The 13 Shows That Defined Dystopian TV Before The Handmaid’s Tale

Battlestar Galactica, The Handmaid’s Tale, and The Walking Dead. Photo: Getty Images, Hulu and AMC

This piece originally ran on May 10. We’re re-running it for Dark Futures week, in which we explore how dystopias have been imagined in popular culture.

Dystopian fiction is having something of a renaissance these days, and The Handmaid’s Tale, a powerhouse speculative-fiction tale about a totalitarian theocracy in America, is the latest to captivate and terrify audiences. But it’s far from alone on the small screen. The last decade has been rife with dystopian TV shows that reflect our growing anxieties about surveillance, climate change, the erosion of civil liberties, and the end of the world as we know it. Below, Vulture picks out the shows that defined the modern TV dystopia.

The 100
Although The 100 started off as very CW show — cue teens from space romping on an irradiated Earth while the Imagine Dragons song “Radioactive” plays behind them — it’s become one of the most interesting sci-fi shows on TV. As the remainder of humanity makes it way back to Earth a century after nuclear war rendered it unlivable, they encounter unexpected survivors on the ground who turn their homecoming into a ruthless survival drama. The teenage characters are routinely scarred by the unthinkable moral decisions they are forced to make, a hallmark of any worthwhile dystopian fiction.

Wealth inequality gets a dystopian workup in this Brazilian show about a society where the top 3 percent live in luxury in a paradise called the Offshore, while everyone else is trapped in poverty and squalor. At the age of 20, everyone gets a shot at making it into the 3 percent through a competition called the Process, supposedly making this a just “meritocracy,” because that line of thinking has never gone wrong before. The Process is designed to be difficult, revealing, and even potentially lethal, pushing the characters to their limits with often unexpected results.

Adventure Time
Although this whimsical cartoon about boy named Finn and his talking dog Jake might not seem like a post-apocalyptic story, it surely is. Finn and Jake live in the Land of Ooo, a world that we slowly learn has formed in the ashes of a cataclysmic nuclear conflict called the Great Mushroom War that wiped out almost all of humanity (and presumably cleared the way for its anthropomorphic candy people and flying unicorns to flourish). Sometimes the references are subtle — the show’s cheery opening theme features blink-or-you’ll-miss-them shots of nukes — and sometimes they’re much more obvious — flashbacks to scenes with cities full of skyscrapers on fire — but it’s oddly affecting to realize that the show’s fanciful adventures take place on the charred bones of millions of human corpses. Oh my glob!

Battlestar Galactica
Granted, Battlestar Galactica doesn’t take place on Earth — or does it? — but this story about the scrappy survivors of a robot holocaust struggling to stay alive and find a new home has all the hallmarks of a classic dystopian tale. Although the show goes off the rails toward the end, its blend of technological terror and mysticism makes for very compelling TV, particularly when it explores the blurry lines about where humanity ends and where the personhood of advanced technology begins.

Black Mirror
Sometimes described as the modern-day successor to The Twilight Zone, Charlie Brooker’s sci-fi anthology series explores the dark side of technology and how it might warp society in disturbing ways. Although Black Mirror occasionally strays into the realm of the truly fantastical, its most chilling episodes are the ones that take familiar technological experiences — online harassment, virtual reality, and social media — and take them one step down the road to true horror.

Instead of nukes, plagues, or Nazis, Colony looks beyond the stupidity of mankind for its world-ending catastrophe. After a vastly advanced race of aliens known as the Host conquers Earth, the surviving humans live in militarily controlled cities now ruled by their human collaborators — who often seem to think they’re doing good, or at least preventing the complete extinction of the human race. We follow the occupation through the eyes of the Bowman family in the Los Angeles “bloc,” as they make life-or-death decisions about where their loyalties lie.

If you ever wished that The X-Files were more sci-fi than supernatural, this show about an FBI team that investigates weird phenomena is right up your alley. It starts out as a paranormal procedural series, but the subsequent seasons take a hard left turn into parallel universes, alternate realities, and time travel that completely upend the show again and again in thrilling ways.

In this Canadian-American drama by Babylon 5 alum J. Michael Straczynski, a deadly virus has killed nearly all humans over the age of 13, throwing the planet into chaos. Set 15 years after “The Big Death,” we meet the young survivors of the plague — including Luke Perry as the titular Jeremiah — who are now grown up and trying to rebuild the world on their own.

After a nuclear attack wipes 23 major American cities off the map, the inhabitants of a small Kansas town struggle to survive, find answers about the destruction of their world, and create a new civilization. Although Jericho became a cult-favorite show — complete with a “save our show” campaign that involved mailing peanuts to CBS executives — it was canceled after two seasons and continued its story as a comic-book series.

The Last Man on Earth
The rare post-apocalyptic sitcom, this series set in 2020 focuses on a man who believes he is the sole human survivor of a deadly virus that swept the Earth. He soon encounters other survivors, however — including Kristen Schaal and January Jones — and quickly proves that relationships get even more complicated and absurd when only a handful of humans exist and some of them hate you.

The Man in the High Castle
What if Nazi Germany had won World War II? One of the most popular alternate-history thought experiments of the last century takes fictional form in this Amazon adaptation of the Philip K. Dick novel. In a fascist America cleaved in two by the Japanese and the Nazis, a San Francisco woman discovers a film reel that seems ripped from a different reality — one more like our own — and sets out to uncover its mysteries.

Samurai Jack
Yup, another cartoon! Jack, the eponymous samurai in this Cartoon Network show, gets sent to a dark version of the future ruled by an evil wizard named Aku, and sets out to defeat the wizard and make his way back to the past. Gorgeously animated and sometimes quite dark, often exploring mature themes of guilt, death, and regret, this is quite simply one of the greatest animated shows ever made.

The Walking Dead
I’m not going to pretend that I watch The Walking Dead anymore, for the simple reason that it is so unrelentingly committed to its nonstop parade of human suffering that it feels like sticking your head in the pain box from Dune. But, hey, they call it misery porn for a reason — a lot of people get off on it. While most zombie flicks provide a quick, exciting slice of life after the undead apocalypse, The Walking Dead dares to ask: What happens after that? And after that? And after that? Spoiler: absolutely nothing good.

13 Shows That Defined Dystopian TV Before Handmaid’s Tale