Remember when Netflix wasn’t a threat to conventional television? When streaming was going to be just a niche market for hipster millennials? Let’s face it, us millennials are the worst, with our participation trophies and our half-assed vegetarianism. We’re literally so narcissistic we’re going to destroy the world with our Facebook feeds and Twitter feuds and watching all this TV on the internet. Why did we have to ruin everything?
That got away from me there, sorry. But hey, since we’re talking about Netflix and the age of streaming, what about all those original shows they’ve been doing. Five years ago, Netflix and Lovefilm were where you went to get the first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer sent to your post box. Now Lovefilm has become Amazon Prime and along with Netflix has become the cutting edge of our media consumption. The question is, are any of these Netflix shows as good as what’s on primetime TV? Well, my friend, have I got a list for you.
9. Master of None
Aziz Ansari usually plays smug assholes, so when he wrote and starred as struggling actor Dev, the biggest surprise was how likable he was as a leading man. He’s a cool guy whose world is changing around him: friends are marrying, having kids, growing up and moving on. For a few episodes Dev feels lost in this transformation, then without realising it finds himself in the midst of a romantic comedy.
Master of None feels like a name tacked on at the end, as if it’s only there because every show needs to be called something. It’s not about a master of nothing. What it’s really about is Dev and Noël Wells’s Rachel, two people who meet and fall for each other right at the moment society expects them to turn into boring family people. Dev and Rachel are in the death throes of the fun, wild part of adulthood. They go to hip bars and still have dreams but as the series goes on,despite all the great laughs and smart observations, it feels like everything is on the clock.
8. House of Cards
Kevin Spacey is a terrific actor, and at one time,House of Cards might have ranked as Netflix’s best original. The sinister machinations of Frank Underwood stalking through Capitol Hill gave the corridors of power a sense of grandeur. The white painted walls and ornate staircases felt soaked in the memories of important decisions. Spacey fits compellingly in them as a sociopath who sees no method as off the table in his pursuit of power. It’s earned the guy a Golden Globe, and rightly so. Underwood’s ascent to the Oval Office is the ultimate story of the villain as the protagonist.
What makes House of Cards bearable, especially for someone like me who’s not big into watching bad guys as main characters, is Underwood’s habit of Shakespearean asides. He’s talking to us. We are complicit in his actions. Every deception, murder, and betrayal is on us because Frank lays out every sordid plan directly to the camera. While we might have become used to it by now, it’s actually pure genius. By being party to his plans, we are another member of his conspiracy. And without realising it, we’re suddenly rooting for a monster to win.
7. Luke Cage
Who knew Marvel had this in them? Off the back of delivering a better version of Batman than Batman (Daredevil) and an oh-so-timely neo-noir feminist saga (Jessica Jones), Marvel’s next Netflix story asked what it was like to be a person of colour in modern America. Luke Cage built on the unique lighting and raw cinematography of Daredevil and Jessica Jones with an outstanding hip hop soundtrack and some powerful, pertinent themes.
Mike Colter as Luke Cage revealed ever deeper sides to his character after his supporting role in Jessica Jones. Meanwhile, Marvel’s Harlem might be the most fleshed out world we’ve seen in one of these shows yet. An underwhelming villain and a puzzling mid-season course change hurt Luke Cage somewhat, but great writing and a well picked cast hold things together. Rosario Dawson is excellent again as Claire Temple, while Simone Missick is a revelation as Detective Misty Knight. If you’re on the fence I’d say give it a shot. It has more to say than Daredevil and its world feels more integral to its story than Jessica Jones.
6. Grace and Frankie
Sometimes the formula for making a show funny is simple: bring together two all-time great actresses with more than a hundred years experience between them. Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin probably didn’t need a career renaissance – they’re probably likely pretty comfortably with their cinematic legacies secure– but it’s probably a good thing Grace and Frankie happened. See, Grace and Frankie aren’t exactly pals. Their social interactions have always existed largely due to the close friendship of their husbands, Robert and Sol, long time colleagues at a San Diego law firm.
Except it turns out they’re more than just partners professionally. They’re lovers, and have been for twenty years. This first episode revelation upturns the lives of Grace and Frankie, who find themselves living together and slowly but surely becoming friends. A mixture of character driven humour and sly family observations turns the show into a quietly addictive comedy. Whether it’s Frankie and Grace getting back into the dating scene or the chaotic lives of their families, it’s both funny yet surprisingly compelling. Martin Sheen as Robert, Sam Waterston as Sol and June Diane Raphael as Grace’s elder daughter Brianna are stand outs of the supporting cast, but it’s Tomlin and Fonda that make this a hit.
We all like a good crime saga now and again, and Marvel clearly thought the same thing. With a series of distinct genre blockbusters under their belt, turning to prestige TV presumably felt like the next logical step. When Daredevil dropped its entire first season at once in March 2015, it quickly became Netflix most popular original series ever. At the time, it made its closest comparable TV rival, The CW’s Arrow, look like fast food superhero melodrama.
You’re going to hear me say this a lot on this list, but great writing, great casting and a clear sense of its own identity were keys to success here. Charlie Cox as Matt Murdock and Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk owned the screen whenever they were on it. And even now, there hasn’t been another show with such unique fight sequences. Deborah Ann Woll as Karen Page and Elden Henson as Foggy Nelson have sometimes been misused, but provide a surprisingly grounded normality with which to contrast the bloody night time crime fighting at the centre of Daredevil’s narrative.
4. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Netflix’s first big sitcom proved one thing: Ellie Kemper is legit. If you’d seen her in the later years of The Office, or glimpsed her in Bridesmaids, you probably already suspected. It’s as the ultra upbeat survivor of an underground doomsday cult though, that Kemper put herself on the map. Kimmy Schmidt just wants to start a new life in New York. Unfortunately that means rooming with the drama loving Titus (Titus Burgess) and working for Jane Krakowski’s ‘Real Housewife’ inspired socialite.
I’ve compared Kimmy Schmidt to 30 Rock before, but it’s a comparison that holds up. Both shows come from the mind of Tina Fey, with the same zany humour and absurd situations. Hilariously offbeat music videos, people burying dead robots and a guy dressed in an Iron Man costume are just par for the course. This is still the best sitcom Netflix has produced, and can give most primetime comedies a run for their money.
3. Stranger Things
Horror really isn’t usually my jazz. I’ve never watched a Nightmare on Elm Street movie and I’ve seen two thirds of a Friday the 13th film. But there’s something that reels you in about Stranger Things‘ mix of small town 80s nostalgia and slowly revealed Lovecraftian horror. There’s a distinct Twilight Zone feel to whatever’s lurking out in the woods around the town of Hawkins, Indiana. Did you hear there’s a government facility out there? No, I’m sure it’s got nothing to do with that kid that disappeared yesterday. He probably skidded off the cliff and fell into the lake. Don’t worry about it.
Stranger Things is amazingly directed and pulls a hopefully career changing performance from Winona Ryder as the distraught mother of the missing boy. What makes the show so great, however, is how much of it feels told from the perspectives of 12 year old friends Mike, Dustin and Lucas. The heart of the story is of three kids who play Dungeons and Dragons in one of their parents’ basements. To them the world is still fantastical, and the thing lurking in the woods could be anything. Also, the short haired girl they meet out there on their bikes might have super powers – but to a 12 year old who plays Dungeons and Dragons, that’s just something that doesn’t need explaining.
2. Jessica Jones
If Daredevil was Marvel declaring it can make prestige TV, Jessica Jones was proof it could wade into a very important conversation and say something meaningful. Without ever being heavy handed Jessica Jones is one of the most powerful explorations of sexual abuse and its consequences ever to air on the small screen. Jones as a troubled survivor of such abuse is strong yet damaged in a way that feels honest, and for a show notionally about comic book characters it feels a lot more grown up than most network television.
Don’t get me wrong though, this is still a superhero detective show. Krysten Ritter’s Jones can throw people through doors with super strength and spends most of the series doing private detective stuff. David Tennant’s Kilgrave is chilling in his sickly charm, putting him in the top five Marvel Cinematic Universe villain list with the likes of Loki and Kingpin. The neo-noir infused world Jessica Jones creates – the dingy corridor outside her unkempt apartment, the New York parks and bars – are primed with character by smart direction and a perfect musical score. Even if you find all the Avengers movies too bombastic, you should still give this one a try.
1. Orange is the New Black
This is not a discussion. Orange is the New Black is the best show Netflix has ever produced. Slowly sucking you in to the grim reality of Litchfield prison, OITNB starts with a cast of minor, seemingly inconsequential characters orbiting its protagonist Piper Chapman. It turns out, though, that no character is incidental. Everyone in Lichfield has a different story, and four seasons in none of them have been boring yet.
Piper Chapman, the white middle-class snowflake of the show, and her journey is a testament to how smart the show and its writers are. As OITNB became more and more an ensemble, Piper leaned in to just how much of a self interested douche bag she really was. And it was great. The rest of the characters are also stellar, so much so that to pick out star turns would mean listing most of the cast. Danielle Brooks as Tasha ‘Taystee’ Jefferson, Yael Stone as Lorna Morello and Laverne Cox as Sophia Burset spring to mind as particular stand outs, but we could be here all day. Suffice to say there aren’t any weak links here, and some of the stories take apparently two dimensional characters to seriously poignant places.
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