For all its flaws, you could never accuse Netflix of lacking content. The current granddaddy of the streaming services is bursting at the seams with stuff, some of it great, some of it not great, and a large proportion of it sitting somewhere in between. With such a bounty of viewing options from which to choose, how do you separate the wheat from the chaff, and, more importantly, stop a potential nugget from slipping through the proverbial net?
From little-seen documentaries to underappreciated sitcoms and dramas, here are 15 underrated Netflix shows to watch that’ll make you the most interesting person in the room. Probably.
Originally airing on BBC 3 way back in 2012, Greg Davies-fronted sitcom Cuckoo caused a minor stir for its snaring of some high profile American talent to join its ranks from across the pond. SNL star Andy Samberg was initially cast as the eponymous Cuckoo, an aimlessly idealistic drifter who ends up shacking up with the middle-of-the-road Thompson family after a dalliance with the clan’s daughter. Sadly scheduling conflicts made Samberg’s continued presence on the show somewhat untenable and he was forced to depart after a solitary season.
In a move that pretty no one could predict, in came Twilight star and shirtless ab enthusiast Taylor Lautner to fill his on-screen father’s shoes, a casting choice so odd it would’ve been less jarring seeing Rowan Atkinson appearing in an episode of The Wire. Yet the gamble paid off, Lautner’s irresistibly naive charm clashing nicely with Greg Davies’ knack for stern-faced middle-class outrage to birth a show that was as gently amusing as it was sincerely sweet.
Cuckoo may have lost its way now that Lautner has departed to horizons new, but it’s well worth checking out the little-vaunted sitcom that thrived on its star’s undeniably affable charisma.
14. Aunty Donna’s Big Ol’ House of Fun
While Brits like to think of ourselves as the undeniable kings of the comedy circuit (not that we’d ever admit it), it’s becoming increasingly obvious that we’re very much not the only kids on the comedic block. America has been churning out bold and original comedy for the past twenty years, its deep pool of talent, not to mention access to far more cash sloshing around, keeping output at the American laughter factory at an enviable high.
Less vaunted and perhaps less prolific but certainly no less capable in the comedy stakes are our Antipodean cousins. Both the Aussies and the New Zealanders (woe betide anyone who mixes up the two) have been hugely influential players on the comic scene, shows such as Flight of the Conchords, Summer Heights High and Wilfried proving that having a sense of humour is by no means restricted to being resident north of the equator.
Continuing this proud tradition of mirth is Aunty Donna’s Big Ol’ House of Fun, a whacky, high-energy but decidedly un-shit showcase of the Australian trio’s considerable knack for self-consciously goofy character comedy. Formerly a semi-indie YouTube series (also well worth checking out), Aunty Donna’s transition to the big leagues has seen no dissipation of the magic that made its original incarnation so enjoyable.
13. Dead Pixels
TV hasn’t always been kind to the world of video games. When it wasn’t nakedly insulting or mocking the medium from its untouchable TV tower, the small screen was treating video games as though they were the sole cause of every single one of society’s ills, from antisocial behaviour to ADHD, loneliness and even cultural decline.
The truth of the matter, as we all know, is that video games are fun, engaging and make you highly attractive to the opposite, or indeed same, sex. It’s Always Sunny’s Rob Mcelhenney is already fighting the good fight via his excellent Apple TV series Vision Quest, but some credit must go to a smaller, lesser-known creation called Dead Pixels, first shown on E4 in 2019.
Following the real-world and virtual adventures of a trio of MMORPG enthusiasts, Dead Pixels manages to showcase the online world of escapism and fulfilment in a way that isn’t completely couched in the pejorative. Remember that South Park episode where Cartman becomes obsessed with World of Warcraft and refuses to leave his basement? Yeah. Not that.
Late 2000’s E4 dramedy Misfits has gained something of a cult reputation among British audiences in the ten or so years since it first aired, a reputation that has only continued to grow, albeit somewhat glacially, thanks to the considerable boost most shows enjoy when featured on a major international streaming service.
Following the misadventures of a group of juvenile offenders who obtain unusual supernatural powers from an electrical storm while performing community service, the show helped launch the careers of a number of household acting talents, including Game of Thrones’ Iwan Rheon and Umbrella Academy’s Robert Sheehan.
Strange, quirky and especially strong in its earlier seasons, Misfits represents the potential greatness that can materialise when obscure digital channels are sufficiently trusted to take creative risks.
11. Marco Polo
The world wasn’t kind to Marco Polo. Not the real-life Marco Polo (although I’m sure he had his fair share of hardships), but the big-budget Netflix series that blazed the trail for the streaming service’s move into original programming. Big, shiny and expensive yet beloved by neither critics or fans (certainly in its first season), Marco Polo picked itself up for its sophomore run to finally fulfil much of the potential its setup had promised.
It was too little, too late for Marco and his adventures with the Mongol Empire. The show failed to earn its recommission for the third round of episodes and instead fell back into the pages of history as other more successful original efforts took the limelight and plaudits instead. Such a demise was ultimately a great shame, however, Marco Polo exhibiting many of the factors that would many later shows of its ilk so popular.
Marco Polo might never have gained the fame and glory it could so easily have achieved, but it exhibited a show willing to take a risk in order to succeed, and for that, it deserves some recognition.
AI and robotics have become extremely fashionable topics as of late. Thanks to Elon Musk, Charlie Brooker and the real-world likelihood that we will all one day succumb to the might of Skynet’s all-knowing group mind, the cultural zeitgeist is peppered with shows exploring themes of human identity, our relationship with technology and the existential threat of sophisticated, sentient hardware.
Fronted in part by future Eternals star Gemma Chan, Humans follows an alternative humanity’s relationship with robotic humanoid replicants called “synths” as they are increasingly integrated into society and the domestic sphere.
While it may not tread a huge amount of genuinely new ground, Channel 4 hit brings enough depth, originality and, fittingly, humanity to make its subject matter engaging and novel as well as challenging and somewhat unsettling.
If a big, broody hunk of Tom Hardy clad in black (or nothing at all) looking mean and miserable is your bag and you’ve just finished your Peaky Blinders boxset, Taboo is your next logical port of call. Be warned, however, that as the show’s title suggests, there’s little in the way of sunshine and rainbows amongst the BBC series co-created by Hardy himself.
Centered around Hardy’s James Delaney and his return to England from Africa following the death of his father, Taboo offers a lens into 19th English London via a distinctly murky lens, a grim, slow-moving affair short on jokes and heavy on furrowed brows. That said, there’s a lot to like about a show that sticks resolutely to its creative vision, especially one boasting such an impressive cast the BBC production has at its disposal.
Those looking for full immersion in something deep, dank and a little disturbing should find plenty to enjoy from the world of Taboo.
8. Love, Death & Robots
If Humans doesn’t quite sate your appetite for robotics, big philosophical questions and the theme of existential dread, Netflix-made Love, Death & Robots may be just the thing to fill that gaping hole in your circuitry.
A lovingly crafted sci-fi anthology series that benefits from its format far more than it is ever hindered by it, Love, Death & Robots has ticked along on Netflix for a while without ever emerging into the sort of mega-hit that could rival heavy-hitting juggernauts such as Stranger Things, The Queen’s Gambit or Tiger King. The weird, often dark and extremely varied anthology series swims far more often than it sinks, and it’s an underrated Netflix show that deserves a far wider audience.
7. Wild Wild Country
Netflix has carved out a serious reputation for its production of heavyweight documentaries of late, acclaimed examples such as Making a Murderer and The Tinder Swindler often cited as one of the predominant reasons for subscribers willingly shelling out for their ever-rising subscription fees.
Perhaps less known but certainly of no less value is Wild Wild Country, a detailed and engrossing account of Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his group of followers based in Wasco County, Oregon. Billed as a retrospective expose into the strange sometimes disturbing world of Rajneesh’s rural cult, Wild Wild Country doesn’t flinch from showing a group of people intent on stripping away the boundaries of social propriety in the name of their so-called guru’s teachings. What this often translates into, however, appears to be a great deal of (often sexual) exploitation.
However strange and disturbing the activities shown in Wild Wild Country, it’s hard not to be as entranced and transfixed as the practitioners and cult members the doc shows in vivid, uninhibited detail.
There’s more to Netflix than true crime documentaries and forgotten British comedies. Never scared of taking a diversion away from the mainstream, Netflix’s decision to upload Caliphate to its bulging roster may have ended up with the Swedish drama becoming lost in a sea of content, but there’s no excuse for not fishing it out and enjoying it all the same.
Mature, even-handed and chillingly effective, Caliphate follows the lives of five women as an impending terror attack threatens Swedish national security. What’s so affecting about Caliphate is its plausibility, not in peddling erroneous, generalised and harmful garbage about certain cultures, but rather in examining, on a political and personal level, the ensuing fallout that inevitably occurs when seemingly opposing belief systems clash.
The chilling effectiveness of the show’s extremist ISIS recruiters, for instance, and the susceptibility of all sides to be taken in by dangerous doctrine, send chills that reach the bone.
5. Into the Badlands
Appropriately enough, it feels like martial-arts based adventure series Into the Badlands spent a lot of its time fighting for its very survival. Originally premiering on AMC in 2015 and lasting for three whole seasons before succumbing to the network’s unforgiving axe, there was still a lot to like from a show that pretty much exactly what it set out to: punching, kicking, people with big swords trying to chop one another up in the post-apocopytic wastes.
Into the Badlands was admittedly very silly, but silly in the sort of way that made it endearing rather than irritating, never losing the sense of fun that made it such an enjoyable, if rather ephemeral watch. Even if the narrative was somewhat flimsy (as, occasionally, were the production values), no-one could deny the brutal choreography of its immaculately orchestrated fight scenes. Lots of fun, very underrated, and sadly gone before its time.
One of Netflix’s core strengths is its unmatched variety. While it would’ve been easy for the streaming giant to have played things safe in order to harbour as broad an appeal as possible from its output, there’s no doubt that many of its best creations have exhibited an off-kilter charm rarely seen even on traditional programming schedules.
Nowhere is this more in evidence than Happy!, a quite deliberately off the wall comedy-drama that follows the trials and tribulations of an unhinged hitman accompanied all the time by an imaginary blue flying unicorn. Happy! is completely, self-consciously deranged, at times to the extent that it crosses over its own line, but as far as guilty pleasures go, Happy! Is a blood-soaked, bone-crunching treat.
Jonah Hill has come such a long way since Superbad. It’s been said before, of course, but it’s always worth appreciating the fact that the LA-born actor and comic has far more strings to his bow than he is often given credit for. Nowhere is this more in evidence than Maniac, a darkly comic miniseries thriller that premiered on Netflix in 2018 and followed two strangers’ experience at a pharmaceutical trail in a futuristic imagining of New York.
What’s remarkable for such an underrated and unheralded show like Maniac is the massive levels of talent it had working on it despite its relatively small, unprepossessing nature. The show’s creator, Patrick Somerville, may have been a household name, but co-development from Cary Joji Fukunaga (later of No Time to Die fame), not to mention a cast boasting Emma Stone, Justine Theroux, Sally Field and Hill himself, is no amateur production.
Beautifully made, expertly handled and emotionally resonant, Maniac showcases its cast and crew performing at the peak of their powers.
Spaced’s position as one of the best British comedies of the last twenty years is not up for discussion, the gently surreal antics of Tim Bisley, Daisy Steiner and their wacky (but never irritating) gang of misfit friends a delight from the first view to the thousandth. It’s no exaggeration to say that Spaced may well be the finest work of either director Edgar Wright or writers Simon Pegg and Jessica Stephenson in their long and esteemed careers.
Spaced isn’t just funny and extremely well-constructed, it’s also a creative, layered, visually dense little powerhouse of a sitcom that bursts with unmistakably identity and warmth. The talents of all involved, particularly Edgar Wright and his distinctive visual style, are all crystalised by one of their smallest, least appreciated creations.
Spaced is uncynical, untrendy and completely accessible to everyone, and for that reason, it’s everyone’s duty to seek it out on Netflix.
Few shows on Netflix are as challenging as German-American drama series Unorthodox. The first-ever Netflix series to use Yiddish as its primary language, the show follows the tribulations of Etsy, a young Jewish woman already trapped in an arranged marriage thanks to her membership of an ultra-Orthodox community based in Brooklyn, New York.
After a pregnant Etsy flees to Berlin and begins to question the values taught to her by her strict religious upbringing, she risks a clash with her husband and the community she thought she had left behind.
Unorthodox isn’t an easy watch, but it treats its subject matter with the care and respect it deserves, anchored by its brilliant star in the form of Shira Haas combined with the authenticity and honesty of the Deborah Feldman biography on which the show is based. What’s more, Unorthodox humanises every one of its three-dimensional characters with care and respect, never boiling things down to the lazy dichotomy of right and wrong.
We’re certainly supposed to side with Etsy’s plight for self-actualisation, but Unorthodox pushes its viewers to understand why her family are so appalled and outraged by her rejection of everything they hold dear. One of Netflix’s most underrated yet blisteringly brilliant gems, Unorthodox is as boldly challenging as it is grippingly compelling.
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