atwell leading the charge as the titular hero, it’s no wonder it was just renewed for a third season. Flagging ratings continue to plague the otherwise exciting series though. Next season will likely be a make-or-break situation, so tune in now while Agent Carter is still alive and breathing. [Update, 5/19/16: Unfortunately, ABC has decided to cancel ‘Agent Carter’ after the end of its second season.]
5. The Expanse, SyFy
If Game Thrones‘s chosen genre is “hard fantasy,” the closest equivalent you’ll find in science-fiction is The Expanse. The two shows share a similar DNA: Both are based on dense, lengthy novels, are merciless about the characters they kill off, and focus on political intrigue among warring factions. The sci-fi genre has been clamoring for a show like The Expanse for awhile now, and finally it has its golden goose to rival even HBO’s own flagship series.
6. Orphan Black, BBC America
Orphan Black, while known to go off the rails for brief stretches, is still among an elite class of television within sci-fi and fantasy. Tatiana Maslany plays Sarah Manning, a woman discovering her role as a product of a top-secret government cloning project. The web of lies and deceit goes deeper from there, as Sarah meets a host of clones identical to her in appearance, but different in personality. Maslany plays upward of five different roles in any given season, and a strong argument can be made for her being he hardest working actor on TV right now.
7. Mr. Robot
The USA network has never really been known for its prestige dramas, tending to focus more on light-hearted middle-tier television. That all changed with Mr. Robot though, a terse, amazingly executed series digging into corporate corruption with a cyber-punk aesthetic. The show follows Elliot, a man working for a digital security firm who moonlights as a hacktivist vigilante. It’s not long before he catches the eye of a mysterious underground organization hellbent on taking down the world’s biggest corporation, plunging him into an intricate new world that quickly has him in over his head.
The History Channel is another network known really known for the high quality of its offerings, with the one exception of Vikings. The show tells the story of the legendary Ragnar Lothbrok, a figure from Viking lore rumored to have been the scourge of 9th Century England. We see the humble beginnings of Ragnar as a simple raider, who soon becomes the leader of an invasion force across the water into the Great Britain. It’s now four seasons in, so there’s plenty of Vikings to marathon through while Game of Thrones sits in its offseason.
9. Penny Dreadful
If you’re more into fantasy and supernatural drama than historical stories, then we recommend trying Penny Dreadful on for size. Coming to us from Showtime, it features an A-list cast of Eva Green, Joshua Hartnett, and Timothy Dalton. We also get a chance to see prominent figures from literature and sci-fi, including Frankenstein’s monster, Dorian Grey, Mina Harker, and tons more.
10. The Americans
So maybe sci-fi, fantasy, or Viking legends aren’t your thing. Then how about trying a Cold War spy drama on for size then? The Americans focuses on a family of Russian spies in deep cover, as they try and reconcile their loyalty to Soviet Union with their new life in the United States. Over its four seasons, it’s been widely recognized as one of the best shows on all of television, and it’s certainly a worthy opponent to Game of Thrones in terms of engrossing political intrigue.
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