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The 30 Best TV Shows on Netflix Instant

June 20, 2012  |  1:02pm

The TV landscape might not be completely bleak in the summer anymore, but there’s still plenty of great television you might have missed the first time around, and now you can catch up on several of those shows via Netflix Instant. Frankly, shows that are serial in nature are more enjoyable in spurts, rather than weekly episodes. Plus you can now catch these shows on your computer, iPhone, iPad, XBox 360 or Wii. We found 30 quality TV shows available right now streaming into your home or wherever you happen to be. (Or you can always just rent them at your local DVD store).

This list originally appeared in November 2010, but Netflix is constantly updating the Netflix Instant offering, and we’ll continue to update the list. (Most recently updated January 2013.)

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30. Frasier
Creator: David Angell, Peter Casey, David Lee
Stars: Kelsey Grammer, David Hyde Pierce, Jane Leeves, John Mahoney, Peri Gilpin, Moose
Original Network: NBC
Frasier is arguably the best spin-off in television history. Kelsey Grammer played the character for 20 years, and made Dr. Crane the longest-running live-action character on TV. The show won more Outstanding Comedy Series awards than any other show with five, while Grammer won four Lead Actor awards. In total, the series won a record-tying 37 Emmy Awards during its run. Though it was about a psychiatrist, the heart of Frasier was Dr. Crane’s relationships with his father and brother. Like Cheers, it also produced one of the longest “will they, won’t they” relationships with Niles and Daphne. Of course, they will. Adam Vitcavage

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29. The Guild
Creator: Felicia Day
Stars: Felicia Day, Vincent Caso, Sandeep Parikh, Amy Okuda, Robin Thorsen, Jeff Lewis
Original Network: YouTube, Xbox Live
It’s no secret that we have a bit of a crush on Felicia Day. From her starring role in Joss Whedon’s straight-to-internet supervillain musical spectacular, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-long Blog, to her nearly two million followers on Twitter, she’s an internet force to be reckoned with. She’s also a writer/co-producer/actress/etc. for a well-known and industry-defying web series called The Guild. Turns out, we might also have a crush on The Guild itself. The web series follows the sordid on- and off-line lives of a band of gaming misfits as they go from being anonymous avatars to being present in each others’ lives. The ensemble that Day and other producers scrabbled together are not only incredibly funny in their own individual rights, but they work together well—from snarky Amy Okuda as Guild dissenter Tinkerballa down to Sandeep Parikh’s obsessive, sheltered and socially-deficient gnome warlock Zaboo. Every character seems almost tailored to each actor/comedian’s strengths, which maximizes the potential for hilarity. Whitney Baker

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28. Angel
Creators: Joss Whedon, David Greenwalt
Stars: David Boreanaz, Charisma Carpenter, Glenn Quinn, Alexis Denisof, J. August Richards, Amy Acker
Original Networks: The WB, UPN
While watching Buffy straight through for the first time, I took a break after the fourth season to watch its spin-off, Angel. I’ve loved it every bit as much as Joss Whedon’s first series, especially all the half-demon as illegal alien motifs. If Boreanaz was a little too irritatingly brooding in Buffy, he’s given more depth as the lead. Joss Whedon may have moved on to big-screen blockbusters, but his TV shows found that overlap of “smart” and “entertaining” every time.—Josh Jackson

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27. Torchwood
Creator: Russel T. Davies
Stars: John Barrowman, Eve Myles, Bum Gorman, Naoko Mori, Gareth David-Lloyd, Freema Agyeman, Bill Pullman
Original Network: BBC
A spin-off of long-running BBC series Doctor Who, Torchwood retained some of its predecessor’s campy fun, but also seemed to be reaching for the gritty realism that had understandably escaped most sci-fi shows until Ronald D. Moore’s Battlestar Galactica remake redefined what sci-fi could be. By the second season, creator Russel T. Davies seemed to conclude that Torchwood would be better suited to leave the frivolity for the good Doctor, and let Harkness go to darker places. The five-episode story-arc “Children of the Earth,” is a nail-biting, epic story that never lets up and finishes with its biggest punch to the gut. Like Moore’s Battlestar Galactica, Davies has not only reimagined a classic series, he’s used his new extraterrestrial platform to explore human nature. Josh Jackson

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26. 30 Rock
Creator: Nick
Stars: Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, Tracy Morgan, Jane Krakowski, Jack McBrayer, Scott Adsit, Judah Friedlander
Original Network: NBC
The spiritual successor to Arrested Development, 30 Rock succeeded where its competition failed by largely ignoring the actual process of creating a TV show and instead focusing on the life of one individual in charge of the process, played by show creator Tina Fey. 30 Rock never loses track of its focus and creates a surprisingly deep character for the its circus to spin around. But Fey’s not the only one that makes the series. Consistently spot-on performances by Tracy Morgan—whether frequenting strip clubs or a werewolf bar mitzvah—and Alec Baldwin’s evil plans for microwave-television programming create a perfect level of chaos for the show’s writers to unravel every week. 30 Rock doesn’t have complex themes or a deep message, but that stuff would get in the way of its goal: having one of the most consistently funny shows on TV. Suffice to say, it succeeded. Sean Gandert

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25. The Walking Dead
Creator: Frank Darabont
Stars: Andrew Lincoln, Jon Bernthal, Sarah Wayne Callies, Laurie Holden
Original Network: AMC
The Walking Dead has been treated with all the cinematic care director Frank Darabont put into The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile and AMC put into Mad Men and Breaking Bad. For all my quibbles about lazy Southern stereotypes or occasional clunky dialogue, the plot arcs have been masterful again in the show’s second season. That’s a credit both to Robert Kirkman’s source material and Frank Darabont’s adaptation to TV. Zombies been pretty fully explored in two-hour chunks, but this slowly unfolding adventure has the time to look at religion after the apocalypse, the morality of survivalism and even the question of what makes life worth living. Josh Jackson

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24. Firefly
Creator: Joss Whedon
Stars: Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk, Morena Baccarin, Adam Baldwin, Jewel Staite, Sean Maher, Summer Glau, Ron Glass
Original Network: Fox
Leave it to Joss Whedon to dream up a space show without aliens. The smart writing he brought to Buffy turned the universe into one big frontier, where those who didn’t conform to authoritarian rule were forced to eke out their livings among outlying planets where the long arm of the law can’t follow. Watch the way-too-short lived series in full before finishing with Serenity. Josh Jackson

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23. Sons of Anarchy
Creator:Kurt Sutter
Stars:Charlie Hunnam, Katey Sagal, Mark Boone Junior, Dayton Callie, Kim Coates, Tommy Flanagan, Ryan Hurst, Johnny Lewis, William Lucking, Theo Rossi, Maggie Siff, Ron Perlman
Original Network: FX
Take the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold archetype, replace the hooker with a rough-around-the-edges bike club set in the ironically named town of Charming, Calif., add a conscience and things always going wrong, and you have the basic setup for Sons of Anarchy. Kurt Sutter’s gang of motorcycle-riding brothers—and their lovingly nicknamed “old ladies”—constantly find themselves in hot water trying to do the right thing while bending the rules just a little… which turns into bending the rules a lot. Having the town chief of police in their back pocket, along with Charlie Hunnam as the conflicted vice-president of the club who is carrying on his father’s legacy doesn’t hurt, either. It would be really easy to make the show’s motorcycle club reminiscent of a gang of pirates on bikes, pillaging and plundering with a complete lack of morals, but Sutter resists that temptation and makes the gray area of right and wrong the driving force behind each episode and each decision. Patty Miranda

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22. Archer
Creator: Adam Reed
Stars: H. Jon Benjamin, Jessica Walter, Judy Greer, Aisha Tyler, Chris Parnell, Amber Nash
Original Network: FX
Archer has succeeded as a hilarious parody of both James Bond and Mad Men with the comedic sensibilities of FX’s best. Season Two was full of surprising twists—like Archer’s breast cancer. The mini third season—the “Heart of Archness” trilogy following Archer’s revenge on the man who killed his Russian love—made Archer one of the few story-driven animated series that actually delivers. Ross Bonaime

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21. Friday Night Lights
Creator: Peter Berg
Stars: Kyle Chandler, Connie Britton, Taylor Kitsch, Jesse Plemons, Aimee Teegarden, Michael B. Jordan, Jurnee Smollett
Original Network: NBC
Who ever thought football, a sport infamous for its meat-heads and brute force, could be the cornerstone of one of television’s most delicate, affecting dramas? Heart-rending, infuriating, and rife with shattering setbacks and grand triumphs—Friday Night Lights is all of these, and in those ways it resembles the game around which the tiny town of Dillon, Texas, revolves. “Tender” and “nuanced” aren’t words usually applicable to the gridiron, but they fit the bill here, too. Full of heart but hardly saccharine, shot beautifully but hyper-realistically, and featuring a talented cast among which the teenagers and parents are—blessedly—clearly defined, the show manages to convince week after week that, yes, football somehow really is life. Rachael Maddux

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