Netflix has a ton of great TV series—in fact, we have ranked 50 of them here. But Netflix’s original series have also come a long way since the platform began creating its own content (like House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black), as well as “saving” or extending popular series from other networks (like Arrested Development). Now, Netflix drops a new TV show more or less every week, which is a lot to handle. But whereas its library of other TV shows may move and disappear month to month, these Netflix originals aren’t going anywhere.
A note on methodology: Netflix brands a ton of TV shows as “originals” now, even though it did not, in fact, produce those series—it just has exclusive international distribution rights. But since those rights can change, and Netflix didn’t actually make these series, we have excluded them from the list below. Worthy titles from that category (many of which come from the UK) include Bodyguard, Derry Girls, The End of the F-ing World, The Great British Baking Show, Giri/Haji, and Anne with an E.
Below are the top 30 Netflix original series, as voted on by the Paste TV Editors and writers, a list that is not about what’s important, but about what we actually watch and love to recommend:
Honorable Mention: The Witcher, Lady Dynamite, Aggretsuko, Neo Yokio, Black Mirror
Created by: Alice Oseman
Stars: Kit Connor, Joe Locke, Yasmin Finney, Will Gao, Tobie Donovan, Kizzy Edgell, Corinna Brown
From a Tumblr webcomic to a graphic novel to a Netflix show, Alice Oseman’s uplifting queer tale has gathered a dedicated fanbase that has only grown. The sweet romance between Charlie (Joe Locke) and Nick (Kit Connor) is wonderfully realized in this heartfelt and earnest teen coming-of-age drama directed by Euros Lyn and written by Oseman. Much of the original spark carries over into the moving frames that are complemented with a fantastic soundtrack, perfectly detailed production design of teenage bedrooms, and an all-around talented cast.
As Nick and Charlie grow closer and their feelings become impossible to ignore, they have a whole host of supportive friends to confide in. The group includes caring Elle (Yasmin Finney), eccentric Tao (Will Gao), quiet Issac (Tobie Donovan), and two girlfriends: bubbly Darcy (Kizzy Edgell) and thoughtful Tara (Corinna Brown). Heartstopper updates stale cliches of the teen coming-of-age genre to deliver a thoughtful and earnest reflection of youthful self-acceptance, exploring what it is to be part of the LGBTQ+ community today. —Emily Maskell
Created by: Greg Berlanti, Sera Gamble
Stars: Penn Badgley, Elizabeth Lail, Luca Padovan, Zach Cherry, Shay Mitchell
Never before has a series delighted this much in pulling the rug out from under its viewers. What started out as a clever serial killer/stalker drama about deconstructing “nice guy” tropes and seemingly romantic overtures, You has upped its game each and every season to reveal it’s more than just a show about a man (Penn Badgley’s Joe Goldberg) who regularly gets away with murder. Full of twists and turns you’ll never see coming, the blood-soaked thriller—which originated on Lifetime before moving to Netflix beginning in Season 2—has evolved to become a perfectly orchestrated social satire, with Joe going up against pretentious hipsters in Brooklyn (Season 1), wellness gurus in Los Angeles (Season 2), and fully optimized techies in a fictional Silicon Valley suburb (Season 3. Then, in Season 4, the show evolved again to become a British murder mystery, this time with Joe in the crosshairs. And while he doesn’t seem to evolve as quickly as the show around him, Joe remains a compelling narrator and one of the most interesting characters on TV. — Kaitlin Thomas
28. Scott Pilgrim Takes Off
Created by: Brian Lee O’Malley, BenDavid Grabinski
Stars: Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Satya Bhabha, Kieran Culkin, Chris Evans, Anna Kendrick, Brie Larson, Alison Pill, Aubrey Plaza, Brandon Routh, Jason Schwartzman, Johnny Simmons, Mark Webber, Mae Whitman, Ellen Wong
Despite what the marketing suggests, Scott Pilgrim Takes Off is not a shot-for-shot remake, but a meta reimagining of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World that tells a (mostly) new story. The result is a delightful animated series that approaches this narrative from a new perspective. Following the movie’s plot throughout the first episode (Scott Pilgrim [Michael Cera] must defeat Ramona Flowers’ [Mary Elizabeth Winstead] seven evil exes before he can date her), it doesn’t take long until Scott Pilgrim Takes Off deviates from the established plot. The main difference here is that in this rendition, we largely follow Ramona as she confronts her previous significant others and tries to piece together why events have gone off course. It synthesizes a transmedia whirlwind as it brings back the movie’s cast and evokes the comic’s art style through creative bursts of animation. Most importantly, it retains the underlying tone and messaging of what came before as it successfully reenvisions this story with Ramona at center stage. In the end, it manages to do something tricky, transposing a more than decade-old tune while barely missing a beat. —Elijah Gonzalez
Created by: Molly Smith Metzler
Stars: Margaret Qualley, Andie MacDowell, Nick Robinson, Rylah Nevaeh Whittet, Anika Noni Rose, Raymond Ablack, Billy Burke
Life can change on a dime—or be defined by it. In Netflix’s affecting miniseries Maid, this granular type of cost benefit analysis dominates the consciousness. With little calculations churning on the upper right hand corner, each quarter counts. But missing a dollar? Young mother Alex Langley (Margaret Qualley) masters a momentary worried furrowed brow over money before springing on a smile for her daughter, Maddy (Rylah Nevaeh Whittet)—her tightrope walk must be executed flawlessly, lest she panic her daughter about how dire their stakes truly are.
A story cast across 10 hourlong episodes, Maid honors its source material, Stephanie Land’s New York Times best-selling memoir Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive, through Molly Smith Metzler’s keen direction. There’s a cheap way to cover poverty in America that’s all shock value stills and cliches, but Maid goes for the gradual build up, a Tetris-like operation of stacking roadblock after roadblock, sprinkled with generational trauma that implicitly informs characters’ decisions before they even realize it. Disasters are written and wrought from years in the making. For Alex, her freedom from doom requires not only a mastery of explicit survival measures (housing, food, gas, childcare, government programs, safety from abuse, flexible work hours), but also a deep understanding of self.
There’s tremendous grit demonstrated throughout Alex’s entire arc. But Maid troubles the waters of American bootstrapping narratives, emphasizing time and time again how one individual’s survival depends upon a network of support. Beyond just rapport, Maid calls for honest clarity on the state of living in this country while poor—a game of stringing together impossible victories until your body breaks or you catch a lucky break. This fragility permeates the show in the same way as the Lenny Abrahamson-style natural light: painfully beautiful. But like the show itself, this light only illuminates Alex safely when she’s ensconced in the homes of the wealthy. Visibility and beauty comes with a price. With Alex’s face constantly crunching the calculus of survival, Maid never lets the audience forget it. At that point, the ugly mess of poverty becomes the viewer’s responsibility to witness—and a group imperative to scrub such a blot from the American narrative. —Katherine Smith
26. Midnight Mass
Created by: Mike Flanagan
Stars: Hamish Linklater, Kate Siegel, Zach Gilford, Rahul Kohli, Annabeth Gish
On Midnight Mass’ Crockett Island, every islander feels rife with misfortune. The recent oil spill nearly annihilated the fish supply, tanking the island’s local fishing economy. Their homes splinter and peel in neglect to the ocean’s elements. The majority of residents have fled the island for lack of opportunity, leaving a paltry few behind. Only two ferries can take them to the mainland. Hope runs in short supply—and a major storm brews on the horizon.
Everything beyond that for this seven-episode series is a true spoiler, but what can be said is that even with its dabblings in the supernatural, Midnight Mass (created by The Haunting’s Mike Flanagan), is a show that burrows inwards instead of outwards. With both the physical claustrophobia of Crockett’s setting and the internal suffering of characters placed in center stage, Midnight Mass concerns itself with horrors within: addictive tendencies, secret histories, and questions of forgiveness and belief. At one glance, it’s a series that’s mined Catholic guilt for gold. In another, it’s a measured, yet spooky take on group psychology, the need for faith in sorrow, and the ethics of leadership with such vulnerable followers, weighing whether these impulses represent human goodness, evil, or simply nothing at all.
“Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” Midnight Mass offers a chance for anyone to be doubting Thomas or true believer. What difference is a miracle from a supernatural event, anyway? —Katherine Smith
Created by: George Kay, François Uzan
Stars: Omar Sy, Ludivine Sagnier, Clotilde Hesme, Vincent Londez, Soufiane Guerrab, Shirine Boutella
Lupin is a show about a boy named Assane who becomes a thief, and may have some identity crisis issues in that he seems to believe he is—and I mean “is” in a literal sense—a gentleman thief named Arsene Lupin (Omar Sy) from a series of stories by the writer Maurice Leblanc. There are some family issues at play; he and his father were Senegalese immigrants, and the old man was accused of stealing a valuable necklace when Assane was a child, which provided the seed for how his entire life unfolded. From that tragic backstory, a sort of comic book hero emerges, and his superpower is legerdemain: the artistry of the thief.
In style, Lupin bears some similarity to the BBC’s Sherlock, at least in the frenetic worship of cleverness that makes an hour-long show feel like 10 jam-packed minutes. Sherlock is the smarter show, Lupin the more outlandish, even though Benedict Cumberbatch’s detective is a wilder character by far. In both shows, though, the viewer is taken into the labyrinth of the mind, where the resolution of a thorny puzzle functions as the pounding impulse behind every plot device. With all its bells and whistles, Sherlock is still the more grounded show, and Lupin is never afraid to veer off the rails, but the pleasures of the unraveling mystery are the same, even if the protagonists operate on opposite sides of the law.
While Lupin strains and then shatters credulity at the best of times, it’s also a pretty great way to spend an hour. Make of that conclusion what you will, but I think as long as we keep our wits about us, there’s nothing wrong with a little fun. —Shane Ryan
24. Queer Eye
Created by: David Collins
Stars: Antoni Porowski, Tan France, Karamo Brown, Bobby Berk, Jonathan Van Ness
The Netflix reboot of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy is a complex and endearing beast that’s empathy is tempered with its extra-ness. Its Wikipedia page may refer to the makeover subjects of each episode as its “hero,” but the Fab Five of Antoni, Bobby, Jonathan, Karamo, and Tan often get progatonistic arcs of their own. That’s the joy of the show: We never know who’s getting the makeover and if that reveal will be purely aesthetic or something more deeply transformational.
The fourth season, for instance, features some fantastic outings, most notably the season premiere “Without Further Ado.” Jonathan returns home to Quincy, Illinois, to give the haircut of the decade to his former orchestra teacher, Kathi. A sweet old lady who loves her community getting her own pampering ahead of a parade in her honor will make you cry like cutting an onion at a puppy’s funeral that features a loop of the first five minutes of Up. And seeing one of the Fab Five reckon with their own past in a very tangible way makes the episode (and all the ideology they’ve dispensed over the course of the show) hit so much harder.—Jacob Oller
23. Squid Game
Created by: Hwang Dong-hyuk
Stars: Lee Jung-jae, Park Hae-soo, Wi Ha-joon, Jung Ho-yeon, Heo Sung-tae, Anupam Tripathi, Oh Yeong-su, Kim Joo-ryoung
Honeyed snacks, candy-colored walls, and a larger-than-life doll all sound like a child’s fantasy come to life. But inside the world of Squid Game, innocent nostalgia comes with a body count as 456 individuals compete to the death in playground games for $45.6 billion Korean won (or $38.6 million American dollars). All on the brink of financial ruin and desperate for a way out, the players are pitted against each other by the rich and powerful for entertainment, until there’s just one victor left standing.
The South Korean drama boasts significant accolades. It’s the first Korean show to ever top Netflix’s U.S. Top 10 and, in 2022, became the first non-English language series to ever win a major award at the Primetime Emmys. Created by genre-spanning filmmaker Hwang Dong-hyuk, Squid Game’s plot line will feel familiar to anyone who’s seen The Hunger Games or Battle Royale, the Japanese cult favorite that popularized the battle royale genre. Yet rather than take place in any dystopian landscape, Squid Game grounds its premise through a real-world, contemporary setting. The “last-man-standing” hook means there’s a predictability to how it all plays out, but Hwang is less concerned with subverting the battle royale formula as much as digging into the human stakes that make it tick.
Manipulated by fine print, the Squid Game competitors aren’t initially aware of the life-or-death consequences they’ve signed up for. After the first game’s mass casualties, a loophole gives them the chance to opt out from playing and return safely to their empty bank accounts. The choice seems like a no-brainer from an outside perspective. But as the essential second episode reveals, there are no good options for those on society’s margins, and a worry-free existence where money isn’t a daily stressor seems impossible to obtain. The games are bad—but who’s to say the real world isn’t worse? —Annie Lyons
Created by: Kevin Kolde, Warren Ellis
Stars: Richard Armitage, James Callis, Graham McTavish, Alejandra Reynoso, Tony Amendola, Matt Frewer, Emily Swallow
Comic legend Warren Ellis, despite apparently having no familiarity with the Castlevania videogame series, somehow managed to take one look at its imagery and turn it into gold for Netflix. Impeccably cast, and reuniting multiple dwarves of The Hobbit series (Richard Armitage as Trevor Belmont, Graham McTavish as Dracula), the first four episodes of Season 1 are a sumptuous gothic feast of bloodletting and dizzying anime action sequences. Gory and unrelenting, it also perfectly captures the dark, princely gravitas that has always been infused into Castlevania, and characters such as Dracula and his son Alucard. The first episode, in which a semi-benevolent Dracula loses the love of his life to a mob of luddite priests and prejudiced townsfolk who burn her at the stake as a witch, is mouth-dropping in its scenes of grandiose, righteous vengeance. He descends on those poor, helpless fools as a pillar of flame, godlike, obliterating everything in his path and establishing himself as an insurmountable force of nature. Even after seeing the team of heroes assembled to take him down, it’s hard to imagine how they’ll possibly be up for the challenge. —Jim Vorel
21. Big Mouth
Created by: Nick Kroll, Andrew Goldberg, Jennifer Flackett, Mark Levin
Stars: Nick Kroll, John Mulaney, Jessi Klein, Jason Mantzoukas, Maya Rudolph
Netflix’s animated series, from creators Nick Kroll, Andrew Goldberg, Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin, follows four friends through the earliest stages of puberty: Andrew (John Mulaney) sports inconvenient erections; Nick (Kroll) awaits his first pubic hairs; Jessi (Jessi Klein) begins menstruating at the Statue of Liberty; Jay (Jason Mantzoukas) conceives rococo ways to get off with his pillow. It’s wickedly bawdy—one episode’s end credits roll over an extended description of Andrew’s dad’s testicles—and devilishly funny—another uses a note-perfect Seinfeld send-up to explain the blowjob “head push” and the term “mons pubis”—but as implied by its theme song, Charles Bradley’s “Changes,” the series is sweeter than it appears. Its goal is to cut through the humiliations of sex, to break through the shame shellacked atop our “gross little dirtbag” selves to reveal the perfectly normal yearning underneath: for pleasure, for touch, for emotional connection; for approval, confidence, intimacy, love. By admitting, as Andrew does in the series premiere, that “everything is so embarrassing”—and not only for teens—Big Mouth squares a space in which there’s no question that can’t be asked, and no answer that applies the same way to everyone. It’s the streaming version of your sex-ed teacher’s anonymous slips of paper, except the laughs aren’t sniggers—they’re hard-won, empathic guffaws. —Matt Brennan
20. Never Have I Ever
Created by: Mindy Kaling, Lang Fisher
Stars: Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Poorna Jagannathan, Richa Moorjani, Jaren Lewison, John McEnroe
Being 15 sucks. You’re not sure who you are or what you’re doing or who you should be doing it with, but you’re 100% certain that everyone around you is always laser-focused on every embarrassing mistake that you make. Mindy Kaling’s coming-of-age sitcom taps into the painful awkwardness of figuring it all out with the same mix of earnestness, realism, and humor as Freaks and Geeks and The Wonder Years, but filtered through a cultural lens not often seen on American TV. Devi Vishwakumar isn’t just grappling with typical teenage drama, but is stuck between two cultures that she never quite feels like a full member of: the American life she was born and raised in, and the Indian heritage of her family. Maitreyi Ramakrishnan captures this anxiety and charm beautifully, that weird mix of constant shame and unearned confidence, in what is shockingly her first professional acting role. If you’re looking for a teen comedy that reflects the ups and downs of real life and is actually funny, here’s your chance. —Garrett Martin
19. American Vandal
Created by: Tony Yacenda and Dan Perrault
Stars: Tyler Alvarez, Griffin Gluck, Jimmy Tatro
American Vandal is the tongue-in-cheek antidote to the “true crime” craze: a “prestige docuseries” on the subject of dick-drawing, set on dismantling the form from within. After all, its understanding of the form is impeccable: With dramatic cold opens, floated theories and test cases; interviews, illustrations and re-creations; careful cliffhangers and a Jinx-style hot mic, it applies the genre’s commonplaces to absurd situations with aplomb. It’s a pungently goofy reminder that the history of “true crime” is dominated by “lowbrow” media—pulpy magazines, grocery-store paperbacks, salacious installments of Dateline or 20/20—and that its sense of “prestige” is primarily a function of style. Still, American Vandal’s most surprising strength is not its satire but its steady construction of a narrative backdrop even more compelling than its creators realize. Call it Fast Times at Hanover High: The series’ amusing slice of schoolyard life. —Matt Brennan
18. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Created by: Tina Fey, Robert Carlock
Stars: Ellie Kemper, Tituss Burgess, Jane Krakowski, Carol Kane, Lauren Adams, Sara Chase
NBC has made any number of mistakes over the years, but few bigger than shelving Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s 30 Rock follow-up before punting it to Netflix. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt wound up becoming one of the highlights of TV comedy. The fast-paced sitcom featured breakout performances by Office vet Ellie Kemper as the titular former “mole woman” trying to make it on her own in New York, and Tituss Burgess as her flamboyant and put-upon roommate, Titus Andromedon. Throughout the first season’s run, some writers and critics seemed dead-set on finding some kind of flaw to pounce on with the show, zeroing in on how the minority characters are represented. This may be a wild generalization, but I think this was a natural reaction to one of the most overtly feminist sitcoms ever produced. Kimmy Schmidt is most certainly upsetting the natural order of your typical network sitcom. The show’s titular character is defining her life on her own terms and by her own standards. For some reason that still freaks some people out so they dismiss it or find some way to poke holes in the vehicle for that idea. Sorry nitpickers and network executives; Kimmy Schmidt made it after all. —Robert Ham
17. The Haunting of Hill House / The Haunting of Bly Manor
Created by: Mike Flanagan
Stars: Michiel Huisman, Carla Gugino, Timothy Hutton, Elizabeth Reaser, Annabeth Gish, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Kate Siegel, Victoria Redretti
The aesthetic of The Haunting of Hill House makes it work not only as horror TV, but also as a deft adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s classic novel. The monsters, ghosts, and things that go bump on the wall are off-screen, barely shown, or obscured by shadow. The series even goes back to some of the first film adaptation’s decisions, in terms of camera movement and shot design, in order to develop uneasiness and inconsistency. Well, maybe “inconsistency” is the wrong word. The only thing that feels truly inconsistent while watching it is your mind: You’re constantly wary of being tricked, but the construction of its scenes often gets you anyway. By embracing the squirm—and the time necessary to get us to squirm rather than jump—The Haunting of Hill House is great at creating troubling scenarios, and even better about letting us marinate in them.
As for Bly Manor, this gothic romance is of a milder scary sort (and you do not have to watch Hill House first). When is a horror story not a horror story? When is a ghost not a ghost? If a ghost lives, breathes and walks among the living, can that really be called anything other than life? If a ghost feels every bit as much love, fear and regret as a living person, then isn’t life just as fraught with peril as death? These are a few of the roughly 10,000 questions that The Haunting of Bly Manor would like you to roll around in your head during its nine-hour runtime, in which it adapts Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw but simultaneously finds time to go down every narrative rabbit hole you might find on a sprawling English manor’s property. The follow-up to Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House is more unfocused than its predecessor, attempting to build an operatic narrative with detailed backstories for seemingly every character, but it possesses the same sort of devastating emotional intensity seen in the previous Netflix series. What it doesn’t have, though, is likely to disappoint a certain chunk of the audience: The scares.
In the end, what we have in Bly Manor is an epic, romantic gothic melodrama that isn’t interested in classical horror motifs like a struggle of good against evil. This is a deeply human story in which there’s no such thing as indiscriminate evil—only misunderstood and fractured people, both living and dead. Even the ghosts all become figures of sympathy and pity, as they’re revealed as products of misdirected human emotions such as rage, loneliness and loss, rather than the supernatural bogeymen we’re more familiar with. —Jacob Oller and Jim Vorel
16. The Baby-Sitters Club
Created by: Rachel Shukert
Stars: Sophie Grace, Momona Tamada, Shay Rudolph, Malia Baker, Alicia Silverstone, Mark Feuerstein, Xochitl Gomez
Longtime fans of Ann M. Martin’s The Baby-Sitters Club, a chapter book series whose late ‘80s/early ‘90s aesthetic is so iconic Scholastic sells a tin-boxed set of original covers, were understandably skeptical of Rachel Shukert’s Netflix adaptation. It seems impossible, after all, that anyone could pluck Kristy, Mary-Anne, Claudia, Stacey, and Dawn from their perch in Claudia’s pre-Y2K bedroom, drop them square in the age of Instagram, and not lose something in the translation. IThe whole idea behind the Baby-Sitters Club—five girls gathering around a landline phone for half an hour, once per week, to field neighborhood baby-sitting requests as a quasi-socialist collective—is just so deeply analog.
Well, I am happy to report that skeptics need not fear. As clever, tender, and earnest as you remember The Baby-Sitters Club books to have been whenever you first read them, Shukert’s vision more than rises to the challenge. Between her confident translation of Martin’s original characters, the natural-but-goofy cinematic language brought to the table by Lucia Aniello and a raft of other (mostly female) directors, plus the endless charm of the series’ young core cast, this newest adaptation is a dream. Like its namesake, The Baby-Sitters Club (Netflix edition) is funny, sweet, and emotionally complex. Just as importantly, though, it implicitly understands the ways in which Kristy’s retro baby-sitting club business model is a perfect analog solution to a whole sea of problems caused by digital technology(/the gig economy)’s stranglehold over modern society.
Smartly, one thing Shukert doesn’t update in this adaptation are the structural elements most signature to the original series. Of the 10 episodes that comprise Season 1, the first eight mirror their chapter book counterparts, alternating between the five core sitters’ perspectives, with two episodes each being told from Kristy, Claudia, and Stacey’s points of view, and one each from Mary-Anne’s and Dawn’s. The two-part season finale, meanwhile, mirrors the super-sized Super Special books that functioned, in the original, as a series within a series, taking the girls away from their baby-sitting duties and letting them share the narrative focus equally. —Alexis Gunderson
15. One Day at a Time
Created by: Gloria Calderon Kallett, Mike Royce, Norman Lear
Stars: Justina Machado, Todd Grinnell, Isabella Gomez, Marcel Ruiz, Rita Moreno
Rebooting a classic Norman Lear sitcom like One Day at a Time takes a lot of nerve, which is probably why Lear is the only person crazy enough to want to do it. But the legendary writer and producer struck gold for a second time with this timely reboot, which in the hands of executive producers Gloria Calderón Kellett and Mike Royce updates the original series for the modern day while retaining the elements that made it worthwhile. The heartwarming dramedy moves the action from the Midwest to the culturally rich world of Los Angeles, and follows the lives of a multigenerational Cuban-American family. Justina Machado anchors the cast as a veteran living with PTSD and a single mother raising her two children (Isabella Gomez and Marcel Ruiz) while caring for/baby-sitting her spirited mother (EGOT winner and scene-stealer Rita Moreno). Like the original show, the reboot skillfully tackles numerous important social and cultural issues like immigration, racism, addiction, mental illness, and gender identity, and it does so with such care that the series never feels preachy or like an after-school special. —Kaitlin Thomas
14. Stranger Things
Created by: The Duffer Brothers
Stars: Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Gaten Matarazzo, Noah Schnapp, Caleb McLaughlin, Joe Keery, Maya Hawke, Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton
Say what you will about the finer points of its storytelling, Stranger Things continues to be an unabashed celebration of the 1980s, from its own filmic references regarding style and story to a cavalcade of literal references from the era. Its plucky set of kid and teen characters battle monsters (real or within themselves) and go to the mall. It’s a nostalgic dream and a creepfest nightmare. But whether it’s set during Halloween or in the throes of a mid-’80s summer, the show’s carefully crafted aesthetics always serve to augment the joyful nature of the series’ non-monster moments. And that, really, is where Stranger Things shines. The creep factor is important (and occasionally actually scary or super gory), but it acts as an almost funny juxtaposition to the otherwise happy-go-lucky look at suburban life. Mainly, though, it’s the friendships and coming-of-age stories, the relationships and family bonding, that really make Stranger Things great. For better or worse, the Netflix horror series is as tasty, messy, and fleeting as an ice cream cone on a hot summer’s day. Ahoy!—Allison Keene
13. Orange Is the New Black
Created by: Jenji Kohan
Stars: Taylor Schilling, Laura Prepon, Michael J. Harney, Michelle Hurst, Kate Mulgrew, Jason Biggs
Orange Is the New Black was perfectly suited for the Netflix delivery system, if only because it would have been agonizing to wait a week for each new episode. But there’s more; the construct feels cinematic and compared to your average show, and I couldn’t help but feel that the all-at-once release plan freed the creators to make something less episodic and more free-flowing—which has since become Netflix’s signature. Taylor Schilling stars as Piper Chapman, a woman living a content modern life when her past rears up suddenly to tackle her from behind; a decade earlier, she was briefly a drug mule for her lover Alex Vause (the excellent Laura Prepon), and when Vause needed to plea her sentence down, she gave up Piper. The story is based on the real-life events of Piper Kerman, whose book of the same title was the inspiration, but the truth is that the screen version is miles better. Schilling is the engine that drives the plot, and her odd combination of natural serenity mixed with the increasing anger and desperation at the late turn her life has taken strikes the perfect tone for life inside the women’s prison.
The wisest choice director Jenji Kohan made (and there are many) was to heighten the stakes so that what begins as an off-kilter adventure soon takes on the serious proportions prison life demands. And as great as Schilling and Prepon are together, the entire cast is so universally excellent that the series could successfully, at any time, delve deep into a supporting character’s backstory. There are too many characters who make gold with their limited screen time to mention individually, but suffice it to say that there’s enough comedy, pathos and tragedy here for a dozen shows. The fact that they fit so successfully into one makes OITNB a defining triumph for Netflix.—Shane Ryan
Created by: Joe Penhall
Stars: Jonathan Groff, Holt McCallany, Hannah Gross, Anna Torv, Cotter Smith and Cameron Britton
The name and the description may have you assuming that this is a typical network procedural: FBI agents interview psychopaths in order to catch murderers. But Mindhunter is as much Mad Men as it is Law & Order. Produced by David Fincher and Charlize Theron, the story follows two real-life agents, Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany), along with consulting psychologist Dr. Wendy Carr (Anna Torv) in the FBI’s nascent Behavioral Science Unit. Joe Penhall’s series is based on a similarly titled true crime book. Interviewing and cataloguing convicted serial killers (a phrase the trio invents) leads to them helping on active cases, but it also affects each of their personal lives in different ways. Cameron Britton is particularly unforgettable as notorious murderer and necrophiliac Edmund Kemper. The second (and final) season focuses on the Atlanta child murders, and doesn’t let viewers off easy. —Josh Jackson
11. Narcos / Narcos: Mexico
Created by: Carlo Bernard, Chris Brancato, Doug Miro
Stars: Wagner Moura, Boyd Holbrook, Pedro Pascal / Michael Peña, Diego Luna, José María Yazpik
One popular line of criticism has it that Narcos romanticizes the violence and degradation associated with the Colombian drug wars—and drug culture in general—and I would agree that the excellent Wagner Moura plays kingpin Pablo Escobar so engagingly that he becomes a sort of Walter White-esque antihero. And the rhythms of the documentary-style narration are fast-paced in a way that’s reminiscent of Guy Ritchie, whipping us along at an almost breakneck speed. Nevertheless, this valid criticism misses the important point that we are watching a work of fiction based on historical figures, not a real documentary. And when viewed that way, Narcos was one of the most successful shows on TV in how it managed to flesh out some very dark characters and tell a complicated story with such urgency and clarity. This is not the hyper-realist drug fiction of Traffic or even 2015’s Sicario, but as conflict entertainment goes, it succeeds wonderfully
Similarly, the spinoff/companion series of sorts, Narcos: Mexico, investigates the rise of the powerful Guadalajara Cartel that began by selling cannabis and quickly escalated into cocaine and heroin. The cartel, and the story itself, is led by the conflicted figure of Félix Gallardo (Diego Luna), who wants to make drug selling a business (shades of The Wire’s Stringer Bell are evident everywhere in this portrayal), but must ultimately embrace a ruthless nature to make it work. Gallardo is being hunted by DEA agent Kiki Camarena (Michael Peña), whose fledgling organization doesn’t understand how dangerous these cartels and their growing network are becoming. Anchored by outstanding performances, like the original series, Narcos: Mexico is a deeply compelling dramatization of the drug gangs that continue to plague Mexico (and to some extent, the United States) today, and concludes with a major reveal that sets up a whole new game for Season 2. Filled with emotional twists and turns, Narcos: Mexico perhaps even eclipses its predecessor with outstanding characterizations and a tense story told at a rapid, tantalizing pace. —Shane Ryan and Allison Keene
10. The Umbrella Academy
Created by: Steve Blackman, Jeremy Slater
Stars: Eliot Page, Tom Hopper, David Castañeda, Emmy Raver-Lampman, Robert Sheehan, Aidan Gallagher
As a fan of Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá’s comic book, I was a little skeptical of Netflix’s adaptation of The Umbrella Academy. I assumed it’d flatten out the comic’s esoteric edges in an attempt to make it more like other superhero shows. The first episode almost immediately calms those fears, though, revealing a series as weird and idiosyncratic as the comic. Imagine if Wes Anderson directed a Grant Morrison adaptation, complete with a mansion-spanning sad-superhero dance break to Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now.”
The show is a superhero series for those who don’t really like superhero shows, an exploration of family, failure and the pain associated with being asked to live up to a destiny you never asked for. For the seven Hargreeves children who comprise the titular team, their powers have generally been more of a curse than a blessing, and their resulting mental problems, various substance addictions, and general loneliness are proof positive of that. Yet few moments on television have been as weird or beautiful as watching this group of misfits find ways to forgive each other and come together again. Yes, its story has multiple apocalypses, but it also never despairs. We literally see the world burning, but things never feel truly bleak. And though this is in the strictest sense a comic book adaptation, at its heart it’s really just a story about family, forgiveness, and hope. This is a show whose whole is much more than the sum of its parts, and that is what makes all the difference. —Garrett Martin and Lacy Baugher
Created by: Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch
Stars: Allison Brie, Betty Gilpin, Marc Maron, Chris Lowell
Netflix’s bubbly celebration of a long-forgotten corner of the wrestling world takes a little time to come together, but once it does, it’s pure joy. That’s not to say that there isn’t still a ton of drama among the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling (GLOW)—the story does start out with an infidelity that affects two best friends—but once the bright colors and bold energy of this ’80s-set series ignite there’s no slowing it down. Boasting a wonderfully sprawling and diverse cast (who do their own stunts), the series never shies away from deeper issues of race, gender, and the realities of a career on the stage. But what binds the show together are its friendships, especially among its core cast. (Plus, it brought Betty Gilpin to our national attention, for which we shall be eternally grateful.)
GLOW will always be a show that understands femininity in a way few others do, and is often a pop-filled good time. Sometimes it’s messy, but that’s what GLOW is all about. The women try, and fail, and try again. They weather the sadness and the chaos. Choices are made, mistakes happen. And they try again. And again.—Allison Keene
Created by: Chris Van Dusen
Stars: Phoebe Dynevor, Regé-Jean Page, Adjoa Andoh, Jonathan Bailey, Nicola Coughlan, Polly Walker, Julie Andrews
All hail Bridgerton, Netflix’s lush, swoony adaption of a set of romance novels. The series focuses on a London family with eight children, all of whom were blessed with good genes and five (or six?) of whom are currently of marriageable age. And thus, in this Regency-era setting, the game is afoot with the quippy, mysterious gossip Lady Whistledown as our guide. There are balls and rakes and other things that had a completely different meaning in the 1800s, but one thing that has not changed is how electrifying the buttoning of a glove or the slight touch of hands can be in the right context. The show also gets pretty explicit at times, but does so with a nearly revolutionary female gaze for a period drama. As such, it is as pearl-clutching as one can get (and not a show to watch with one’s family).
Each season follows a different sibling’s love story. The first focuses on eldest daughter Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor) as she enters society. Initially the talk of the town, her standing falls with the arrival of a beautiful newcomer, so to escape a loveless marriage with an unsavory man chosen for her by her eldest brother, Daphne strikes a deal with the handsome and newly titled Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page), a committed bachelor with twice the bodice-ripping hero energy any one man should possess. In a classic fake-dating scenario, the Duke pretends to court Daphne in order to raise her value in the marriage market, while their agreement keeps women from throwing themselves at him. Naturally, feelings soon emerge. Then, in Season 2, eldest son Anthony (Jonathan Bailey), the Viscount Bridgerton, finally decides to take a wife, and when the queen names newcomer Edwina (Charithra Chandran) the season’s diamond, he resolves to make the young woman his new wife… until he ends up falling for her stubborn elder sister, Kate (Simone Ashley). Bridgerton isn’t perfect, but it’s a candy-colored, gloriously anachronistic romp that brings a new vivacity to bonnet dramas (leaving most of the bonnets aside, for one), and is great fun. —Allison Keene and Kaitlin Thomas
7. When They See Us
Created by: Ava DuVernay
Stars: Asante Blackk, Caleel Harris, Ethan Herisse, Jharrel Jerome, Marquis Rodriguez, Felicity Huffman, John Leguizamo, Michael K. Williams, Vera Farmiga
You cannot look away from When They See Us or shelter yourself from the blinding truth. On April 19, 1989, 28-year-old Trisha Meli was jogging in Central Park when she was brutally raped and left for dead. In a coma for 12 days, Meli had no memory of what happened to her and was unable to identify her attacker or attackers. The series doesn’t shy away from the horrors of what happened to Meli. A successful white woman left for dead in America’s most famous public space did not sit well with New York City. Everyone—the mayor, the district attorney, the police department—wanted her attackers caught. But somewhere along the line, Manhattan District Attorney Linda Fairstein (Felicity Huffman) and NYPD detectives lost sight of wanting to find the actual criminal and decided to solve the crime by any means necessary. The story itself is overwhelmingly powerful.
But there are several key decisions Ava DuVernay makes that turns When They See Us into such a powerful program. One is the casting of five relatively unknown actors to play the boys. The “Central Park Five” were 14-16 years old in 1989 and Marquis Rodriguez, Ethan Herisse, Jharrel Jerome, Asante Blackk, and Caleel Harris not only look young but portray the absolute vulnerability and fear that their real-life counterparts must have felt. We also get to see their families, who fought so hard for their children. Niecy Nash as Korey’s mom Delores. John Leguizamo as Raymond’s father, who remarries while Raymond is away and struggles to balance his old family with his new one. Aunjanue Ellis as Sharon Salaam, the only parent who understood the system enough to make sure her son didn’t sign a false confession. DuVernay doesn’t make any of them saints. They all make horrible mistakes and painful decisions. But their love for their children is never in doubt. When They See Us is exceedingly difficult to watch. It cut me to my very core. When you see it, I’m sure it will do the same to you. —Amy Amatangelo
Created by: Susannah Grant, Ayelet Waldman, Michael Chabon
Stars: Toni Collette, Merritt Wever, Kaitlyn Dever
There’s something quietly revolutionary about Unbelievable. It is difficult to watch at times, the kind of series likely to live with you long after its final moments come to a close; for a story centered on rape, that is hardly unusual. The work of its three remarkable lead actors is wonderful but also not unique; other television shows and movies have hired exceptional performers to tell these stories. Instead, Unbelievable distinguishes itself by the simple act of making one very big assumption: that everyone watching already knows that rape is a horrific violation. It assumes you’ve got that handled. It assumes that you’ve seen The Handmaid’s Tale or Boys Don’t Cry, or more recently, The Nightingale, and have plenty of experience seeing rape depicted in media in visceral, nightmarish fashion. It is fully aware that of the people on the other side of the screen one in six women and one in 33 men will have personally experienced a rape or an attempted rape in their lives. It has absolutely no interest in immersing its audience in trauma and violation. Unbelievable knows that you know rape is bad. It does not act as a voyeur. Under the guidance of showrunner Susannah Grant, it is far more interested in the survivor’s perspective—on what happened to her, yes, and how it lingers, but also on the violations that came after.
Based on a Pulitzer-winning piece of journalism by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong (of ProPublica and The Marshall Project, respectively), Unbelievable is a series of such quiet power that its full impact may not come crashing down until after its conclusion. —Allison Shoemaker
5. The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance
Developed by: Jeffrey Addis, Will Matthews
Stars: Taron Egerton, Anya Taylor-Joy, Nathalie Emmanuel, Simon Pegg, Mark Hamill, Jason Isaacs
There is a moment in Netflix’s The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance—a prequel to Jim Henson’s beloved Dark Crystal movie (which is great but you do not need to have seen it before this)—in which two ancient characters are recounting an important tale to our heroes. It’s about the beautiful land of Thra, and an event many years past that caused an imbalance and blight within the crystal that stands at the center of their world. All of the answers they seek will be “brought to life by that most ancient and sacred of arts…” they’re told, with a dramatic pause as the character looks right at the camera and breathes out: “Puppetry!”
“Oh nooo!” our heroes groan, and one immediately falls asleep.
That is the bias that Age of Resistance acknowledges it is up against—but folks, get over it. Allow this incredible production to sweep you away in an epic fantasy journey, one that is able to so much more deeply and fully explore the world Henson and Frank Oz imagined with the original film. You can liken it to Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones or any high fantasy series you like, but after ten magical hours it truly stands on its own as a gorgeous, innovative, emotional, joyous, and exceptional wonder. If that sounds hyperbolic, it’s only because that’s exactly the kind of sincere enthusiasm the show engenders. Get past any hesitance over the puppets (which are actually outstanding, as CG is used only to smooth out backgrounds and action), turn subtitles on to help you remember all of the character names, and immerse yourself in this incredible world that we are so, so lucky to have.—Allison Keene
4. The Crown
Created by: Peter Morgan
Stars: Claire Foy, Matt Smith, Vanessa Kirby, Jeremy Northam, Victoria Hamilton, Anton Lesser, Matthew Goode
In its first two seasons, creator Peter Morgan’s lavish treatment of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II hinges on Claire Foy’s utterly captivating performance as the flinty monarch; the impeccable period detail; a sense of historical scope that outstrips its forebears, Morgan’s 2006 film The Queen and 2013 play The Audience. But to call The Crown simply “lavish” seems unfair. Rather, as time marches on from the early days of Elizabeth’s reign, we move on to the Suez Crisis of 1956, and the Profumo affair of 1963. Through the series, its elaborates, thoughtful style and episodic structure fleshes out the supporting characters, including Elizabeth’s husband, Philip (Matt Smith), and sister, Margaret (the standout Vanessa Kirby), by turning the focus away from the queen herself. It’s a surprisingly full-throated examination of Britain’s public life, and its public figures’ private ones.
The second chapter of Netflix’s opulent celebration of the monarchy opens in 1964 and concludes with her Silver Jubilee in 1977. In an era of binge, Peter Morgan’s historical drama continues to distinguish itself as a series devoted to episodic storytelling, almost acting like an anthology within itself. To that end, Season 3 introduces us to a new cast to reflect the new timeframe: Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth II, Tobias Menzies is Prince Philip, Margaret transforms into Helena Bonham Carter, and we are introduced to Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor) and Princess Anne (Erin Doherty). In Season 5, the show transforms yet again as the royals age and time marches on. Imelda Staunton takes over as Elizabeth, Jonathan Pryce portrays Philip, and Lesley Manville is the new Margaret. Meanwhile, Dominic West succeeds O’Connor as Charles, while Elizabeth Debicki steps into the shoes of Princess Diana (portrayed in Season 4 by Emma Corrin).
The weight of the crown itself is felt throughout the series, mainly in how unhappy it makes all of these very privileged people who constantly consider “the life unlived.” Each of these serve as a brief glimpse of possibilities that are never allowed to materialize because of the realities of position and duty, but that sacrifice in the face of something greater becomes increasingly harder to defend as the years go on. But Elizabeth is at a point where all she knows is that she must simply carry on. And so, indeed—as the series takes great pains to argue—must the crown. —Matt Brennan and Allison Keene
3. Russian Doll
Created by: Natasha Lyonne, Leslye Headland, Amy Poehler
Stars: Natasha Lyonne, Greta Lee, Yul Vazquez, Charlie Barnett, Elizabeth Ashley
Netflix’s Russian Doll was almost too good to be renewed. By all means, renew Natasha Lyonne. Renew Amy Poehler. Renew Leslye Headland. Renew Charlie Barnett. Renew Rebecca Henderson and Greta Lee as hot mess hipster art friends ready to make parties across the Netflix spectrum that much spikier and sparklier. Renew Elizabeth Ashley as every Netflix heroine’s no-bullshit therapist (but make it fashion) mom-figure. Renew sharp, funny women directing sharp, funny women written by sharp, funny women. Renew that hair. Renew every damn thing about Russian Doll that helped make it such a brambly triumph of black comedy, macabre ennui and existential optimism. Renewing Russian Doll as a whole is trickier. It is, in the eight shaggy, smartly-constructed puzzlebox episodes of its debut season, nearly perfect. —Alexis Gunderson
2. The Queen’s Gambit
Created by: Scott Frank, Allan Scott
Stars: Anya Taylor-Joy, Bill Camp, Moses Ingram, Marielle Heller, Harry Melling, Thomas Brodie-Sangster
You would be forgiven for thinking The Queen’s Gambit is based on a real chess player, perhaps introducing us to a forgotten but pivotal name in the game. Thankfully it is not, freeing it from the confines of what could be stodgy biopic traps. Instead, the seven-episode limited series, based on Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel of the same name, positively soars.
Gorgeously shot and lovingly crafted, The Queen’s Gambit takes place in the late 1950s and ‘60s, and focuses on a young chess prodigy, Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy). Tragedy and fantasy engage in a complicated dance in Scott Frank’s scripts, as Beth is fed (and quickly develops an addiction to) tranquilizers as an 8-year-old child, something that opens her mind up but (obviously) plagues her throughout her young adult life. And yet, The Queen’s Gambit is secretly a sports story. Chess has never been more kinetically riveting. Deftly edited and full of stylish montages, the moves that come so easily to Beth are not easily explained to viewers. There is a depth of knowledge that defies casual understanding, but it is also never a barrier. Beth is almost supernaturally gifted, brilliant at chess yet hindered by a mind that also finds solace in addictions of various kinds. It’s a story usually told about a man, but part of what’s so refreshing about The Queen’s Gambit is that, despite one or two quick comments, this is really not about Beth being a woman (or more accurately, a girl). The show doesn’t need to make a statement.
Because The Queen’s Gambit is a work of fiction (that title, by the way, is mentioned 33 minutes into the first episode and then dispatched with), it tells exactly the engrossing character story it wants to, and how. That might sound obvious, but it’s no small thing. With excellent pacing and a sure sense of itself out of the gate, The Queen’s Gambit is a work of art—riveting, radiant, and simply spellbinding. Like Beth, it triumphs through its devotion to a love of the game. —Allison Keene
1. BoJack Horseman
Created by: Raphael Bob-Waksberg
Stars: Will Arnett, Aaron Paul, Amy Sedaris, Paul F. Tompkins
BoJack Horseman is one of the most underrated comedies ever made, and it almost pains me that it doesn’t earn more praise. Right from the title sequence, which documents BoJack’s sad decline from network sitcom star to drunken has-been—set to the beautiful theme song written by the Black Keys’ Patrick Carney—this is one of the most thoughtful comedies ever made. Which doesn’t mean it’s not hilarious, of course. Will Arnett is the perfect voice for BoJack, and Paul F. Tompkins, who is in my mind the funniest man on planet Earth, could not be better suited to the child-like Mr. Peanut Butter. This is a show that isn’t above a visual gag or vicious banter or a wonderfully cheap laugh, but it also looks some very hard realities of life straight in the eye. There are times when you will hate BoJack—this is not a straight redemption story, and the minute you think he’s on the upswing, he will do something absolutely horrible to let you down. (There’s a special irony in the fact that a horse is one of the most human characters on TV, and the unblinking examination of his character makes “Escape from L.A.” one of the best episodes on TV.) So why isn’t it loved beyond a strong cult following? Maybe it’s the anthropomorphism that keeps people away, or maybe it’s the animation, but I implore you: Look beyond those elements, settle into the story, and let yourself be amazed by a comedy that straddles the line between hilarious and sad like no other. —Shane Ryan
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