Amazon isn’t about to let Netflix have all the fun (and funds) when it comes to making superb original television series and films – and it’s already given its Prime subscribers some award-winning stuff to stream.
While Amazon’s in-house production library isn’t as extensive as Netflix’s, there’s still piles of great material to get your teeth into, from glossy crime shows to affecting dramas to sweeping period epics.
And what’s more, a fair bit of it is available in Ultra HD and/or HDR at no extra cost – perfect if you want to see what your flash new 4K telly can do.
The Expanse (S1-3)
Game of Thrones with spaceships? That’s a lazy and reductive way to describe The Expanse, but also pretty accurate: it has a massive cast of characters, many of whom are shaded with more grey than an army of raccoons; its story is based around conflict and scheming as various factions vie for power while potentially ignoring a much greater existential threat; and it’s packed with graphic sex, violence and language. Hell yeah!
Set in a period when humanity has conquered the solar system and a war between Earth and Mars seems to be looming, The Expanse is a thoroughly enjoyable sci-fi space opera in a largely believable representation of the future. It was set to be prematurely cancelled by original maker SyFy after three seasons, but Amazon has now not only acquired full rights to broadcast the show but plans to make further seasons – great news for the millions of fans already addicted to its twisty plot lines.
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot
Gus Van Sant’s well-crafted biopic stars a memorable Joaquin Phoenix as John Callahan, an alcoholic who embarks on one bender too many, resulting in a devastating car crash. Paralysed, plunged into a deep depression, and still boozing, Callahan eventually finds solace in friends, art and the twelve-step programme.
Phoenix is typically excellent as the often-unlikeable Callahan, and there’s also superb support from Jonah Hill and Rooney Mara. A funny, thought-provoking and inspiring tale about conquering your worst impulses and “choosing life” – which very little of the sentimental cheesiness that often creeps into such films.
The world isn’t short of wry, quirky comedy drama series delving into the crushing ennui of modern life (!) – but Amazon has taken the time to furnish us with another one. Luckily, it’s a delightful surprise.
Starring Maya Rudolf and Fred Armisen as a married couple struggling to cope with an encroaching middle-aged itch, Forever fools you into thinking it’s a certain type of show before unexpectedly transforming into another. Funny, smart and touching, it’s one of Amazon’s best recently original series.
The Romanoffs (S1)
Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner didn’t think small when plotting his followup series. Each episode of The Romanoffs is its own feature-length story with a separate cast and setting, and each is made with the sort of care, wit and attention to detail that has made Mad Men one of the most highly-regarded shows of recent years.
The one thing linking the eight stories? Each concerns a character or characters that believe themselves to be descended from the ousted Russian royal family. Aside from that, you’ve basically got eight individual movies to enjoy at your leisure, each with a superb cast and script. Funny, touching, insightful – The Romanoffs is a rare piece of prestige TV that doesn’t feel padded out, sensationalist or dumbed down. It’s a treat, in other words.
Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan (S1)
Even if you don’t already know who Jack Ryan is, this big budget series has “Tom Clancy” in the title, so you should know the drill: we’ve got espionage, counter-espionage, international terrorism and a somewhat questionably gung-ho attitude towards what actually constitutes torture! Hell yeah!
The Office’s lovable everyman John Krasinski takes on the role of Clancy’s CIA analyst and all-round American hero, previously played by Harrison Ford, Alec Baldwin, Ben Affleck and Chris Pine. If you were thinking this casting meant a more nuanced view of US foreign policy than you’d have got from a Clancy adaptation while the notoriously pro-intervention author was alive, well... you’d be wrong!
With Michael Bay among the executive producers, perhaps we should have known this’d be a little lacking in the sort of shades of grey you’d find in, say, Homeland. If you can stomach the jingoism and simply enjoy this for what it is – a boy’s own techno-thriller spy story – then you’ll find it a slick, pacy ride that looks and sounds glorious on a 4K TV.
Last Flag Flying
Produced by Amazon Studios and directed by indie darling Richard Linklater, Last Flag Flying stars Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne as a trio of Vietnam vets reunited after decades apart.
The reason? Carell’s son, also a marine, has been recently killed in Iraq, and his body is being flown back to the US for a hero’s burial at Arlington Cemetery. Carell wants his former comrades-in-arms to be there when he says goodbye to his boy – and while they make the long trip from Delaware to New Hampshire, the three discuss war, duty, religion and patriotism, as well as confront their own actions of 30 years previous.
Linklater’s restrained direction puts the focus on the dialogue and the three leads, each of whom delivers a fine performance, and in many ways this feels like a play rather than a movie. As an exploration of friendship and America’s attitudes to war, it’s a powerful and engaging piece.
The Big Sick
Silicon Valley star and stand-up comic Kumail Nanjiani plays himself in this dramatisation of he and his wife, the writer Emily Gordon (here called “Emily Gardner” and played by Zoe Kazan), met each other, fell in love and married.
An enjoyable culture-clash romantic comedy revolving around Nanjiani’s desire to lead a regular American life while his Pakistani parents pressure him to enter into an arranged marriage with one of several women he barely knows, The Big Sick really takes off when Emily is taken seriously ill, forcing our hero to confront the two sides of his life – not to mention meet her parents, played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano, who prove the film’s highlights.
The Marvelous Mrs Maisel (S1-2)
Missing Mad Men? A mind for something else in the mid-century Manhattan milieu? The Marvelous Mrs Maisel might be the new series for you.
House of Cards’ Rachel Brosnahan stars as Midge Maisel, a vivacious, fast-talking housewife with what she thought was the perfect 1950s New York lifestyle: husband, kids, beautiful Upper West Side apartment, the works. When sudden upheaval turns that all upside down, she decides to pursue a career in standup comedy – and discovers she has something of a talent for not only making people laugh but for hitting upon life’s truths and enigmas while doing it.
Amazon had been trying to “do a Netflix” by creating its very own blockbusting, awards-grabbing TV series for ages, and Transparent is that show. For a start, it’s bold and inventive - it tells the story of a 60-something divorcee announcing to his three grown-up kids that he’s always felt different and is now going to live as a woman.
Sounds heavy, and it sort of is, but it’s also darkly funny, with a degree of wit and sharpness that’s still rare even in this golden age of TV. The bickering between the three kids (each of whom is riddled with their own individual issues and peccadillos) is as chucklesome as it is awkward and real. Amazing telly.
Sneaky Pete (S1-2)
With Bryan Cranston sitting in as both chief villain and executive producer, Sneaky Pete is the perfect choice for Breaking Bad fans looking for a new addictive TV fix.
In fact, this Amazon Original (available to stream in gorgeous HDR and 4K) stands strong enough on its own merits, having little in common with Cranston’s other show aside from a plethora of tense situations from which its hero – a likeable conman played by Giovanni Ribisi – must extricate himself through a combination of luck and skill. Well, that may happen when you turn up on a family’s doorstep falsely claiming to be their long-lost grandson.
With a charming rogue’s gallery of a cast and a plot that keeps you gripped and guessing until the end, Sneaky Pete is one of the few Amazon Originals that sits up there with Netflix’s best original series.
Comrade Detective (S1)
Comrade Detective is like nothing else on TV – a spoof 1980s Romanian cop drama (the lost tapes of which were supposedly "unearthed" by Channing Tatum and Jon Ronson after years of searching), filmed in Romania with Romanian actors then dubbed over with a host of Hollywood talent (including Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Chloe Sevigny, Nick Offerman and Tatum himself).
With a pacy plot packed full of Cold War menace, good bad acting and comedic communist propaganda, it's more than just a wise-ass one-note joke. We wouldn't be surprised if a second season arrives in the not-too-distant future.
The Grand Tour (S1-3)
Clarkson and company’s Top Gear-beater is a love-it-or-hate-it kind of deal; if you’re an oily-fingered petrolhead, or simply into watching ageing boy-men on banter-fuelled road trips, you’re going to enjoy this jape-packed series a lot.
If you can’t stand this brand of overbearing laddishness, The Grand Tour isn’t going to transform you into a believer – but for anybody looking for some beautifully shot (4K! HDR!) mindless entertainment to grace that new Ultra HD telly, this impeccably-produced show fits the bill perfectly.
American Gods (S1-2)
This mega-budget drama from Bryan Fuller (previously show runner on Stuff favourite Hannibal) is based on the beloved Neil Gaiman novel, and weaves together cords of ancient mythology, modern mythology, Americana and pop culture to create a modern fantasy tale – a tale about immigration, above other things.
The cast includes the classy likes of Ian McShane, Peter Stormare and Gillian Anderson, but British viewers will be shocked to see former Hollyoaks hunk Ricky Whittle in the leading role – and doing a very decent job along with it.
This quirky spy drama blends deadpan humour, action and a bunch of truly great characters for a truly original whole.
Michael Dorman is superb as permanently put-upon spook John Tavner, who really just wants to be a folk singer - only for life to keep conspiring against him.
The clever plot takes in Iran, nuclear weapons, a single-minded Luxembouger cop and a lot more info about industrial piping than you could ever care for, it’s genuinely laugh-out-loud funny at times and the acting throughout is excellent. A real winner.
OK, so this one is an Amazon Exclusive rather than strictly an Amazon Original Series, but it's more than worthy of inclusion anyway. Because while it was always going to be tough adapting Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s beloved comic book series into a TV show, the makers of Preacher have made an impressive job of it so far, and viewers now have two seasons of wildly entertaining chaos to get to grips with.
The show isn’t afraid to go its own way. Rather than plunge straight into the books’ storyline, it uses the first season to establish the backgrounds of beloved characters such as Jesse, Tulip and Cassidy and set up themes and adversaries that will doubtless come to fruition in later seasons.
The jury may be still out on how successful this approach will ultimately be, but the show’s style, humour and (often incredibly violent) drama suggest it could go on to attain cult status of its own.