In this new era of seemingly endless TV options thanks to the rise of streaming services, being aware of all that’s out there is no easy task. No streaming service has been more active with producing original content than Netflix, which makes narrowing down the best Netflix originals a difficult task, but that is the job here. Quick note, we're only counting shows that Netflix produced, so sorry to the likes of Money Heist and Peaky Blinders.
Let’s not waste any time in the preamble and dive right into the must-see Netflix originals.
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After the smashing successes of Netflix’s original docuseries Making a Murderer, the network decided to parody itself by taking the serious investigative efforts of a true crime show, and placing it in a fictionalized world of a fictionalized crime. Season 1? Who spray painted dicks all over the cars in the school parking lot. Season 2? Who is “The Turd Burglar?” The show was cancelled after two seasons but the producers have expressed interest in shopping to other networks once their agreement is up. For fans of satire and true crime, let’s hope they are successful.
With Big Mouth, Nick Kroll and John Mulaney have created an animated show about teenagers going through puberty that is nearly as raunchy as your typical R-rated comedy, but that’s what makes it such a fun watch for teenagers and even adults. Big Mouth features a main voice cast that includes Kroll, Mulaney, Jessi Klein, Jason Mantzoukas, Jordan Peele, Fred Armisen and a standout voice performance from Maya Rudolph as Connie the Hormone Monstress. All five seasons of the show are available to binge, with a sixth season expected in 2022.
Who needs to deal with their own existential crises when they can watch it through the eyes of an animated, anthropomorphic horse? For six seasons, BoJack Horseman stunned audiences with its brutal honesty looking at relationships, career decisions, substance abuse, mental illness, sexuality, and one’s own moral compass. It’s an incredibly bleak show juxtaposed against playful animation, but will undoubtedly be considered one of the all-time great productions of adult animation.
Netflix subscribers swooned for Bridgerton when it premiered on the streaming service in 2020. Based on the novels by Julia Quinn, creator Chris Van Dusen (along with exec producer Shonda Rhimes) is telling the story of wealth, lust and betrayal in Regency-era England, seen specifically through the powerful Bridgerton family. The sultry first season has fans craving Bridgerton season two, though it will be without season one breakout star Regé-Jean Page.
The Crown has become Netflix royalty as one of its most well-reviewed and awarded originals. The series, created by Peter Morgan, portrays the reign of Queen Elizabeth II that started in the 1950s. There have been four seasons thus far that have taken us up to about the early 1990s, a fifth season coming soon. In that time we have seen adaptations of historical events and figures (remember, the show is not a documentary) including Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher and Princess Diana. The show has a rotating cast to portray the royal family at different stages in their lives. Whether you’re a history buff or love the juicy intrigue of the British royal family, The Crown has just about everything you could want in a TV show.
It would be easy to call this show “Stranger Things in Germany,” but that would do a massive disservice to both properties. Dark feels like a dive into a Stephen King-esque universe where after two children go missing, the secrets of the town (both supernatural and real-life horror) begin to unravel the relationships of the families in town in terrifying ways, connecting today’s horror to the town’s history in 1986.
Dear White People
After the success of Justin Simien’s 2014 feature film of the same name, Dear White People is a satirical (yet feeling more true to reality every day) look at an Ivy-League school and how race relations impact the community. Each episode focuses on a particular character, with Logan Browning (The Perfection) as Samantha White, the host of the university radio program “Dear White People,” serving as the connective through line of the show. The show spawned boycotts from racists afraid of the title, further proving why a show like this is so important for today's audiences. The fourth and final season of Dear White People is coming Sept. 22 and is going to be a full-fledged musical.
Mumblecore darling, Joe Swanberg’s comedy-drama anthology series, Easy, focuses on the lives of Chicago natives navigating love, sex, interpersonal relationships, and finding a sense of self. Each episode feels wholly unique, so viewers can check in and out as they please, and there’s truly an episode for everyone. Couples attempting an open relationship, queer stories, interracial relationships, and a destigmatized look at the different ways humans can love all make this show worthy of a binge-watch.
Thanks to the atrociously offensive “Attitude Era” of WWE in the late 90s/early 00s, women’s wrestling has long since been a butt of many jokes. However, Netflix’s series based on the very real Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling in the 1980s has helped spawn a new generation of fans, while producing one of the best shows they’ve ever had. GLOW tackles issues of women’s liberation, divorce, motherhood, substance abuse, work-life balance, the fickle beast of show business, race relations, LGBTQ+ concerns, and does so beautifully in the context of the mid-late 80s. There’s a reason they keep nabbing Emmy nominations.
Grace and Frankie
Reuniting Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda from 9 to 5, Netflix’s show about two women forging a friendship after their husbands leave them for each other. There’s a hint of Odd Couple comedic tension considering Grace and Frankie appear to be total opposites on the surface, but ultimately this show is about the bonds we make throughout our lives, even through the most devastating of circumstances. While we wait for the full final season, the first four episodes of Grace and Frankie season seven have been released on Netflix.
Marvel's Jessica Jones
The beauty of Marvel storytelling is that there’s room for superhero stories that aren’t just The Avengers. The exploration of trauma, PTSD, and overcoming abuse in Jessica Jones feels unlike any superhero show that came before it. The exploration of gender offered insight into power dynamics that otherwise would have gone untapped. Krysten Ritter absolutely shines as the titular character, bringing her excellent comedic timing to a very serious and tortured soul.
Master of None
Comedian Aziz Ansari is probably best known for his role as the goofball Tom on Parks & Recreation, but with Master of None viewers were pleasantly surprised to see Ansari and his co-creators combine some of that wacky humor with a show that dealt with big and small issues in such intimate and unique ways. The first two seasons of Master of None followed the personal and professional life of 30-year-old actor Dev (Ansari), but it was individual episodes about Dev’s immigrant parents or his friend Denise that raised Master of None to another level. Season three of Master of None came out in 2021 and changed the formula to just focus on Denise and her relationship.
Netflix knows that true crime sells, and Mindhunter is an absolute dream come true for the network, despite its current state of “indefinite hold” as fans hope for season three. Based on the true-crime book “Mindhunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit,” the David Fincher and Charlize Theron produced series focuses on a fictionalized retelling of the early days of criminal psychology and criminal profiling at the FBI. The show features dramatizations of FBI interviews with some of the most high-profile serial killers in history, with a through line in each season focusing on a high-profile case like the BTK killer and Wayne Williams.
Netflix originals aren’t just limited to comedies and dramas any more, as the streamer has gotten into the reality TV/game show arena. One of the best examples of this is Nailed It, which takes the popularity of baking competitions like The Great British Bake Off but puts everyday people with little to no baking experience in the kitchen to try and recreate an edible masterpiece. Nicole Byer hosts the show, which often boils down to a hilarious, hot-mess of a time.
On My Block
It’s a shame this show doesn’t get as much attention as it deserves, but fortunately, it is hugely popular with younger audiences. The show follows a group of four friends learning to navigate the new experience of high school in their predominantly Black and Latin neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles. For the last three seasons, this coming-of-age series has helped capture the heart and conflict of modern teenage life, while fearlessly tackling the unique struggles for today's youth.
One Day at a Time
Based on Norman Lear's 1975–1984 sitcom of the same title, One Day at a Time is perhaps Netflix’s greatest sitcom. Focusing on a Cuban-American family living in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Echo Park, the show brought a star-studded ensemble cast featuring the likes of Justina Machado, Todd Grinnell, Isabella Gomez, Marcel Ruiz, Stephen Tobolowsky, and Rita Moreno. Netflix prematurely cancelled the show after only three seasons, sparking massive outrage. Fortunately, PopTV revived the show with a simulcast with both Logo TV and TV Land, making this the first Netflix show to move on to a traditional cable network.
Orange is the New Black
Allegedly the most-watched original series in Netflix’s history, Orange is the New Black completely changed the landscape for original streaming programming, and opened the doors for new methods of storytelling. Jenji Kohan (Weeds) took like bones of Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name about her time in prison as a wealthy bisexual WASP, to instead tell stories about Black and brown women in the criminal justice system, the corruption of America’s prisons, race relations, law enforcement abuses of power, the long-term effects of poverty, issues surrounding immigration, and humanizing those who have been incarcerated. Perhaps most importantly, OITNB established The Poussey Washington Fund, a foundation to support eight non-profits benefiting organizations focused on social issues surrounding criminal justice and policy reform, immigrants' rights, and assisting those affected by mass incarceration.
All hail Julia Garner. Ozark took a little time to pick up popularity, but quarantine has done well for this show that now seems to be everyone’s watercooler hot topic. Jason Bateman plays a financial advisor named Marty Byrde who flops a money laundering scheme for a Mexican drug cartel, so he moves his family from Chicago to the Lake of the Ozarks to set up an even bigger money laundering operation with local crime families and the Kansas City Mafia. What started as a serious crime drama has slowly drifted into melodrama, and honestly, the show is better for it.
In the early and mid-2000s Bravo’s Queer Eye for the Straight Guy became a sensation as a group of five gay men would work with straight men to try and improve their lives through makeovers and life advice. About 10 years after the original ended, Netflix rebooted the franchise with Queer Eye and a new Fab Five. Each season (there are five so far with a sixth expected) takes the Fab Five to a different city where they help locals with their wardrobes, grooming, diet, cultural pursuits and home decor. The new iteration of Queer Eye is just as popular as the original, continuing its legacy of good-natured reality TV.
The time-loop story has become a genre unto itself in recent years, but even so, Russian Doll has proven to be one of the best examples of what it can be. Natasha Lyonne stars as a cynical New Yorker who finds herself continuously dying and returning to her 36th birthday party. Lyonne helped create the series along with Leslye Headland and Amy Poehler. The first season earned 13 Primetime Emmy nominations, including for Outstanding Comedy Series, and won three. The much anticipated season two is expected to come out sometime in 2021, so get to binging if you’re not caught up.
Santa Clarita Diet
I don’t know if I will ever be able to forgive Netflix for taking away my favorite series they ever made. Santa Clarita Diet was an edgy sitcom about SoCal yuppies played with perfection by Timothy Olyphant and Drew Barrymore...who is the walking undead and needs to feast on humans to continue appearing “normal.” The final season ended on a cliffhanger and boasted a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes when Netflix called it quits, but the rabid fanbase has hopes someone will revive the show in a few years, giving us more chances to see Drew Barrymore trap, murder, and eat nazis.
Two series of Gillian Anderson playing a sex therapist is not enough series of Gillian Anderson playing a sex therapist. Fortunately, once it’s safe to film again, Sex Education has a third season coming. The British dramedy centers on the painfully insecure Otis Milburn who inadvertently assists the school bully with his sexual performance anxiety. Word gets out about Otis’ expertise, so he sets up a sex advice business (parroting things he’s learned from his sex therapist mother) with his classmate Maeve. It feels a lot like Charlie Bartlett, but the show’s ability to disguise genuinely helpful information in a comedy show is not just great for entertainment, but also for keeping the target demographic up to date with education they might not get otherwise.
Sense8 is the most Wachowski project ever Wachowski’d and that’s a very, very good thing. Eight strangers from all over the world and different walks of life all share a psychic connection and a “birth” mother named Angelica, who later kills herself to prevent being captured by a man named Whispers. These eight discover they are sensates--humans who are connected mentally and emotionally. Considering the cast is multinational, Sense8 offers a stunning view of the world, and a creative way to dissect cultures and relationships from all over the globe. It’s a show that encourages empathy and the interconnectivity all humans share, but done through the lens of science-fiction in a way only the creators of The Matrix and Babylon 5’s J. Michael Straczynski possibly could.
Shadow and Bone
It didn’t take long for an ardent fan base to emerge for the Netflix original Shadow and Bone. Based on the books by Leigh Bardugo, Shadow and Bone is a young adult series that takes place in a fantasy world where a young orphan discovers that she has extraordinary powers. However, in her world-torn society, there are dark forces that will look to extinguish her. Much to fans’ delight, Netflix was quick to renew Shadow and Bone for a second season, which is expected sometime in 2022.
The addictive 80s nostalgia trip exploded with popularity upon release and doesn’t show signs of stopping anytime soon. A love letter to the films that so many genre fans grew up watching, Stranger Things’ success is rooted in its multigenerational appeal, by telling great stories through the eyes of relatable characters regardless of age. While it can be argued that the series relies heavily on tropes, it is this formulaic approach that allows the show to feel like comfort food, which just enough twists to keep us tuning in for more.
Despite featuring animal-human hybrids, Sweet Tooth proved surprisingly relevant after more than a year of quarantines and other precautions against the pandemic. But the tale of Gus, one of these hybrids, as he heads out into a post-apocalyptic world hoping to find his mother, also proved to be a fun adventure filled with hope. Our What to Watch review for Sweet Tooth called it a must-watch. A second season of Sweet Tooth has officially gotten the green light from Netflix, though a timeline for when we might get it is still TBD.
The Umbrella Academy
Thematic shifts offering audience whiplash, clever writing, meme-able characters, familiar superhero tropes, and untouchable needle drops all blend together to make The Umbrella Academy one of Netflix’s most popular shows. After just two seasons, the adaptation of My Chemical Romance’s Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá’s comic book series was, according to Netflix, the streamer’s third-most-watched series of 2019 behind only Stranger Things and The Witcher. Many were late to the UA game, but after binge-watching the second season in one weekend thanks to quarantine, audiences are already eagerly awaiting the third season.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Absurd, offensive, and downright ridiculous might not sound like words to describe a show featuring a girl who wears light-up shoes and wears novelty stickers that say things like “You’re Grape,” but that’s exactly what Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt brings to the table. The story of a kidnapping survivor adjusting to modern NYC after spending most of her life trapped in a bunker in Indiana seems like it should be a feel-good drama, but instead it’s a bananas ridiculous fish-out-of-water comedy with larger than life supporting characters and situations. After four seasons and a “choose your own adventure” epilogue, Kimmy Schmidt truly was an unbreakable series.
Toss a coin for The Witcher, the fantasy series starring Henry Cavill as Geralt of Rivia. The first season of the show saw Geralt meet Princess Ciri of Cintra, who is the focus of a legendary prophecy. Along the way, Geralt has to deal with plenty of monsters and his relationship with the powerful sorceress Yennefer of Vengerberg. Season two, which will launch on Netflix Dec. 17, will continue to expand the world in new and exciting ways, so be sure you’re caught up before then.
BJ Colangelo is an award winning filmmaker and film analyst specializing in dismissed cinema and television. She writes about horror, wrestling, musicals, adult animation, sex and gender, kicking pancreatic cancer’s ass, and being a fat queer in places like Fangoria, Vulture, The Daily Dot, Autostraddle, Playboy.com, and a handful of books college students get assigned to read. She’s also the co-host of the teen girl movie podcast, This Ends at Prom, with her wife, Harmony.
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