TV writers have one job: to entertain. Even when they try to reflect the real world, it’s still intended as fictional. They’re certainly not trying to give us a glimpse into the future—well, not intentionally anyway. But just as they say if you put a hundred monkeys into a room with typewriters and one of them will eventually write a Shakespearean sonnet, the same can be said about TV scribes and their prophetic powers.
That’s right: 99 percent of the time, when screenwriters write about the wonders (and absurdities) of tomorrow, they don’t even come close to getting it right. But then there’s that elusive one percent, when they somehow see where we’re collectively heading with staggering clarity. Even Nostradamus didn’t have such an impressive track record for forecasting the future. Here are 25 such examples, when TV shows—from political dramas to cartoons to sci-fi classics—imagined world events and new technology that seemed too fantastical to be believed, and yet somehow came to pass.
Gene Roddenberry’s sci-fi epic didn’t get a lot of respect when it originally aired during the ’60s, but for a show with so many bizarre alien species and crazy, fictional galaxies, it somehow managed to predict the space ambitions of real human beings. In a 1967 episode called “Tomorrow Is Yesterday,” the Starship Enterprise jumps back in time to 1969 and picks up a radio transmission from NASA, in which they overhear word about astronauts preparing to blast off from Cape Kennedy for mankind’s first landing on the moon. Weather the writers just randomly picked the year 1969 or if they actually knew something we didn’t, that’s anybody’s guess.
Remember in 2016 when most people thought it was a long shot that Donald Trump would ever be elected president? The long-running animated series The Simpsons predicted it back in 2000, in the episode “Bart to the Future.”
When Bart gets a chance to see into his future, he learns that sister Lisa would grow up to become the first (straight) female president. What’s more, her predecessor was none other than Trump, who at the time was known mostly as a real estate developer and author of Art of the Deal. Dan Greaney, a writer on the show, explained in an interview that the joke was intended to set the stage for a dystopian future. “That just seemed like the logical stop before hitting (rock) bottom,” he said. “It was consistent with the vision of America going insane.”
Parks And Recreation predicts the Cubs’ World Series win
There used to be two ways to demonstrate that a TV show was set in an improbable future. One was with an African-American president—which, pre-Obama, if you’ll remember, seemed like a fairy tale—and the other was by having the Chicago Cubs win a World Series. Parks and Recreation took the latter approach during their final season in 2015, when Tom (Aziz Ansari) and Andy (Chris Pratt) visit Chicago, at some point in the near future, and are told that everyone in the city is “in a really great mood now because of the Cubs winning the series.” Sure enough, just one year later, the Cubbies broke their 108-year losing streak and finally took home the Commissioner’s Trophy.
Max Headroom predicts Internet advertising and 4Chan
How could a show made in the ’80s so accurately predict so many things about the modern digital age, decades before the Internet became anything the mainstream was even aware existed? We always thought Max Headroom was just a talking head used to shill New Coke (“C-c-c-catch the wave!”), but as it turns out, the show was also giving hints about a future in which we’re bombarded with Internet advertising, where even terrorists become reality stars, and a new crime empire would be built in virtual spaces like 4Chan.
If you grew up in the ’70s, you likely had fantasies about becoming Lee Majors, the bionic star of The Six Million Dollar Man. Imagine being able to run at superhuman speeds, see at tremendous distances with your bionic eye, and lift tanks with your bionic limbs! Well, we’re closer than ever to bionics becoming more than just fodder for a kid’s daydream. Robotic prosthetics are increasingly becoming a reality, with one lab working on a high tech arm that can be controlled with a person’s mind. And then there’s the Argus II, a bona fide bionic eye, which is currently in clinical trials and could be available to the public very soon.
This oddball action series from the ’60s, performed entirely with puppets, follows an ex-astronaut billionaire and his five adult sons who protect the planet from harm with their futuristic ships, all called Thunderbirds. Among their many technological marvels was a communication device that worked like a phone, but with a TV screen that let you look at the person you were calling. Fifty years later, even your grandparents are using video conferencing services like Skype, Facetime, and Google Hangouts.
When Ross introduced his pal Chandler in 2003 to a new website designed exclusively for college students—something that Facebook would introduce a year later—he called it a place to “post messages for people, let everyone know what you’re up to.”
Chandler, in true snarky fashion, responded to Ross with, “Oh great, a faster way to tell people that I’m unemployed and childless.” So not only did Friends predict a social media empire built on people telling each other “what you’re up to,” but it also predicted the eye-rolling sarcasm it would inspire, and the deep depression that comes with constantly comparing your life with others in an online forum for no apparent reason.
“News of the Future,” a recurring segment on the wildly popular comedy showcase Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In—which ran between 1968 and 1972—was supposed to be pure satire. Obviously they weren’t really reporting on the future. Except in one instance, they got it exactly right. “There was dancing in the streets today as East Germany finally tore down the Berlin Wall,” one joke began. This was during the height of the Cold War, and nobody at the time thought the Berlin Wall was going anywhere. And it didn’t, at least not for another 20 years. But here’s the even stranger part. It’s not so much that the comedy show predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall, but they claimed it would fall in 1989, which is just one year shy of the actual date!
Black Mirror, a Twilight Zone for a new generation, is supposed to be a fictional look at how technology manipulates modern life. But the show has repeatedly made accurate predictions, from contact lenses with cameras in them to hackers blackmailing their victims.
Most disturbingly on target was the season three finale in 2016, which featured drone insects pollinating flowers in a world where bees have become extinct. We’re closer to this reality than you may realize, with some companies—like Prox Dynamics in Norway—managing to shrink robotics to the size of hummingbirds. There’s also been successful research in creating autonomous drones that replicate swarm activity. The robot bees are coming!
During season four of the cult show Arrested Development in 2013, one of the plot lines is suspiciously similar to our current political landscape. George Bluth, the family patriarch, lands a government contract to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, to “keep Mexicans out of America,” but he has no intention of finishing the job. Sound familiar? Will Arnett, who plays Gob Bluth on the show, said during an interview, “What’s great is how (President Trump) was able to, you know, sort of shoehorn his way into our narrative that we actually created with the wall years before.”
It’s kind of amazing how much The Jetsons got right. They predicted dog treadmills and talking alarm clocks and even roombas. But the one prediction that probably seemed the most laughably impossible to audiences during the 1960s, when the cartoon first premiered, was the futuristic family’s flat-screen TV. It couldn’t have looked more different than conventional TVs at the time, which were big and cumbersome and needed to be airlifted in and out of homes. No, no, we’re kidding, but TVs during that era were far from the sleek LCD screens we have today, or that the Jetsons watched in their living room in the skies.
It’s one thing to predict a Super Bowl winner, but it’s another thing entirely to predict the score a full six years before the game is even played. That’s what happened during a 1990 episode of Quantum Leap, a time traveling show about a scientist who “leaps” into other time periods. In this second season episode, the lead character ventures into the year 1996, and ends up watching the Super Bowl, where he mentions that the Pittsburgh Steelers are “three points behind.” Fast forward to six years later, and not only were the Steelers in the Super Bowl but at one point during the game, they were losing to the Cowboys 20–17.
This BBC drama—the title is a colloquialism for spies—followed a team of secret British agents devoted to stopping terrorists before they could strike. If only life was like this, where the good guys always prevail and terrorist attacks can be stopped before they happened.
In June of 2005, the show filmed an episode about terrorists trying (and failing) to bomb train stations in London. Exactly a month later, actual terrorists attempted the same thing, only they succeeded in killing 52 people and injuring more than 500. Even more chillingly, the fictional terrorists in Spooks tried to detonate a bomb at Kings Cross Station, the same spot the real terrorists chose for one of their deadly attacks. The creators were so disturbed that they briefly considered pulling the episode completely, but eventually opted to include a disclaimer at the beginning, assuring viewers that what they were about to see wasn’t based on real events.
If the hit AMC show Breaking Bad taught us anything, it’s that high school chemistry teachers shouldn’t try to supplement their income by manufacturing illicit substances. Somebody apparently didn’t get this message, because in 2014, a year after the Bryan Cranston show aired its series finale, a college chemistry teacher from Portland, Oregon was arrested for running his own lab. According to police, they found documents in his house that detailed “how to re-crystalize methamphetamine, along with a handwritten scientific formula at the bottom of the page.”
Osama Bin Laden was still in hiding in 2006, when he was named dropped during an episode of the hospital sitcom Scrubs. When J.D. (Zach Braff’s character) tries to learn more about the Iraq War, which he realizes he knows nothing about, the janitor (Neil Flynn), a guy who seemingly always exaggerates his knowledge and backstory, tells him, “We should be looking for Bin Laden in Pakistan.”
His guess was as good as anybody’s back then, but in 2011 we learned that he was entirely correct, when the terrorist leader was finally killed at his compound in Pakistan. Guess we should be taking military advice from fictional sanitation workers more often.
The Family Guy isn’t afraid of making tasteless jokes, and their 2007 episode “Meet the Quagmires” was no exception, which included the Grim Reaper revealing that Supreme Court Justice Scalia had been accidentally killed during a hunting accident with Dick Cheney.
The gag was mostly at Cheney’s expense, who’d inadvertently shot a friend during a quail hunt in 2006. But years later, in 2016, Scalia passed away while at a ranch in Texas after a day of quail hunting. It was nothing as gruesome as the Family Guy writers predicted, but just the fact that it happened during a hunting trip is enough to make this joke eerily prescient.
We’ve been addicted to this political thriller since it premiered in 2012, but we’ve never seen an episode and thought, “That could totally happen in the real world.” This was especially true during a season two episode in which Olivia Pope (played by Kerry Washington) helps an NSA agent with stolen information that proves the government is spying on American citizens. Ridiculous, right? Would never happen! Except, oh wait, just one year later, an NSA contractor named Edward Snowden made headlines after leaking classified data that proved the government is spying on American citizens.
When O.J. Simpson published his “hypothetical” confession, If I Did It, in 2007, the world could scarcely believe it. That title felt like a parody. Who could’ve imagined that the Juice would do something so ridiculous and imbecilic? Chris Rock, that’s who! In 1999, the comedian was starring in his own HBO series called The Chris Rock Show, and one of the skits featured Rock reminiscing about past guests, which included a visit from the former NFL superstar to plug his (nonexistent at the time) instructional video, I Didn’t Kill My Wife … But If I Did, Here’s How I’d Do It. The satiric title was so similar to what eventually became a real book, we have to wonder if O.J. was watching, and thought, ‘Oh yeah, I’m totally stealing that idea.’
This X-Files spin-off, which followed a trio of conspiracy theorists and paranormal investigators, didn’t last longer than a single season, but it left a legacy that’s still hard to fathom. The show’s very first episode featured a plot that sounded like the stuff of an overactive imagination: The government secretly conspired to hijack a plane and fly it into the World Trade Center. The episode aired in March of 2001, less than six months before life imitated art. The world will never forget 9/11, but the series that first suggested that such a horrifying, unthinkable act was even possible has long since been forgotten.
Many people who watched the season one finale of Mr. Robot assumed that the writers and producers were working overtime to give the show a “ripped from the headlines” vibe. What other explanation was there for one of the characters, Lenny, complaining that his membership at Ashley Madison—a dating site that connects married people wanting to have affairs—might have been hacked? After all, the episode aired just weeks after the very same site actually was hacked, and user information had been leaked online for all to see.
But Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail insisted that it wasn’t a last-minute addition, that the Ashley Madison storyline was in his original script. “I went, ‘Well, I’m kind of overdoing this,’ referencing Ashley Madison,” Esmail recalls. “I wound up cutting it before we were shooting it.” He eventually put the fictional website hack back in, before learning that his made-up character wasn’t the only one having his extramarital ambitions exposed. “It’s almost as if the world wanted me to keep the [Ashley Madison] scene as intended,” he says. “That’s just stuff I can’t predict. In general, the feeling is incredibly surreal.”
John Cleese and the other members of Monty Python were more than happy to make fools of themselves for the amusement of audiences, dreaming up increasingly ridiculous premises that would never, ever exist in real life. Take this sketch from the second ever episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which took on “The Mouse Problem,” a (fictional) phenomenon in which men dressed up as mice and went to parties to eat cheese and squeak.
As a psychologist asks at one point, “How many of us can honestly say that at one time or another he hasn’t felt sexually attracted to mice? I know I have.” It must’ve seemed absurd in 1969, when the sketch first aired, but maybe not so much in 2018, where the “furry” subculture, in which people dress up like anthropomorphic animals, is something that even gets discussed on the National Geographic channel.
No other show on this list has made as many accurate predictions as Matt Groening’s long-running family satire. One of our favorites, if only because it’s so mind-bogglingly weird, was a 1994 episode in which Lunchlady Doris, the cafeteria chef at Springfield Elementary, is caught adding horse meat to the children’s food. A disgusting joke with no basis in reality… at least until 2013, when meat products sold across the United Kingdom and Europe, like frozen beef burgers, were discovered to contain up to 29 percent horse flesh. Which is 29% more horse than anybody wants in a burger!
The title may sound salacious, but this 1968 British mini-series was more Orwell than Hugh Hefner. Set in a future in which the poor and powerless are kept obedient with television, the rich ruling class come up with a new program guaranteed to keep the masses enthralled, a sort of “reality show” starring real people who are stranded on a deserted island and forced to coexist and survive without any of the luxuries of modern life. Sound familiar? It only took three decades for U.S. television to borrow the concept and turn it into a real show, Survivor, hosted by Jeff Probst and without all the “just watch this so you won’t rise against your oppressors” undertones.
The original Star Trek predicted our potential to land a man on the moon, and one of its many sequels, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, wasn’t about to let Captain Kirk and his crew get all the fortune-telling glory. In the 1997 episode “Rocks and Shoals,” characters are introduced to a “virtual display device” that allows them to see things outside of their immediate location—and according to Captain Sisko, has at least one side-effect: Headaches. The others are fascinated nonetheless, with one character notating that it’s like “having a view-screen inside your brain.” That might as well have been the ad tagline for Google Glass, introduced in 2013 and greeted with much more enthusiasm than the dubious crew of a Federation space station.
When the show first premiered in 2001, it included a black presidential candidate (and eventual president-elect) David Plamer, played by Dennis Haysbert. It would be seven more years before Barack Obama won the presidency, and some described it as a “Palmer effect”—as British political journalist Nick Bryant described it, when a fictional character “helped create a climate of public acceptance for the notion of a black president.” Haysbert agrees that his portrayal of a competent, strong president of color proved “the possibility there could be an African-American president.”
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