Netflix had a banner year. Two years ago the service only had a handful of standouts by year’s end and last year, it had about a dozen. This year, though, I could have filled a “best of” list with at least 30 recommendations for Netflix Original shows and felt good about recommending all of them.
For time and clarity’s sake, however, I decided to focus on just the eight best of the best in this year-end round-up. But because Netflix had so many good shows this year, I also included a few honorable mentions at the bottom of this post.
Read on for the eight standouts and then go watch what you missed.
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Details: This detective thriller is based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning article by ProPublica and The Marshall Project as well as a “This American Life” episode. Both the original stories and show focus on the victim of a serial rapist who isn’t believed when the attack occurs in 2008. The storytelling then shifts to the female detectives who join the case years later when similar attacks occur.
The cast includes Toni Collette, Kaitlyn Dever, Danielle Macdonald and Merritt Wever.
The mini-series runs for eight episodes of roughly 50 minutes each.
Sum-up: This show is a subversion of detective show tropes. Yes, the show has heroic detectives that come in to somewhat save the day after the failures of lesser (male) investigators. Although the show gets its narrative verve from that construction, “Unbelievable” isn’t really about that.
This show does a remarkable job in focusing on the victims of the crimes and mining their struggles for story. In most detective shows, as is true in society, victims are often made to be afterthoughts to the detective heroes and perpetrator villains. This mini-series does right by the victims, a technical feat that’s hard to accomplish as it goes against the rules of storytelling. Characters in stories act and react, while victims have actions done to them. That ultimately shouldn’t be minimizing.
To get around this storytelling problem, the show crafts super-realized characters full of tics and desires, such that the viewer can most fully empathize with the humans on the screen. This is an “important” show, but its strongest feat is finding an innovative path to story craft.
Details: This sketch comedy show features short, absurdist sketches, and embraces a seemingly low budget with janky costuming and special effects, ultimately leaning on the hilarity of weirdo characters.
Zach Kanin and Tim Robinson co-created and co-wrote all the episodes. Robinson stars, while guests include Will Forte, Andy Samberg and Cecily Strong.
The first season runs six episodes of roughly 17 minutes each.
Sum-up: The brevity of both the show’s sketches and overall episode runtimes make this a breezy watch. In a year full of many hours of brilliant television, it’s a change of pace to have something you can finish in just a couple hours.
Despite being an easy watch, “I Think You Should Leave” still deserves much praise for being a top-of-class sketch show. The clever premises often start from a grounded, realistic set-up and then veer into surprising absurdity. While other, lesser sketch shows often either rely on pure ridiculousness or pure low-hanging-fruit relatable set-ups, this sketch show found a way to balance both.
This is by far the funniest thing that debuted on Netflix this year. While other shows (higher in the list) may have balanced comedy and drama and other genres a bit better, if you’re just looking for the most reliable thing to make you laugh go no further.
Details: This teen comedy focuses on awkward teenagers in southern Wales who find acceptance in school by teaming up with a cool, broke, female classmate to offer sex therapy to other students at affordable prices. The protagonist ― a sexually inexperienced “therapist” ― gains his wisdom from being the son of a proud sex therapist, an embarrassing fact he tries to hide from fellow students.
The main cast includes Gillian Anderson, Asa Butterfield, Ncuti Gatwa and Emma Mackey.
The first season runs seven episodes of roughly 50 minutes each.
Sum-up: The success of this show hinges on its likable characters. This is one of those rare shows in which you want to hangout with the characters as they get into their hijinks. Most sitcoms attempt to do this, but do so with insufferable caricatures of people rattling off one-liners. The hijinks here are more creative.
Much of the creative legwork comes from inspired camerawork and settings. Conversations happen in scenes in which the camera has found interesting ways to frame the action. The greenery of the South Wales setting alone elevates the story too.
This show is ultimately about teens with problems of maturity, which might not be the most engaging set up for adult viewers in general. But this show makes great effort to tackle each character’s problem with nuance and explore the depths of the teens’ obstacles. This strong story makes this resonate beyond the supposed demographic.
Details: This detective thriller is loosely based on the 1995 nonfiction true crime book “Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit.” In the show, an innovative investigative team interviews serial killers for the FBI in the 1970s. The team wants to understand the serial killers, which ultimately causes various forms of emotional burnout.
The main cast includes Jonathan Groff, Holt McCallany and Anna Torv. David Fincher directed multiple episodes.
The second season runs nine episodes of roughly 60 minutes each.
Sum-up: “Mindhunter” is a show that explores the depths of darkness. Visually, the show is very dark ― sometimes it’s hard to even see the characters on the screen as the lighting is low and the costuming blends in with the background. Moments of comedy and levity pretty much only come from characters acting perversely, which often plays more disturbing than funny.
In general, a show that’s a bit too self-serious can be a tough watch. That makes it all the more impressive that this show can rely on its methodical storytelling craft to provide an excellent viewing experience. Each scene is so highly considered, you can pause at any time and marvel at the composition, the set and the emotions on the actors’ faces. “Mindhunter” is an incredibly rich text.
By wading deep into the darkness of the human condition, the show provides a thesis on the inherent perversion of society. True crime’s enduring popularity certainly provides many stories that approach this topic. But “Mindhunter” does it with best-in-class craft.
4. “The Crown”
Details: This period drama focuses on the United Kingdom monarchy in the 1960s. Queen Elizabeth II and her family must figure out how to keep their roles relevant in a changing world.
The main cast includes Helena Bonham Carter, Olivia Colman, Ben Daniels and Tobias Menzies.
The third season runs 10 episodes of roughly 50 minutes each.
Sum-up: The expensive sets are the star of this show. “The Crown” shows off decadent recreations of Buckingham Palace and other various palatial settings the characters travel through. Much of the season focuses on two characters sitting and talking, but because they sit and talk in an opulent space, the scene still looks engaging on the screen.
That said, the acting stars of the show still bring so much to this beyond the general eye candy of the sets. The choice to have Olivia Colman and Helena Bonham Carter play Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret injects a much needed sense of comedy to the stodgy proceedings.
The writing can be a bit inert, but while story lines progress slowly, the show admirably uses that pace to have the characters talk in length about their feelings and opinions. Since this is about the British monarchy, having these characters talk about these things ultimately means the show has much commentary on the role of power in society.
Details: In this animated comedy, two bird best friends balance their ongoing friendship with new adult challenges in the anthropomorphic Bird Town. As one of the bird best friends starts living with her bird boyfriend, the friendship must become a trio to survive.
Lisa Hanawalt created the show. The voice cast includes Tiffany Haddish, Ali Wong and Steven Yeun.
The first (and only) season runs 10 episodes of roughly 25 minutes each.
Sum-up: Netflix cancelled this show after just one season, which is an incredible shame due to its immense quality.
An inventive use of animation made this one of the most detail-rich worlds ever created for television. The background “sets” have all sorts of jokes and other details for the viewer to try and notice. The characters’ bodies can morph to meet their emotions ― further illustrating and heightening each feeling.
That the show could be incredibly funny scene to scene, while also having deep commentary on important issues, is admirable. The show devotes much attention to unspoken evils lurking in the shadows of society. That so much of this animated world is so heightened and extreme makes the commentary about what’s still hiding even more poignant.
Details: Ostensibly an animated comedy, the show focuses on various depressed characters working through personal tragedy, guilt and the horrors of contemporary capitalism. But it’s funny. Both anthropomorphic and human characters call “Hollywoo,” Los Angeles home, but also try out other parts of the country in this season to see if they can run from their pain. Netflix split the show’s final season into two parts and this is part one.
Raphael Bob-Waksberg created the show. The main voice cast includes Will Arnett, Alison Brie, Aaron Paul, Amy Sedaris and Paul F. Tompkins.
The first half of the sixth season runs eight episodes of roughly 25 minutes each.
Sum-up: No show has explored existential crises better than “BoJack Horseman” this decade. That more and more members of contemporary society seem to be going through existential crises these days now makes the show even more poignant. This most recent season somewhat leans into that unfortunate fact too. The depressed characters used to be atypical in their sunny surroundings. Now everyone in the world of this show seems to be on the same page that things are bad and are subsequently unsure of what to do about that.
The show has deeply complex narratives coupled with deeply complex jokes. Catching everything this show is trying to say, both literally and figuratively, can be hard. But a show that rewards repeat viewings because of its deep richness is admirable.
This show somewhat pioneered a now pervasive writing style of coupling a deeply depressing storyline with a script that has a joke almost every line. This enables the show to wade deep into hellish internal trauma, while still somehow providing a hilarious and fun viewing experience. It’s the kind of show that can lull the viewer into having a good time in the moment, but then the deeper points will rattle around in the brain for days after.
Details: This comedy centers around a sci-fi mystery involving a woman who keeps dying after leaving a hip party in New York City. When she dies, she starts the cycle over in the bathroom of the party, looking at her self in the mirror yet again. Unsure of what to do, this woman must test different theories as to why she’s stuck in this loop.
Natasha Lyonne, Leslye Headland and Amy Poehler created the show. Lyonne stars along with Elizabeth Ashley, Charlie Barnett, Greta Lee and Yul Vazquez.
The first season runs eight episodes of roughly 30 minutes each.
Sum-up: “Russian Doll” felt like a fitting cap on the decade. It featured multiple television tropes that dominated the 2010s from a central sci-fi mystery to cool New York City characters to a self destructive protagonist who makes self-deprecating jokes. But rather that feeling like a retread, this show took those ideas and invented the best version of that.
Within the flashy, smoke and mirror (like literally heavy smoking and story-important mirrors) setting, the show has much to say about mental health, gentrification and other ills of contemporary society. This is a show that knows that evil always lurks right beyond party walls, even if that party is really good.
Much like the character who dies and returns again and again to notice ever new details, viewers will find much to focus on and explore in returning to this world.
Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order): “Big Mouth,” “Dear White People,” “GLOW,” “Larry Charles’ Dangerous World of Comedy,” “The OA,” “The Politician” and “When They See Us.”