From biting comedies to gut-punch mysteries, it’s all here.
I signed up for Netflix back in 2005. My first rental was the short-lived and quickly forgotten Jay Mohr series Action. It was a long, tedious slog.
Now it’s common to make plans to binge seasons of shows in a day. Between Netflix’s rapidly expanding original content empire and the shows it has the rights for, prioritizing your My List requires more strategy than ever.
Here are our recommendations to help get you started.
The best shows on Netflix
1) Breaking Bad
In the golden age of TV drama, Breaking Bad keeps company with the likes of The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, and Mad Men. If you’ve seen the show, you understand the praise. If you haven’t, it’s time to give it a go. Watching Walter White’s ascent (or descent) from milquetoast science teacher to drug kingpin is staggering. Creator Vince Gilligan and his team’s approach to methodically telling their story makes room for all the details you normally don’t see in a crime story. And it’s those details that make the show what it is. Well, the superlative acting, writing, and directing also help.—Eddie Strait
2) Mad Men
Matthew Wiener’s ’60s advertising executive drama is worth every bit of the acclaim heaped upon it. Mad Men is the kind of show where your enjoyment directly relates to how much you engage with and consider what you’re seeing. Whether you like to just watch an episode and luxuriate in the show’s aesthetic or you read every recap and fan theory, Mad Men has so many layers that there’s always something new to enjoy. —E.S.
FX’s one-season wonder is a nice change of pace from ultra-serious crime shows. It still has all the lasciviousness you expect from a noir-ish story, but the chemistry between leads Donal Logue and Michael Raymond-James softens the harder edges just enough. —E.S.
If you prefer dark mysterious and gut-punch revelations, this British import is what you’re looking for. David Tennant and Olivia Coleman are an odd couple investigating a death that has shaken up an entire community. The first season is great and makes a fine stopping point if you’ve had enough. But the second season rewards those who want to dive deeper into the fallout of the first season’s resolution. —E.S.
With Friday Night Lights leaving, it’s only right to add another great Jason Katims produced family show. Parenthood is anchored by a strong cast, add the more time you spend with the Bravermans the more you’ll start to feel like part of the family. But keep your hanky handy, as Parenthood earns every bit of its reputation for pulling on the heartstrings. Quality family dramas are increasingly hard to find, so save yourself the trouble and watch Parenthood.
6) Comedy Bang! Bang!
A twist on the traditional talk show, Comedy Bang! Bang! shrugs off promotional interviews and banter in favor of sketch-comedy chaos. Host Scott Aukerman is our channel into the lives of celebrities and comedians, as his earnest questioning inevitably gives way to awkward pauses and memorable characters like Bob Ducca and Paul F. Tompkins’s Cake Boss. —Audra Schroeder
7) Black Mirror
One of the things that make this modern-day Twilight Zone a great streaming option is the standalone factor of each episode. The show goes to some bleak and nihilistic places to make its techno-terror satire land, so it helps that you don’t need to worry about tracking multiple storylines and relationships. Each episode features a new cast (including the likes of Hayley Atwell, Domhnall Gleeson, and Jon Hamm) and a premise taken to its extreme. Netflix premiered season three back in October, and while the critical reception was a little more volatile than before, the show still delivered an all-timer with “San Junipero,” as well as a couple other solid episodes. There is more coming in 2017, and we couldn’t be more excited. —E.S.
Screengrab via Netflix UK & Ireland
This show never had a chance on NBC. It’s about a cop (Jason Isaacs) who lives in two worlds. In one his wife is dead and his son is alive, but when he goes to sleep he wakes up in the other world with a dead son and grieving wife. And his cases have a tendency to cross over in random ways. Of course, nobody watched it, it’s way too dense. But taken in binge form, it’s easier to track the two worlds and highly rewarding. —E.S.
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This is another one for those willing to take a leap of faith. Rectify is meditative, glacially paced, and deals with spirituality in a way not often seen on TV. Daniel Holden is working his way back into a society that doesn’t want him after spending 19 years on death row. What the show lacks in narrative flash it makes up for with a strong ensemble and outstanding writing. Few shows are as focused on the reverberations of daily minutiae as Rectify, and that’s where many of the highlights come from. The show wrapped up its run in 2016 with a stellar, slyly funny and emotionally satisfying final season. Netflix currently has the first three seasons available and the fourth is coming soon. —E.S.
10) Twin Peaks
There are mystery shows, and then there’s Twin Peaks. David Lynch’s opus is ostensibly about the investigation of Laura Palmer’s murder. But that’s like saying The Wire is just a cop show. Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost pack so many confounding elements into the town and townspeople of Twin Peaks that no two viewings of Twin Peaks are alike. The show’s resurrection this year only adds to the lore of the first two seasons and its infamous ending. Though the third season revival isn’t yet available on Netflix, you can catch up on the first two seasons before easily watching the third elsewhere. —E.S.
11) Freaks and Geeks
It’s the all-time best “canceled too soon” show. Everything everybody says about it is true. The cast is amazing and the writing is painfully on point. If you’re weary of Seth Rogen, Judd Apatow, and James Franco, pop this on to remember when you wanted them to win. —E.S.
If you loved Elba’s work on The Wire like any sane person, you owe it to yourself to check out his heel turn as troubled detective John Luther. Luther has a preternatural gift for solving crimes and series creator Neil Cross has a knack for deranged criminals. I usually offer this recommendation with a bit of caution because the show has a tendency to peter out at the end of episodes a little too frequently, but it’s not enough to make the show stoppable. The things the show does well (opening episodes and escalating tension; acting) are worth seeking out, especially if you’re a fan of Elba, and who among us isn’t? —E.S.
Since debuting, IFC’s Portlandia has taken aim at hipsters, feminists, male feminists, musicians, artists, bike messengers, crafting, and Danzig. Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein can inhabit the bodies of the clueless, oblivious, arrogant, and uptight with ease, and have crafted some truly memorable characters in the weird, wild world of Portland. — Audra Schroeder
14) The Returned
France’s The Returned (not to be confused with its American adaptation, also called The Returned) is the most peculiar show or movie in the zombie renaissance. It’s set in a world where people have mysteriously come back from the dead. For all intents and purposes the people return as the same age/size they were when they died. But the show isn’t really about how these people came back as much as it’s about how they reintegrate into society. The show functions best as a meditative mood piece with outstanding music by Mogwai. The Returned will test the patience of attention-strapped viewers, but if you’re able to get on the show’s wavelength, you’ll be glad you did.
15) Parks and Recreation
Who says you need to wait for a rainy day to watch Leslie Knope make the world a better place? Parks and Rec was consistently strong for all seven seasons it ran, and in particular, you’ll be hard pressed to name any show with a better run of episodes than Parks’ stretch from seasons two through four. You can pick an episode at random and almost certainly hit on a classic, or you can watch it in order and relive Leslie’s campaign against Paul Rudd or her long-running feud with all things Eagleton, or just watch every Jean-Ralphio episode. It’s your call, the only wrong way to watch Parks and Rec is to not watch it at all. —E.S.
The story of the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 is a perfect encapsulation of everything that’s great and bad about heavily serialized shows. The constant thrills and upending of audience expectation, the performances, the lush photography, the narrative dead ends, the equally enticing and discouraging lack of answers. Lost is, and remains, a ton of fun to watch. The only downside to firing up the show on Netflix is that you’ll have a hard time stopping, but Lost is a great binge show.
17) How I Met Your Mother
For its first two seasons HIMYM is legitimately great. The jokes are well-constructed and witty, the cast is great, and the show has a lot of fun with its own mythology. Watching Ted, Marshall, Lily, Robin, and Barney navigate New York life will remind you a lot of other New York show about a group of friends, for better or worse. HIMYM’s quality drops after the first 60 or so episodes, but within that stretch are plenty of great episodes (including the all-time great sitcom episode “Slap Bet”).
FX’s raunchy animated spy comedy is remarkably silly, dirty, and smart. Sterling Mallory Archer (perfectly voiced by H. Jon Benjamin) is as hilarious as he is incorrigible. He’s what you get if you give James Bond the attitude of an entitled teenager. The show is closing in on 100 episodes and it still has the same anarchic spirit powering it through mission after mission and joke after joke.
19) Gilmore Girls
Of all the reclamation projects Netflix has embarked on, this is one that offers the most creative reward. Many fans of the show pretend the seventh season, made without the guidance of creator Amy Sherman-Palladino and her husband Daniel Palladino, doesn’t exist or at least judge it separately from seasons one through six. With the Palladinos back in the saddle for Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life we finally got the ending that we should’ve had all along, including the near mythical “final four words” that taunted fans for a decade. Watch the first six seasons, read the wiki for the seventh, and finish it off with A Year in the Life, which has its ups and downs, but the mere fact that it exists at all is something of a miracle. —E.S.
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20) Better Call Saul
There were a lot of reasons to be skeptical of Better Call Saul when the spinoff was first announced. It felt like cashing in on one of the greatest shows (and one of the earliest Netflix binge crazes) because nobody wanted to let Breaking Bad go. And who cares about the adventures of slick-talking Saul Goodman? Through two seasons, Saul has proven itself to be more than just a good sidekick. Like it’s predecessor, Saul is one of the best dramas on the air. Bob Odenkirk is doing incredible things with Jimmy McGill, laying the tragic groundwork that will eventually lead to Saul. Through two seasons Saul is every bit the equal of Bad, and could end up being even better by the time it’s said and done. If you were hesitant before, it’s time to get on board. —E.S.
The CW has rebranded itself among the major networks as the outlet for fun genre fare, headlined by comic based shows Flash, Supergirl, and Arrow. Then there’s iZombie, which also has its origins in comics, but the superpower here is the ability to view a person’s final moments by eating their brain. The heroine is Olivia Moore (or Liv Moore for short). A party gone awry turns her into a zombie and we’re off. She works in the city morgue where she has a hearty supply of brains to sustain herself. The free sustenance comes with visions, accompanied by temporary new personalities for Liv, who uses those to help her put away a slew of murderers. The show is run by Rob Thomas (Veronica Mars, Party Down), so the weekly cases are intriguing and the dialogue is snappy. —E.S.
The CW’s teen drama based on the classic characters from Archie comics seemingly came out of nowhere, but certainly stands out among the major network slew of superhero shows. Riverdale is self-aware and entertaining, and the first season is a blast. This feels like it could suffer from O.C. syndrome and burn through storylines too fast, but those are problems for tomorrow, man. Not all parts of the show work, but there’s enough going on for everyone to find something to enjoy. At a brisk 13 episodes, Riverdale is an ideal summer binge choice.
23) Penny Dreadful
Horror shows really have a short life unless they go the anthology route. But that’s a cheat. Longform horror is as tough a task as there is in television. Penny Dreadful found that alchemy and churned out three seasons of the good stuff before surprising fans with an out of nowhere series finale. After the shock wore off, it was clear the creative powers that be made the right decision. Any show featuring Van Helsing, Victor Frankenstein, Dracula, and Dr. Jekyll is destined to burn bright and fast. Come for the gothic horror, stay for Eva Green’s devilishly good performance.
24) New Girl
Over the course of its run, New Girl has been defined by its loose, easygoing approach to silliness. Zooey Deschanel, Lamorne Morris, Jake Johnson, Max Greenfield, and Hannah Simone have such easy chemistry that the show can get laughs out of any pairing of characters. With the show’s tendency to favor long improvisational riffs and a somewhat tenuous commitment to continuity, New Girl is an excellent choice for those looking for a show you can watch leisurely or choose episodes at random. —E.S.
25) No Second Chance
This thriller, based on bestselling author Harlan Coben’s book of the same name, is about a doctor searching for the people who kidnapped her daughter and murdered her husband. Anyone who’s read Coben knows that he’s a master at weaving multilayered stories together, often in ways that are devastating by the time all the cards are in the table. This six-episode miniseries was produced in the U.K. and is a great option for anyone looking for a show that is captivating and doesn’t overstay its welcome. —E.S.
26) Hap and Leonard
Hap and Leonard is based on the Southern-fried mysteries spun by Joe Lansdale, which follows lifelong friends Hap (James Purefoy) and Leonard (Michael K. Williams), who work as low-level investigators in East Texas. The first season, now on Netflix, adapts Lansdale’s Savage Season, the first novel in the series, where the search for a long-missing car packed with cash has all manner of lowlifes (and Hap and Leonard) coming out of the woodwork. The only thing Hap and Leonard love more than knocking heads is trading one-liners, and there are plenty of both onscreen. Grab a six pack of Dr. Pepper and some vanilla cookies and settle in. —E.S.
27) Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
The joy of watching Crazy Ex-Girlfriend comes not only from its hilarious musical numbers but its irreverent bucking of rom-com conventions. The show’s commitment to its broken characters, headlined by the effervescently charming Rachel Bloom, is one of its strengths. The show never gives them an easy way out and never forgets their humanity. It makes the emotional moments resonate and keeps the comedy sharp. It’s an idiosyncratic show destined to be loved by a small, passionate fan base. Join the chorus. —E.S.
Friends is the ultimate junkfood show. It’s comforting. It’s the kind of show you put on when you just want to shut your brain off. The jokes have gone stale over time, but that doesn’t matter. You’ll still laugh (or smile knowingly). Sometimes it just feels good to hang out at Central Perk for a few minutes. If you’re too lazy to flip around for a rerun, or you’ve cut cable, Netflix has you covered. Like a good friend, Friends is always there when you need it.
29) The People v. O.J. Simpson
This anthology series is the quintessential binge. It’s only 10 episodes, and it tells a complete story. Though fictionalized in some regards for dramatic effect, OJ considers the Trial of the Century from all angles. It’s primarily told from the perspective of prosecutor Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulsen, impossibly good), but makes sure to show thing from the side of the defense, regular citizens, and in one episode, the jury. From the discovery of the bodies of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, through the chase, trial, and immediate aftermath of the verdict, The People vs OJ Simpson is essential viewing.
With the saga of Olivia Pope set to come to an end with its upcoming season, Scandal is ready to help you play catch up, relive your favorite moments, or get onboard if you’ve been waiting. The action surrounding White House fixer Pope is relentless and the writing is strong enough to finesse even the most convoluted plot mechanics. The weight of the breakneck pacing and plentiful soapy plot twists would sink most shows, but they’re the engine that drives Scandal. That and Kerry Washington’s dynamite work as Olivia.
Beneath the charming sarcasm of Jason Bateman’s exterior, there’s always been a hint of malice. That makes him the perfect lead for Netflix’s latest attempt at prestige drama. Financial adviser Marty Byrde flees Chicago with his wife, Wendy (Laura Linney), and their two children for Lake of the Ozarks, where he is tasked with laundering $8 million for a Mexican drug cartel. Marty is in over his head almost as soon as Ozark begins, and he struggles to keep from drowning throughout the 10-episode season. As is always the case with this kind of show, that’s the sick fun of it.—Chris Osterndorf
32) The Good Place
Mike Schur has dominated network (specifically NBC) comedy for most of this millennium. He wrote for The Office and helped create Parks & Rec, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and now The Good Place, which is one of the most ambitious half-hour comedies you can find. Kristin Bell plays Eleanor, a deeply narcissistic woman bordering on sociopathy, who dies and she ends up in the Good Place, instead of the Bad Place she should’ve gone to. In an effort to prove to Michael/God (Ted Danson) that she deserves to stay, she enlists Chidi, an ethics professor, to teach her how to be good. The show is hilarious and mixes silly jokes with highbrow gags about Kant, philosophy, and moral reckoning. The Good Place has quickly established itself as one of TV’s best comedies and it’s one of the few comedies capable of legitimately surprising its audience.
33) Documentary Now!
Bill Hader and Fred Armisen’s mockumentary series apes the style of famous documentaries and uses it to tell fictional stories. The show is worth watching just to see Hader and Armisen riff, but the technical acuity lifts to the show above simple parody. The show tackles revered films such as Stop Making Sense, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, The Thin Blue Line, and even makes time for spoof VICE News. If you like Hader and Armisen there’s no way you won’t like Documentary Now!, and if you don’t like Hader and Armisen, why not?
Atypical is another in Netflix’s line of great comedies. The strong writing and stronger performances carry this show about Sam, an 18-year-old on the autism spectrum, and his family. Despite its common family comedy tropes, the show always plays things straight; it doesn’t sell out the characters for cheap laughs. Atypical is a show where actions have consequences and it isn’t afraid to let its characters be wrong. At times the show feels like more of a drama than a comedy, but that’s because it tends to let the humor flow naturally out of the characters rather than trying to be a joke machine. Whatever it wants to be, this earnest, funny cast and crew can pull it off.
Netflix’s Girlboss came and went in the spring with mostly negative reviews and little fanfare. Whatever. I’m here to say Girlboss is great and worth checking out. It’s about the rise of online retailer Sophia Amoruso (better known by her online presence Nasty Gal). The show has an edge to it, and that edge turned some people away. But the edge makes the show feel authentic. Britt Robertson gives a good sweet-and-sour lead performance and the report between her and co-stars Ellie Reed and Johnny Simmons rounds out the show. Netflix canceled Girlboss after one season so it’s a low stakes investment with big rewards.
Editor’s note: This article is regularly updated for relevance.
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