Netflix. The streaming platform has ingrained itself more fully in our collective consciousness than perhaps any other technology in the past five years. It’s a part of our lexicon (who hasn’t heard of ”Netflix and chill”?). It’s a way to socialize (see: the massive popularity of the Netflix Party Chrome extension). Netflix has become so central to the way most people consume media that some have even begun to conceptualize it like a public utility, lamenting series’ moves to other streaming sites as if their exit from Netflix means they’ll no longer be “free” or accessible.
Netflix has also saturated the TV market, releasing hundreds of different unique programs since the company’s first original series, House of Cards, debuted in early 2013. So which shows are the best of the best? When that ever-changing home page loads, what’s worth clicking on? That’s where we come in.
Since no one person can possibly tackle every single series Netflix has ever made — by 2018, the media giant was releasing multiple new series every week — this list is focused on narrative TV shows intended to entertain adult audiences. That means docuseries (like The Keepers), reality shows (like Queer Eye), and variety series (like I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson), while great, aren’t included in this ranking. The very few children’s programs included here have a built-in adult fanbase and purposely appeal to multiple generations of viewers.
For now, I’m also only looking at true Netflix Originals, shows that have never aired anywhere but on the platform. This means you won’t see shows that started out on other American TV channels, like Arrested Development, Lucifer, or You, nor shows that air first on other channels outside the US, including Peaky Blinders, Black Mirror, Derry Girls, and The End of the F***ng World.
Finally, this list doesn’t include any series that’s so brand-spanking new that it hasn’t had a chance to gain much critical or public response yet, although 2020 has already offered some obvious standouts, such as Cheer, Feel Good, and I Am Not Okay With This. The following ranking is based on a mix of critical consensus, extensive polling, and — the bottom line — my own critical opinion. Read on, and happy watching!
50. Chilling Adventures of Sabrina
When we first heard Netflix was making a new Sabrina the Teenage Witch series from Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, the showrunner of Riverdale and writer of the current comic book reimagining of both universes, we should’ve known to expect something darker than ‘90s fashion choices and puppet cats. Chilling Adventures of Sabrina reimagines a feisty, tradition-breaking teen witch (played by Kiernan Shipka) who chooses to keep both her human friends and her enrollment at a shady, patriarchal school of dark arts. This new version of Sabrina often makes frustrating storytelling decisions and lacks the campy gleam that makes Riverdale work, but that’s almost a part of its charm at this point. Plus, its endlessly evolving take on witchcraft is creative enough to keep us invested in the drama.
Netflix’s answer to Breaking Bad is better than it sounds and occasionally great. Jason Bateman stars as Marty Byrd, a money-laundering financial adviser who uproots his family when he finds himself on the wrong side of the cartel. Soon he, his wife Wendy (a fantastic Laura Linney), and even their two teenage kids find themselves in the money cleaning business deep in the Ozarks. The blue-hued series doesn’t always know where to go, especially in its second season, but it’s kept above water thanks to tense performances by its lead duo and an Emmy-winning turn by Julia Garner as Ruth, a local young woman with criminal ambitions. Propulsive and high-stakes, the series is a highlight in the white-collar crime subgenre.
48. The Get Down
Perhaps most-known as the first of many beloved shows canceled by Netflix before it could find its footing, The Get Down is a sprawling ‘70s-set drama that takes place in the Bronx. Poetry beats in the veins of this hip-hop and disco-flavored series, which also possesses the signature colorful, frenetic style of co-creator and pilot director Baz Luhrmann. Justice Smith stars as Zeke, a teen who is a romantic at heart despite the hardship the world has thrown his way. An all-star cast of underrated performers includes Shameik Moore, Jimmy Smits, Jaden Smith, Daveed Diggs, and Giancarlo Esposito. An eclectic behind-the-scenes team includes a Pulitzer-winning playwright (Stephen Adly Guirgis) and a world-famous rapper (Nas), which only adds to the series’ intoxicating dozen-different-directions pull.
47. The Kominsky Method
You may have heard a rumor, whispered around award season, that The Kominsky Method is a real show. I can now confirm that this is true. The easygoing Chuck Lorre-created comedy won two Golden Globes last year and is a cult favorite for viewers of a certain age, despite going mostly unnoticed by younger audience members. Still, it has some good stuff, first on the list being nuanced, lived-in performances from lead stars Michael Douglas and Alan Alda. The series follows revered, erstwhile hotshot acting coach Sandy Kominsky (Douglas) as he teaches a young generation of actors, all while learning a thing or two about life, love, and the realities of aging along the way.
Ryan O’Connell’s semi-autobiographical Netflix series has eight short episodes to date, making it the quickest binge on this list, and an enjoyable one at that. O’Connell, who also writes and produces the series, plays Ryan, a gay man with cerebral palsy who decides to spice up his life by taking on a ridiculous trend-writing gig, pursuing new relationships, and becoming more independent from his mother (Jessica Hecht). While the show feels like it’s still just beginning, it’s got plenty of charm thanks to O’Connell’s fun and spirited performance and some well-timed truth bombs about what life looks like with a physical disability.
45. She’s Gotta Have It
A Spike Lee joint in collaboration with Netflix seemed too good to be true, and maybe it was, but for a while the adaptation of Lee’s first feature was a bright spot on the original content landscape. The updated She’s Gotta Have It follows a modern version of artist Nola Darling (played with tenacity and grace by DeWanda Wise) as she navigates multiple romantic relationships and her identity as a Black woman in gentrified Brooklyn. Lee’s series was rightfully criticized for some half-baked controversial moments (and did not make a fan out of John Boyega), but it was always bold and unapologetic and turned in winning performances from Wise and from Anthony Ramos as Nola’s only loveable friend with benefits, Mars.
44. Marvel’s Luke Cage
An overcrowded second season shouldn’t overshadow the triumph of this show’s early glory days, which include a stacked cast, stellar soundtrack, and moody, thoughtful atmosphere. The Harlem-set series sees Mike Colter take on the role of the super-strong hero with unbreakable skin, while powerhouse performers like Mahershala Ali, Alfre Woodard, and Rosario Dawson round out the cast. Two years before Black Panther broke box office records, Luke Cage was revolutionary, giving audiences a superpowered Black leading man whose culture and neighborhood were a part of his story. The series continued Marvel’s trend of putting more adult-oriented stories on the small screen and was the last entry in a mini Marvel TV Renaissance that also included Jessica Jones and Daredevil.
Remember that time Emma Stone and Jonah Hill took a long, strange trip through the psyche in this miniseries by The Leftovers’ Patrick Somerville and True Detective’s Cary Fukunaga? We won’t blame you if you don’t, as Maniac, which has all the trappings of a massive network event, was released quietly and flew relatively under the radar. The oddball metaphysical series is certainly worth revisiting, though. Stone plays Annie, a woman who is angry and grieving, while Hill plays Owen, a man who is scared to figure out whether he’s a chosen one or just suffering from delusions. The two keep meeting in drug-induced, simulation-like dreams, playing out different roles yet being drawn to each other again and again. The series is ridiculously mysterious, funny, and deeply weird as it grapples with mental illness in an ultimately hopeful way.
42. Orange Is the New Black
The only series from the earliest age of the Netflix Original to make this list, Orange is the New Black is a show that’s had its ups and downs but left a major legacy. The women’s prison comedy-drama is created by Weeds showrunner Jenji Kohan and adapted from the memoir of the same name by Piper Kerman. Fans of the show quickly noted that a breakout supporting cast — including Uzo Aduba, Samira Wiley, Laverne Cox, and Danielle Brooks, alongside cult favorite actors like Natasha Lyonne and Kate Mulgrew — outshined the upper-class woman Piper (Taylor Schilling), around whom the show is ostensibly based. The Emmy-winning series experienced growing pains across its seven seasons, but its got a strong voice, and at its best it shines a light on a too-common experience through the eyes of diverse characters who you can’t help but root for.
Anything from the Wachowski sisters (the team behind The Matrix) is worth diving into, and Sense8 is an appropriately action-packed, sensual, and big-brained addition to their filmography. The sci-fi series, which was co-created with J. Michael Straczynski, follows eight strangers in different parts of the world who suddenly become connected through their senses and emotions. A female kickboxer in South Korea, a trans blogger and hacker in San Francisco, an Icelandic DJ, and a closeted Spanish actor are among the sensates who form this “cluster,” each of whom must recognize their connection, discover their origin, and use their powers for good or ill. The series was canceled after two seasons, though fan outrage led to the greenlighting of a two-hour series finale film released in 2018.