TV  |  Lists

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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20. The Wonder Years
Creators: Carol Black, Neal Marlens
Stars: Fred Savage, Dan Lauria, Alley Mills, Olivia d’Abo, Jason Hervey, Danica McKellar, Josh Saviano
Original Networks: ABC
The Wonder Years is a family show, and yes, a few of its episodes inch dangerously close to after-school-special territory, but make no mistake: revisiting this late-’80s/early-’90s staple as an adult is just as—if not more—enjoyable than watching it the first time around. It’s unabashedly nostalgic, but it chronicles the ups and downs of Kevin Arnold’s, Winnie Cooper’s and Paul Pfeiffer’s adolescence against the backdrop of the Vietnam era and our nation’s changing social landscape with a maturity most shows geared towards kids lack. The tiny childhood moments that stick with us are treated with the respect they deserve. We laugh when Kevin’s brother Wayne gets him in a headlock and calls him “scrote” for the umpteenth time (try sneaking that by the Nick at Nite censors nowadays!) or when Kev squares off with his mortal enemy Becky Slater, and we cry when Kevin’s occasionally distant father struggles to relate to his teenage kids. And sorry, but if you don’t hold your breath when Kevin puts that letterman jacket over Winnie’s shoulders, you’re dead inside. Music geeks will appreciate the incredible soundtrack as well; the series has yet to be released on DVD because licensing all the songs that appeared on the show (a veritable greatest hits collection from the likes of Dylan, The Beatles and Motown’s finest) has proven impossible. Thankfully, there’s Netflix to keep this classic coming-of-age tale alive. Bonnie Stiernberg

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19. Doctor Who
Creators: Sydney Newman, C. E. Webber, Donald Wilson
Stars: Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, Matt Smith
Original Networks: BBC
Originally launched in 1963, The Doctor returned to the TV screen in 2005, traveling through time and space in the TARDIS, an antiquated and surprisingly spacious blue police box. The special effects may have gotten marginally better, but the camp has stayed the same. With Russell T. Davies at the helm and David Tennant playing the 10th doctor, the show was never better. But with Steven Moffat taking over as showrunner, the latest Doctor, Matt Smith, has continued the unflappable enthusiasm of the 10 who came before. Josh Jackson

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18. Portlandia
Creators: Fred Armisen, Carrie Brownstein
Stars: Fred Armisen, Carrie Brownstein
Original Network: IFC
IFC’s short-run comedy series Portlandia is a show about hipsters that translates well-beyond Portland’s city limits. (Hey, Silver Lake and Brooklyn: We mean you, too.) Fred Armisen (Saturday Night Live) and Carrie Brownstein (Sleater-Kinney) have struck gold poking fun at the culture of coffee shops, indie book and record stores, and that too-cool-for school attitude. Christine N. Ziemba

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17. Downton Abbey
Creator: Julian Fellowes
Stars: Hugh Bonneville, Jim Carter, Elizabeth McGovern, Maggie Smith, Jessica Brown-Findlay, Laura Carmichael, Brendan Coyle, Michelle Dockery, Siobhan Finneran, Joanne Froggatt, Thomas Howes, Rob James-Collier, Rose Leslie, Phyllis Logan, Sophie McShera
Original Network: PBS
Downton Abbey is never short on drama and general strife, and Season Two of this popular British export saw Downton and its inhabitants torn apart (and, in a few instances, brought together) by war, ravaged by a nasty Spanish flu outbreak and struggling to maintain the stiff upper lip expected of them. The ensemble series is extraordinarily well-acted (as evidenced by Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville, Michelle Dockery, Joanne Froggatt, Jim Carter and Brendan Coyle all receiving Emmy nominations this year), and there’s perhaps no easier way to describe this year’s plot twists than “fucking nuts”—a term we strongly feel the saucy Dowager Countess would approve of. Amnesia? Yup. Temporary paralysis? Got it. Murder conviction? Oh, big-time. In less capable hands, season two’s story would’ve likely flown off the rails and veered into the completely ridiculous, but the talented cast of Downton Abbey handled it with aplomb, making for some of most compelling television in recent memory.—Bonnie Stiernberg

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16. Star Trek: The Next Generation
Creator: Gene Roddenberry
Stars: Patrick Stewart, Brent Spiner, Jonathan Frakes, LeVar Burton, Gates McFadden, Michael Dorn, Marina Sirtis, Wil Wheaton
Original Network: Syndicated
The original series was pioneering. Deep Space Nine and Voyager had their moments. But TNG was head-and-shoulders the greatest Star Trek franchise. Jean Luc Picard. Data. Worf. The holodeck. The Borg. Gene Roddenbury must not have had a cynical bone in his body, and watching his characters explore strange new worlds, seek out new life and new civilizations, and boldly go where no one has gone before, I didn’t either. Josh Jackson

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15. Twin Peaks
Creators: David Lynch, Mark Frost
Stars: Kyle MacLachlan, Michael Ontkean, Mädchen Amick, Dana Ashbrook, Richard Beymer, Lara Flynn Boyle, Joan Chen, Eric Da Re, Sherilyn Fenn
Original Network: ABC
Twin Peaks has all the necessities of a cult classic: psycho killers, dashing detectives and unsolvable murders. Despite the small town’s charm, a dark undercurrent runs beneath the surface. David Lynch gave the TV landscape a unique voice with this two-season, canceled-too-soon series that’s both humorous and eerily horrific. Anna Westbury


14. Parks and Recreation
Creators: Greg Daniels, Michael Schur
Stars: Amy Poehler, Nick Offerman, Aziz Ansari, Adam Scott, Rob Lowe, Chris Pratt, Aubrey Plaza, Rashida Jones
Original Network: NBC
Parks and Recreation started its run as a fairly typical mirror of The Office, but in its third season, the student became the master. As it’s fleshed out with oddballs and unusual city quirks, Pawnee has become the greatest television town since Springfield. The show flourished this year with some of the most unique and interesting characters in comedy today. With one of the greatest writing staffs of any show right now, Parks and Recreation is only getting better with time. Ross Bonaime

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13. Louie
Creator: Louis C.K.
Stars: Louis C.K.
Original Network: FX
When life gives you lemons, you can make lemonade. But as comedian-turned-divorced dad Louis C.K. proves on a week-to-week basis, you don’t have to be happy about it. Louie offers a painfully real but hilarious look at Louis C.K.’s fictional, jaded version of himself and explores the humor in divorce, aging and parenthood. Tyler Kane

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12. Sports Night
Creator: Aaron Sorkin
Stars: Josh Charles, Peter Krause, Felicity Huffman, Joshua Malina, Sabrina Lloyd, Robert Guillaume
Original Network: ABC
As a screenwriter for films like A Few Good Men and The American President, Aaron Sorkin loved his job and was very good at it. So, naturally, when he developed his first TV series for ABC 10 years ago, he filled it with characters who loved their jobs and were very good at them. More than the rapid-fire dialogue or deft blend of comedy and drama, it’s the utter competence of the sportscasters and producers that quickly separates Sports Night from the other 30-minute laugh-tracked TV shows of the ’90s. The bosses are smart and helpful, except when they’re meddlesome network executives. You’re held accountable for mistakes, but your co-workers always have your back. Instead of the classic reliance on miscommunication for situational comedy, the tension arises from a pressure to excel in the national spotlight, and the humor comes from genuinely funny characters. Sorkin worked hard to respect his audience’s intelligence with clever dialogue and heady subject matter. With film-worthy writing and one of the best casts ever assembled for a sitcom (Robert Guillaume shone both pre- and post-stroke and William H. Macy was a regular guest), Sports Night changed the trajectory of television. It was a half-hour comedy with better, more emotional storylines than most hour-long dramas. It was one of the first hybrids of a multi-camera and single-camera show, benefiting from the strengths of both approaches. And its echoes could be felt in some of the best shows that followed: the volleys of witty repartee between Lorelai and Rory Gilmore, The Sopranos’ psychiatrist scenes, and the meta-story lines about the show’s impending cancelation in Arrested Development.—Josh Jackson


11. Mad Men
Creator: Matthew Weiner
Stars: Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, Vincent Kartheiser, January Jones, Christina Hendricks, Bryan Batt, Michael Gladis, Aaron Staton, Rich Sommer, Robert Morse, John Slattery
Original Network: AMC
Unless you worked on Madison Avenue in the early 1960s, AMC’s first foray into original drama has all the otherworldliness of a foreign film. It’s easy to covet a time when working in an office meant sharp suits, free-flowing liquor and nary a computer screen or Blackberry to tie you down. It’s also easy to feel superior to the characters’ rampant racism and misogyny. But there’s something all too familiar at the heart of Mad Men—the failings of the powerful and petty never go out of style. Josh Jackson

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