Urban fantasy isn’t just a literary genre; it’s also a TV genre, even if it isn’t necessarily referred to as such by many people in TV Land.
Urban fantasy shows have been around for quite a while now, starting with the likes of the Twilight Zone and Outer Limits, both of which were more sci-fi than anything else but still had some urban fantasy elements to them.
The first real urban fantasy show that I remember watching was Night Stalker, about a private detective in a big city who investigated various supernatural goings on. Then in the nineties there were shows like Friday the 13th (nothing to do with the Jason movies), which was an early precursor to Supernatural.
The urban fantasy genre didn’t really take of, though, until about ten years ago when a slew of new shows came along that featured supernatural characters and weird goings on in a largely urban setting.
Writers like to think of themselves as literary types who get most of their inspiration from books, but with so much great TV and cinema around these days, it’s hard not to be influenced by it. I for one am greatly inspired and influenced by a lot of TV shows and movies in the urban fantasy genre, which is why I decided to compile this list.
The list isn’t in any order, as all the shows mentioned are great in their own right.
1. Buffy The Vampire Slayer
Although I wasn’t a huge fan of this show, I did watch the first few seasons and I did enjoy it, mainly because I was a big horror/dark fantasy fan and there just wasn’t any TV shows around at the time in those genres, so Buffy was a welcome breath of fresh air.
The main reason I mention it here is because I credit Buffy with paving the way for all the supernatural themed shows that came after.
In many ways, Joss Whedon’s urban fantasy hit defines the genre, featuring as it did a young, female kick ass heroine, loads of action, supernatural characters and references to the occult, not to mention the obligatory romance (although paranormal romance is its own genre now, at least in books).
So Buffy goes at the top of the list for breaking new ground and allowing other shows like Angel and Charmed to follow soon after.
Although I said this list wasn’t in order, Supernatural will always be at the top of my list for best urban fantasy show. Featuring the unstoppable Winchester brothers, Supernatural took the themes laid out in shows like Buffy and made them darker and more appealing to an adult audience.
The show built its reputation on featuring angels and demons and the classic good versus evil story lines which now feature heavily in most of the urban fantasy literature out these days, not least my own novel series.
Supernatural is still going strong even after ten seasons and long may it continue.
3. True Blood
We can’t mention urban fantasy shows without mentioning True Blood. This show features every UF trope you can think off, from vampires to werewolves to fairies and everything in between.
What sets the show apart from a lot of the other UF shows is the fact that it’s aimed squarely at a mature, adult audience. It doesn’t hold back with the bad language and sex scenes; neither does it shy away from violence. It was the unflinching nature of True Blood that made it work for me and it was a welcome change from the plethora of teen shows around at the time.
True Blood has finished now, having gone as far as it could I think. You can still read the books on which it was based though.
4. Sleepy Hollow
I hated the original film as it was made by Tim Burton, one of the most overrated filmmakers ever (Edward Scissorhands notwithstanding, but the success of that movie was more down to Johnny Depp’s performance).
Thankfully the new TV show is nothing like the movie. Based around a familiar premise of two characters hunting monsters and trying to stop the supernatural fiends from unleashing evil everywhere, the show is fresh enough and well written enough to make it stand out.
I love the main actors also, especially David Giuntoli who does a great job of playing the stranger in a strange land, which makes for lots of humorous asides as he tries to understand the new world he finds himself in.
5. Teen Wolf
Yes of course I was a massive fan of the Michael J. Fox movie back in the 80’s, but Teen Wolf the series is nothing like the movie of the same name. Thank god!
I had high hopes for this show when it first started and I was glad when it didn’t disappoint. Great story lines and great acting (especially from Dylan O’Brien who now stars in The Maze Runner) make this show unmissable for UF fans. A lot of money is thrown at it as well, which shows in the high production values. My only gripe is the obligatory teen romance scenes, which just annoy me because I’m forty years old and not a teen anymore (thank god!). Thankfully, the suitably dark story lines and supernatural action more than make up for this.
6. Hemlock Grove
I love this show, partly because it is so off beat, and partly because it manages to put across the usual UF tropes in a really original way. Again, vampires, werewolf’s and other supernatural characters feature heavily, but they are done differently enough to make the show stand out from all the other UF TV shows. The last season especially was really weird and different, making this show one of my favorites. It’s based on the book of the same name by Brian McGreevy, which is also worth checking out.
It took me two attempts to get into this show but I’m glad I stuck with it. Grimm is about a cop who sees monsters…and then kills them, because he’s a Grimm and that’s what he does. He’s helped by his best friend, who is also…a monster. Grimm doesn’t have the same wide appeal as the previous shows but fans of UF will love it.
8. Penny Dreadful
I loved this show as it was different to much of the UF fair that came out of the US. Penny Dreadful is a British show that is set in Victorian times and features a lot of familiar characters from that era, such as Victor Frankenstein and his monster and even Dorian Grey, along with a whole slew of other supernatural creatures.
What really set this show apart for me is not only how well made it is, but also the quality of the acting on offer, especially from Eva Green, who is simply spellbinding in this show. It also rather surprisingly features one time movie heart throb, Josh Hartnett. Can’t wait for season two.
9. American Horror Story: Coven
I may be veering away from the urban fantasy genre slightly when I mention American Horror Story because as the title suggests it is mostly set within the horror genre. Coven however featured a storyline about witches and in that sense it was more UF than the other seasons, and also the best by far. Dark as hell but still with a twist of humor, Coven featured a fantastic storyline and even better acting performances from all concerned.
10. Lost Girl
It took me a while to get into this show, mainly because I thought it was aimed more towards a female audience, which it is. None the less, I ended up hooked on it. Lost Girl features the Fae, a race of supernatural’s who of course are hanging out in the big city. The lead performances are all excellent, especially from Anna Silk who plays the lead succubus really well, and also from Ksenia Solo who injects her sarcastic wit into the show. New season has just begun.
11. Being Human
Being Human is a show about a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost all sharing the same house and trying to lead “normal” lives, which of course, never happens.
I loved the original British version of the show as it focused more on characterization and drama rather than big story lines. The American version that followed maintained the same feel and is almost identical to the original in every way—except for the accents of course.
Being Human is down to earth urban fantasy and highly recommended.
As you might have guessed from the title, Salem is about witches and is set back in the 1800’s when the idea of witches reached an hysterical peak, most famously in the town of Salem. The show isn’t a history lesson by any means and does a fine job of weaving together witchcraft, horror and small town paranoia. It’s what you would call deliciously dark and features an amazingly powerful performance from Stephen Lang as Increase Mather, the puritanical witch hunter. Roll on season two.
Constantine is the new kid on the block as far as urban fantasy shows goes, but it certainly ticks all the boxes for what constitutes a UF show, maybe more so than a lot of the others on this list.
Fans of the Hell Blazer comic series will be well aware of John Constantine already, but for those that don’t know he is the main character in this show, a self-proclaimed “master of the dark arts” who helps people with their supernatural problems whilst also trying to deal with his own at the same time. The show features the usual angels and demons, but they are well enough drawn to set them apart from those in the other shows.
Matt Ryan plays the character of Constantine very well, managing to bring some of the humor from the original comics to the screen. It took a few episodes to find its stride, but when it did it became really good and a new favorite of mine.
[Update: The show was shamefully cancelled, only to return as a short animated series. Constantine himself pops up in a couple of other shows such as Arrow, but for me, it isn’t the same.]
Lucifer had a good run of it before it was cancelled. Based on the comics written by Neil Gaiman amongst others, the premise is basically Lucifer with a day job, in this case playing detective while also dealing with his own family problems. Lucifer himself is superbly played by Tom Ellis, striking just the right balance (most of the time) between dark and scary, and funny and camp. The show is fairly light-hearted, but can often veer into darker territory, which for me is when the show was really good. With almost every episode, I found myself questioning why I was watching such cheesy drivel, but then after ten minutes I’d be totally engrossed. By the end of each episode, I’d be gagging for more.
Another show based of a popular if somewhat cultish comic series written by Gareth Ellis. The show revolves around a preacher, a vampire and a kickass girl, usually fighting for their lives when they aren’t winding each other up. The series took a while to find its feet, but once it did, it started to get interesting, if a little too off the wall at times. It doesn’t flinch from violence and isn’t afraid to be dark and repulsive. It’s also got a sense of humor and overall, is quite uncompromising in its own way, a trait that I will always applaud in any show.
I have to admit to loving this show. Before I sat down and watched it, I was expecting a lame teen drama sort of thing, but it turned out to be anything but. Yes, there is teen drama, but it serves the story and is handled in a very adult way. Overall, I like how gritty the show was, and how well acted it was also. Maddie Hasson, who I remember watching in forgotten classic The Finder years ago, is superb in the lead role. I hope they make a season two.
17. Van Helsing
Van Helsing is supposed to be a different take on the age-old vampire mythos, and in that sense, it succeeds very well. It doesn’t say too far from the established vampire lore, but it twists it enough to keep things fresh and interesting. What I most like about the show is how adult-orientated it is. The show isn’t afraid to be dark or violent, both of which it is. The characters are straight out of an urban fantasy novel, especially the kickass main character, played with awesomeness by Kelly Overton.
I don’t even know where to begin with this show. It’s confusing, genre-bending and tripe as all hell at times, but at the same time, and for those very reasons mentioned, it’s also awesome and highly original. Just go smoke a joint and watch it if you haven’t already.
19. Ash Vs Evil Dead
Like every other fan of the movies, I was over the moon when this show got announced. There was no way it could be bad, and it wasn’t…not by a long shot. It’s horror-leaning urban fantasy at its best. Incredibly violent and funny at the same time. Why the show ended up cancelled is truly fucking beyond me. Shame on you, whoever made the decision to ax this awesome show.
I watched the first two seasons of this show before I lost interest in it, but that’s to say this is a bad show. It isn’t. The scripts are clever and full of wit and snark, and each episode has at least one laugh out loud moment. It’s light-hearted UF, but it’s done well and the lead actress nails the part.
I absolutely loved this show. It’s crazy over the top at times, but also very funny, very dark and very damn entertaining. This is largely due to the performances of the characters, especially Christopher Meloni in the lead, who completely nails his role. The show is based on a comic book series written by Grant Morrison. Season two is also coming. I can’t wait. Oh…and a little blue unicorn is the star of the show!
22. The Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina
Based upon the comic, Sabrina The Teenage Witch, this Netflix takes the character and setting to much darker heights, and to great effect. The visuals are stunning, and the show gets extra credit in my book for hanging paintings by Clive Barker on the walls of the High Priest’s sanctum. The acting is pretty much spot on, with the lead actress being well cast. It can be a little slow verging on boring at times, but over all the show is solid and worth watching if you like witches or just dark fantasy.
23. The Rook
Bit of a slow burner this one. Set in London, it has great cinematography and great performances from the cast, but as I said, it’s a little slow for my tastes and I struggled to maintain interest in it sometimes. Still worth the watch, though.
24. Good Omens
Based on the book by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. A tale of the bungling of Armageddon that features an angel, a demon, an eleven-year-old Antichrist, and a doom-saying witch. Very faithful adaptation of the book.
25. Stranger Things
We’re three seasons into this 1980’s set sci-fi/urban fantasy extravaganza. It’s awesome. There’s not much more to say. Go watch it. Now.
So that’s my list. What about yours? Share your favorites in the comments below!