Top five TV dystopias
The Handmaid's Tale (2017–present)
Stories & Ideas

Thu 23 Aug 2018

Top five TV dystopias

Pop culture Television
Matt Millikan
Matt Millikan

Senior Writer & Editor

Find catharsis with some of the best post-apocalyptic stories you can stream right now.

Edit: This article was written in 2018, but it hasn't required much of an update in 2020.

Climate change, wars, Nazis, inequality, black holes, Trump ... it’s not hard to think that today’s headlines have been borrowed from the Book of Revelations. Though that particular book was written back around 81 AD, the fire and fury still burns today, and it’s not just Christians getting down with the end times. Buddhists have the Sermon of the Seven Suns, the Norse have Ragnarok, the Mayans have that inaccurate calendar and we have Black Mirror. Seriously, ever since the 1916 Danish sci-fi drama The End of the World , TV and cinema has been one of the best ways to exorcise our fears and anxieties, releasing them in sweet, Roland Emmerich-inspired destructive catharsis.

So why do we love seeing so much dystopic destruction? Because it feels fine. Or, because as neuroscientist Shmuel Lissek told Scientific American, there may "be comfort in being able to attribute doom to some larger cosmic prophecy [that] removes any sense of individual responsibility". Lissek also posits that apocalyptic beliefs make existential threats predictable (however incorrectly), and thus more manageable to the human psyche.

Harvard Medical School child psychiatrist and author Steven Schlozman thinks dystopias and the post-apocalypse are appealing to people who "imagine surviving, thriving and going back to nature", and abdicating any of the boring parts of life like homework (amen).

But would a dystopia really be relaxing? Probably not, but here are some of the best TV shows to stream before it all goes up in flames.

The Handmaid’s Tale

This list wouldn’t be complete without a journey to the dark heart of Gilead, former land of the free struggling under theocratic tyranny – especially if you’re a woman. If you haven’t caught this acclaimed adaptation of Margaret Attwood’s novel, congratulations, your bomb shelter must be air tight, but it’s time to come back into the light.

Starring Elizabeth Moss as Offred and the woman previously known as June, The Handmaid’s Tale follows her fight for freedom in world where women are treated like cattle (they’re literally prodded, branded and bred), all in the name of the good Lord. With women’s reproductive rights again being debated across the US and Australia, the #MeToo movement, the gender pay disparity and unending violence against women, The Handmaid’s Tale feels grimly prescient.

Stream it on Stan or SBS on Demand

The 100

Once you get over the fact that it’s a genre teen drama and half the cast first appeared in Australian and American soaps, you’ll realise The 100 is one of the most morally complex pieces of storytelling on TV.

In the future, the world is an uninhabitable, nuclear wasteland and humanity circles above in space stations. But the space stations are running out of air, so to free up the precious oxygen, the teen jailbirds of the society are jettisoned to Earth to fend for themselves – by their parents. And shit gets real on the ground too, where the kids encounter barbaric survivors, betrayal in their own ranks, dwindling resources and radioactive rain. The moral choices the kids make to survive are some of the most gut-wrenching you’ll see on screen.

Not to mention that the protagonist is an openly bisexual woman who is one of the more complicated heroes on TV. And of course, there’s #Clexa.

Stream it on Netflix

The Leftovers

Come for the Rapture, stay for the Carrie Coon performance and Jennifer Aniston’s ex-husband jogging. When a cataclysmic event known as the Sudden Departure disappears 140 million people worldwide, those left behind pick up their shattered lives without any direction from up high. Some join silent cults and troll society, others silence their better natures and others just go quietly and desperately insane with both hope and despair. And it’s all glorious to watch, despite ostensibly being a heart-rending rumination on grief.

The performances are stellar, particularly the aforementioned Carrie Coon and Justin Theroux, as well as Ann Dowd (pre-Aunt Lydia) as the nefarious cult leader that you just can’t keep down. Adapted from Tom Perotta’s book of the same name, with Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof, The Leftovers was largely and unfairly overlooked during its three seasons, but it’s since received the acclaim it deserves, with Rolling Stone calling it "one of TV’s greatest 21st century dramas", and the limited duration makes it perfect to go back and binge now.

Also, scenes for the third season were shot in Victoria.

Stream it on Foxtel or Binge

Doomsday Preppers

This is not a joke, this is a learning opportunity for the end times so grab your go bag and get ready. From economic collapse and oppressive governments to nuclear war and super viruses, what the titular Doomsday Preppers believe offers a keen insight into the millenarian mindset of "ordinary Americans".

Like Steve H, a contractor who thinks economic collapse is going to lead to roving pockets of unrest that are going to "hit" his house. He’s got alarms, video cameras, guns and traps but it’s still not enough. Luckily he’s got a booby-trapped cabin in the woods patrolled by his armed eight-year-old son.

Gun nuts, conspiracy theorists and the paranoid brainwash their families into obsessive freeze-drying, stockpiling, dehydrating, canning, patrolling and shooting. It seems bananas, but then so did Galileo so who are we to judge? If you want to learn how unprepared you are for doomsday or just observe extreme American paranoia, this is the show for you.  

Stream it on Netflix


As Nayuka Gorrie writes, for Aboriginal people, dystopian TV can feel a lot like real life and this is echoed by the ABC/Sundance mini-series Cleverman.

Combining Kamilaroi and Bundjalung mythology with a superhero story, the series focuses on a group of people, all played by Aboriginal actors, known as "Hairies". Despite trying to assimilate into the society that fears them, the Hairies are pushed into a Gaza-strip style ghetto known as The Zone, where they’re routinely harassed by the Containment Force and corporate fascists.

The violence against the Hairies is difficult to watch, particularly when you consider that little has changed for Aboriginal people since 1788, and that the apocalypse narrative and continual erosion of rights is an ongoing reality for First Nations people.

Stream it on ABC iView

This article was written to complement the ACMI Conversation Dystopia on Screen, which took place on Tuesday 4 September 2018.

You might also like

Featured works