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The best alternate-reality TV shows

When you consider the idea of traveling to other worlds, most people would imagine the journey taking place in the inky void of space, and usually aboard some kind of fantastic spaceship. But what about journeying to worlds reached not by vessel, but by traversing the limitless possibilities of other dimensions? Television shows centered around characters stepping into alternate realities or parallel worlds are becoming much more common, and all to our benefit. Whether it’s the God of Mischief meeting multiple versions of himself (one’s an alligator?!) in Marvel’s Loki, or the insane dimension-hopping antics of Rick and Morty, every series has different rules about how their worlds work, making for some truly reality-bending TV. That said, here are our picks for the best television series you’re going to find about alternate realities.

Want to branch out to other genres? Check out our streaming guides for the best TV series on Netflix, the best shows on Hulu, or the best series streaming on HBO

President Loki and other Loki variants.
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Not only can no one seem to kill Tom Hiddleston’s Loki for good, but the Disney+ series Loki also introduces more versions of the god of mischief than even the titular sorcerer can handle.

If you’ve seen 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, then you know the Loki of 2012 — just captured by the Avengers after his failed bid to conquer Earth — takes advantage of the time-traveling heroes’ quest to recover the Infinity Stones to escape justice.

Soon after capturing the Tesseract and teleporting himself far away, Loki is captured by the Time Variance Authority for the crime of changing the timeline. He’s about to be “pruned” by the strange temporal bureaucracy when he’s recruited by Agent Mobius (Owen Wilson) to help capture another version of — or “variant” of — himself. To say more is to give too much away; suffice to say Loki is a fun, time-spanning adventure that keeps you guessing and whose plot promises to have huge implications for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Created by: Michael Waldron
Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Owen Wilson, Gugu Mbatha-Raw
Number of seasons: 1

Natasha Lyonne in Russian Doll.
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Russian Doll

Considering she’s a game developer, there’s an argument to be made that Russian Doll‘s Nadia Vulvokov (Natasha Lyonne) is suffering poetic justice. On the night of her 36th birthday, Nadia goes to her friend Maxine’s (Greta Lee) loft to celebrate, but is killed on the way home. Then, inexplicably, she’s at Maxine’s loft again.

If you’re thinking “time loop,” you thought right. In this funny but heartbreaking Netflix dramedy, our hero is stuck in a Groundhog Day-esque ever-repeating day. Nadia struggles to find a way out of the loop, and in spite of constantly experiencing the same day, the story proves inventive enough to avoid repetition. The first season of Russian Doll was a hit, and we’re hoping a Season 2 isn’t far off.

Created by: Leslye Headland, Natasha Lyonne, Amy Poehler
Cast: Natasha Lyonne, Charlie Barnett, Sharlto Copley
Number of seasons: 1

A woman is subdued by two bizarre-looking doctors in The Twilight Zone.

The Twilight Zone

While it’s enjoyed a number of revivals and even a major motion picture, it’s still the original Twilight Zone that stands above them all. While Rod Serling’s ominous intro changes three times in its five seasons, the message is always essentially the same — you’re traveling to another dimension, things are going to get freaky, and it’s called the Twilight Zone.

In this horrifying dimension, travelers find themselves the prisoners of monstrous surgeons, in a world torn apart by paranoia, and facing off against more aliens than you can shake a tinfoil hat at. This ingenious classic helped inspire just about all the science fiction that followed, including similar anthology series like The Outer Limits and Black Mirror.

Created by: Rod Serling
Cast: Rod Serling, Various
Number of seasons: 5

Natalia Dyer hides behind a tree in Stranger Things.
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Stranger Things

Full of humor, drama, suspense, and horrifying monsters, Stranger Things is what would happen if you took fun, family-friendly adventure classics from the ’80s like The Goonies and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and set loose Stephen King in their narratives with a blank check.

Stranger Things was one of the biggest wins for Netflix when the series premiered in 2016, and it remains one of the streaming service’s most popular original shows. Taking place in the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana, the story kicks off with the disappearance of the young Will Byers (Noah Schnapp). We soon learn Will is nowhere on our Earth, but in an alternate dimension that Will’s courageous friends coin “The Upside Down” — a place whose monstrous inhabitants terrify the people of Hawkins throughout the series.

Created by: Matt Duffer, Ross Duffer
Cast: Millie Bobby Brown, Finn Wolfhard, Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Maya Hawke
Number of seasons: 3

Alternate Ricks in Rick & Morty.
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Rick and Morty

Adult Swim’s irreverent and shameless animated sitcom Rick and Morty isn’t just about alternate realities, but they come up quite a lot. Rick Sanchez is an intergalactically and inter-dimensionally infamous adventurer possessed of a genius that would make Tony Stark weep in envy. Sometimes as a contraband mule, sometimes as a human shield, and sometimes just because he’s used to it, Rick always brings his hapless grandson Morty on his adventures.

As early as the series premiere, Rick and Morty are hopping across dimensions. In a couple of cases, they run afoul the Council of Ricks — a governing body of different versions of Rick from different timelines. In one of the darkest endings of any Rick and Morty episode, Season 1’s “Rick Potion No. 9,” the eponymous duo ruin their Earth so thoroughly that Rick transports them to a timeline where their alternates have just died. They bury the bodies in the backyard and replace them, staying in this new timeline for the rest of the series.

Created by: Dan Harmon, Justin Roiland
Cast: Justin Roiland, Chris Parnell, Spencer Grammer, Sarah Chalke
Number of seasons: 5

The heroes of Sliders stand united.
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Sliders was one of the first popular sci-fi shows to deal with the concept of alternate dimensions literally every episode. Premiering on Fox in 1995, it features a quartet of heroes trying and failing to find their way back to their home dimension.

Led by the young genius Quinn Mallory (Jerry O’Connell) who stumbles upon an interdimensional portal while researching anti-gravity, the heroes see versions of Earth where the United States is still part of Great Britain, where the entire planet is ruled by psychics, where humans are trying to fight off an alien invasion, and many more.

The quality of Sliders begins to slip in its third season, but the first couple of years are solid fun.

Created by: Tracy Tormé, Robert K. Weiss
Cast: Jerry O’Connell, Sabrina Lloyd, John Rhys-Davies
Number of seasons: 5

Spock and Captain Kirk in the Mirror Universe.
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Star Trek: The Original Series

Whether you’re talking about it as a series or a franchise, Star Trek obviously deals with more than just alternate dimensions. There’s interstellar politics, literally star-crossed romances, alien threats, impossible moral dilemmas, and at least once a white monkey lizard with a unicorn horn.

But when Trek does delve into the subject of parallel universes, it’s always loads of fun. One of the earliest obvious examples is the classic “Mirror, Mirror” from Season 2 of Star Trek: The Original Series in which Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and other members of his crew unintentionally switch places with their counterparts in a much more barbaric universe. In the so-called Mirror Universe, everyone wears glittery sashes, advancement through the ranks means murdering your superior officer, and — most terrifying of all — Spock (Leonard Nimoy) has a goatee.

Created by: Gene Roddenberry
Cast: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley
Number of seasons: 3

A character with strange eyes stares in Black Mirror.
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Black Mirror

Following heavily in the footsteps of The Twilight Zone, the British anthology series Black Mirror gives us a horrific kaleidoscope of alternate realities. While there are noteworthy exceptions, most episodes are set in either a dystopian future, or one teetering very much on the brink. In most stories, we see disturbingly poignant echoes of technological advances in our own world, such as the society of “The Entire History of You,” where most people have a device implanted behind their ear to record and replay all their memories, or “USS Callister,” where a man uses an online roleplaying game to torture sentient copies of his co-workers.

Created by: Charlie Brooker
Cast: Various
Number of seasons: 5

Anna Torv and Joshua Jackson sit in a bench in Fringe.
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In its earliest days, the sci-fi series Fringe wasn’t particularly well received. Its heroes are members of the fictional Fringe Division of the FBI dedicated to exploring otherwise unexplainable phenomena. At first — much like The X-Files — Fringe follows an episodic format. But things change only for the better in later seasons when the creators abandon the traditional mystery-of-the-week playbook for a more serial format to create a mythology in which most of the strange events the series’ heroes investigate prove to be due to alternate timelines and parallel dimensions.

Created by: J.J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman, Robert Orci
Cast: Anna Torv, Joshua Jackson, John Noble
Number of seasons: 5

An ominous-looking military character from The Man in the High Castle.
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The Man in the High Castle

What if the Allies had lost World War II? It’s a question that’s been asked a lot both in fiction and in academia, and in 2015 Amazon Prime Video gave us its answer with the premiere of The Man in the High Castle, based on the 1962 Philip K. Dick novel of the same name.

In this alternate history, the Axis Powers have carved up the former United States between them, with Germany reigning over the country’s east coast and Japan dominating in the west. While Cold War-like tensions mount between these former military partners, the kinds of horrors you would imagine being suffered by America’s people under such regimes become reality. In the meantime, it slowly becomes clear that there might be a version of Earth out there where things turned out differently.

Created by: Frank Spotnitz
Cast: Alexa Davalos, Luke Kleintank, Rufus Sewell
Number of seasons: 4

LAPD detective Michael Britten stands in the rain.
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After LAPD detective Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs) gets into a car accident with his family, he finds his time inexplicably split between two realities. In one reality, his wife Hannah (Laura Allen) dies in the crash while in the other, it’s his son Rex (Dylan Minnette) who doesn’t survive. He comes to name one the “red reality” and the other the “green reality” because of the different colored wristbands he wears in each. Switching between the red and the green, he works with different partners in each, sees different therapists, and uses clues in one reality to solve mysteries in the other.

Sometimes there are series too good to survive long, and NBC’s Awake definitely fits the bill. With an intriguing premise and a wonderful cast, Awake attracted love from critics, but the viewers didn’t tune in. It was canceled after only one season.

 Created by: Kyle Killen
Cast: Jason Isaacs, Laura Allen, Steve Harris
Number of seasons: 1

J.K. Simmons sits in a train station in the series Counterpart.
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If you get a chance to watch something with J.K. Simmons, you should do it, and the sci-fi thriller Counterpart is no exception.

In Counterpart, Simmons plays Howard Silk, an employee of the fictional UN agency, Office of the Interchange (OI). He’s worked for OI for years, and the quiet office worker still has very little notion of what his agency does. He eventually learns that not only is his job a lot more important than he realized, but that there’s another Howard Silk working for the agency. The OI, he discovers, is in charge of overseeing travel to and from a second Earth — known as the “Prime” Earth — which few know exists. There is another Howard Silk working for the OI in the Prime Earth, also played by Simmons, who proves to be much more ruthless than the first.

Like AwakeCounterpart ended before its time. Originally airing on Starz, Counterpart was canceled in 2019 in spite of rave reviews. Some, like THR, credited Lionsgate’s 2016 acquisition of Starz for Counterpart‘s early death.

Created by: Justin Marks
Cast: J.K. Simmons, Olivia Williams, Harry Lloyd
Number of seasons: 2

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Michileen Martin
Michileen Martin has written about pop culture in general and comics in particular for two decades. His work has appeared in…
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