There are shows that examine the ethics of modern science. There are some that explore identity, agency, and the idea of nature versus nurture. Still others cover community and sisterhood, while also giving us a fantastic queer storyline.
Not very often do we get shows that engage with all this and more. But when Sarah Manning stepped off a train and met herself in 2013, we did.
Orphan Black is a criminally underrated gift of a sci-fi series that ended four years ago. Throughout its five seasons, we see the talented Tatiana Maslany masterfully play over a dozen clones, each with a dawning realization that they’re special in their sameness — that is, that they’re one of 274 genetically identical clones produced in a secret experiment and scattered all across the globe.
With not just clones, but also robotic worms and talking scorpions along with complex and compelling characters, there is a lot to love and a lot to miss on this show. That’s probably why its foray into the creation and evolution of human life has since spawned several spin-offs, including a comic book series by show creators John Fawcett and Graeme Manson alongside co-writer Jody Houser.
It’s also been followed by an equally amazing podcast in Orphan Black: The Next Chapter, the second season of which recently premiered, and stars many of the original cast alongside Maslany herself, including Kristian Bruun (who plays Donnie Hendrix), Jordan Gavaris (the fan-favorite Felix Manning), and Evelyne Brochu (Delphine Cormier).
While the ongoing audio series is pretty great — it’s converted even me into a podcast person — you might still like your deliciously twisted, well-acted sci-fi thrill on the small screen. If so, then this list is for you.
1. Sense8 (2015-2018)
8.3 on IMDb, 86% on Rotten Tomatoes
Created by Lana and Lilly Wachowski alongside J. Michael Straczynski, Sense8 tells the story of eight strangers from across the globe who come to realize that they are connected in a way that’s even more bizarre than being clones.
Like the sestras, Sense8’s protagonists are also hunted by shadowy organizations for reasons they slowly unravel, and there’s plenty of gay, trans, and feminist themes across the two seasons of the show. The finale, created after pressure from fans who were understandably distraught over the untimely cancellation, is a joyous (and sexy) celebration of radical empathy.
2. Wynonna Earp (2016-2021)
7.5 on IMDb, 92% on Rotten Tomatoes
Based on a comic book series by Beau Smith, this Canadian-American supernatural series created by Emily Andras revolves around the titular Wynonna Earp, who inherits the power to return revenants (the reincarnated outlaws killed by her great-great-grandfather Wyatt) back to hell.
It’s a bit more horror than it is sci-fi, but it also raises a lot of questions about being human, and even makes a fun little reference to Orphan Black in Season 4. Kevin Hanchard, who plays Sarah’s confidante Art, even guest stars for a couple of episodes. Plus, there’s a fantastic sapphic storyline for those of us who enjoy seeing happy lesbians.
3. The Man in the High Castle (2015-2019)
8.10 on IMDb, 84% on Rotten Tomatoes
What would the world look like had World War II ended differently? The Man in the High Castle, created by Frank Spotnitz, explores a dystopian America ruled by the Greater Nazi Reich in the east, and the Japanese Pacific States in the west — two territories separated by a neutral zone on the Rocky Mountains. However, the show’s protagonists are brought together by a mysterious figure showing them newsreels of alternative Earths, including those where Germany and Japan surrendered.
There’s a lot to unpack in this absorbing four-season series. Plus, Orphan Black co-creator and director John Fawcett was behind the camera in some episodes of Seasons 2 and 3.
4. iZombie (2015-2019)
7.8 on IMDb, 91% on Rotten Tomatoes
Loosely based on a comic book series of the same name, iZombie tells the story of Liv, a former medical resident working in the county morgue with a secret: She’s actually a zombie, and her job gives her access to brains. Before long, she realizes that with every brain she eats, she inherits some of its owner’s traits, skills, and memories — which prove handy enough for helping solve murders.
Though zombies are in no way the same as clones, iZombie is a fun watch that, like Orphan Black, mixes mystery, comedy, romance, and elaborate sci-fi in a way that feels tangibly real.
5. Dark Angel (2000-2002)
7.4 on IMDb, 65% on Rotten Tomatoes
In James Cameron and Charles H. Eglee’s Dark Angel, a group of genetically engineered child super-soldiers escape from a secret government lab — only years later, we find that the world outside of their original prison is just as tough. The story follows Max, one of the escaped children, now all grown up as she teams up with an underground journalist to fight corruption.
Where Cosima finds her tag number encoded in her DNA, the genetically enhanced children’s identification system here is a little more low-tech: There’s a barcode on the back of their heads.
Some parts of the show feel a little dated and male gaze-y towards breakout star Jessica Alba, but it has plenty of sci-fi lore and butt-kicking to enjoy. Plus, it’s widely credited as the first American TV series to feature an openly trans actress playing a trans character in Louise.
6. Counterpart (2017-2019)
8.1 on IMDb, 100% on Rotten Tomatoes
The American sci-fi thriller Counterpart maintains an impressive 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and it’s an appraisal that’s definitely well-deserved. Created by Justin Marks, the show tells the story of Howard Silk, a lowly UN agency officer who has no idea what his agency actually does outside of exchanging what look to be nonsensical messages.
Howard soon finds out, however, that the agency actually guards the portal to a whole other copy of our world — including a genetic copy of himself who, in his world, is a ruthless intelligence operative.
The premise is intense, but the plot is handled with such restraint and grace that it’s hard to stop watching. Plus, it even involves a flu pandemic that raises interesting points when viewed today.
7. Tales From the Loop (2020)
7.5 on IMDb, 86% on Rotten Tomatoes
Created by Nathaniel Halpern, this sci-fi drama tells the interweaving stories of the residents of Mercer, Ohio, a fictional town that is home to “The Loop.” The stories, spread across eight episodes, are inspired by the breathtaking paintings of Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag.
But aside from being a visual treat, the show examines consciousness, science, and morality — though with much more warmth and commitment to wonder than you’d usually find in the sci-fi genre.
8. Living With Yourself (2019)
7.2 on IMDb, 80% on Rotten Tomatoes
What’s better than a show featuring one Paul Rudd, recently declared sexiest man alive? Well, 2019’s Living With Yourself has a pretty good answer: two Paul Rudds.
Created by Timothy Greenberg, this sci-fi comedy tells the story of George Elliot, who undergoes an experimental DNA treatment for burnout — only to find that the treatment involves the creation of a happier clone of himself. And predictably, chaos ensues.
Of course, Paul Rudd isn’t quite at Tatiana Maslany’s level, but the show offers a strange and surprising experience, which manages to be both a lot of fun but also dark and insightful.
9. Altered Carbon (2018-2020)
8/10 on IMDb, 75% on Rotten Tomatoes
Laeta Kalogridis’s Altered Carbon is based on a novel by Richard K. Morgan, and provides another take on the quest for eternal life. Set a few hundred years from now, the show can give Orphan Black’s Dyad and Neolutionists a run for their money. In it, human minds can be digitized, and therefore are able to be downloaded from body to body.
This epic sci-fi series offers plenty of action and suspense, as well as gorgeous cyberpunk visuals thanks to the first season having a bigger budget than Seasons 1 through 3 of Game of Thrones put together. Plus, Matt Frewer, who plays Dr. Leekie, one of the first villains in Orphan Black, is even creepier as Altered Carbon’s Carnage.
10. Watchmen (2019)
8.2 IMDb, 96% on Rotten Tomatoes
Watchmen, created by Damon Lindelof, is set 34 years after the events of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ comic book series of the same name. At the center of the dystopian series is Detective Angela Abar, who finds herself at the center of violence instigated by a white supremacist group called the Seventh Kavalry in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
There’s no mind-bending crazy science here, but there is plenty of Orphan Black’s bold, complex storytelling that’s catapulted the show to critical acclaim, especially with regard to the performances, visuals, and writing, which creatively expands the source material. (Interestingly, there was a 2009 movie adaptation of the same comic book series, which is pretty good too, and also stars Matt Frewer).
11. The Leftovers (2014-2017)
8.3 on IMDb, 91% on Rotten Tomatoes
Set three years after a mysterious event called the “Sudden Departure,” when 2% of the world’s population suddenly and simultaneously disappeared, The Leftovers follows two families as they continue to cope with the sudden loss. Created by Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta, the show also examines greater society in the aftermath, which is marked by the rise of cults like the Guilty Remnant.
There’s less science and more supernatural drama in The Leftovers, but the visually engrossing and artfully crafted series is thought-provoking in its examination of human nature and community. Plus, part of the musical score is very similar to Orphan Black’s, and is responsible for setting such an emotionally powerful tone throughout the series.
12. Russian Doll (2019-)
7.8 on IMDb, 97% on Rotten Tomatoes
“I’m having a very hard, never-ending night!” says Nadia, around whom Russian Doll revolves. And she’s not kidding. Created by the wonderful trio of Leslye Headland, Amy Poehler, and star Natasha Lyonne, the show tells the story of Nadia, who keeps going to a party, dying, and then returning to the party in a mysterious time loop.
There’s a lot of repetition involved, and it’s certainly not the first loop-related plot we’ve ever seen, but the plot is refreshingly inventive and manages to masterfully balance humor and drama as carried by Lyonne’s performance. Plus, there’s bound to be more of this goodness, as the creators are reportedly planning a three-season run.
13. Westworld (2016-)
8.6 on IMDb, 81% on Rotten Tomatoes
The eponymous Westworld is a technologically advanced Wild West-themed amusement park built for high-paying guests looking to live out their fantasies with android hosts who are indistinguishable from humans — except in their inability to harm guests and the fact that their memories are wiped after every cycle. It’s a terrific premise set up by creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, based on a 1973 film of the same name.
The problem is, some of the android hosts are becoming sentient. Like Orphan Black, there’s a lot to unpack in terms of the patriarchy, agency, and what it means to be human. As the show’s android protagonists begin to realize more about themselves and the world around them, we are taken on a journey full of mysteries that are hard to turn away from.