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 Orange is the New Black 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 25 fantastic TV shows that should keep you occupied for the entire year.
Dan Harmon’s sitcom centres on a motley and diverse group of students at a US community college (often viewed Stateside as a sort of low-rent vocational alternative to university) and is packed with exactly the sort of knowing pop culture references, clever subversion of cliché and OTT characters that TV geeks adore.
Little wonder it’s a firm cult favourite – and now you can find out what all the fuss is about by binging the entire thing: all six seasons are available for streaming on Netflix (as well as Amazon Prime Video, if that’s your bag).
Inside No. 9 (S1-4)
Having made their name with The League Of Gentlemen and Psychoville, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith set about creating Inside No. 9 – five series (although only the first four are available on Netflix) of self-contained stories that have one thing in common: they’ll keep you guessing right until the end.
Whether it’s a strange death on a sleeper train, a game of hide ‘n’ seek with drastic consequences or the entirely silent episode concerning a duo of hapless burglars, the writing here blows most contemporaries out of the water, and always with a devilishly macabre twist in the tail. While it won’t consistently have you falling off the sofa with laughter, there’s normally at least one absolute stonker of a gag in each episode.
Better Call Saul (S1-5)
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. Starting 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 rarely 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 four seasons in, with a fifth already commissioned.
The Vietnam War (S1)
When it comes to American documentary makers (and documentary makers concerned specifically with America) Ken Burns stands apart. In the past he’s taken on such weighty US-centric subjects as World War II, the Civil War, prohibition, jazz, race and baseball – and this, his latest project, tackles a subject of similar weight, in the Vietnam War.
Made with frequent collaborator Lynn Novick for broadcaster PBS (the US version of the BBC, basically), this is extremely in-depth overview of the 20-year conflict and its origins, spread over 10 feature-length episodes. Yes, you read that right: it’s essentially ten whole movies. Each one is packed with talking head interviews and archival footage, and soundtracked both with contemporary music and a brand new score by Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor.
The undertaking took Burns and Novick a decade to complete, and the result is an authoritative, nuanced and utterly compelling portrait of a war that dominated American political and social discourse for a generation, but remains poorly understood and difficult to discuss even today.
“How do we get ahead of crazy if we don’t know how crazy thinks?” This 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. It’s also extremely stylish, brilliantly soundtracked and exceedingly well-made across the board, with several episodes being masterfully directed by David Fincher.
Stranger Things (S1-3)
Stranger Things was originally envisioned as a one-off, or an anthology series in which each season would feature a new casting, setting and story. And yet its first season proved so successful that we now have three seasons, all set in Hawkins, Indiana and all focussed on the same group of kids and their families as the monstrous threat from the Upside Down looms once more.
Taking inspiration from classics like E.T., The Goonies, Gremlins and more, this show is shamelessly nostalgic for the 1980s - but despite the references and setting, it never comes across as overdone or hagiographic, and its themes and appeal are wide-ranging. Its blend of horror, sci-fi and coming-of-age drama works well, and the excellent production values and soundtrack serve to forge a sense of real quality.
A Series of Unfortunate Events (S1-3)
A heavily made-up Neil Patrick Harris stars as antagonist Count Olaf in this adaptation of the dark and spooky children’s novels – charged with the care of three orphaned children but far more interested in securing their inheritance through nefarious means.
With no fewer than 13 Lemony Snicket books at the current count, there's certainly no shortage of source material – so this box set could end up spawning another ten creepy seasons.
The Good Place (S1-4)
Despite being an all-round bad egg on Earth, Kristen Bell’s character in this Netflix Original somehow ends up in heaven after she shuffles off this mortal coil. Turns out even angels can 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 morals will also subject you to a few giggling fits. And unlike most sitcoms, The Good Place has a plot that will keep you gasping and gawping until the very end.
If you're even slightly drawn to Judd Apatow's particular brand of mumbly, honest, relationship-based humour, you'll almost certainly enjoy this comedy drama series he co-created - now three seasons strong.
Love is the tale of a couple of directionless people at opposite ends of the loser spectrum who stumble into a relationship that doesn’t seem remotely healthy for either of them. Laugh-a-minute stuff this ain’t, but spending time with the substance-abusing Mickey (Community's Gillian Jacobs) and the pathetic pushover Gus (Paul Rust) is an often awkward, frequently guffaw-inducing pleasure.
Queer Eye (S1-4)
Dragging the unfashionable makeover show kicking and screaming into the 21st century, the remixed Queer Eye has rapidly grown into one of Netflix’s most beloved series.
You likely already know the formula – a quintet of style experts descend upon an unsuspecting schlub (or schlubs) to give his, her or their looks and lifestyle a much-needed overhaul – but the raging emotional hurricane that follows in the Fab Five’s wake might surprise and delight you. It’s no accident that Queer Eye has become something resembling televisual comfort food – and proof positive that even makeover shows themselves benefit from a timely makeover.
The Great British Bake Off (S1-7)
Before being snapped up by Channel 4 – much like a cooling apple pie being snatched from a windowsill by a passing opportunist – The Great British Bake Off was a jewel in the BBC’s crown, an international export that wowed audiences at home and abroad with its tasty mixture of quirky humour, tense competition, delicious-looking food and, of course, schadenfreude at the contestants’ many disastrous bakes. Even judge Paul Hollywood’s somewhat sinister presence wasn’t enough to ruin the resulting pudding.
All seven BBC-made series of the nicest show on television are available on Netflix UK, which might be the perfect audiovisual comfort food for anyone enduring a dreadful hangover/breakup/cold (delete as appropriate).
Planet Earth / Planet Earth II
Among the BBC’s most celebrated series, Planet Earth is adored worldwide for its fantatic camera work (achieved through sheer skill, graft and bloody-minded patience, not CGI tricks), which offers an unprecedented look into dozens of aspects of the natural world, spread all over the globe. From polar bears to killer whales to birds of paradise, the series is like a gorgeous greatest hits collection of our planet's flora and fauna.
It’s all accompanied, of course, by narration from another of this planet’s treasures, Sir David Attenborough, which invests the whole series an air of homely authority. Whether you’re seeking high drama or breathtaking photography, Planet Earth (both seasons of which are now available on Netflix – the second in Ultra HD 4K, no less) has both in plentiful supply.
The presence of every single episode of the 1990s’ biggest sitcom on Netflix feels like an occasion worthy of fanfare – even if, let’s face it, you’ve probably seen them all multiple times before.
For the two or three readers that don’t know, Friends is a long-running (10 seasons!) multi-cam sitcom about a sextet of… well, let’s call them “buddies” living in New York. While it’s tightly packed with great gags and compelling, series-arching plots, the show’s true pull is in its sharply-drawn, likeable characters. Ross, Rachel, Phoebe, Joey, Chandler and Monica’s travails as they navigate love, career, life and everything in between are sure to suck you in, even if some of the writing and production values can feel dated at times.
Peep Show (S1-9)
All nine seasons of Peep Show are now streaming on Netflix, so if you haven’t yet watched Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong’s groundbreaking sitcom – the longest-running in Channel 4’s history, no less – now is the time to venture into the minds of David Mitchell’s Mark and Robert Webb’s Jez, two best friends and flatmates who lurch from one disaster to the next.
Peep Show’s “gimmick” is that we often see the action from Mark or Jez’s point-of-view, hearing their inner thoughts as audible voice-overs. In the great British comedy tradition self-delusion, self-hatred and social awkwardness loom large here, and though both the main characters are indisputably despicable, selfish idiots, it’s impossible not to get sucked into their (often horrifying) antics.
Many a true word is spoken in jest, as they say – and Peep Show is as much a meditation on the human condition as it is a comedy show. As the joyless Mark internally remarks after his girlfriend takes him to a fairground, "I suppose doing things you hate is just the price you pay to avoid loneliness."
People Just Do Nothing (S1-4)
People Just Do Nothing is ostensibly a behind-the-scenes documentary about West London pirate radio station Kurupt FM, but it’s actually a wickedly funny examination of the same kind of hubris and self-delusion as exhibited by David Brent in The Office, presented in a similar mockumentary fashion.
The fact that the Kurupt crew clearly do know their Artful Dodger from their Pied Piper – they’ve performed live at multiple events, in character – adds an extra layer of authenticity to the whole thing, but you certainly don’t need to be a two-step aficionado to enjoy what’s going on here. It’s one of the finest low budget BBC sitcoms in ages, and the first three of the four seasons are available on Netflix.
Rick & Morty (S1-3)
At the time of writing, it seems that this animated sci-fi comedy series about an awkward teen boy and his mad, bad, frequently drunk genius-level inventor of a grandfather, has run its course, and that its third season may be its last. Given the show’s huge surge in popularity during the aforementioned third season, it’s a curious case, but at least we have every episode made so far (all 31 of them) right here on Netflix.
Rick & Morty’s blend of toilet humour, OTT cartoon violence, wit-sweetened cynicism and multi-dimensional adventuring makes it a hilarious, mind-bending and always enjoyable watch. Perfect material for a lazy Sunday in front of the TV, in other words.