In anticipation of the release of the second season of Netflix’s brilliant true story drama Narcos, I’m counting down my top ten Netflix Original Series.
Netflix has had unprecedented success since launching their original series about three and a half years ago with the first season of House of Cards. Since then, we’ve had a stream of funny, inventive and hugely entertaining content that makes it hard to figure out what exactly to watch next. To help you figure out how to make the most of your own or your friend/family member/ex’s Netflix subscription, here are my ten favourite shows created and released by Netflix.
(10) Lady Dynamite
For those who love off-the-wall chaotic dark comedy
Maria Bamford’s wonderfully wacky and poignant sitcom in which she plays a fictionalised version of herself struggling with mental illness is certainly one of Netflix’s more challenging shows. The show bounces around chronologically, exploring Maria’s mentality before and after her time spent recovering in an asylum for bipolar disorder, and the show skilfully draws parallels between the two time periods to explore the changes in her behaviour.
What makes the show such a breath of fresh air is that Bamford is unafraid to create an honest depiction of her illness – where many other shows excessively dramatise or feel the need to labour a tragic heroic Emmy-y quality onto these kinds of themes (I’m looking at you Carrie Mathison), Lady Dynamite finds the dark humour in everyday mundane failures. The show’s most iconic touch is its ending of every episode with a sung ‘I don’t know why I’m doing more than half of the time’, perfectly identifying its chaotic mission statement.
It’s often difficult to watch, and doesn’t always hit the mark head on, but when its creator and protagonist is so engrossing it’s hard to look away. Lady Dynamite is wonderfully judgement-free, indulging in a dream like cascade through incredibly dark and serious themes, and if the viewer gives in to its rich density there’s loads to enjoy here. It’s like nothing else.
(9) Marvel’s Daredevil
For those who love fast-paced but brooding superhero action
When Daredevil works, it’s a slick and engaging superhero show about the dual identities of blind Matt Murdock. When it doesn’t, it’s a dull incoherent mess. Fans of the Marvel films will no doubt love every second of the show’s brooding intensity, yet the show has a tendency to sacrifice character in the service of flashy action.
The first season serves up some stellar flashback episodes, namely ‘Cut Man’, ‘Stick’, ‘Shadows in the Glass’ and ‘Kinbaku’ that showcase some of the incredible individuals within the cast, but often the ensemble becomes bogged down in the show’s less interesting supporting characters. Sister series Jessica Jones suffered from similar issues, to the extent that its brilliant core relationship between Krysten Ritter’s Jessica and David Tennant’s Kilgrave became drowned out by the dull exploits of its expanded cast. Daredevil is far more well-rounded, but I still found myself enjoying it the most when it focussed in to tell a single character story, as in the episodes mentioned above.
Charlie Cox is wonderfully charming, and Vincent D’Onofrio’s terrifying Wilson Fisk possesses a charisma and depth that makes the first season so utterly compelling. It’s a shame that the second season lacks this kind of focus, sidelining Jon Bernthal’s Punisher in favour of a messy ninja story that fizzles out abruptly in the season finale. Elodie Yung’s initial promise as Matt’s love interest Elektra becomes lost in inconsistent character beats and over-plotting.
Nonetheless, this is a must-watch for any superhero fans. Others may find the show’s inconsistency a turn-off, even though the best episodes and moments are spectacular. Brace yourself for the most jaw-dropping small-screen fight choreography you’ll see this year.
(8) Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
For those who love charming and quickfire cartoonish comedy
Tina Fey’s charming and cartoon-like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt may at times feel like a lighter version of classic 30 Rock but at its best is dark, funny and probing. The series follows Kimmy Schmidt, who at the start of the first episode has just been released from 15-year captivity by a religious nutcase, and must come to terms with a world vastly different from the one of her childhood.
The show is characterised by over-dramatic flair, and the main cast are strong if not spectacular, with Jane Krakowski’s rich mother Jacqueline often feeling like a re-tread of her seven-year stint as Jenna Maroney. The real standout is without a doubt Tituss Burgess’ Titus Andromedon, Kimmy’s flamboyantly gay roommate attempting to find his theatrical break. His self-penned rendition of song Pinot Noir is brilliantly hilarious and memorable.
The first season is a consistent build to a strong second half that culminates in a confrontation between captives and ex-captor. The second season is sadly far less consistent, adopting a focus on Kimmy’s relationship with her mother that fails to come to a satisfying climax. However, Tina Fey’s return as drunk therapist Andrea in ‘Kimmy Meets a Drunk Lady!’ is a singular series high that serves up one of the funniest and moving comedy half-hours of the year.
If you’re looking for a light-hearted and glowing comedy that hops on deeper themes, this is absolutely the one for you.
(7) House of Cards
For those who love epic and conspiratorial political drama
Netflix’s flagship political drama House of Cards oozes style from every pore. It’s visually precise and slow-paced, treating each and every scene with importance as though a crucial plot detail could occur at any single moment. It’s flawlessly well-made, has two compelling leads, but often it’s so lost in its world of intrigue that it can be ludicrous and melodramatic.
Let me explain: the show follows Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood, a vicious and manipulative politician who seeks to obtain and control the presidency by any means possible. For the show’s first two seasons, he’s untouchable and always in control. He’s fascinating to watch but he’s the only one in the show who is. Wife Claire (Robin Wright) gets bogged down in lengthy and unrelated side-plots. The show’s numerous supporting characters flow around and move to Spacey’s beat. It all moves with purpose and drama but there’s nothing going on underneath.
After a dramatic end to the second season, the third and fourth mark a distinct change in the series, proving unpopular with some fans of the first two. Claire slowly becomes a significant player, antagonists Jackie Sharp, Heather Dunbar, Victor Petrov and Will Conway rise to become legitimate threats, and most importantly Frank Underwood ceases to be an invincible super villain. The series bread and butter remains the same, yet it’s now buzzing with an instability and excitement.
The flaws remain but House of Cards has an incredible draw, more so than ever. For a show entering its fifth season that’s impressive. This precise political noir is still twisty to the point of ridiculousness but it wouldn’t be House of Cards if it wasn’t.
For those who love theatrical and slow-building family drama
Often overlooked, intense drama Bloodline follows the Rayburn family in the wake of the return of black sheep brother Danny to the show’s picture perfect Florida setting. This is the first show on this list that’s not over the top or abrupt – it telegraphs all its moves from afar and executes them meticulously, and its realistic characters and motivations place it above House of Cards on this list.
Kyle Chandler’s John Rayburn is initially presented as the family’s morally incorruptible golden boy, but when faced with the threat of humiliation by his brother he takes actions that show him to be anything but. Flashbacks echo and foreshadow the series’ build to tragedy, highlighting the genetic selfishness and self-preservation that run through all four siblings of the family. Linda Cardellini is as wonderful as ever as despicably selfish lawyer sister Meg, while Norbert Leo Butz delivers a less even performance as incompetent brother Kevin.
This is not a show that goes out of its way to make the characters likeable, and the second season takes far too long to work its way back to being interesting from the first season’s finale, but the acting and writing feel so REAL and on point that it never ceases to be utterly compelling and brutal for too long. Ben Mendelssohn gives a career-best performance as Danny Rayburn, toeing a haunting line between justified protagonist and vengeful antagonist.
(5) Master of None
For those who love funny and self-aware indie cinema
Master of None walks a line somewhere between conventional sitcom format and continental indie film. The confidence and precision with which Aziz Ansari approaches each episode’s big theme or topic is undoubtedly impressive, although at times can veer into preachy and patronising territory. Exploring parenthood, racism, sexism, infidelity, old age and most prominently romance, this is one of the few shows driven entirely by conceptual probing.
A wonderful relationship arc is weaved through ‘Nashville’, ‘Mornings’ and ‘Finale’, providing some heart-tugging moments that came as somewhat of a surprise. Noel Wells’ performance as Rachel provides the perfect partner to Ansari’s Dev, and the two are eminently watchable on screen together.
It’s hard to fault Master of None after accepting its premise – the show knows exactly what it is and what it is doing and executes it near perfectly. It’s warm and easy to watch and definitely deserving of a rich and loyal viewership. I highly recommend giving this lovely little show a go.
(4) Orange is the New Black
For those who love great shows and are open-minded
Orange is the New Black is probably the most universally beloved show on Netflix and with good reason. In an era of television that continues to sideline and cheapen the writing of female characters, it’s a joy to watch a show with such a huge roster unrivalled in diversity to draw upon. Where Taylor Schilling’s Piper Chapman used to be the main protagonist, the show has now built and built its cast to such an extent that it’s become an epic sprawling show without a single focus.
Everything that happens in Litchfield Penitentiary has consequences elsewhere. A change in the prison guard as a result of a scandal with one group of characters might provide an opportunity for underhand activities for another group. One character might find comfort from an unexpected encounter with another random inmate. It all flows together and coheres perfectly. Even when one plotline might be weaker, there are almost always ten other interesting things occurring at the same time.
It’s hard to find anyone of a reasonable age that I wouldn’t recommend the show to – it’s a combination of funny, exciting and emotional that makes it a breath of fresh air from many of the excessively-serious popular shows that characterise this era of television. For whatever mood you’re in, Orange is the New Black is certain to satisfy, and probably challenge some preconceptions while it’s at it.
For those who love Martin Scorsese films or historical thrillers
Narcos may be grounded and inspired by true events, yet there’s a kind of inherent magic to its depiction of the life of Columbian drug lord Pablo Escobar. Flawlessly made, exciting and totally enthralling, the show’s self-referential narration and enamoured tone often makes it feel like a Scorsese film, albeit one steeped heavily in real-life history and culture.
Wagner Moura portrays Escobar with a strange combination of menace and lovability – the drug lord is both family man and ruthless dictator, both popular icon and hated enemy of the state. The show is an epic tragedy, leading to a lengthy and nail-biting stalemate between police and cartel that breaks down the show’s leads, leaving no one’s moral integrity unscathed.
As with great television anti-heroes such as Walter White or Cersei Lannister, we want Escobar neither to fail nor to succeed. And all of this is enhanced by the fact that the show is based in true events! While some liberties are inevitably taken, the spirit and duality of the political situation from the time is perfectly captured by Narcos and the show is yet to put a single foot wrong.
I cannot wait for the second season, and to see what creative direction Narcos is taken from there.
(2) Stranger Things
For those who love Steven Spielberg, John Carpenter or the Eighties
Where Narcos pays homage to a history of biopic crime cinema, Stranger Things is an incredibly faithful pastiche of the family and horror films of the 1980s, in particular Spielberg and Carpenter. The result is truly spectacular, resulting in a be-dazzlingly beautiful, stylish and nostalgic opening season cast to perfection.
The atmospheric soundtrack pulses with synth and electronics, enhancing the series’ cinematic visuals. It doesn’t feel like watching a TV show, it feels like watching a film. The show is pumped full of cultural references, feeling at times like a cross between ET and The Thing. Don’t be fooled by the fact that a group of kids are protagonists – Stranger Things is mature and frightening, as much in the horror genre as the sci-fi.
From the first episode, it is clear who the important characters are, and while some criticism has been levelled towards stereotypical schoolgirl Nancy, I’d argue that she is still an excellently crafted character, albeit not the show’s best. But that’s a tall order when the competition is Winona Ryder’s frantic badass mother Joyce, or David Harbour’s rugged good-natured Chief Hopper, or Millie Bobby Brown’s traumatised psychic Eleven, or perhaps most of all Gaten Matarazzo’s hilarious and charming schoolkid Dustin.
I can’t wait to watch Stranger Things again. I have no doubt it’ll be just as thrilling and funny and moving as the first time through.
(1) Bojack Horseman
For those who love dark wacky humour, deep self-reflection and references to popular culture
Bojack Horseman isn’t for everyone. The show’s brash and uncomfortable tone is sure to put many off, as shown by its alienation of many critics upon initial release. The show hinges on the viewer’s ability to become sympathetic and affectionate towards its titular protagonist, a task that may at first seem impossible, and to be drawn into the comic self-destructive downward spiral at the show’s heart. But it’s this combination of melancholia and colourful insanely wacky animated setting that makes it one of the best TV shows in production.
The show follows Bojack Horseman (a perfectly cast Will Arnett), failed actor and ex-sitcom star who spends most of his time abusing those around him in an attempt to combat his own deep-set sense of inadequacy. He’s also a horse. Where Bojack is pessimistic and toxic, rival star Mr. Peanutbutter is endlessly optimistic and joyful, as is adventurous sofa-surfer Todd, crucial elements that stop the show from ever feeling like a misery fest. Bojack’s ghostwriter and Mr. Peanutbutter’s fiancee Diane Nyugen finds herself caught between the series’ dual worlds of cold reality and animated frivolity, a conflict articulated in ‘Zoes and Zeldas’.
The clashing perspectives are a match made in heaven. Take for example the game show plotline that drives Bojack‘s second season, a show humorously titled ‘Hollywoo Stars and Celebrities: What Do They Know? Do They Know Things?? Let’s Find Out!’. When Mr. Peanutbutter confronts Bojack about a certain misdeed live on air, it’s a tense and touching moment, but at the same time it’s an artistic victory for author J.D.Salinger who has created the show SOLELY to achieve that moment of catharsis on air.
There is nowhere that Bojack Horseman is unafraid to go and no theme the show will not explore. Expect murder mysteries, sexual manipulation, eco-terrorism, drug abuse, Oscar campaigning, media exploitation, unusual sexual identities and spaghetti themed catastrophe all in one amazing show. This is my favourite show on Netflix, and it’s in this top spot because it combines so many of the great things about the other wonderful shows on this list – it’s weird, funny, epic, exciting, dark, insightful and challenging.
Written by Tom Besley