QUICK QUESTION: Which TV Shows Have the Best Special Effects?

That the new Golden Age of Television coincided with huge advancements in computer-generated effects can't be a coincidence, right? Sure, celebrated shows like The Wire and Deadwood were maaaybe better known for their writing than they were for CGI, but these days it's hard to find a classic show that doesn't somehow include seamless special effects. Most of the big genre hits have effects that rival or surpass those found in summer movies, but even dramas like Breaking Bad and Mad Men use computer imagery in such crucial ways that these shows may have been prohibitively expensive to produce in earlier eras. So let's give all those unheralded tech whizzes their props: Special effects have never been better or more crucial to the shows we love.

Below are some off-the-top-of-our-heads picks for TV shows with the best effects work. Which show's visuals are YOU constantly amazed by?



Falling Skies


Falling Skies is a great example of a show where viewers can debate the quality of the writing, but the special effects are unimpeachable. Seriously, they look expensive! Whether it's the nightmarish Skitters, the lumbering Mechs, or those tall skinny alien dudes (or are they ladies?), the effects alone are worth tuning in for.



The Walking Dead


Effects gurus Gregory Nicotero, Robert Kurtzman, and Howard Berger formed the KNB Efx Group in the late '80s but have steadily become the industry gold standard for horror effects. Their zombie work on The Walking Dead, a mixture of CGI and practical effects, holds the high honor of being probably the most disgusting imagery ever broadcast on cable. In this case that's a compliment!



Fringe


One can point to the various creatures of Fringe (human porcupines! Ribcage burrowers! Genetic hybrid abominations!) as examples of the show's top-notch effects work, but some of the most impressive CGI on the show is what you may not notice. Specifically all the split-screen work where characters must interact with their own doppelgangers on a regular basis. It's a deadly tricky thing to do and Fringe nails it every time.



Supernatural


Not to get nerdy about it, but Falling Skies only has three creatures to worry about. That's three CGI models already saved to a hard drive just waiting to be copied and pasted into new scenes. (I know more goes into it than that, but still.) A procedural like Supernatural has to deal with dozens of new creatures and scenarios all the time. It's frankly amazing how much Supernatural pulls off and how good it frequently looks despite its CW budget.



Doctor Who


Doctor Who seems to benefit greatly from its limited series format. The whole thing looks expensive probably because the average budget is more expensive than a show with 22-episodes a season. I've heard from people who enjoy the older doctors but prefer the Matt Smith series specifically for their production values. Looking at this trailer, it's pretty hard to disagree with that.



Game of Thrones


Game of Thrones is another show that uses effects in both ostentatious AND subtle ways. There's no debate about how straight-up incredible the wildfire incident was, but Season 2 also gave us Dany's haunting hallucination scene, plus the now-CGI direwolves looked just as organic and normal as their real dog predecessors. And those baby dragons looked so real that I'm pretty sure everyone in the world wants one now.



Spartacus


[VIDEO NSFW] A show that doesn't tend to do subtle well is Spartacus, but that's by design. Whether it's violence or sex or, you know, just scenery, everything has a heightened vibe to it. But where running every frame of footage through a computer might seem like a way to rob it of soul, Spartacus uses its CGI to pack almost every moment with emotion, horror, and splendor all at once.



Lost


It can be hard to get a conversation going about Lost these days, that's how still-controversial its ending was. But let's not forget what a fabulously beautiful show it was and how excellent its special effects were. From the black smoke monster to the plane crash to all the subtle scenery-related CGI seeded throughout each episode, Lost was epic in a way we may never see again.



Battlestar Galactica


It's pretty ironic that the cable network most notorious for its awful special effects pulled off this stunner: Syfy's Battlestar Galactica reboot contained some of the best effects ever seen on TV. From its newer, sleeker Cylons to those handheld-camera space battles, the style and quality of BSG's effects were not just great for its time, but have had an obvious influence on many of the sci-fi effects we're seeing in movies these days (Battleship's shaky battle footage being a recent example).



Ringer


Perhaps no show will ever be able to top the stunning special effects work of Ringer. Sorry, all other shows! Ringer nailed it.


YOUR TURN! Which TV shows do YOU think have the best special effects?

Comments (157)
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Obviously Primeval (especially Ep 1.6). No one has done that much and that good CGI as them in a dramatic series. Of course it has its downfalls sometimes, but still better than Terra Nova and the others. Doctor Who?? Come on, you're joking, right? I have to say it, the CGI in DW is a big pile of shit! I cannot understand why DW is so successful. The editing and acting is brilliant, but the story is horrible and those robots are so cheap. Btw, Primeval is the winner especially because the amount of CGI in an episode, which is still brilliant.
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Once Upon A Time, Game of Thones, Fringe, Firefly
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omg wow! you forgot sanctuary! lol, between the amazing Hollow Earth and it's creatures and landscape, to the dragons and giant insect creatures and monsters, never have i seen a show look so real and have so much air time with the creatures, i don't think any show has what it takes to compete with sanctuary where effects are concerned
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Totally agree.
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fringe, supernatural, doctor who and BSG.
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Those are my choices too, except I would put Supernatural first. The stuff they pull off with a small budget is just amazing! It really is "the little show that could" in so many ways.
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Game of Thrones, Blackwater was AMAZING.

Supernatural, quite good.

Doctor Who, good seeing the budget.

Ringer, AWESOME!
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This guy.
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The effects on BSG were so good they didn't feel like effects. The whole universe felt real. The writers did a great job too, in creating their own vernacular. It didn't take long before you just felt part of the whole and could concentrate on the story, and the scripts rarely let us down.



One of the best SciFi programmes of all time. Nothing has come close since.
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The Walking Dead!!!!
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And the winner is.. BSG! Hello, BSG had the best CGI on TV that I've ever seen. No other show since has demonstrated that level of stunning CGI. I swear every episode felt like a movie. And I'm not easily impressed. First place definitely goes to BSG.



The rest..meh! Kinda see it like this:

Runner up - Supernatural. It's quite good for a TV show, considering the budget as well.

3rd place - Game of Thrones. I'm not much of a fantasy buff but I have to say the CGI looks quite good. Did expect more though. I mean it's HBO for crying out loud.



The rest I don't really have an opinion about. I like Fringe, but definitely not for the FX.
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I don't understand - is Ringer in as a joke. That looks like the producers of Gilligan's Island have made a come back. She's clearly in a studio not going anywhere. Stupid



I would vote for BSG and Supernatural. The British show Spooks (spy thriller) used to have pretty good effects on a shoestring budget. They used to blow things up all over the place. Fabulous.



The Pilot of Lost was sensational stuff.
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LoL! Yes, Ringer is in as a joke...
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Buffy, Angel, The X Files, Fringe, The Walking Dead...
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You forgot "Once Upon a Time"...

Fringe has done a few great things.



Ringer? The boat scene? Yeah, that was years ahead... and the monologue: WoW!

We don't see good writing like that anymore.

:oP
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Once Upon a Time, really? No offense but the CGI is very much hit and miss with the show, sometimes they manage to be quite good even excellent... most of the time though just plain atrocious.
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BSG!
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Ringer...LOL!!!

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Fringe is pretty remarkable in its sfx. Sometimes very subtle like the two Walters sitting next to each other (Emmy Nomination for John Noble PLEASE), too.



BSG was also incredible, though...



I'm going to vote for Fringe, because it's still on the air and needs as much love as it can get.
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Battlestar Galactica, without a doubt.
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doctor who and fringe two great shows
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If you like SFX try the teaser/trailer of Blood and Chrome, a Galactica installment SyFy ofcourse did decide NOT to pick up , after all its real SF and AWESUM at that.

Google Blood and Chrome teaser / preview / trailer and you'll find 1'36" of pure SFX bliss. Thank you SO much SyFy on discarding this and denying us, what seems to be a GREAT show.
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might become a web series though.

we can still hope.
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Game of Thrones, Lost and the Walking Dead: best use of special effects during emotional moments.
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The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, True Blood & Spartacus
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BSG and some parts of Fringe! GOT has nice special effects but nothing special and falling skies to me looks like that they could be much better, srsly!
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falling skies
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game of thrones and caprica
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So mean to mention Ringer and not mention Revenge! The CGI Grayson Manor? Stunning! :P
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Mean? Ringer and Revenge can't be compared.
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Surely it must be 'Alias'
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Even before I read you article, I was already hoping that Ringer's boat scene would be in it xD
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BSG!
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oh, that BSG video clip brought me back ... what an awesome show that was! I'm going to re-watch it now. Later! :-)
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loved the show...hated the ending
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Thanks for recognizing the brilliant subtlety of Fringe. I absolutely agree with your opinion on the use of CGI for the doppelganger conversations. Especially in this last season 4 with both sides cooperating more with each other, Fringe's CGI team's expertise really shown.

Supernatural also is up there in my top special effects shows. There is always some impressive monster or super power display each week. Even back in season 5, I was especially impressed with all the angel CGI.
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Battlestar Galactica is still the best CGI in television to date. Quite an amazing feat, considering it is was on Sci-Fi Channel. The space battles, especially in the last season, was as good as what can be seen in the theaters.
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I'm glad you recognized Doctor Who, but one of the things I like about it is they often have monsters that are actors in costume rather than CGI.
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I must say Doctor Who is amazing. The FX almost make you belive the stories however crazy they are (and the ayre :-). Also the people commentin on Firefly and Farscape are correct in the quality. It's totally true that BSG took it camera ideas from Firefly.



If we go b-series, I must admit my guilty pleasure with the FX on Lexx, a totally crazy/bizarre/amazing series.
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sanctuary the whole thing was done on a green screen
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Any Star Trek shows, anybody?
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Don't forget Caprica, and the whole Stargate franchise
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How can you nominate Spartacus? It has possible the worst special effects
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You can see someone's face sliced off and their brain slide out and say that? Tsk tsk!
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someone posted this gotta tend to agree with it.

SGU > Games of Thrones fire scene
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Come on SGU had amazing effects all along, while their stories weren't much about space battle they still had amazing effects in almost every episode.



Still BSG >= SGU > Games of Thrones fire scene

Falling Skies sucks! And it's quite sad that we have to rely on it for Science Fiction... (Continuum too sucks!)
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Continuum: In the pilot, I thought we were supposed to like the Liber8 freedom fighters. But then after the second and third episodes they just became the big bad terrorists in the writers eyes. I don't like this, i think the writers should have made Liber8's actions a little more neutral (and not killing innocents), so the viewers could decide who to root for.
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Errr... Stargate anyone? ANY of the stargate shows?!?!?
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Not really. For many seasons, the effects on SG1 were pretty awful looking.
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lol .. i still remember the mechanical visors from the 1st episode .. looked so bad! To be fair, in the latter seasons, it got a lot better.
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Instead of Ringer(obviously) and Spartacus I'd like to add "TrueBlood" and "Heroes".

But it's very hard to choose between Fringe, Doctor WHO, BSG, Lost, Walking Dead, Supernatural and GoT - they all did a splendid job on special fxs.
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I'm glad Fringe made it into your pick. I think the effects work on this show are outstanding. It always looks seamless and unless someone points it most of the time looks very real.
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what i can say about the reboot of battlestar Galactica, is the cgi camera shots nearly gave me motion sickness. those zoom in zoom out was too much to handle.
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I don't know about Spartacus. Sure, some of the stuff is well done. But the last 2 seasons (prequel and current) had some really bad "blood" scenes. Seriously, some of them looked like they were right out of a Saturday "SyFy" special feature. With animated blood coming out of the wound.



I recall Season 1 have better effects in that department.
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You'll be amazed at how many scenes are filmed over green screens nowadays...



Look (youtube) for Stargate Studios Virtual backlot demo real...
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Lost, Game of Thrones and Doctor Who. ALWAYS.
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I've watched the Walter and Walternate conversation from Fringe a bunch of times, and it's still amazing. Also, kudos to Falling Skies, the reality of that world never breaks when I watch it :)
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If they could only get the humans to feel real too, it might be a great show.
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Any of the Stargate shows. They have great special effects, from gate travel to the various "big bads -- the Wraith, the Goaulds -- and some of the allies, like the Nox and the Asgaard. Eureka, Warehouse 13, Bones, Supernatural, Fringe. Early years CSI -- they've gotten lazy in the past few years, though.
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Thanks for not mentioning The Vampire Diaries. They have special effects in nearly every single episode basically. When they vamp out, or doppelganger hijinx ensures etc.
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Wow, I half-expected Price to mention The Vampire Diaries, The Secret Circle and Teen Wolf in here. But thanks for the shout-out to Supernatural (and The Walking Dead)! SPN's special effects are pretty amazing every time I watch an episode! :D
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BSG, Game of Thrones and all of the Stargate series were my favorites. Also Boardwalk Empire and Mad Men do a great job bringing you back in time!
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