Wednesday, February 28, 2024

The best shows to watch on Netflix

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You watched all the big hits on Netflix and now you’re scrambling around the home screen hoping the algorithm serves you up something bingeable?

Allow us to help!

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 $100m 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.

More than a decade on and how that gamble has paid off. While rival streamers lose billions, Netflix continues to surge ahead, adding a better-than-expected 13.1 million new subscribers in the final quarter of 2023. In the game of streaming you play to win – and there’s no shifting Netflix from top spot.

Squid Game

Anyone for “Red Light, Green Light”? Netflix’s fastest word-of-mouth phenomenon since Stranger Things, the Korean drama finds a rag-tag of gambling addicts and bankrupts vying for the payday of a lifetime by playing a series of traditional children’s games. These are presided over by guards dressed like refugees from Super Mario Brothers by way of Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner. There’s only one catch – put a foot wrong and a machine gun will take your arm off. The shock factor is high – but the characters are compellingly drawn and the implicit criticism of the widening gulf between rich and poor earns parallels with Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite. A spin-off reality show soon followed – a disturbing example of life imitating art.

Wednesday

Jenna Ortega broke the internet with her meme-friendly Wednesday dance last year. She also ruled the streaming roost in Tim Burton’s Dark Academia reimagining of the old Addams Family character. This was a bang-up to date Wednesday plunged into an old school murder mystery that doubled as a showcase for the charismatic Ortega. Plus, there was the impressive supporting cast of Catherine Zeta-Jones, Luis Guzmán, Fred Armisen, Gwendoline Christie and the first, last and always Wednesday Addams, Christina Ricci. Series two starts filming in 2024.

Netflix series ‘Wednesday’ starring Jenna Ortega

(Netflix)

BoJack Horseman

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”.

Stranger Things

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.

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Series three introduced Soviets tunnelling beneath Hawkins, Indiana and homages to Terminator and Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Stranger Things was just getting started, though. Season four was the most popular yet as we saw the gang tangle with evil wizard Vecna. Such was its reach it introduced Gen Zers to Kate Bush (giving Bush her first US number one) and, with its Hellfire Club of Dungeons and Dragons players, made nerdy table-top gaming cool. Cameras recently began rolling on a fifth and final series.

Cyberpunk: Edgerunners

Without creating a fuss, Netflix has been diligently putting out some great video game adaptations. This future-shock caper is a spinoff of the roleplaying game (and video game) Cyberpunk 2077. We are introduced to David Martinez, a clever kid whose life is derailed when his mother is killed in dystopian Night City. From Japan’s Studio Trigger, it’s Blade Runner with an anime makeover.

Beef

Revenge is a dish best served by a spicy Ali Wong and Steve Yeun in this darkly hilarious – and often simply dark – account of two stressed strangers in Los Angeles who embark on a course of mutual self-destruction after becoming involved in a road-rage incident. It cleaned up at the recent Emmys, bringing home eight gongs. Wong made history as the first woman of Asian descent to win an Emmy in a lead actress category.

Wong and Yeun in ‘Beef’

(AP)

The Sandman

They said it was unfilmable but, with Neil Gaiman overseeing the adaptation of his surrealistic 1990s comic series, the adventures of Morpheus, Lord of Dreams have reached the screen. A moving, imaginative and thoughtful retelling of the graphic novels it features Tom Sturridge as the eponymous grumpy goth immortal, Kirby Howell-Baptiste as his sister Death and Boyd Holbrook as “The Corinthinan” – a serial killer with a difference. Gaiman took to Twitter urging fans to binge – and his campaigning paid off with a second season greenlit and soon to enter production.

Borgen : Power & Glory

The knitwear is reliably stunning, the politics backstabbingly vindictive as Sidse Babett Knudsen returns to her defining role as Danish leader Birgitte Nyborg. In this sequel to Borgen, Nyborg is now Foreign Minister – and is caught up on a controversy over the discovery of oil in Greenland.

Hellbound

Squid Game has sucked up all the publicity – but this infernally bingeable South Korean drama deserves attention too. It’s a lurid mash-up of detective drama and splatter horror movie, with demonic spirits hunting down “cursed” individual in broad daylight. Who unleashed these forces? And what do they have to gain?

Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous

The Jurassic World movies have been 50 shades of dino-pants. For the true spiritual follow-up to the Spielberg Jurassic Park films, Camp Cretaceous is the must-visit destination. We join a group of high-school kids marooned in the dinosaur theme park in a drama that harks back to the glory days of hungry T-Rexes and velociraptors who know out how to open doors.

One Piece

Anime doesn’t always translate well into live action. However, Netflix’s reboot of the popular cartoon gets the tone right by leaning into the original’s manic energy. Iñaki Godoy is Luffy, leader of the Straw Hat Pirates in their quest to find the fabled “One Piece” treasure.

The Night Agent

This cheesy action thriller was Netflix’s biggest hit of 2023. It’s great leave-your-brain-at-the-door fun, starring Gabriel Basso as an FBI agent who monitors the phones at the White House late at night. It’s a boring job – until he is drawn into a conspiracy involving some of the most powerful people in America.

(Netflix)

Midnight Mass

The arrival of a charismatic priest to an impoverished American town coincides with a series of supernatural events. Exploring questions of faith, intergenerational poverty and personal redemption, this instant classic from Mike Flanagan also features zombies, angels and demons. What more could anyone want?

Painkiller

The story of American’s opioid epidemic was told in definitive terms by Dopesick on Disney +. Netflix’s take on the story is more cartoonish – but worth watching as a companion piece to the Disney show. Matthew Broderick is wonderfully obnoxious as Richard Sackler, head of the pharmaceutical dynasty which unleashed the addictive OxyContin upon America.

Love, Death + Robots

A sci-fi anthology featuring cutting edge animation and scripts by giants of the genre such as Joe Abercrombie and Alastair Reynolds. Science fiction is a medium especially suited to short and the David Fincher-produced series taps into the glory days of Brian Aldiss, Arthur C Clarke and Philip K Dick.

Squid Game: The Challenge

This reality show takes the template of Squid Game –  weird music, masked guards, huge singing doll – and turns it into an Apprentice-style battle among a-type personalities drawn from the general public. With a $4.56m prize-pot at stake, the tension is real as the contestants vie to be the last player standing.

Mo

Mo Amer reprises his own life experiences as a Palestinian refugee starting his life over in Houston, Texas. The sharply observed comedy is hilarious but also pointed. As a refugee, Mo’s character (also called Mo) is locked in a perpetual purgatory, unable to legally work and lacking access to basic healthcare.

Fall of the House of Usher

Edgar Allan Poe is ripe for TV adaptation and if Mike Flanagan doesn’t always hit the target with this modern retelling, it is full of gory action, references to Poe’s best loved stories and impressive performances – especially by Star Wars’s Mark Hamill as an amoral flunky to the Succession-like Usher family.

Arcane: League of Legends

Forget Rings of Power or House of the Dragon. This spin-off of steampunk video game League of Legends, is the best modern fantasy series. A cartoon with a grown-up sensibility, it stars Hailee Steinfeld as rebellious criminal Vi and Ella Purnell as her troubled and very much estranged sister, Jinx. Series two is expected in 2025 – and can’t come soon enough.

Junji Ito Maniac: Japanese Tales of the Macabre

Ito is Japan’s answer to HP Lovecraft, Walt Disney and David Lynch rolled into one. His Manga comics are beautiful, creepy and surreal – a quality transposed effectively to the screen in a haunting anthology adapted from his most disturbing stories.

Beckham

The image-conscious footballer and fashion icon was never going to participate in a warts-and-all survey of his career. But if the Fisher Stevens-directed Beckham is highly sanitised, interviews with David and Victoria Beckham are nonetheless revealing – as are sit-downs with Alex Ferguson, Roy Keane and other figures from his sporting days.

The Beckhams in their Netflix documentary

(Netflix)

Pacific Rim: The Black

Animated sequel to Guillermo del Toro’s 2013 monsters v giant robots modern classic. The setting is a post-apocalyptic Australia, sealed off from the outside world and ruled by rampaging “Kaiju” – ie this universe’s answer to Godzilla. Featuring Japanese-style anime art, we fellows siblings Hayley and Taylor as they look for their missing parents – and find more than they bargained for.

Kaleidoscope

Not that you’d guess it from your binge views of Is It Cake?, but Netflix still occasionally likes to push boundaries. A case in point is this Giancarlo Esposito-led heist  which can be watched in non-linear order, up to the finale. It’s TV remixed – and, if mind-bending, packs a tension-filled punch.

The Staircase

Did he do it? Does it matter considering the lengths that the Durham, North Carolina police seemingly went to in order to stitch him up? Sitting through this twisting, turning documentary 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. It’s much better than the 2022 HBO dramatisation starring Colin Firth as Peterson.

Call My Agent!

The setting of this French show is a high-powered Parisian talent agency, where our heroes do their best to keep real-life stars happy (there are cameos by Charlotte Gainsbourg, Monica Bellucci, Sigourney Weaver and others), even as they walk the tightrope of their own complicated personal lives. An English-language remake on Prime Video missed the point entirely.

Grégory Montel, Camille Cottin and Assaad Bouab in ‘Call My Agent!’

(Shanna Besson)

Schitt’s Creek

The wry sitcom that has become everybody’s favourite escape hatch from real world events. Schitt’s Creek stars father and son Eugene and Daniel Levy, alongside Catherine O’Hara and Annie Murphy as a well-to-Canadian family forced to start over, in the eponymous no-horse town, when their millions vanish. The humour is addictively wry, reeling you in gag by subtle gag.

Robbie Williams

For reasons known only to himself, the former Take That crooner refuses to leave his bed as he looks back on his many highs and lows of his life in pop. But despite the singer’s attachment to the duvet, Joe Pearlman delivers a riveting portrait of an awkward superstar.

I’m Not Okay with This

A coming-of-age drama about a 17-year-old (Sophia Lillis – star of the new Dungeons and Dragons movie) who discovers she has telekinetic powers while also coming to terms with her sexuality. A hit with critics, Netflix announced in August that the series had been cancelled owing to Covid-19 related restrictions.

Emily in Paris

Guilty pleasure? Lazy rehashing of gallic stereotypes? Sex and the City with berets? There are many opinions on the latest comedy drama from Darren Star (aka the producer who gave us the adventures of Carrie Bradshaw). What is indisputable is that this tale of a twentysomething Chicagoan (Lily Collins) embarking on a new life and career in Paris goes down as easily as a flaky pastry. Whether it leaves an aftertaste depends on the individual viewer. Series three arrived in late 2022 –with another already greenlit.

Dark

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. Series two introduced further time-hopping and a nod towards Mad Max and Terminator and series three brought the story to a shocking conclusion. Showrunners Jantje Friese and Baran bo Odar returned to Netflix last year with a new mystery series, 1899 – only for it to be cancelled within a month.

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).

Selling Sunset

What would happen if Location, Location, Location was reborn as a manic American reality TV. We now have our answer in the shape of this OTT documentary about Los Angeles real estate brokers whose business is flogging multimillion dollar homes on Los Angeles’s Sunset Strip. It’s ludicrous – but with the world gone increasingly crazy, how better to escape than in feasting your eyes on a suite of pornographically vast LA kitchens? A spinoff, Selling The OC, saw the team expand their empire to the LA suburbs.

Bridgerton

Take Downton Abbey and pour in sex appeal by the gallon drum and you have Shonda Rhimes’s Bridgerton. A tale of naughty derring-do in Regency London, it made stars of Phoebe Dynevor and Regé-Jean Page, who has since departed and is starring in a new Dungeons and Dragons film. Series two was equally popular and landed in 2022.

(Netflix)

Maniac

No Time to Die’s Cary Fukunaga directs Emma Stone and Jonah Hill in 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.

Better Call Saul

The Breaking Bad prequel has outgrown the show that spawned it and, after six seasons, delivered a quietly devastating finale in 2022. Where Breaking Bad delivered a masterclass 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 (Bob Odenkirk), 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)?

Black Mirror

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.

But Brooker has recently struggled with quality control. The one-off interactive “ Bandersnatch” was a fantastic valentine to the era of 8-bit video games. However, series five was largely undercooked. The worst episode saw Andrew Scott as a ride-share driver freaking out upon realising social media might be bad for humanity. However, Brooker clawed back some of his credibility with a decent sixth season that included a scathing take-down of the true crime industry in Loch Henry.

Mindhunter

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. Series two is arguably even better, as we meet Charles Manson and became acquainted with the Atlanta child murder case. The bad news is that there is unlikely to be any further helpings – with Fincher recently stating that 90-hour weeks he was putting in on the show were ultimately unsustainable. Netflix wanted to lower the budget, he said – and he wasn’t going to compromise his values.

The Crown

A right royal blockbuster from dramatist Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost / Nixon). Tracing the reign of the late 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. The final season featured Imelda Staunton as the Queen, Jonathan Pryce as Philip, Dominic West as Charles, Olivia Williams as Camilla Parker Bowles and Elizabeth Debicki as Diana. Unfortunately, it was a bit of a flub and descended into the tabloid sensationalism which it had previously decried. Nevermind, we’ll always have Claire Foy and Olivia Colman as the younger Elizabeth.

Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story

So now the Bridgerton expanded universe is a thing – with this prequel tracing the rise of Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz to power in the late 1700s. India Amarteifio stars as the young Charlotte, with Corey Mylchreest as a baby-faced George III.

Narcos

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 – it turns its attention in its fourth and fifth season to Mexico’s interminable drugs wars, with Diego Luna playing Guadalajara cartel honcho Miguel Gallardo. Narcos : Mexico concluded with a third season in 2021.

Trial by Media

This cheerfully gossipy miniseries drills into high profile legal cases from across the decades. These include a lawsuit caused by the murder of a guest on the Jenny Jones Show – by another guest – and the jailing of disgraced Chicago politician Rod Blagojevich. The big conceit is that the media circus distorts the justice system, which is slightly hypocritical given the giddiness with which Trial By Media relays these stories.

That ’90s Show

Set the cheese-factor to stun as Laura Prepon, Ashton Kutcher, Mila Kunis and others reprise their roles from That ’70s Show. We’ve fast forwarded to the Nineties, meaning grunge and riot grrl but still no smart-phones thank goodness. The humour feels 30 years old, too – though this three-camera comedy goes down so easily it’s hard to complain.

The Chair

When Game of Thrones show-runners David Benioff and DB Weiss signed a production deal with Netflix, the expectation was that they would furnish the service with a lifetime supply of dungeons and dragons. But their first series, created by Benioff’s wife Amanda Peet, is a deft satire of campus politics – which also thoughtfully critiques so-called “cancel culture”. Above all, it’s a vehicle for the wonderful Sandra Oh, as an English professor who receives more than she bargained for on becoming the first woman of colour named department head in her Ivy League-style university. Though well-received, the series has since been cancelled by Netflix.

(© 2021 Netflix, Inc.)

Tiger King

In March, as the world adjusted to the new normal things got very abnormal on Netflix as the streaming service debuted this true crime documentary about Oklahoma Tiger zoo owner Joe Exotic and animal rights nemesis Carole Baskin. Big cats, murder accusations, glow in the dark mullets and wild conspiracy theories added up to car-crash TV from which it was impossible to avert your gaze. Two dramas based on the doc have been greenlit, while an inevitable second season hit in November 2021 – only to turn out to be a slapped-together regurgitation of what we already knew.

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. In 2019, Ansari returned to stand-up and to Netflix, with the Spike Jonze directed Right Now comedy special. And in May 2021 it returned as Master of None Presents: Moments in Love, with the focus switching to Lena Waithe’s character, Denise, with Ansari directing.

Bloodline

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.

The Alienist

You can almost smell the shoddy sanitation and horse-manure in this lavish murder-mystery set in 19th century 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). Season two, Angel of Darkness, landed in 2022.

Lupin

A debonair thriller starring Omar Sy as a “gentleman thief” who will stop at nothing to take revenge against the man he blames for the death of his father – but who never looks less than completely dashing while doing so. In addition to providing a shop-window for Sy’s charm, the series explores racism in contemporary France. Yet even as it tackles heavy themes, Lupin’s tone is never less than delightful. A third season debuted recently.

Love

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.

Queer Eye

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.

Chef’s Table

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.

Cobra Kai

Here’s an idea that shouldn’t work but does: Eighties teen hit The Karate Kid re-imagined as latter-day meditation on middle age. That’s a mouthful and yet Cobra Kai goes down easy as Karate Kid stars Ralph Macchio (Danny LaRusso) and William Zabka (bully boy karate champ Johnny Lawrence) reprise their roles from the original film. The twist is that they’re now in their fifties. Danny is a successful car salesman, William a loser scraping by on odd jobs. When he starts teaching karate to local kids, a decades-old rivalry is rekindled. Season five became Netflix’s most-watched drama when it debuted in September 2022.

Sweet Tooth

Adapted from a DC Comics series set in a post-apocalyptic future in which children are born with tusks, horns and other animal appendages. Gus – aka “Sweet Tooth” – is a boy with the features of a deer. And while that sounds both strange and creepy, this saga is underpinned by a welcome sense of optimism (it is part of the sci-fi “hopepunk” genre). As the story begins, Gus (Christian Convery) sets out across a dystopian America in search of his mother. He is soon joined by grumpy but bighearted Jepperd (Nonso Anozie), a former American football star who, in this post-doomsday new reality, has had to do some shady things to stay alive.

Arrested Development

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).

Altered Carbon

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, its second run sees Anthony Mackie (aka Marvel’s Falcon) replace Kinnaman as the shape-shifting Kovacs. He’s a perfect fit for the part too, delving into the inner turmoil of a character who accumulates a multitude of ghosts across his endless lifespan. In August 2021, Netflix confirmed Altered Carbon had been cancelled.

Glow

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. Season three relocated the action of Las Vegas. Glow has been renewed for a fourth and final season, but in October 2020 Netflix announced it would not be proceeding. “Covid has killed actual humans,” said the showrunners. “It’s a national tragedy and should be our focus. Covid also apparently took down our show”.

Archer

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 gives you the feels.

Shadow and Bone

Epic fantasy but with a twist. Game of Thrones’s addiction to sexual violence has left an increasingly foul taste. But Netflix’s adaptation of Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone series shows that fantasy can be sweeping and thrilling without becoming vulgar and exploitative. The setting is a quasi-steampunk universe inspired by Renaissance Amsterdam and the 19th-century Russia Empire. Jessie Mei Li is Alina Starkov, a young women inducted into a magical order after she displays uncanny powers. Though the tone is strictly YA, the world-building is breathtaking, while Ben Barnes’s “Darkling” makes for a wonderfully compelling baddie. Series two arrived in March 2023 – and then, inevitably, Netflix pulled the plug.

Ozark

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. Bateman recently won a best director Emmy for his work on the series, seizing the gong from beneath the noses of Game of Thrones’s David Benioff and DB Weiss. A fourth and final season arrived in 2022 and was acclaimed as a perfect-send-off.

(STEVE DIETL/NETFLIX)

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) while 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).

Disenchantment

It’s been forever and a few years since The Simpsons was even vaguely essentially viewing. But Matt Groening’s Homer mojo clearly hasn’t abandoned him yet. His Netflix series, just back for a second season, is a hilarious pastiche of fantasy tropes, with Abbi Jacobson as a hard-drinking princess, Eric Andre and Nat Faxon as her demon pal and elf sidekick and Matt Berry as – to quote Wikipedia – “Prince Merkimer, from the kingdom of Bentwood, who is arranged to marry [Princess] Bean, but was turned into a pig”.

Top Boy

Netflix has been binning shows as if it is going out of fashion. But that didn’t stop Drake from persuading it to revive the Channel 4 drama about rival drug dealers in a fictional south London neighbourhood. Middle-aged Irishman Ronan Bennett captures the reality of life for many young black British people with tremendously sensitivity, while the cast is headed by Ashley Walters, Kane “Kano” Robinson, rapper Little Simz and Mercury Prize winner Dave. Series five brought down the curtains in 2023, featuring a memorable Barry Keoghan turn as a Dublin gangster.

Unbelievable

A police procedural adapted from a long-form magazine exposé of American justice’s entrenched misogyny sounds like nobody’s idea of a fun night in. But Unbelievable makes serious points about how sufferers of sexual assault are marginalised and victim-blamed while also drawing the viewer into a compelling mystery. Unflinching yet never gratuitous, it stars Toni Collette and Merritt Wever as hard-bitten detectives investigating a serial rapist. Booksmart’s Kaitlyn Dever, meanwhile, plays a young woman wrongly accused of crying wolf when a man attacks her in her apartment.

Russian Doll

Time becomes a loop in this sci-fi parable about a troubled New Yorker who finds herself reliving the final hours of her life over and over. Is the cosmos itself trying to tell her something? Or is she simply losing her marbles. Natasha Lyonne excels as damaged, potty-mouthed Nadia. Her improbable love interest is played by Charlie Barnett. A second series incorporated time travel and an expanded role for Chloë Sevigny March as Nadia’s mother.

The Umbrella Academy

Gerard Way’s surreal comic book has translated impressively to the screen. Umbrella Academy unfolds as a lightly unhinged anti-Avengers. A family of super-powered siblings tries to solve the mystery of the murder of their domineering adoptive father, who plucked them from the arms of their mothers and raised them to be humanity’s first line of defence. Elliot Page, Tom Hopper and Robert Sheehan head the cast in a series that plays out like a Marvel movie directed by Wes Anderson. Watch out for a cameo by R&B queen Mary J Blige as an inter-dimensional assassin. Series three handled Page’s transition with huge graciousness and kindness.

When They See Us

Oscar-nominated Ava DuVernay makes a foray into television with a gripping four-part retelling of the 1989 Central Park Five case in which five African Americans were charged with the rape of a jogger in central Manhattan.

The Dark Crystal

This return to the world of the Jim Henson 1982 fantasy movie is very much a series of two halves. The first five episodes are a confused hodgepodge of exposition and world building. But once it settles down this prequel to the film spins a fantastic tale of puppet Gelflings and Skeksis vying for power in a feudal kingdom… a game of thrones, as it were. Westeros regulars Natalie Dormer, Lena Headey and Nathalie Emmanuel star alongside Simon Pegg, Mark Hamill and Alicia Vikander. Sadly, the puppets were not as popular as hoped and the reboot has been cancelled.

The Haunting of Hill House

A rare TV horror that genuinely gets under the skin. Very loosely adapted from 1959 Shirley Jackson gothic classic, Mike Flanagan’s series chronicles the adulthood agonies of a family whose childhood was traumatised by a run-in with a creepy mansion. Rather than lazy jump-scares, the series ratchets up the dread slowly yet unyieldingly. A few episodes in and you may find yourself holding your breath, so searing is the tension. To really freak you, Flanagan has also inserted dozens of hidden ghosts into the background. See how many you can spot – and good luck getting to sleep afterwards. A 2020 spiritual sequel, The Haunting of Bly Manor, piles on the melodrama but forgets the chills.

The OA

Bonkers on a swizzle stick, this series from Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij makes Twin Peaks look like an Only Fools and Horses repeat. Prairie (Marling) is an inter-dimensional wanderer with a strange past and an even weirder future. She recruits a group of high school students, teaching them the “movements” that permit travel across time and space. That’s the jumping off point for a meditation on existence, identity and fate. Controversially cancelled after just two seasons – and the mother of all cliff-hangers – The OA is nonetheless a sensory experience worth your time. Did we mention the talking octopus?

Our Planet

David Attenborough provides the narration – but the real star is the stunning camerawork and general sumptuousness, courtesy of the team behind BBC mega-hits Blue Planet and Planet Earth. Shots of flamingos running across salt flats and blue whales chilling off the coast of Mexico are the perfect excuse to spring for a Netflix HD subscription. Series two, which landed in summer 2023, featured further dreamy shots of marine mammals, polar bears and albatross chicks.

(Netflix)

The Dragon Prince

Game of Thrones exited to the strains of a thousand damp squibs imploding at once. And it’s too early to say whether adaptations of The Witcher or The Wheel of Time will be any use. But one fantasy saga worth getting your chainmail in a twist for is this kid’s animated series from Avatar: The Last Airbender director Aaron Ehasz. The setting is bog standard swords and sorcery – there are dragons, elves and magicians – but the execution is riveting. Tensions between elves and humans are compellingly drawn – and did we mention the dragons?

Castlevania

A gothic adult cartoon based on an obscure video game does not sound enticing. Yet this baroque fever dream starring Richard Armitage (Thorin from The Hobbit movies) as the last living member of an excommunicated family of vampire hunters and Graham McTavish as a misunderstood Count Dracula (he’s upset after his wife is burned the stake) is a riveting slow burner. Season four brought down the curtains – though a spin-off saga is planned.

Tuca and Bertie

Netflix has lately turned cancelling shows into a competitive sport. This new animated drama from the creators of BoJack Horseman was canned just two months after its debut despite much critical acclaim. In Netflix’s defence, it is rather wacky. To quote Deadline, it tells of “the friendship between two 30-year-old bird-women who live in the same apartment building, Tuca (Tiffany Haddish), a cocky, care-free toucan and Bertie (Ali Wong), an anxious, daydreaming songbird”. The humour is surreal but, just like BoJack Horseman, the emotional beats – specifically its depiction of the central relationship – yank the heartstrings.

Blown Away

Reality TV, the Netflix way. Imagine Bake Off with glass-blowing instead of marzipan manipulation and YouTube star Nick Uhas in for Noel Fielding and Sandi Toksvig. Ten artists test their glass blowing mastery in a series of challenges. The winner walks away with $60,000 and a residency at the Corning Museum of Glass in New York. Just like Bake Off, it’s riveting viewing even if you can’t tell a kiln from a kangaroo.

Dead to Me

Linda Cardellini and Christina Applegate join forces for this super-dark comedy about two women who meet at a therapy group for the recently bereaved. They strike up a natural friendship – but, as we slowly learn, each has secrets they’d rather not share. James Marsden is fantastic as the smarmy ex of Judy (Cardellini) while the behind the scenes involvement of producers Will Ferrell and Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy director Adam McKay provides a clue as to the mad-cap humour. A word-of-mouth success, its final series was shot after Applegate received a diagnosis for Multiple Sclerosis and landed in 2022.

The Queen’s Gambit

Anya Taylor-Joy is magisterial in an icy psychodrama about an orphan chess prodigy who will stop at nothing to become the world’s greatest player. Think of it as Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan with similar levels of anguish but with tutus replaced by chess clocks. The 1950s period detail is wonderful yet is thoroughly outshone by Taylor-Joy as a chess star who was pawn to be wild. The Queen’s Gambit was duly honoured at the 2021 Emmys, where it was named Best Limited or Anthology Series.

The Witcher

Still suffering Game of Thrones withdrawal pangs? Help is here in the form of a silly and sometimes baffling but also satisfyingly fantastical adaptation of Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher novels. Yes, that’s correct – the show is based on the moderately popular books rather than the massively successful video games that followed. Still, whichever Witcher you’re a fan of this one ticks the boxes, with Henry Cavill bring the bulging biceps as eponymous monster hunter Geralt of Rivia and Anya Chalotra waxing mysterious as sorceress Yennefer. All together now, “Toss a coin to your Witcher…Wooahooohoh”. Season two stormed onto the service in late 2022 and Cavill exited in 2023, with Liam Hemsworth to take up Geralt’s manbun from series four onwards. A spin-off, The Witcher: Blood Origin, also arrived in 2022. Feel safe to ignore it, though – it’s dreadful.

The Stranger

An old-school, over-the-top thriller, adapted from the Harlan Coben bestseller. The setting is a fictional town of Cedarfield, which seems to be somewhere within commuting distance of Manchester. Richard Armitage plays a loving dad and husband whose world falls apart when a mysterious woman tells him his wife (Dervla Kirwan) faked her pregnancy. Jennifer Saunders later pops up as a mother whose family has its own secrets.

Lockwood & Co

Jonathan Stroud’s source novels read like Harry Potter starring in Ghostbusters. If that sounds an intriguing prospect, you’ll love the TV retelling. Ruby Stokes plays junior ghost-hunter Lucy, with Cameron Chapman as the dashing Anthony Lockwood and Ali Hadji-Heshmati as his nerdy sidekick, George. It was great so of course it’s been cancelled.

Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet Of Curiosities

Lovecraftian horror receives the Netflix treatment in this winning series introduced by del Toro in a wink to Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Rats in the walls, demons in an old lock-up, a ghoul hiding in a painting – there are thrills aplenty in this pulpy creepshow.

Next in Fashion

Feel-good reality TV was once a contradiction in terms. But the vibes are agreeably optimistic in this fashionista contest in which professional designers compete for a $250,000 price. Presenters Tan France and Alexa Chung bring the common touch and the contestants appear to be enjoying themselves rather than undergoing the ordeal of a lifetime. Essentially, it’s Bake Off on the catwalk. Season two arrived in March 2023.

Locke and Key

Joe Hill’s bestselling graphic novels receive the YA treatment in this urban fantasy about a house full of portals to other worlds and the grieving family who make their home there. The break-out performance is by Emilia Jones – daughter of singer Aled – playing middle child Kinsey Locke. Hill, the son of Stephen King, moved heaven and earth to bring his story to the screen and the effort has paid off. Season two landed in 2022.

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina

Baroque with bells on and camper than a disco ball at a tent convention, Netflix’s rebooting of Sabrina the Teenage Witch makes a virtue of excess. Kiernan Shipka – Don Draper’s daughter from Mad Men – lights up the screen as the half-human/ half witch teenager drawn into a tangle with the devil himself. Miranda Otto and The Office’s Lucy Davies play her eccentric aunts. And there’s a cat named Salem, though he doesn’t talk.

Kiernan Shipka in ‘The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’

(Diyah Pera/Netflix)

Money Heist

The Spanish thriller has become one of Netflix’s most popular non-English language shows. There’s certainly lots going on. The story begins with a daring raid on the Royal Mint of Spain in Madrid, overseen by the mysterious Professor (Álvaro Morte) Thereafter it gets steadily more bonkers and the location shifts from Spain to Germany and Thailand. Though all the twists and turns, highs and lows, Money Heist is never less than gripping. A spin-off, Money Heist: Korea, has created a splash, too.

Night on Earth

David Attenborough’s Our Planet has hoovered up all the attention. But this UK-made series, narrated by Orange is the New Black’s Samira Wiley, brings a new perspective to wildlife TV. Shot using heat-sensitive cameras, Night on Earth features lions romping by moonlight and cacti blooming under the desert stars. It’s like journeying to another world, with reality only returning as the sun rises.

Spinning Out

Kaya Scodelario – recently seen in the new BBC adaptation of Agatha Christie’s The White Horse and set to star in Resident Evil: Welcome to Racoon City – owns the screen as a promising young skater recovering from a serious injury. Her real challenge is off the rink as she tries to conceal her family’s history of mental illness. It’s clearly pitched at a YA audience and is a bit overwrought in places. But Spinning Out is never less than watchable and it’s a shame it was cancelled after just one series.

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