The 8 Most Confusing TV Shows of All Time
These series are the most confounding—and most rewarding—to make it all the way through.
There's nothing like the feeling of settling into a new television series and really getting into it, calling off all plans in the name of watching as many episodes in a row as humanly possible. There's also nothing like the feeling of knowing that you've made that sort of commitment to a series and then realizing five episodes—or worse, seasons—in that you have absolutely no clue what's going on anymore. And in many cases, it's not for lack of trying, either. Maybe the plots start to get too twisty or implausible, or the dialogue is aggressively quick and loaded with jargon… or maybe the show was never really even supposed to make sense in the first place.
Of course, that doesn't have to be a negative. The following eight TV shows, which may very well be the most confusing of all time, are all classics in their own right.
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Twin Peaks was widely popular when it premiered on ABC back in 1990. But just because it was on network TV didn't mean that it's an easy watch. Co-created by Mark Frost (Hill Street Blues) and David Lynch (the filmmaker behind such esoteric movies as Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive), the series is part soap opera and part horror show. Is it camp? Is it parody? Or is it all meant to be taken at face value? Fans of the first run, the movie Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and the 2017 revival, Twin Peaks: The Return may tell you that it's all of the above.
The show is never easy to follow, especially the second season, which became steadily less of a ratings winner after Twin Peaks provided the answer to its central mystery: Who killed Laura Palmer? However, the show continued to challenge and frustrate its audience, remaining unpredictable throughout. As Vox noted in their guide to the original two seasons, "The world of Twin Peaks is as lush as it is stark, its inhabitants prone to talking in clipped monosyllables, tossed-off non sequiturs, or tangents whose points don't reveal themselves until their very end, if at all. There's some lady who walks around town holding a log for seemingly no reason; fans know her, fittingly enough, as 'Log Lady.' There are hallucinations that may or may not be hallucinations, an infamous red room in which the dead come back to life (or DO THEY?), and even, eventually, literal demons." All true!
If you can explain what happens throughout all three seasons of Netflix's German science fiction thriller Dark without getting lost in the plot, then you either have an incredible aptitude for keeping track of multiple timelines, universes, and different versions of the same character—or know your way around the best Reddit threads, Wikis, and YouTube recaps breaking down the famously dense series. What starts with the search for a missing child in a small town expands into a convoluted exploration of the generational trauma of four local families, with reality-hopping and leaps back and forward in time. To even attempt to watch it without a helpful family tree handy is a fool's errand. And even the series finale, which wrapped up a number of plot lines, still left more questions hanging in the air that will likely never be resolved.
Pretty Little Liars
If two can keep a secret, can one of them please explain all of the jaw-dropping twists and infuriating plot holes featured in the dark teen drama Pretty Little Liars? The series, which premiered in 2010, starts simply enough: A group of girls are taunted and stalked by a mysterious character named A, who just happens to have the same initial as their missing friend, neighborhood mean girl, Allison. But somewhere in the middle of the series' seven seasons, the show truly jumps the shark with the introduction of too many multiple stalkers, murderers, and secret family members to reasonably keep track of. The good news is that the show is only confusing if you try to actually make sense of it, as one gets the impression around Season 5 that it was probably written with a Mad Libs activity book.
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Much like Pretty Little Liars, The Blacklist kicks off as a fairly understandable network drama, this one about a criminal mastermind (James Spader) working with a special unit of the FBI to track down other most wanted criminals. Despite the improbability of the premise, it was basically a procedural in early seasons, in which the team worked on a new case each episode. But when Elizabeth's (Megan Boone) relationship to Red (Spader) starts to take center stage in later seasons, things get wonky. Is Red Liz's father? Who or what is Roanoke? Between all the flashbacks to Soviet Russia and the interplay between Elizabeth, Red, and her (maybe?) dead mother, the show gets more and more confusing as it wanders away from the initial, crime-fighting premise of Seasons 1 and 2.
The Lost pilot episode was intriguing enough to hook audiences back in 2004, crash-landing a commercial flight on a seemingly deserted island evidently full of secrets. And the mythology of the ABC show only gets more tangled and esoteric throughout the subsequent six seasons. The highly anticipated series finale remains controversial to this day, with some criticizing it as disappointing and others defending it as the only possible conclusion.
A lived-in bunker, a series of numbers that keeps popping up in different places, a smoke monster, a donkey wheel…all of these seemingly disparate elements come into play in Lost and were endlessly discussed and theorized about by fans when the show was on the air. When asked before the premiere of Season 3 if every detail in the show had meaning or was a real clue to the mystery of the island and Oceanic Flight 815, executive producer Carlton Cuse told ABC News, "Most things have a reason. Some things we just throw in there. Some things we throw in there sort of self-referentially. We'll do things in the show that acknowledge people's theories about the show."
So basically, the creative minds behind Lost made it impenetrable on purpose. Keep that in mind when you're shaking your fist at the reveal of another red herring.
Science fiction shows don't necessarily have to be complex and confusing but when they're co-created by J.J. Abrams (who was also a co-creator of Lost), that's historically what you get. Fringe, which debuted in 2008, follows a group of federal agents tasked with getting to the bottom of especially strange or rare occurrences. It might be the overly baked plots or the fact that the show utilizes scientific jargon as if the regular Fox primetime viewer has a degree in physics, but the show demands your attention from the very beginning. And it only starts to feel like you didn't study for test as the timelines change and more characters from the future are introduced in Seasons 4 and 5.
HBO Max's Lovecraft Country only lasted for a season, but it's a whirlwind, sprawling show that has history, race, and the occult at its core. An adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's body of work and sequel to Matt Ruff's novel of the same name, the '50s-set show begins with Atticus Black (Jonathan Majors), his friend and love interest Letitia (Jurnee Smollett) and his Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) hitting the road to look for Atticus' missing father in the Jim Crow South. But the horrors they encounter along the way, from recognizable and all-too-real racism to a multitude of spirits, shape-shifters, and demons, all serve to both enrich the plot and keep viewers on their toes. Off the rails though it may have gone, it's unfortunate that we never got to see what would have taken place in Season 2.
Netflix's The Witcher is based on a series of books by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, so you might have expected the politics and history of its fictional setting, the Continent, to be easier to parse. Alas, if you're jumping into the world of monster-hunter Geralt of Rivia (Henry Cavill) for the first time, you may find yourself at a loss. Focusing on Geralt's adventures and the journeys of the sorceress Yennefer (Anya Chalotra) and Princess Ciri (Freya Allan) helps, but if you want to have a hope of keeping track of why one kingdom is battling another at any given point, you'll need at least a primer and a map. The Witcher is a fantasy series, so it doesn't have to be realistic, but could we at least get a little exposition here and there?