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 good amount of it is available in 4K Ultra HD and/or HDR at no extra cost – perfect if you want to see what your flashy new 4K TV can do.
The Vast of Night
A telephone switchboard operator notices a mysterious sound on her headset, sparking off a series of creepy revelations in this gem of a retro sci-fi movie from rookie director Andrew Patterson.
From its late 1950s small town America setting to its sound design and music, The Vast of Night gleefully channels classic mystery shows like The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Twin Peaks and The X-Files, not to mention films like Super 8 and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but its snappy dialogue and stylish camerawork make it stand out on its own. The plot is simple, the cast small and unknown, but Patterson wrings the most out of his tiny budget.
This is Football (S1)
From a Liverpool supporters’ club helping to heal rifts opened by Rwanda's civil war to a profile of the world's greatest ever player, Amazon’s original documentary series is a love letter to the beautiful game told through six hour-long films.
An exploration of the football phenomenon and its power to transcend sport, This is Football’s stories will appeal to those who’ve never kicked a ball in their lives as well as die hard fans. Live many Amazon-made series, it’s also available in 4K with HDR for those with compatible TVs.
The Boys (S1)
What if superheroes were not only real, but as full of fears, doubt and crushing character flaws as the rest of us? That’s the premise behind this superb comic book adaptation from the producers of Preacher, in which a bunch of world famous costumed crusaders are owned and controlled by Vought, a ruthless corporation that keeps their bad behaviour – which ranges from voyeurism and drug abuse to outright murderous psychopathy – under wraps to keep the cashflow moving.
When one super-powered outrage leaves a young man bereaved and hellbent on revenge, he joins a group of like-minded vigilantes with the aim of bringing Vought down once and for all. Effortlessly blending humour, action and drama, The Boys manages to be Amazon’s best original series in ages.
Good Omens (S1)
Lovers of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s cult fantasy novel have for years been crossing fingers, toes and other body parts in the hopes that one day, somebody would take a chance on a screen adaptation of Good Omens – and that somebody turned out to be Amazon. The result is this glitzy, star-studded six-part miniseries.
Set in modern day England, it focusses on a demon and an angel (the very watchable David Tennant and Michael Sheen) whose eons-old friendship faces obliteration (along with the rest of the world) as the Antichrist comes of age and Armageddon looms. With the supporting cast including Jon Hamm, Frances McDormand, Miranda Richardson and Michael McKean, and Amazon's deep pockets providing the necessary budget to really bring the novel to life, the fanboys and girls’ waiting has not been in vain.
The Expanse (S1-4)
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 not only acquired full rights to broadcast the show but has already made a fourth season – 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.
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 (S1-3)
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 (S1-3)
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.
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, and viewers have a full four-season arc of wildly entertaining chaos to get to grips with.
The show isn’t afraid to go its own way. Rather than plunder the books’ storyline wholesale, it seems more interested in nailing the themes and characters – a move likely aimed at ensuring those who've already gorged themselves on the comics don't end up retreading familiar ground.