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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10. The X-Files
Creator: Chris Carter
Stars: David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson, Robert Patrick, Annabeth Gish, Mitch Pileggi
Original Network: Fox
Pairing Scully the skeptic and Mulder the believer as they investigated the paranormal, The X-Files at its best was as good as any other TV show in history. Its greatness waned in the later years, but the early seasons did more than investigate the implausible; it accomplished it by taking aliens and conspiracy theories to the mainstream. Josh Jackson

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9. Freaks and Geeks
Creator: Paul Feig
Stars: Linda Cardellini, John Francis Daley, James Franco, Samm Levine, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Martin Starr, Busy Philipps, Becky Ann Baker, Joe Flaherty
Original Network: NBC
We’ve had a decade to come to terms with Freaks & Geeks’ untimely cancellation, and while the axe’s blow still smarts, in some ways the series’ scant 18 episodes have proved an ideal offering. Like a musty old yearbook, the short run preserved one gloriously specific time in the lives of McKinley High’s do-gooders and reprobates, and now we remember the trials and tribulations of Lindsay and Sam Weir, Daniel Desario, Bill Haverchuck and the whole gang like those of so many long-lost high-school friends of our own. Despite the intervening years (and starring roles in raunchier Judd Apatow fare), we remember the characters precisely as they were then, in 1980—sweetly fraught, awkward, hilarious and unsullied by the harsh realities of post-graduate life (or trite plot-lines, forced love triangles or sweeps-week shenanigans). Rachael Maddux

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8. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Creator: Joss Whedon
Stars: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Nicholas Brendon, Alyson Hannigan, Charisma Carpenter, David Boreanaz, Seth Green, Marc Blucas, Emma Caulfield, Michelle Trachtenberg, Amber Benson, James Marsters, Anthony Stewart Head
Networks: The WB, UPN
Buffy the Vampire Slayer had it all: Romance, drama, tragedy, suspense. The show took the teen-soap formula and elevated it to an art. It was a unique combination of tragic romance, apocalyptic fantasy and the clincher—emotional realism. It also featured the most serious and realistic depiction of human loss ever witnessed on the small screen (in “The Body,” dealing with the death of Buffy’s mom by natural causes). Humor? The writers understood the campy sheen that must accompany any show named Buffy. They also knew how to use snappy dialogue and uncomfortable situations to full effect. Complex characters? You’d be hard pressed to find another program that had the same range and consistency of character development. Everyone matured (or devolved) at his or her own realistic rate. As some feminist writers have argued, TV had never before seen the complexity of relationships among women that you saw with the likes of Buffy, Willow, Joyce and Dawn. Plot? The writers employed elaborate multi-episode, multi-season story arcs. People and events of the past always had a way of popping back up, the way they do in real life. Philosophy? Series creator Joss Whedon was all about the “meta”—the ideas and story behind the story. Each season had a driving concept, and he explored an astonishingly wide range of topics. Quick asides referencing Sartre or Aquinas were as at home as the pop-culture references. The show spawned an active academic community around it (see “Buffy studies” at Wikipedia.org). Whedon wanted his heroine to be iconic. As he put it, “I wanted people to embrace it in a way that exists beyond, ‘Oh, that was a wonderful show about lawyers; let’s have dinner.’” He succeeded, creating a WB/UPN show that bears closer resemblance to the works of Dostoevsky and Kafka than 90210 or Dawson’s Creek. Tim Regan-Porter

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7. Cheers
Creator: James Burrows, Glen Charles, Les Charles
Stars: Ted Danson, Shelley Long, Kirstie Alley, Rhea Perlman, Nicholas Colasanto, John Ratzenberger, Woody Harrelson, Kelsey Grammer, George Wendt
Original Network: NBC
It’s more than a bar where everybody knows your name. It was a lifestyle. Cheers rarely left the confines of the bar, but was able to weave slapstick comedy, romance and drama into the 11 seasons it was on the air. It started as the worst-rated series (74 out of 74) but climbed its way to the top 10 during the third season. Two casting changes couldn’t even slow it down. The ensemble cast all won awards in acting, as well as the show winning four Outstanding Comedy Series awards. Unlike many sitcoms that touch on serious social issues, the show never felt like an after-school special. Everything was done with sophisticated humor. Adam Vitcavage

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6. Battlestar Galactica
Creators: Glen A. Larson (original), Ronald D. Moore, David Eick
Stars: Edward James Olmos, Mary McDonnell, Katee Sackhoff, Jamie Bamber, James Callis, Michael Hogan, Aaron Douglas, Tricia Heifer, Grace Park, Tahmoh Penikett
Original Network: Sci-Fi (SyFy)
Ronald D. Moore turned a cheesy ’70s show into a gritty, unflinching look at what it means to be human, and ended up with one of the best sci-fi series of all time. With the crew of Galactica encountering no aliens during its exodus, the show was free to pit religion against science, freedom against security and family against conscience—tensions with no easy answers. It’s an epic tale with few villains and fewer heroes—just flawed people fighting for survival. Josh Jackson


5. Breaking Bad
Creator: Vince Gilligan
Stars: Bryan Cranston, Anna Gunn, Aaron Paul, RJ Mitte, Giancarlo Esposito
Original Network: AMC
One of the reasons Breaking Bad is the best show on TV right now (and will be ranked among the all-time greats), is that the writers do a phenomenal job introducing complex themes, plot lines and ideas, and then weaving them all together for an extremely satisfying conclusion. It’s not an easy thing to do, especially when the show asks the audience to hold on until the end to see where it’s all going. In that way it’s reminiscent of The Wire, a show that didn’t hammer its audience over the head constantly with flashy moments, but asked for patience as all the plot threads slowly untangled. And with Breaking Bad’s narrower focus, the stakes and emotional ties we have with the story and characters can be much higher. If the Season Four premiere told us anything, it was that we were in for a lengthy chess match that would keep us on the edge of our seats until the final move was made. This couldn’t have been truer as the finale brought them all home. It’s hard to say where Breaking Bad will go next. But if the writers can come up with anything half as incredible as this season, we could have ourselves a true modern classic. Brent Koepp

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4. Lost
Creators: J.J. Abrams, Jeffrey Lieber, Damon Lindelof
Stars: Matthew Fox, Evangeline Lilly, Naveen Andrews, Michael Emerson, Terry O’Quinn, Josh Holloway, Jorge Garcia, Yunjin Kim, Daniel Dae Kim
Original Network: ABC
When J.J. Abrams first marooned his plane-crash survivors on a remote island, no one realized the show’s name was a double entendre: It took crowd-sourced blogs to make sense of all the hidden clues, relevant connections, time shifts and intertwined storylines, and each season has given us far more questions than answers. But there’s something refreshing about a network TV show that trusts the mental rigor of its audience instead of dumbing everything down to the lowest common denominator. Sometimes it’s good to be a little lost. Josh Jackson

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3. The Office (U.S., U.K.):
Creators: Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant
Stars: BBC: Ricky Gervais, Martin Freeman, Mackenzie Crook, Lucy Davis, Oliver Chris, Patrick Baladi, Stacey Roca, Ralph Ineson, Stirling Gallacher; NBC: Steve Carell
John Krasinski, Rainn Wilson, Jenna Fischer, B. J. Novak, Oscar Nunez, Brian Baumgartner, Angela Kinsey, Ed Helms, Creed Bratton, Phyllis Smith, Leslie David Baker, Kate Flannery, Mindy Kaling, Paul Lieberstein
Original Networks: BBC, NBC
Ricky Gervais’ immortal Britcom deserves full marks for establishing this comedy franchise that killed the laugh track and introduced us to a hilarious bunch of paper-pushing mopes. Defying expectations that it would pale in comparison, NBC’s Office has become an institution unto itself. At its best, the American version is just as awkward as its predecessor, while showing a lot more heart than the gang could muster in sooty old England. Both the original and the American update are currently available on Netflix Instant. Nick Marino

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2. West Wing
Creator: Aaron Sorkin
Stars: Allison Janney, John Spencer, Bradley Whitford, Martin Sheen, Janel Moloney, Richard Schiff, Dulé Hill, NiCole Robinson, Melissa Fitzgerald, Rob Lowe, Joshua Malina, Stockard Channing, Kim Webster, Kris Murphy, Timothy Davis-Reed
Original Network: NBC
Television’s quintessential political drama began in the Clinton era, soldiered on through Bush and 9/11, and ended in the earliest days of the Age of Obama. Weirdly, the show’s political climate was more stable than reality itself. And maybe that was its appeal. The West Wing showed us government not as it was, but as it could be—a White House run by quippy, tireless, big-hearted public servants who believed in governing with decency. President Josiah Bartlet would give any of his real-life counterparts a run for their money. Nick Marino

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1. Arrested Development
Creator: Mitch Hurwitz
Stars: Jason Bateman, Will Arnett, Portia de Rossi, Tony Hale, David Cross, Michael Cera, Jeffrey Tambor, Jessica Walter, Alia Shawkat, Ron Howard
Original Network: Fox
Mitch Hurwitz’ sitcom about a “wealthy family who lost everything and the one son who had no choice but to keep them all together” debuted six weeks after Two and a Half Men, but never gathered the audience to keep the show alive. Still, Hurwitz packed a whole lot of awesome into three short seasons. How much awesome? Well, there was the chicken dance, for starters. And Franklin’s “It’s Not Easy Being White.” There was Ron Howard’s spot-on narration, and Tobias Funke’s Blue Man ambitions. There was Mrs. Featherbottom and Charlize Theron as Rita, Michael Bluth’s mentally challenged love interest. Not since Seinfeld has a comic storyline been so perfectly constructed, with every loose thread tying so perfectly into the next act: The Oedipal Buster spiting his mother Lucille by dating her friend Lucille, and eventually losing his hand to a hungry loose seal; George Michael crushing on his cousin only to have the house cave in when they finally kiss; the “Save Our Bluths” campaign trying to simultaneously rescue the family and rescue the show from cancellation. Arrested Development took self-referencing postmodernism to an absurdist extreme, jumping shark after shark, but that was the point. They even brought on the original shark-jumper—Henry Winkler—as the family lawyer. And when he was replaced, naturally, it was by Scott Baio. Each of the Bluth family members was among the best characters on television, and Jason Bateman played a brilliant straight man to them all. Josh Jackson

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