The 20 best TV box-sets on Netflix
The scheduling straightjacket has been thrown off, replaced by a loose, comfortable gown we call Netflix.
These days, we can pick and choose what we want to watch, and when we want to watch it. And nowhere is that more revolutionary than with the good old-fashioned TV series. Netflix is packed with them: hundreds upon hundreds of hours of glorious televisual treats across pretty much every genre there is.
In fact, it's what made the streaming service the must-have TV power-up it is today: would it really be so popular were it not for original commissions such as House Of Cards or see-it-here-first super-shows such as Breaking Bad? Nope: while you may come to Netflix for the movies, you stay for the box-sets.
But as is always the case with Netflix, it's a tricky business filtering the visual plankton in search of the oysters of excellence. So we've done it for you: below you'll find 20 fantastic TV shows that should keep you occupied for the entire year.
Better Call Saul
Spin-off TV series rarely replicate the magic of their parent shows but, like the Cheers-spawned Frasier before it, Better Call Saul manages to succeed by creating its own magic. Set six years before the events of Breaking Bad, it follows the early legal career of Saul Goodman – then known as Jimmy McGill – a former conman trying to make it work on the right side of the law.
While the stakes never get as butt-clenchingly high as they are for Walter White and friends in Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul manages to emerge from its shadow to deliver a series that is funny, engrossing and almost as binge-worthy as its predecessor. It's currently two seasons in, and we'll happily take a whole bunch more.
Dysfunctional families have been done to death on both the big screen and TV, but the Bluths are up there with the most self-centred, destructive and, well, downright hilarious bunch of the lot.
Straight man George Bluth desperately tries to keep his family and fortune intact as their company is hit by the US government for embezzlement.
Superb performances from the likes of David Cross, coupled with tonnes of re-quote potential make this a must-watch. It gets a little lost after the first three seasons thanks to the actors' other projects clashing with filming, but it's still well worth watching until the very end.
This series, named after the 19th century Birmingham gang, is as good as anything else you'll find on Netflix. Led by the strangely likeable and very dangerous Tommy Shelby, it tells the tale of a razor-wielding crime family trying their very best to keep control of their city while avoiding the watchful Chief Inspector Chester Campbell.
CIllian Murphy grabs the spotlight and will absolutely not let go of it in one of the finest drama series produced by the BBC in recent years. Get ready to binge-watch both seasons of this historical gangster drama.
Not to be confused with the Coen brothers’ (also highly recommended, also on Netflix) movie that inspired it – and from which it draws its winning blend of dark deeds, intricate plotting, looming dread and comic “Minnesota nice” dialogue – this is yet another TV series that begs to be binge-watched over a weekend. And at a relatively modest eight episodes, that’s entirely doable.
Martin Freeman, Colin Hanks and Allison Tolman all deliver fine performances as residents of the snowbound titular town, but it’s Billy Bob Thornton, oozing malevolence and menace as drifter Lorne Malvo, who lingers longest in the memory.
The superb second series (which tells a completely different, also brilliant story) has recently finished airing on TV and will, with any luck, also hit Netflix before too long.
While there's a growing sensation that Marvel's cinema outings are getting steadily less appealing, its output for the small screen continues to impress, with Daredevil remaining the finest example.
Blind lawyer Matt Murdock (Boardwalk Empire’s Charlie Cox) turns crime-fighter by night, taking on the slum lords and gangsters that populate Hell’s Kitchen – but where the Avengers sketches in its four-colour heroics with a broad brush, Daredevil’s vigilantism is painted in shades of grey.
Murdock’s nocturnal outings sit uneasily alongside his legal profession, while the show’s big villain in the first series (Vincent D'Onofrio) wants to raise Hell’s Kitchen out of the dirt by any means necessary.
Making the most of its extended running time, the show’s able to show the wider consequences of its hero’s actions – not all of which are positive. And as of 18 March 2016, there's a second series of the show to watch, introducing new Marvel stalwarts to Murdock's murky world in the shape of Elektra and The Punisher.
If there were a graph that showed the tension levels of the tensest moment in the tensest thrillers in history, Homeland’s producers would have taken it, twisted it into an infinitesimally thin rope and used it to whip Stressed Eric’s pulsing temple vein until it popped.
Homeland is tense. It’s the story of the relationship between a CIA operative and a long-imprisoned ex-Marine, finally liberated from al-Qaeda and returned to America as a war hero – a hero with an abundance of devastating secrets.
It’s packed with award-winning performances, believably flawed characters, just enough politics and more twists that a box of Curly-Wurlys. It loses its way in the middle seasons, occasionally skirting utter daftness, but it’s always compulsive and entertaining – and the finale is breathtaking. To watch it is to learn to trust no-one, question everything and definitely not pursue a career as a spy. No fun at all, as it turns out.
If you’re not already an Andy Samberg fan (shame on you), Brooklyn Nine-Nine will make you one. That’s not to say he’s the only draw in this comedy cop show, though - the super-childish detective he plays is always at the centre of things, but each of the nutjobs he shares a precinct with have their own hilarious idiosyncrasies, not least of all the seemingly dry and dull Captain Holt.
It’s all as silly and immature as things get, and that’s just fine by us.
Cowboys in space! The premise sounds sublimely daft, but Joss Whedon's short-lived series is packed with character.
Nathan Fillion heads a rag-tag crew of ne'er-do-wells as they struggle to stay one step ahead of the law – and keep their spaceship flying. In its 14-episode run, it doesn't put a foot wrong; witty scripts, tension, memorable characters – Firefly's got them all. The Fox network didn't think so, though, and axed the series before it got off the ground.
A one-off film, Serenity – also available on Netflix – wraps up the dangling plotlines and provides a satisfying coda to the show.
Orange Is The New Black
Like House Of Cards, Orange Is the New Black is Netflix’s own series, and like House Of Cards it’s also raunchy, compelling and strongly plotted. And really funny too.
Based on actual events, it tells the story of a middle-class New Yorker who ends up in women’s prison for a crime committed ten years previously – and through flashbacks explores her life (and the colourful lives of her fellow inmates) before incarceration.
We're now three seasons into this excellent show, and there's a fourth coming later this year.
As epic small-screen sci-fi goes, Battlestar Galactica is light-years ahead of the competition. It's vast in every sense, spanning years in the lives of the titular ship's crew, leaping about from planet to planet and star system to star system and lasting for a whopping 75 episodes, of which two are feature-length standalone movies.
It's also expansive in its content, majoring in such themes as religion, trust, self-worth, addiction, love, death and what it means to be human. But if that sounds a little serious, don't worry - there's plenty of action too, as the few thousand human survivors of a system-wide catastrophe attempt to elude robotic bad guys and gals the Cylons.
It drags a little at times - as you'd expect in a series lasting this long - but it's required viewing for fans of a good old rip-roaring space opera.
House of Cards
Even if you know very little about the convoluted workings of US politics you'll find lots to love about House Of Cards.
Kevin Spacey's portrayal of a ruthless congressman's scrap to the top of the VIP pile is mesmerising, and the cold, clinical manner in which he partners up with his on-screen wife (Robin Wright), is brilliantly chilling.
Powerful acting, a gripping plot and, well, Kevin Spacey. It's worth getting a Netflix subscription for this alone.
Making a Murderer
While the filming of this 10-part documentary clearly started a long, long time ago (it's been 10 years in development), one suspects that the success of the Serial podcast is what got Netflix to buy and promote it as much as it has.
The comparisons are almost too easy and obvious, but there are differences and - more importantly - Making a Murderer stands up on its own.
Steven Avery served 18 years in prison for a horrible crime that he didn't commit, and the revelations about the police handling of that case could be a 10-part series of their own, but here that's just the start. You see, just two years after his exoneration, he's charged with a new crime: the brutal murder of a young woman. Given the circumstances of the previous case, the local Sheriff's involvement is under serious scrutiny, and to say there are suspicious inconsistencies is a massive understatement.
It's a long, often slow series, but it's also fascinating, deeply troubling, and will send shivers down your spine.
It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia
Narcissistic. Sociopathic. Sexist. Elitist. Delusional. And egos the size of a bull elephant. All descriptions that adequately fit every single member of staff at Paddy's Bar in Philadelphia.
From kidnapping cats to poisoning rivals, to stalking love interests and getting drunk at every opportunity, you're unlikely to ever find a group of people that you hate to love more.
Hilarity, madness (and Danny Devito in tight, tight skinny jeans) await.
Gareth's obsession with lesbians. Tim's hat radio. That dance. Fray Bentos. Keith eating a scotch egg. Monkey Alan in the warehouse. Brent's Princess Diana song. Gareth Keenan 'invetigates'. A stapler in jelly. The difference between dwarves, midgets and elves. Mr Sidney Poitier.
If you've never seen the original UK version of The Office, none of these things will be in the slightest bit funny. If you have, the mere mention of them should be enough to make you break out in a smile and decide to rewatch every episode. Right now.
Truly one of the greatest of all British comedies, The Office was hugely influential, unrelentingly hilarious and incredibly poignant, often all at the same time. Watch it. Right now.
Master of None
Comedian Aziz Ansari plays jobbing actor Dev in this 10-part series about life, love and tacos. Actually, one suspects Ansari is really playing himself (his real-life parents even play his onscreen parents here) and a big part of the charm is watching him work through various subjects over the course of the series.
It’s very self-obsessed and some will find the whimsy hard to stomach, but it's also funny, charming and occasionally thought-provoking. Well worth five hours of your time.
It gets more preposterous as it goes on and makes the council estates of London look more dangerous than trying to put lipstick on a crocodile but Idris Elba’s gritty cop show is one of the better things he’s done post Stringer Bell.
Elba’s he- doesn’t-play-by-the-rules-but-god-damn-he-gets-results schtick is a little clichéd but with an excellent parade of nutters to apprehend over the course of three series it’s that little bit cleverer than most British police procedurals churned out these days. Just don’t watch it when you’re home alone.
Scandinavian crime noir is a bit old hat these days - and that's a sentence we never thought we'd write - but The Killing remains the best example of the genre.
Both seasons (the third is unfortunately not on Netflix) follow implaccable detective inspector Sarah Lund of the Copenhagen police force as she attempts, in painstaking detail, to solve some rather grisly crimes. And it's the detail that really sets it apart - not in terms of the investigative work, which we're all now so familiar with from a thousand US police dramas, but in the way it enters the life of the victim's family, watching them as they cope with loss and bringing a new dimension to a tired old TV category.
As a result it can be hard viewing at times, but it's never less than engaging and always totally gripping. Nice jumpers, too.
A James Bond-esque secret agent with the womanising, drinking and love of casual violence turned right up to 11, Archer is one of the greatest anti-heroes we’ve seen in an animated show. He's in good company at private spy agency ISIS (in hindsight, an unfortunate choice of name) staffed as it is with a collection of selfish, bungling agents and perverts.
Perfect for Netflix binge-watching, thanks to its 20-minute episodes, it's generously packed with snappy one-liners and Arrested Development-esque in-jokes. It’s just as good as it sounds.
The most critically acclaimed Netflix original series of 2015 tells the bloody story of Colombian cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar and the man tasked with taking him down. Sounds like a laugh riot, right?
While Narcos lacks much in the way of light-relief, watching American DEA agent Steve Murphy submerge himself in a viciously amoral cesspit is a constant thrill. What could well be a high-minded exercise in true crime melodrama is elevated to nerve-shredding nirvana via some classy performances and the disturbing use of archive footage. Escobar’s brutal legacy lives on through your telebox, and the horror of it all will make you wince in anguish.
The 15 best TV box-sets on Netflix
If you're one of those people that gets put off by TV shows just because everyone else in the world is watching and raving about them, then put aside your cynacism and grow up. Because where Breaking Bad is concerned, you'd be missing out.
Bryan Cranston's transformation from a mild-mannered chemistry teacher to a dangerous, meth-making super-criminal is one of the greatest examples of character acting we've ever witnessed, and he's got a stonking cast surrounding him to boot.
Gripping, edge-of-your seat television at its finest.