10 TV Shows That Are Seriously Dark Right From The Very Beginning
16 mins read

10 TV Shows That Are Seriously Dark Right From The Very Beginning

This list contains some discussions of disturbing violence.




  • Brutal deaths serve as a prelude to the serious tone of
    and indicate the risks characters face.
  • Shocking violence quickly establishes grim atmospheres in shows like
    Game of Thrones
    The Walking Dead
  • Disturbing acts in the first episode set the tone for TV series across multiple genres, from historical drama to horror.

Some of the scariest TV shows of all time establish their dark tone from the very first episode. This might (and often does) include one or more deaths in the Pilot, to prove that real danger exists in the setting. However, there are other ways to immediately convey a serious atmosphere, including utilizing the tried and true conventions of the genre, or leveraging what the audience already knows about previously established characters.

Game of Thrones famously advertised itself as being the show where anyone can die, even the main characters. While this may not be strictly proven until the season 1 finale, the first episode already puts characters the audience might have believed were untouchable in harm’s way. Cold-blooded actions and horrifically shocking moments are used throughout TV to introduce a certain kind of story, within the genres of dystopia, historical drama, and horror.

10 Shogun (2024)

First Episode: “Anjin”


Shogun is an FX original mini-series set in 17th Century Japan. Shogun follows John Blackthorne, who becomes a samurai warrior but is unknowingly a pawn in Yoshii Toranaga’s plan to become Shogun. The series stars Cosmo Jarvis as John Blackthorne and Hiroyuki Sanada as Yoshii Toranaga, along with Anna Sawai, Tadanobu Asano, and Yûki Kedôin.

Cosmo Jarvis , Hiroyuki Sanada , Anna Sawai , Tadanobu Asano , Yûki Kedôin


Streaming Service(s)

The new historical drama miniseries Shōgun skillfully depicts the politics of feudal Japan, focusing on the ambitious Lord Yoshi Toranaga allying with John Blackthorne, the sole escapee of a European Protestant crew taken prisoner. The first episode’s brutal deaths already serve as an entry to a serious TV show, but the overall muted aesthetics and somber tone also convey what is at stake. “Anjin” introduces the extremes of this time and place, so the audience knows what the characters are risking with each new move.

9 Stranger Things (2016-2025)

First Episode: “Chapter One: The Vanishing of Will Byers”

Stranger Things

Inspired by 80s pop-culture and elements of Stephen King’s works, Stranger Things is a supernatural action-drama TV series set in the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana. When a young boy goes missing, his group of friends stumbles upon a young girl with telekinetic powers who recently escaped from a mysterious facility. They soon realize that she may be their only chance at stopping an impending doom that threatens to engulf Hawkins whole.

Release Date
July 15, 2016

Finn Wolfhard , joe keery , Jamie Campbell Bower , Brett Gelman , Caleb McLaughlin , Maya Hawke , David Harbour , Matthew Modine , Priah Ferguson , Gaten Matarazzo , Winona Ryder , Charlie Heaton , Sadie Sink , Millie Bobby Brown , Joseph Quinn , Dacre Montgomery , Natalia Dyer , Noah Schnapp


The title says it all: 12-year-old Will is taken by a shadowy monster that the audience at that point knows nothing about, while his family and friends only know that he has disappeared without a trace. “Chapter One: The Vanishing of Will Byers” introduces a classic horror tone meshed with a ragtag gang’s adventure, which everything up to Stranger Things season 4’s ending upholds. The Pilot thrives on jump scares and promises more threats lurking in the dark. It is also inferable that Eleven is fleeing imprisonment, which is even more unsettling than if it were directly stated.


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8 The Walking Dead (2010-2022)

First Episode: “Days Gone Bye”

Still from walking dead days gone bye episode

The Walking Dead

Based on one of the most successful and popular comic books of all time, AMC’s The Walking Dead captures the ongoing human drama following a zombie apocalypse. The series, developed for television by Frank Darabont, follows a group of survivors, led by police officer Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), who are traveling in search of a safe and secure home. However, instead of the zombies, it is the living who remain that truly become the walking dead. The Walking Dead lasted for eleven seasons and spawned several spinoff shows, such as Fear the Walking Dead and The Walking Dead: World Beyond.

Release Date
October 31, 2010

Steven Yeun , Andrew Lincoln , Chandler Riggs , Laurie Holden , Jeffrey DeMunn , Sarah Wayne Callies , Melissa McBride , Norman Reedus , Jon Bernthal , Iron E. Singleton


Streaming Service(s)
Netflix , AMC Plus

The Walking Dead does not ease into things by having the first Walker shown be a wandering young girl, and the second the grotesque animated upper half of a human corpse.

The long-running zombie apocalypse series opens with tension derived from dramatic irony because, for a moment, Grimes does not know about the dangerous setting he is walking into, but the audience certainly does. The Walking Dead does not ease into things by having the first Walker shown be a wandering young girl, and the second the grotesque animated upper half of a human corpse. “Days Gone Bye” relies on some established tropes like a character waking up in an unfamiliar environment and ending on the cliffhanger of them being in mortal peril, but it effectively shows the unforgiving landscape.

7 Marianne (2019)

First Episode: “Tu les rêves”

Emma in first episode of Marianne

Marianne dives right into its nightmare-inducing horror scenarios, with instances of possession taking place in the first episode. The short-lived French horror series follows a bestselling author who is haunted by the events and characters of her own books, namely the witch Marianne. The tone is comparable to some of the best horror movies of all time, with the effect of the first episode (and the rest of the series) being deeply disturbing. The unseen villain who still has a sense of rhyme and reason is very Stephen King-esque.

6 Twin Peaks (1990-1991)

First Episode: “Northwest Passage”

The frozen body of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) in Twin Peaks

Twin Peaks

Conceived by Mark Frost and David Lynch in 1990, Twin Peaks is a supernatural mystery-drama series that brings FBI Agent Dale Cooper to the quiet town of Twin Peaks to investigate the murder of a young woman named Laura Palmer. As Dale continues his investigation of her death, he learns that Laura’s life wasn’t as she advertised it, and the town itself is hiding far more secrets than they let on. The show received a revival for a third and final season two decades later to resolve the cliffhanger left at the end of the second season.

Release Date
May 23, 1990

Russ Tamblyn , Sheryl Lee , Kimmy Robertson , Dana Ashbrook , Grace Zabriskie , Everett McGill , Ernie Hudson , Mädchen Amick , Ray Wise , Kyle MacLachlan


The milestone mystery TV show centers around the mystery of Laura Palmer’s murder, with the first episode depicting the discovery of her body — and this is not even one of the scariest scenes in Twin Peaks. The episode “Northwest Passage” conveys the tone of the series, but the dark plot continues to expand to include more mysteries, murders, and supernatural elements. Twin Peaks, of course, loses some of its spooky mystery quality when Laura Palmer’s killer is revealed, but the first episode generally establishes the tone well.

5 Game Of Thrones (2011-2019)

First Episode: “Winter Is Coming”

Game Of Thrones

Created by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, Game of Thrones is a TV series based on the book “A Song of Ice of Fire” by George R. R. Martin. It tells the story of the ongoing battle between the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros – as they fight for control of the coveted Iron Throne. Friction between the houses leads to full-scale war. All while a very ancient evil awakens in the far north. Amidst the war, a neglected military order of misfits, the Night’s Watch, led by House Stark’s Jon Snow, is the first to encounter icy horrors that threaten all realms of men. The series premiered on HBO in the United States on April 17, 2011, and quickly became one of the biggest event series in the “Golden Age” of TV. Winner of 38 Primetime Emmy Awards, Game of Thrones has attracted record viewership on HBO and has a broad, active, international fan base.

Release Date
April 11, 2011


It is Bran discovering Cersei and Jaime’s affair and Jaime attempting to murder him that reveals how the simmering hostilities can, at any moment, turn into violence.

Game of Thrones sets the tone of its medieval world primarily with the shocking ending of the first episode. “Winter Is Coming” introduces the tense politics of Westeros that are always teetering on the edge of violence; the realities of the noble women who are likely to be married off without their consent; and not-always-affectionate family dynamics. However, it is Bran discovering Cersei and Jaime’s affair and Jaime attempting to murder him that reveals how the simmering hostilities can, at any moment, turn into violence. This atmosphere remains in place until Game of Thrones’ criticized final season.

4 Invincible (2021-Present)

First Episode: “It’s About Time”

Superheroes in Invincible


Based on the comic book character by Robert Kirkman, Invincible follows Mark Grayson,  a seventeen-year-old who leads a seemingly average life save for the fact that he lives behind the shadow of his superhero father, Omni-Man. Mark goes on to develop superhuman abilities, but he must also learn that his father’s legacy isn’t as glitzy and glamorous as he’s been led to believe.

Release Date
March 26, 2021

Mark Hamill , Gillian Jacobs , Jon Hamm , Mae Whitman , Steven Yeun , Walton Goggins , Ezra Miller , Jonathan Groff , Sandra Oh , Djimon Hounsou , Khary Payton , Seth Rogen , Jeffrey Donovan , Sonequa Martin-Green , Mahershala Ali , Malese Jow , J. K. Simmons , Clancy Brown , Zazie Beetz , Zachary Quinto , Jason Mantzoukas , Nicole Byer


Invincible does not have the typical opening of a mature show; for most of the episode, “It’s About Time” feels like a somewhat off-beat Marvel or DC origin story, before ending with a merciless slaughter. The idealistic young hero is soon forced to face the harsh realities of his father Omni-Man being the villain of Invincible’s story. What initially appears to be repetitive property in the age of superhero movies and TV shows (at least to those not familiar with the Invincible comics) takes an abrupt turn into a darker exploration of supposed heroism and invulnerable power.

3 The Handmaid’s Tale (2017-Present)

First Episode: “Offred”

Elisabeth Moss in The Handmaid's Tale Season 1 Finale

The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian television series based on the 1985 novel by author Margaret Atwood. The series was created by Bruce Miller and stars Elisabeth Moss, Joseph Fiennes, and Yvonne Strahovski. The show follows the story of a young handmaid as she is forced to deal with a new totalitarian government that subjugates women in this dark societal twist.

Release Date
April 26, 2017

O-T Fagbenle , Joseph Fiennes , Alexis Bledel , Elisabeth Moss , Amanda Brugel , Bradley Whitford , Max Minghella , Ann Dowd , Samira Wiley , Madeline Brewer , Yvonne Strahovski


Streaming Service(s)

Right away, The Handmaid’s Tale shows how women in Gilead must be cautious every moment of their lives. June’s narration, contrasting with what she says out loud, illustrates that casual comments are a thing of the past when everything may be a punishable offense. “Offred” also shows how violence is not only institutionalized but systematically weaponized by Gildead’s government to keep people like the handmaids under their rule. Anyone who has watched all seasons of The Handmaid’s Tale knows that its haunting depiction of this futuristic society never lets up.


15 Best Shows Like The Handmaid’s Tale

Whether sci-fi, drama, or fantasy, the best shows like The Handmaid’s Tale are dark and completely addictive.

2 Hannibal (2013-2015)

First Episode: “Apéritif”

Mads Mikkelsen in Hannibal season 1


Created for TV by Bryan Fuller, Hannibal is a TV adaptation/reimagining of Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon novel. The show follows the exploits of FBI criminal profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) and psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) and their perpetual game of cat and mouse that unfolds over the series. When a string of murders in Minnesota requires a brilliant mind to crack the case, Will Graham is called in to investigate – but due to the intimate and terrifying nature of the crimes, he is appointed Dr. Lecter to act as his psychiatrist. The truth of Dr. Lecter is that he is Will’s target – but to complicate matters, he’s the only person that can truly understand him.

Release Date
April 4, 2013


Streaming Service(s)

The first episode of Dr. Hannibal Lecter’s induction into television includes some gruesome hallmarks of the horror-crime genre: Victims are discovered, law enforcers and expert consultants are assembled. What makes this episode creepier than other properties is the fact that everyone watching knows who Hannibal is and remembers his trademark crime. The narrative as it appears to the other main characters is set apart from what the audience knows, as well as a few key scenes of Hannibal when he is alone. It is a terrifying set-up for the thriller TV show.

1 Westworld (2016-2022)

First Episode: “The Original”

Dolores and the Man in Black in Westworld season 1 episode 1


HBO’s Westworld is a dystopian science fiction western that is based on the Michael Crichton-directed film, Westworld. The series centers on high-paying guests who visit a western theme park full of human-like androids to live out wild fantasies. Westworld would later introduce a futuristic mid-21st century where the world is run by an artificial intelligence called Rehoboam. The series was incredibly popular during its four-season run but was canceled by HBO in November 2022.

Release Date
October 2, 2016

Anthony Hopkins , Evan Rachel Wood , Shannon Woodward , Ed Harris , James Marsden , Jimmi Simpson , Jeffrey Wright , Tessa Thompson , Thandie Newton , Rodrigo Santoro


Streaming Service(s)

Westworld, both the place and the TV show it exists in, pitches itself as being about indulging in every whim, no matter how horrific. The first episode shows park visitors seemingly coming to Westworld just to violently abuse the artificial people of the Old West setting. Predictably, this becomes the series’ overall plot of an AI revolution against the continuous violence and exploitation. Westworld, and other shows that want to establish a dark tone, generally start the series by showing something shocking and horrific to let the audience know what they are in for.

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