Netflix's televised revolution began in earnest in February 2013, when the machiavellian political schemer Frank Underwood looked straight into the camera and casually snapped a dog’s neck. It was the first episode of House of Cards – a $100 million TV series that would only be available on the Internet.
The show represented a huge risk for the streaming service as it sought to make the leap from tech start-up to entertainment industry goliath.
Five years on and the gamble has paid off. Netflix was a major winner at the Emmys, its haul of 23 awards attesting to its power-player status. And while House of Cards quickly descended into potboiler nonsense (with leading star Kevin Spacey being fired from the series after sexual assault allegations), Netflix has rumbled on. Here are 25 of its most essential shows.
You can also view this list as a gallery below.
A cartoon about a talking horse, starring the goofy older brother from Arrested Development… on paper little about BoJack Horseman screams “must watch”. Yet the series almost immediately transcended its format to deliver a moving and very funny rumination on depression and middle-age malaise. Will Arnett plays BoJack – one time star of Nineties hit sitcom Horsin’ Around – as a lost soul whose turbo-charged narcissism prevents him getting his life together.
Almost as good are a support cast including Alison Brie (Glow, Mad Men), Aaron Paul, of Breaking Bad, and Amy Sedaris as a pampered Persian cat who is also BoJack’s agent. Season five touches the live rail of harassment in the movie industry, offering one of the most astute commentaries yet on the #MeToo movement with an episode based centred around an awards ceremony called “The Forgivies”.
A valentine to the Spielberg school of Eighties blockbuster, with Winona Ryder as a small-town mom whose son is abducted by a transdimensional monster. ET, Goonies, Close Encounters, Alien and everything Stephen King wrote between 1975 and 1990 are all tossed into the blender by Millennial writer-creators the Duffer brothers. It was clear Stranger Things was going to be a mega-smash when Barb – the “best friend” character eaten in the second episode – went viral the weekend it dropped.
Netflix’s Marvel shows tend towards the overlong and turgid. An exception is the high-kicking Daredevil, with Charlie Cox’s blind lawyer/crimefighter banishing all memory of Ben Affleck's turn donning the red jumpsuit in 2003. With New York’s Hell’s Kitchen neighbourhood as backdrop, Daredevil is caked in street-level grit and features a searing series one performance by Vincent D'Onofrio as the villainous Kingpin. The perfect antidote to the deafening bombast of the big screen Marvel movies.
Did he do it? Does it matter considering the lengths the Durham, North Carolina police seemingly went in order to stitch him up? Sitting through this twisting, turning documenting about the trial of Michael Peterson – charged with the murder in 2003 of his wife – the viewer may find themselves alternately empathising with and recoiling from the accused. It’s a feat of bravura factual filmmaking from French documentarian Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, which comes to Netflix with a recently shot three-part coda catching up with the (very weird) Peterson clan a decade on.
Stranger Things: the Euro-Gloom years. Netflix’s first German-language production is a pulp romp that thinks it’s a Wagner opera. In a remote town surrounded by a creepy forest locals fear the disappearance of a teenager may be linked to other missing persons cases from decades earlier. The timelines get twisted and it’s obvious that something wicked is emanating from a tunnel leading to a nearby nuclear power plant. Yet if the story sometimes trips itself up the Goonies-meets-Götterdämmerung ambiance keeps you hooked.
A Series of Unfortunate Events
The wry and bleak Lemony Snickett children novels finally get the ghastly adaptation they deserve (let’s all pretend the dreadful 2004 Jim Carrey movie never happened). Neil Patrick Harris gobbles up the scenery as the vain and wicked Count Olaf, desperate to separate the Baudelaire orphans from their considerable inheritance. The look is Tim Burton by way of Wes Anderson, and the dark wit of the books is replicated perfectly (Snickett, aka Daniel Handler, is co-producer).
If you’re curious as to how Cary Fukunaga will handle the Bond franchise, his limited series, starring Emma Stone and Jonah Hill, drops some delicious hints. It’s a mind-bending sci-fi story set in an alternative United States where computers still look like Commodore 64s and in which you pay for goods by having a “travel buddy” sit down and read you adverts.
Stone and Hill are star-crossed outcasts participating in a drugs trial that catapults them into a series of trippy genre excursions – including an occult adventure and a Lord of the Rings-style fantasy. It is here that Fukunaga demonstrates his versatility, handling potentially hokey material smartly and respectfully. 007 fans can sleep easy.
Better Call Saul
The Breaking Bad prequel is starting to outgrow the show that spawned it. Where Breaking Bad delivered a master-class in scorched earth storytelling Saul is gentler and more humane. Years before the rise of Walter White, the future meth overlord’s sleazy lawyer, Saul Goodman, is still plain old Jimmy McGill, a striving every-dude trying to catch a break. But how far will he go to make his name and escape the shadow of his superstar attorney brother Chuck (Michael McKean)?
Don’t tell Channel 4 but Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology series has arguably got even better since making the jump from British terrestrial TV to the realm of megabucks American streaming. Bigger budgets have given creators Brooker and Annabel Jones license to let their imaginations off the leash – yielding unsurpassable episodes such as virtual reality love story "San Junipero" and Star Trek parody "USS Callister", which has bagged a bunch of Emmys.
David Fincher produces this serial killer drama based on the writings of a real-life FBI psychological profiler. It’s the post-Watergate Seventies and two maverick G-Men (Jonathan Groff and Holt McCallany) are going out on a limb by utilising the latest psychological research to get inside the heads of a motley assembly of real-life sociopathic murders – including the notorious “Co-Ed” butcher Ed Kemper, brought chillingly to live in an Emmy-nominated performance by Cameron Britton.
A right royal blockbuster from dramatist Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost / Nixon). Tracing the reign of Elizabeth II from her days as a wide-eyed young woman propelled to the throne after the surprise early death of her father, The Crown humanises the royals even as it paints their private lives as a bodice-ripping soap. Matt Smith is charmingly roguish as Prince Philip and Vanessa Kirby has ascended the Hollywood ranks on the back of her turn as the flawed yet sympathetic Princess Margaret.
Most impressive of all, arguably, is Claire Foy, who plays the Queen as a shy woman thrust unwillingly into the spotlight. Foy and the rest of the principal cast have now departed, with a crew of older actors – headed by Olivia Colman and Tobias Menzies – taking over as the middle-aged Windsors for season three.
This drug trafficking caper spells out exactly what kind of series it is with an early scene in which two gangsters zip around a multi-level carpark on a motorbike firing a machine gun. Narcos, in other words, is for people who consider Pacino’s Scarface a touch too understated. Series one and two feature a mesmerising performance by Wagner Moura as Columbian cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar, while season three focuses on the notorious Cali cartel. Reported to be one of Netflix’s biggest hits – the company doesn’t release audience figures – the fourth season turns its attention to Mexico’s interminable drugs wars.
Master of None
A cloud hangs over Aziz Ansari’s future after he was embroiled in the #MeToo scandal. But whatever happens, he has left us with a humane and riveting sitcom about an Ansari-proximate character looking for love and trying to establish himself professionally in contemporary New York.
One of Netflix’s early blockbusters, the sprawling soap opera updates Dallas to modern day southern Florida. Against the edge-of-civilisation backdrop of the Florida Keys, Kyle Chandler plays the local detective and favourite son of a well-to-do family. Their idyllic lives are thrown into chaos with the return of the clan’s black sheep (an unnervingly intense Ben Mendelsohn). The story is spectacularly hokey but searing performances by Chandler and Mendelsohn, and by Sissy Spacek and the late Sam Shepard as their imperious parents, make Bloodline compelling – a guilty pleasure that, actually, you shouldn’t feel all that guilty about.
You can almost smell the shoddy sanitation and horse-manure in this lavish murder-mystery set in 19th New York. We’re firmly in Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York territory, with a serial killer bumping off boy prostitutes across Manhattan. Enter pioneering criminal psychologist Dr Laszlo Kreisler (Daniel Brühl), aided by newspaper man John Moore (Luke Evans) and feisty lady detective Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning).
Judd Apatow bring his signature gross-out comedy to the small screen. Love, which Apatow produced, is a masterclass in restraint compared to 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up etc. Paul Rust is Gus, a nerdish movie set tutor, whose develops a crush on Gillian Jacobs’s too-cool-for-school radio producer Mickey. Romance, of a sort, blossoms – but Love’s triumph is to acknowledge the complications of real life and to disabuse its characters of the idea that there’s such a thing as a straightforward happy ending. Hipster LA provides the bustling setting.
Who says reality TV has to be nasty and manipulative? This updating of the early 2000s hit Queer Eye for the Straight Guy has five stereotype-challenging gay men sharing lifestyle tips and fashion advice with an engaging cast of All American schlubs (the first two seasons are shot mostly in the state of Georgia). There are laughs – but serious moment too, such as when one of the crew refuses to enter a church because of the still unhealed scars of his strict Christian upbringing.
A high-gloss revamping of the traditional TV food show. Each episode profiles a high wattage international chef; across its three seasons, the series has featured gastronomic superstars from the US, Argentina, India and Korea.
A disastrous group interview in which actor Jason Bateman “mansplained” away the bullying co-star Jessica Walter had suffered at the hands of fellow cast-member Jeffrey Tambor meant season five of Arrested Development was fatally compromised before it even landed. Yet Netflix’s return to the dysfunctional world of the Bluth family stands on its merits and is a worthy addition to the surreal humour of seasons one through three (series four, which had to work around the busy schedules of the cast, is disposable by comparison).
Netflix does Bladerunner with this sumptuous adaptation of the cult Richard Morgan novel. The setting is a neon-splashed cyberpunk future in which the super-wealthy live forever by uploading the consciousness into new “skins”. Enter rebel-turned-detective Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman), hired to find out who killed a (since resurrected) zillionaire industrialist while dealing with fallout from his own troubled past. Rumoured to be one of Netflix’s most expensive projects yet, for its second run, Anthony Mackie (aka Marvel’s Falcon) replaced Kinnaman as the shape-shifting Kovacs.
Rick and Morty
Dan Harmon, creator of cult sitcom Community (also on Netflix), finds the perfect outlet for zany fanboy imagination with this crazed animated comedy about a Marty McFly/Doc Brown-esque duo of time travellers. Every genre imaginable is parodied with the manic energy and zinging dialogue we have come to expect from Harmon.
Mad Men’s Alison Brie is our entry point into this comedy-drama inspired by a real life all-female wrestling league in the Eighties. Ruth Wilder (Brie) is a down-on-her luck actor who, out of desperation, signs up a wrestling competition willed into being by Sam Sylvia (podcast king Marc Maron). Britrock singer Kate Nash is one of her her fellow troupe members: the larger than life Rhonda “Britannica” Richardson.
Deadpan animated satire about an idiot super spy with shaken and stirred mother issues. One of the most ambitious modern comedies, animated or otherwise, Archer tries on different varieties of humour for size and even occasionally tugs at the heart strings.
Breaking Bad for those with short attention spans. The saga of Walter White took years to track the iconic anti-hero’s rise from mild mannered everyman to dead-eyed criminal. Ozark gets there in the first half hour as nebbish Chicago accountant Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman) agrees to serve as lieutenant for the Mexican mob in the hillbilly heartlands of Ozark, Missouri (in return they thoughtfully spare his life). Bateman, usually seen in comedy roles, is a revelation as is Laura Linney as his nasty wife Wendy. There is also a break-out performance by Julia Garner playing the scion of a local redneck crime family.
The Good Place
A heavenly comedy with a twist. Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) is a cynical schlub waved through the Pearly Gates by mistake after dying in a bizarre supermarket accident. There she must remain above the suspicions of seemingly well-meaning but disorganised angel Michael (Ted Danson) whilst also negotiating fractious relationships with do-gooder Chidi (William Jackson Harper), spoiled princess Tahani (former T4 presenter Jameela Jamil) and ex-drug dealer Jason (Manny Jacinto).