This story was originally published in 2018 and has been updated in to include new shows.
You ever watch a show and wonder, Is there something more here? Of course you have. Some of the best television lingers in your mind and bleeds outside the bounds of the hour or half-hour you spend watching it. That’s just what good art does.
But some shows really lean into this: They explicitly want you pulling at threads in your mind while you idly do other things, or to conduct countless late-night Google sessions that yield unsettling and rich new avenues for speculating what might happen next. These aren’t just shows, they’re mystery boxes (also known as puzzle boxes).
Mystery-box TV is less about genre and more about structure and ambiguity. Does the show invite viewers to actively piece together aspects of its plot, or speculate about the nature of the story its telling? Does it play with perception and perspective, asking you to pay close attention to the margins? That’s a mystery box. It’s a show you toy with as it toys with you. Good mystery-box shows make this pleasurable, dazzling with inventive plots and compelling settings or characters, something to ground you as you dive into the unknown. They are not merely mysterious, or obtuse. A good shorthand is the Reddit thread test: Would this show inspire fascinating forum threads full of substantive fan theorizing — good, thoughtful, fan theories based on the text of the show, not just “They’ve been dead the whole time!” stuff? It’s probably a mystery box.
With that in mind, let’s get to puzzling — here are some great TV shows from past and present that are worth all the time it’ll take you to piece things together.
The Prisoner (1967–68)
The granddaddy of mystery-box shows, The Prisoner made waves when it debuted on British and Canadian television in 1967, and again when it arrived Stateside the following year. A story about a secret agent who quits his job, only to be abducted and imprisoned in an Orwellian village where everyone’s name is replaced with a number and no one knows who’s really in charge, The Prisoner is a landmark series. Defying genre convention and steeped in surreality, the show traded in allegories both clear and opaque, with a bombshell ending that inspired debate for years. Who was Number Six, and why was he imprisoned? What was the village, really? The internet would’ve had a field day with this one. Available on Amazon.
Twin Peaks (1990–91; 2017–)
The inspiration for most modern puzzle-box shows, Twin Peaks is the gold standard for building a subtle, compelling mythology for fans to piece together in the margins. A straightforward night soap transformed by David Lynch’s symbology and dream logic, Twin Peaks was a show that had an entire subconscious layer wholly foreign to viewers, and irresistible to explore. Available on Netflix.
Serial Experiments Lain (1998)
Like a lot of shows that reveal themselves to be more than they appear, Serial Experiments Lain starts with a hook that’s compelling enough to be played straight: Lain, the show’s protagonist, somehow receives emails from her friend Chisa — who killed herself at the start of the show. This seminal anime series is interested in more than that, though, toying with our perception of what is real and what isn’t as Lain dives into “The Wired” — a fictional version of the internet — in a search for answers that slowly starts to erode her sense of self. A strikingly prescient prophecy of how we live online today, Serial Experiments Lain is about the way living online can shatter the world around us, and how, in trying to piece it back together, we end up building something different — and horrifying. Available on Amazon.
A show that signals its intent from the jump by enlisting Twin Peaks alum Michael J. Anderson to open its pilot — with a monologue establishing itself as a supernatural fable of good versus evil, no less — HBO’s Carnivàle ended before coming into its own. Still, the series nonetheless left behind a compelling legacy. A show about cosmic forces slowly converging around a traveling carnival in Depression-era America, Carnivàle prided itself on its subtle approach to building out a rich mythology that it rarely explained outright, instead focusing on stories taking place around carnival stops. It’s easy to imagine Carnivàle finding an obsessive fan base had it arrived just a little bit later than it did. Available on Amazon.
The beginning of the all-in era of TV sleuthing, Lost wasn’t even subtle with its extracurricular ambitions. Naming characters after philosophers and physicists, frequently alluding to novels and comic books, and throwing in a fair amount of its own original motifs and symbols, the ABC hit (whose creative brain trust included mystery-box extraordinaire J.J. Abrams, Carlton Cuse, and Damon Lindelof) was as much a puzzle for its viewers as it was for its characters. The show notoriously struggled when it ultimately came time to provide answers, but taken as a whole, Lost let viewers piece together an entire cosmology, synthesizing an entire coherent universe out of its sweeping set of mysteries and characters. Available on Hulu.
Time travel, as a concept, invites scrutiny. It’s a storytelling minefield, and introducing it can quickly overwhelm a show as it works its way through a cascading series of logic puzzles just to keep things together. Steins;Gate recognizes this, and leans all the way in. An anime about a self-styled mad scientist who discovers that he can send text messages back in time to change the present, the series toys with your knowledge of time-travel tropes like closed loops, fate, and real-life time-travel conspiracies (the story of John Titor is particularly important). Steins;Gate is a Rubik’s Cube of television that also works as an effective thriller, racing toward a conclusion that remains gripping no matter how well you’ve been fitting the pieces together. Available on Hulu.
Gravity Falls (2012–2016)
Gravity Falls is most easily described as “Twin Peaks for kids,” but that’s not really right. Twin Peaks was shrouded in mystery, and arguments about what it all meant endure to this day, but David Lynch was never interested in answers. Alex Hirsch, creator of Gravity Falls, however, was. A Scooby-Doo-style Disney show about twins who work at their uncle’s tourist-trap roadside attraction in the mysterious Gravity Falls, the Pines siblings would frequently go exploring to find the answers about what made their town so weird — and what makes the twists and turns that their search reveals so compelling is the simple fact that, if you watch closely, you could figure it all out, too. Available on Hulu.
True Detective Season 1 (2014)
The best parts of True Detective were always in the margins, in the murder mystery’s frequent allusions to weird fiction and the supernatural. Those Reddit-friendly elements gave the HBO show an extra layer of headiness on top of its more-or-less straightforward detective story, which is introduced and resolved in a manner that’s not terribly surprising. But to work out the why of True Detective’s first season, you’d have to parse all those weird fiction flourishes — and many of us did. Available on Amazon.
Over the Garden Wall (2014)
Not all puzzle-box shows appear to be so at first. Over the Garden Wall, an animated mini-series (from Adventure Time’s Patrick McHale) that aired on Cartoon Network, appears to be a straightforward fantasy about two brothers lost in a strange, forlorn world trying to make their way home. Things are a little weird, but you figure they’re supposed to be. But what if they aren’t? Then why are they this way? And is there something more to the strange things they encounter? Don’t they seem a little familiar? Over the Garden Wall is brief but deeply layered, the kind of show that will linger in your mind long after it ends — and fuel many hours of Googling after that. Available on Hulu.
The Leftovers (2014–2017)
From Lost veteran Damon Lindelof, The Leftovers is one of the mystery-box genre’s most critically adored entries in recent TV history. The HBO show’s smallish but devoted fan base dissected the series to the very end, asking questions big (is there an afterlife?) and less big (was Shaq taken?) to figure what, exactly, this cosmically, spiritually wild tale that stretched from suburban New York to rural Texas was all about. Viewers, like many of the characters themselves, grafted their own meaning onto events that may not have any. In the end, not all of the show’s questions necessarily get answered (it was never really about that anyway), but the finale’s ending makes it well worth the trip. Available on Amazon.
Mr. Robot (2015–)
Mr. Robot is a show that constantly lies to you. That would be frustrating, but there’s an important thing it does to counter that: Its camera tells the truth. The unique visual language of Mr. Robot is widely praised for its use of negative space to enhance its characters’ feelings of alienation and paranoia, but it’s also very careful in what it shows on camera. The camera is always there telling you that you can’t trust the people in front of it, encouraging you to look elsewhere, anywhere, to get the truth. And if you’re listening, you will. Available on Amazon.
A show that, for better or worse, seems built for Reddit fan theories, Westworld trades in opacity. While its desire to spur fan speculation was better served in the HBO series’s first season, where winding mysteries reflected the narrative’s winding theory of human consciousness, the second season trafficked in puzzles for their own sake — making Westworld the most jigsaw-puzzle-esque series on this list. You could try enjoying it on its own without diving into all the internet homework that comes with the show, but then you won’t get much out of it other than the thrill of fitting a few cardboard pieces together. Available on Amazon.
The Good Place (2016–)
Surprisingly mean for a show so pleasant, The Good Place spent its entire first season leading viewers to believe that it wasn’t hiding a thing from them. If you bought in, you were in for a damn huge twist, and if you were a little more skeptical, you might have seen it coming — but really, why would you have? Although it has seemed to abandon its devilish puzzle-box streak in later seasons in favor of whimsical world-building, there’s always hope that it might return — because The Good Place was very, very good at it. Available on Netflix.
The OA (2016–)
The term “puzzle box” puts a lot of emphasis on the more cerebral aspect of watching and engaging with art. It’s a term that implies solutions and answers, and that’s not necessarily a good way to approach art. For a reminder of that, look no further than The OA. Initially a mystery about Prairie Johnson, a blind young woman who disappeared from her town, only to return seven years later with her sight intact, and with a new identity and history. In delving into what happened to Johnson and who she is now, The OA does lead you to some answers, but it’s also interested in matters more emotional and spiritual, and how looking for those answers might change you. Available on Netflix.
Both a show that seems to be making fun of mystery-box shows while also being a very good one in its own right, Maniac colors in the lines of its world with satire and absurdity, continually treating its reality as a mutable thing forever being rebuilt and torn down while its broken characters grapple with their own pain. Maniac is wry and sad and funny in a way that strangely makes it more enjoyable to watch without the meticulous eye that most of the shows on this list tend to reward. Available on Netflix.
And now, the latest show in the mystery-box canon. Amazon’s Homecoming (the second Sam Esmail show on this list after Mr. Robot), based on a fictional podcast of the same name, follows a woman who used to work in a government facility that specializes in helping veterans adjust to civilian life. But she doesn’t work there anymore, and we don’t know why. There’s something unsettling about Homecoming — scenes look more often like dioramas ripe for manipulation by an unseen puppet master, characters claim to have forgotten what they ought not to have forgotten, and there’s a nagging feeling of dread tugging at the edges of its drab world. You’re going to want to find out what’s there. Available on Amazon.
Russian Doll (2019)
Why is Nadia Vulvokov dying over and over again? Why is she forced to relive her birthday party each time? Why is all the fruit rotting? And what about [redacted]? That’s a big twist, isn’t it? Russian Doll takes the Groundhog Day formula and emphasizes the why of it all. Much of the plot follows Nadia as she (a video game developer) takes an analytical approach to her surreal circumstance and tries to control for variables and find a clue that might help her figure out how to break the loop — and what might happen once she does. But Russian Doll, like its title implies, is full of questions within questions, divergent timelines offering diverging interpretations, each layered on top of other, questions housed in other questions — all of it neatly contained by the simple question we all have: What are we even doing here?