Since its first piece of original content in 2013, Netflix has produced over 1,500 original titles. Last year alone, Netflix released more original shows in 2019 than the entire television industry did for the year 2005. Narrowing down the best original Netflix shows was not easy, so a few pieces of criteria needed to be met. First, the show must have more than one season (sorry, The Witcher and Russian Doll). Second, it has to be truly original--not just an exclusive release in America (sorry, Peaky Blinders). Lastly, anything audiences to have to do mental gymnastics to justify watching the series in its entirety due to out-of-show behavior (House of Cards, You, etc.). With all of these pesky rules out of the way, let’s look at some of the best original shows on Netflix.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Netflix knows that true crime sells, and Mindhunter is an absolute dream come true for the network, despite its current state of “indefinite hold.” 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.
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 another series 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.
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.
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.
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