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 20 favourites. If you’re struggling to find something brand new on which to feast your eyes, read on.
THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES (NEW AND SELECTED)
Netflix has sought out real quality with its original movies, as evidenced by this wry, intelligent indie comedy-drama written and directed by Noah Baumbach – one of the most perceptive chroniclers of modern human relationships working in cinema today.
Starring Adam Sandler (in his best “serious” performance since Punch-Drunk Love), Ben Stiller, Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)examines a dysfunctional New York family through the prism of several of its members, all of whom revolve around Hoffman’s preening, needy and manipulative patriarch.
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.
It doesn’t demand too much of a time investment, either: unlike a lot of Netflix Originals, its episodes are reasonably tight (around 40 minutes each) and there are only eight of them in the entire first season. Expect a second to arrive in October 2017.
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 – it merely provides the campy backdrop to a (nuanced, yes) tale about a gang of kickass women rallying against their demons and the dudes who’d like to keep them down.
Featuring a stellar lead turn by Mad Men's Alison Brie, we think this is Netflix's best original series since Stranger Things (incidentally, both are set in the 1980s - and both succeed at invoking very different aspects of the decade). Even if you've no idea of the difference between a duplex and a powerbomb, you'll find yourself headlocked into watching in no time.
In the seven years that Prairie Johnson has been missing she's regained her sight and apparently changed her name to 'The OA' - and that's really just the start of this sci-fi drama series' unusualness.
Comparisons to Stranger Things come easily: most of the protagonists are young, and there's a hearty helping of fantasy mixed in with the sci-fi. Those comparisons aren't particularly favourable towards The OA, either, which lacks the coherence, charm and pace of the D&D-inspired sleeper hit. But just because The OA isn't as good as Stranger Things doesn't mean it's not worth a watch (after all, what is as good as Stranger Things?).
You will have to be prepared to go with some very out-there ideas and some unexpected shifts in tone. The OA definitely won't work for everyone, but it really is worth giving at least the first of the eight episodes a go to find out if it's up your street.
THE BATTERED BASTARDS OF BASEBALL
When organised baseball decided to move its AAA club out of Portland, actor and sports fan Bing Russell decided to fill the void with a totally independent team – the aptly-named Mavericks. This documentary charts the team's fortunes throughout its short-lived - but colourful - career.
Although they only lasted from 1973 to 1977, the Mavericks shook up the game with their antics: a ball-dog that ran onto the field, broom-waving spectators – and a string of victories that shook up the baseball establishment. "I wanted it to go back to the straw hat and beer days when 250 towns had minor league teams and most of them were not supported by a major franchise,” explains Russell; and from the outset, it's clear where the documentary's sympathies lie. The Mavericks are scrappy underdogs, made up of outcasts from professional baseball and amateurs who never got the big break they were hoping for. The baseball establishment are the villains, humiliated on the field and resorting to dirty tricks in search of victory.
The truth is probably more nuanced, but it's a brilliantly rousing tale, told with panache by Russell's grandsons – and his son, actor Kurt Russell, who actually took to the field with the Mavericks.
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.
House of Cards
One of its original Originals, House Of Cards is still perhaps the jewel in Netflix's crown.
With David Fincher behind the camera and Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in front as scheming Democratic Majority Whip Frank Underwood and his equally devious wife Claire, its depiction of Capitol Hill as a cesspool of self-interested career politicians is light years away from (and let’s be honest, far more convincing than) anything you may have seen in The West Wing.
It’s slickly-paced, high production value prestige TV stuff, and seeing Spacey's Machiavellian plots unfold is a delight – even if the current occupants of the real life White House make the Underwoods look like George and Martha Washington by comparison.
With five full seasons now available to stream, it's a boxset built for binge-watching.
Orange is the New Black
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 – five whole seasons strong.
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 38 episodes available (three seasons plus two specials), its perfect for binging.
Making a Murderer
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 documentary series of their own, but here that's just the start.
You see, just two years after his exoneration and release, Avery is 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 in the case against him would be a huge understatement.
Making a Murderer is a long, sometimes slow-moving series, but it's also fascinating, deeply troubling, and constantly capable of sending shivers down your spine.