At first, the idea of Netflix – essentially a video rental site – making its own TV shows and films sounded bizarre. This simply wasn’t how the industry worked, right?
Wrong. Fuelled by its vast piles of subscriber money, Netflix now wields the power of a Hollywood studio. With the resources to buy in the best new shows, acquire beloved brands, commission its own original series and hire Brad Pitt and Will Smith to star in its movies, the company is currently creating some of the best streamable stuff around. In fact, some of the best stuff around full-stop.
We’ve scoured through Netflix’s hundreds of original series, documentaries and movies to pick out 26 favourites. If you’re struggling to find something brand new on which to feast your eyes, read on.
I Think You Should Leave (S1)
Sketch shows are a bit like luncheon meat, tank tops and hostess trolleys: unwanted, outmoded relics from the 1970s. But I Think You Should Leave is proof positive that there’s life in the old format yet – it just needed a refreshing jolt of surrealism forced down its gullet.
Former Saturday Night Live star Tim Robinson co-writes and appears (along with a parade of familiar guest faces) in a collection of crude, inventive and ultimately hilarious skits that rarely end up where you expect them to. A second season soon, please!
The Last Dance (S1)
Arguably the biggest team sporting icon in history, Michael Jordan led the Chicago Bulls to a series of NBA championships in the 1990s. By 1998, however, it seemed like the Bulls’ era of dominance – and Jordan’s place at its heart – was in real danger as backroom intrigue started to take a toll. This engrossing, masterfully made 10-part documentary tells the story not just of that fateful season but of Jordan’s rise from green rookie to global superstar, and of how the Bulls planned and built their hegemony after years of underachievement.
The Last Dance will appeal not only to basketball and sport fans, but to anybody who appreciates a story well told and a glimpse into the strangely singular mind of mercilessly driven individuals like Jordan. Those looking for a nostalgic trip back to the 90s won’t be disappointed either – the era-appropriate soundtrack is superb.
A jeweller addicted to gambling and danger darts around 2012 New York in this frenetic drama from indie darlings Josh and Benny Safdie. The brothers’ shaky, handheld camera gives us an up-close window on this anti-hero’s attempts to juggle the demands of his celebrity clients, wife, mistress and a circling group of loan sharks.
If you’re looking for a relaxing watch, Uncut Gems ain’t it – the camerawork, Daniel Lopatin’s electronic score and Adam Sandler’s fantastic lead performance (he’s always found it easy playing a man teetering on the edge – but mostly in bad films) conjure a feeling of unease and anxiety that barely lets up over the two-hour running time. It’s delirious, manic, vital stuff: Netflix’s finest film since Roma, and Sandler’s best performance since 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love.
The Irishman isn’t just Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited return to the world of organised crime, it also unites the cinematic Holy Trinity of tough guy gangster movie stars: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and an out-of-retirement Joe Pesci. Kind of like The Expendables, but with people who can actually act – and it’s undeniably great to see these legendary thesps delivering the best work of their late careers.
With a story spanning decades (this movie is showcase for how far CG de-aging technology has come – and perhaps proof that there’s still room for improvement) the film explores the events leading up to the disappearance of mercurial union boss Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino), a powerful figure with links to the mob and mainstream politics. It’s mainly told through the recollections of De Niro’s eponymous “Irishman” Frank Sheeran, a truck driver who becomes first a thief and then a ruthless enforcer for both Hoffa and Pesci's Russell Bufalino, a Philadelphia mafia boss.
The Witcher (S1)
Henry Cavill ditches Superman’s cape for Geralt’s white ponytail in this adaptation of the Polish fantasy novel series. If you’ve played any of the hugely successful video games, you’ll know what to expect: a hearty mix of monster slaying, mean people in taverns, potion-quaffing, grim-dark medieval warfare, swearing and nudity.
If that sounds like Netflix's answer to Game of Thrones, it could very well end up being that. The first season is enjoyable low fantasy fare that skilfully introduces characters like Ciri and Yennefer and sets up storylines, and Netflix has already commissioned a second. This could be the beginning of an epic series that, like GoT, is able to capture the attention of geeks and mainstreamers alike.
Always Be My Maybe
Calling this “Netflix’s best original romantic comedy” might sound like damning it with faint praise – let’s face it, the competition isn’t particularly strong. But Always Be My Maybe is an always enjoyable, sometimes hilarious riff on the well-worn genre starring (and written by) the intensely likeable Ali Wong and Randall Park.
It’s about two childhood friends, unexpectedly reunited many years after an awkward falling out, their lives having diverged onto wildly different paths in the intervening period. You can probably predict the ending from the first reel, but it’s the route we take to get there that’s important, and it’s always an enjoyable one – particularly when a certain beloved Matrix megastar proves himself an excellent sport in a scene-stealing guest appearance. Whoa.
Stranger Things (S1-3)
Stranger Things is a love letter to many of the movies, TV shows and books that children who grew up in the 1980s will cherish: it’s replete with references to E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Goonies, Stephen King, Dungeons & Dragons and Poltergeist, packed with period music, and the mood and feel is sure to dredge up nostalgia aplenty.
Take away the retro vibes and the show still stands up as a fine sci-fi drama-thriller, concerning a small town, a missing boy and his friends and family’s attempts to find him - at least, that's the first season, and there are now two more on offer. And such is the popularity of Stranger Things, we can see a few more arriving in the next few years.
Everybody Loves Raymond’s Ray Romano gives an uncharacteristically understated performance in this low key indie comedy, playing the neighbour and friend of the equally impressive Mark Duplass. The duo’s quiet, enjoyably mundane routine of martial arts movies, jigsaw puzzles, pizza and their invented pastime of “paddleton” is cruelly disrupted by a terminal cancer diagnosis – and a subsequent momentous decision.
What might have been a depressing, overwrought domestic drama instead serves as a beautifully unsentimental and utterly convincing depiction of male friendship.
Russian Doll (S1)
The brainchild of Natasha Lyonne, Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland, this comic drama series is like Groundhog Day by way of Girls: an acerbic, substance-abusing New York video game designer (Lyonne) finds herself living the same day over and over, repeatedly dying in increasingly bizarre accidental deaths merely to wake up once again in a bathroom at her own birthday party. Has she taken something trippy, simply lost her mind – or is there something more profound at work?
Funny, outrageous and inventive, this is precisely the type of series that cuts through the piles of cookie cutter filler now accumulating on streaming services – a reminder of those halcyon days when every Netflix-made series was a top notch banger. At just eight half-hour episodes, it’s also refreshingly brisk, so you won’t need to live the same day over and over just to get it finished…
By some stretch the best Netflix-produced movie yet, Roma is its first movie to make the Hollywood establishment really sit up and take notice. The evidence? Its ten 2019 Academy Award nominations, which resulted in wins for Best Director, Best Cinematography and Best Foreign Language Film.
As you’d expect from Alfonso Cuarón, previously responsible for the likes of Gravity and Children of Men, Roma is both immensely impressive on a technical level (beautifully shot by Cuarón himself in black and white) and emotionally rich, resulting in a movie that’s every bit as powerful as anything made primarily for the cinema screen. Inspired by Cuarón’s own childhood in Mexico City, the film follows an indigenous maid to a wealthy middle-class family as she experiences a series of events – at first, seemingly unlinked, but which create a moving tapestry that expertly blends life on a personal and macro scale.
“How do we get ahead of crazy if we don’t know how crazy thinks?”
This drama series tracks the efforts of two FBI agents to better understand the inner workings of serial killers’ minds. It was a field of research not considered useful by law enforcement top brass in the late 1970s, when the show is set, but our protagonists believe that learning how murderers’ brains function is key to being able to catch them.
If the subject matter sounds overly grim, don’t worry – Mindhunter isn’t all doom and gloom, being peppered with moments of comedy (often black comedy, admittedly) and underpinned by the interesting dynamic of the main characters’ often-strained relationship.
Better Call Saul (S1-5)
The best spinoff since Frasier puts the spotlight on Breaking Bad’s sleazy-yet-likeable lawyer Saul, in a series (now four seasons deep) that begins seven years before Walter White’s descent into crime and mayhem.
Bob Odenkirk slips into Saul’s garish suit with remarkable ease, and his superb performance allows his character's desperation, tenacity and humour to seep through the screen and grab our attention with both hands.
It's always easy to root for the underdog, and from the very first episode you're right there alongside Goodman, wanting him to fight to the top - all the while being aware of the dark things to come.
"Created, written and executive produced by Judd Apatow" is a phrase that's a lot more exciting to some people than to others, but if you're even slightly drawn to his particular brand of mumbly, honest, relationship-based humour, you'll almost certainly enjoy this comedy drama series, now three seasons strong.
Love is a story of two useless, directionless, loveless people at opposite ends of the loser spectrum, who bumble into each other's lives and begin a relationship that at many times doesn’t seem particularly healthy for either of them. This isn't laugh-a-minute stuff, but spending time with the substance-abusing Mickey (Community's Gillian Jacobs) and pathetic pushover Gus (Paul Rust) is an occasionally painfully awkward, occasionally guffaw-inducing pleasure.
As a sport in which a 70-year-old woman once gave birth to a human hand, wrestling isn’t exactly known for its nuanced storytelling. Thankfully, Glow isn’t really about wrestling at all, but a gang of kickass women rallying against their demons and the dudes who’d rather keep them down.
Featuring a stellar lead turn by Alison Brie, this is Netflix's best original series since Stranger Things. Even if you've no idea of the difference between a duplex and a powerbomb.
Altered Carbon (S1)
Altered Carbon is a neo noir journey 300-odd years into the future, where Earth is an overpopulated, dirty, decadent, neon-lit Bladerunner-esque mess – but outright death is a rarity.
That’s because everybody has their consciousness digitally backed up in a “stack”, a tiny disc-shaped computer stored where the skull meets the spine. Flattened by a truck? No biggie: the paramedics can prise out your stack and – provided it hasn’t been destroyed – put it in safe storage until a new body (or “sleeve” in the show’s vernacular) is available. If this sounds like a utopia, be warned: rampant capitalism has ensured that only the rich can afford good quality sleeves, with others being kept in storage for decades or transferred into the first available body, regardless of its suitability.
To this grim new world returns Takeshi Kovacs, released from prison and dropped into a new sleeve after a couple of hundred years on ice. Why has Kovacs been brought back from the dead after so long? In order to solve a murder, of course – a mystery that the immensely wealthy victim (now himself reincarnated in a new cloned sleeve, natch) believes only Kovacs’ unique skills can solve.
Wild Wild Country (S1)
This slick, stylish six-part documentary series will gleefully suck in anyone with more than a passing interest in cults, utopian visionaries, counterculture and power struggles.
It tells the story of Indian religious leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, who brought his band of red-robed followers to a Manhattan-sized tract of land in the Oregon wilderness with the intention of founding a self-sustaining city based on “love and sharing” rather than ownership and individualism.
Unsurprisingly, this band of free love-advocating New Age nudists didn’t hit it off with the local townspeople – God-fearing, conservative and mostly old – and the amazing true story of this rapidly escalating culture clash is told masterfully through new interviews and hours of archive footage. With the tale taking incredible twists and turns (Germ warfare! Arson! Attempted murder! The FBI! The co-founder of Nike!), this is the most compelling original documentary series in Netflix’s library.
Writer-director Alex Garland’s follow-up to the fantastic Ex Machina was originally supposed to get a full release in cinemas worldwide, but in the end studio Paramount decided to give it a limited theatrical release in the US only, with the rest of the world getting their first chance to see it on Netflix. Why? Because they probably thought it’d flop in cinemas – it’s chilly, dark, complex and challenging and, rightly or wrongly, big studios don’t credit the average filmgoer with much intellectual curiosity.
Don’t let Paramount’s decision to offload Annihilation onto a streaming service put you off watching it though, because this is one of the most accomplished and interesting science fiction movies of recent years. It’s a visually and sonically brilliant film that’ll leave you with more questions than answers, but enough clues to work everything out, too.
When a strange “shimmer” engulfs a tract of land in the southeastern United States, the government is at a loss to explain it. Everything and everybody they send inside disappears, never to return – with one exception. Natalie Portman’s biologist finds herself personally drawn into the mystery, joins a team venturing into the Shimmer and slowly uncovers the shocking truth at its centre.
You don't have to be a sports fan to enjoy this must-watch doping exposé. Icarus is really two documentaries in one, with the first third of the film a kind of Super Size Me for performance-enhancing drugs. The filmmaker, a semi-pro cyclist, embarks on a hardcore doping program to show how flawed the drugs-testing process is.
But when his advisor, scientist Gregory Rodchenkov, suddenly finds himself in the eye of an international storm over a state-sponsored doping program, Icarus turns into an enthralling fly-on-the-wall thriller about being a whistleblower in Putin's Russia. Cue mysterious deaths, tense interviews and a lots of hand-wringing as Rodchenkov goes into hiding from the new KGB.
This series features some of the most bum-clenchingly tense scenes witnessed on a TV screen since Breaking Bad, as Jason Bateman and Laura Linney’s squabbling Chicago couple launder money for a ruthless drug cartel.
When Bateman’s put-upon financial advisor happens on a risky plan to “wash” (not literally) the dirty cash in rural Missouri, his entire family must immediately up sticks in the ‘burbs for a brand new life in one of America’s most deprived places. All of a sudden, angry Mexican narco-barons become only one of many problems for the family.
Filmed in muted, washed-out tones with bags of brooding and squalor on show, Ozark doesn’t always make for a pretty watch. But if you like your drama perpetually poised on a knife edge, it’ll be right up your (dark) alley.
Circumventing the traditional studio distribution model – it was released on Netflix and in selected theatres simultaneously – got this big budget drama booed by cinematic purists at the beginning of its Cannes Film Festival premiere. By the end of the screening, the same audience was giving it a four-minute standing ovation.
It takes a lot to get us up off the sofa at the end of a movie, to be honest, especially for 240 full seconds of applause, but this tale of a huge genetically-modified pig, her devoted tween companion, big business and animal rights is a delight, benefitting from a fine cast (Jake Gyllenhaal, Tilda Swinton and Paul Dano among them), brisk narrative pace and fantastic visual effects that bring Okja herself convincingly to life.
Oh, and be warned: it’ll put you off sausages for a very, very long time.
Arrested Development (S1-6)
Dysfunctional families have been done to death on both the big screen and TV, but the Bluths are arguably the most self-centred, destructive and, well, downright hilarious bunch of the lot.
When their company is hit by the US government for embezzlement, and patriarch George imprisoned, it falls to “sensible” Bluth son Michael to both run the business and keep his squabbling siblings and mother from making matters far, far worse.
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 – especially as Netflix has served up a great fifth season in which all the characters are brought back together again.
Orange is the New Black (S1-7)
Arguably Netflix’s second-best original series after House of Cards, this is a prison show that goes its own way: less brutal than Oz, less daft than Prison Break and more compelling than Prisoner Cell Block H, it begins as a fish-out-of-water drama (very loosely based on a true story) in which a yuppie Brooklynite winds up in a low-security women’s jail for a crime committed almost a decade previous.
A character-driven show that uses Lost-style flashbacks to explore the pre-incarceration lives of the superb cast, Orange Is the New Black has proved such a hit that it's already – like House of Cards – six whole seasons strong.
BoJack Horseman (S1-6)
This animated sitcom features Arrested Development’s Will Arnett as the titular Horseman, a… er… “horse man” who found fame in a beloved 1990s sitcom but now lives in a haze of booze and self-loathing.
Set in a skewed version of Hollywood where humans coexist with anthropomorphic animals, BoJack Horseman features a strong cast (Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul plays BoJack’s best friend Todd), and offers a surprisingly nuanced portrayal of the “washed-up former star” trope. Most importantly, perhaps, it’s really, really funny. With 50 episodes available (four seasons plus two specials), its perfect for binging.
Looking for a lazy comparison? Then Dark is the German version of Stranger Things: both largely follow a group of kids trying to unravel a supernatural mystery; both feature a missing child and frantic parents; both are set (at least partly) in the ’80s. And both are fantastic.
But there the similarities end, because Dark is, as the name might suggest, a far more difficult watch than its US counterpart (and not just because of those German subtitles). This is a complex series that delights in constantly pulling the rug out from under you just when you think you know what’s going on; we guarantee it’ll leave you with brain-ache at times. It’s also seriously gruesome and really puts its characters (and viewers) through the emotional wringer. Don’t let that put you off though, because this is one Netflix Original not to miss.
This critically lauded series dramatises the bloody rise of Colombian cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar, and the gringo tasked with taking him down. Not exactly a laugh-a-minute jaunt, eh?
While Narcos lacks much in the way of light relief, watching US DEA agent Steve Murphy immerse himself in a viciously amoral cesspit is a constant thrill. What could well be a high-minded exercise in true crime drama becomes nothing less than nerve-shredding nirvana via classy performances and the disturbing use of archive footage.
Escobar’s brutal legacy lives on through your TV screen, and the horror of it all will make you wince in anguish. There are currently two full seasons to stream, with a third arriving in September 2017.
Black Mirror (S1-5)
Black Mirror has made the move from Channel 4 to Netflix in sumptuous, unsettling style.
Not only has the platform given Charlie Brooker and his team the freedom to tell more stories (the two Netflix-funded seasons each have six episodes rather than the usual three), it's also given them a budget big enough to expand the scale, scope and special effects. The feature-length final episode, “Hated in the Nation”, is a perfect case in point.
What hasn't changed is the overall theme: the perils of humanity's relationship with technology, the internet and social media.
It’s unnerving stuff, enhanced by the fact that the stories are generally set in a very near future that's all too recognisable. But fear not, the trademark blacker-than-black humour has also been retained, so you'll guffaw almost as much as you'll squirm. This is must-see television for anyone who's obsessed with tech.
And as a bonus, the first two Channel 4-made seasons can be found on Netflix too.
Chef's Table (S1-6)
It might not feature Greg Wallace shovelling food into his maw every ten minutes, but that doesn't make Chef's Table any less appealing to hardcore foodies.
This documentary series (now six seasons strong) follows world-renowned chefs as they take viewers on a personal journey through their culinary evolution, providing an intimate, informative glimpse into what gets their creative juices flowing.
Presented in pristine 4K, you can almost smell the food seeping through your screen and tickling your nostrils; from glistening, perfectly-cooked pieces of meat to mouth-watering steaming pasta dishes, this is food porn of the highest order. Wearing a bib while you watch is highly recommended.
There’s a sequence from Netflix documentary 13th that went viral just after America elected Donald Trump as its new president. It shows the moron-in-chief eulogising the “good old days” while clips of protestors getting roughed up at his rallies are shown next to old footage of African-American citizens being beaten in the streets.
It’s a powerful summary of 13th, a film that lays bare the realities of being black in modern-day America, and shows exactly how far we’ve really come since the abolition of slavery. A must-watch for anyone who thinks racism is something old-fashioned that we left in the past.
The Good Place (S1-4)
The reassuring thing about dealing with greedy lawyers, grumpy cashiers and xenophobic builders is the knowledge that they’ll eventually end up in hell watching Homes Under the Hammer for eternity. Saying that, despite being an all-round bad egg on Earth, Kristen Bell’s character in this Netflix Original somehow ends up in heaven. Turns out even angels and demons make mistakes at work.
While Bell’s performance stands out with her relatable struggles to fit into a world full of goody-two-shoes, Jameela Jamil’s outlandish vanity and William Jackson Harper’s uptight moral code will also subject you to a few laughs. And unlike most sitcoms, The Good Place has a plot that will keep you gasping and gawping until the very end.
The Crown (S1-3)
The Crown's appeal is partly down to the astronomical production values that have been instilled in this retelling of Queen Elizabeth II’s early years. Many millions have been invested in this period extravaganza, and that all adds up to a dizzying amount of convincing detail.
Even those of a staunchly republican bent will find themselves sucked in to the two full seasons, which chart a series of major national events as well as delve deeply into the personal lives of the Windsors and those surrounding them.
With a superb cast including Claire Foy, Matt Smith and John Lithgow injecting plenty of humanity into their larger-than-life roles, it's rumoured that even our real-life monarch has become a fan.
Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (S1-2)
This comedy-drama-thriller loosely based on Douglas Adams' novels is like nothing else on TV. In fact it's like nothing else in the world - and is all the better for it.
As a “holistic” detective, Dirk Gently simply investigates crimes he happens across randomly and follows the most obscure and seemingly unconnected of leads as he does so. What transpires is a gloriously muddled mess of offbeat diversions, Technicolor characters and bizarre events taking in psychic powers, cats, dogs, homicidal angels, torture, some really lovely leather jackets and Elijah Wood.
With the second season recently added to Netflix, it's a good time to delve in.