Television no longer means just broadcast. Not only are online services like Netflix syndicating content from traditional channels, but they are increasingly producing their own original shows — and first-rate ones, at that. While that once just meant House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black, quality online content has exploded to the point that it's hard to even keep track of all the shows from Netflix, let alone Amazon, Crackle and Hulu.
They're not all winners, though. We've combed through dozens of online offerings to find the ones that are truly worth your valuable couch time.
Amazon Prime Instant Video
You can watch the first episode of all Amazon shows for free, without a Prime membership.
This show about a clever girl and her devoted friends is a refreshing break from the mindless snarky banter on so many kids' shows. Genius tween Anne (Addison Holley) has a secret laboratory in a junkyard where she's built three androids, each with special abilities. Neighborhood kids Nick (Jadiel Dowlin) and Shania (Adrianna Di Liello) become her assistants and learn the basics of science and technology, like what a hypothesis is, and the difference between an android and a robot. Annedroids is educational, but the lessons don't get in the way of the storyline.
Writer-actors Sharon Horgan (Imagine Me and You) and Rob Delaney created and star in what's essentially a middle-age version of Knocked Up. The lead characters, unsurprisingly named Sharon and Rob, meet and plunge into a one-week stand while he is in London on business. It turns out that using a condom only sometimes wasn't good enough. But Rob decides to do the right thing and move to London in an effort to make some kind of family. A hysterical trans-Atlantic culture clash ensues.
Gortimer Gibbon's Life on Normal Street [Kids]
This might be the best combination of high production value and heartfelt storytelling you'll find in kids programming. Gortimer and his friends Ranger and Mel are three kids just trying to grow up in a place called Normal Street — where nothing is actually normal. There's a frog that may grant wishes and other unexplained elements that are imaginative and fun without feeling forced or overly cute. Sloane Morgan Siegel (The Funny Bunch), who leads the young cast, is sweet and unassuming — the antithesis of a Disney star.
Man in the High Castle [Drama]
Amazon went all out for this adaptation of Philip K. Dick's alternate-history of World War II, in which the victorious Germans and Japanese partition the United States. Decades after the invasion, the Americans (save those of Jewish descent) are living something like normal lives, though with little hope, under their foreign masters. But danger is brewing, with increasing tensions between Japan and a more powerful Germany, as well as an insurgency that takes inspiration from an “alternate” history story in which the Americans win the war. The pacing is a bit slow, but it's well calibrated to build tension for the looming World War III.
Mozart in the Jungle [Comedy]
Though famous for playing the brooding tragic hero in films like The Motorcycle Diaries, Gael García Bernal steals the show in this comedy about the fictitious New York Symphony — based on oboist Blair Tindall's tell-all memoir about the real New York Philharmonic. Bernal plays Rodrigo, the manic genius conductor brought in to save the symphony from stuffy irrelevance, who instead only amplifies the chaos. In the process, he goes up against the drunken, cantankerous maestro Thomas (Malcolm McDowell) and the anxiety-ridden symphony president Gloria (Bernadette Peters). But the key relationship is the ambiguous one, with his assistant and fledgling oboist Hailey (Lola Kirke), the cool-headed foil to his mad antics.
Red Oaks [Comedy]
Set in the 1980s, this screwball comedy is a coming-of-age story for David (Craig Roberts), a college student who lands a summer job as an assistant tennis pro at the Red Oaks country club, thus escaping work at his dad's accounting firm. He meets a delightful cast of 1980s oddballs, including the chubby, pot-smoking romantic Wheeler (Oliver Cooper) and his smarmy tennis-pro boss Nash (Ennis Esmer). Casting '80s star Jennifer Grey (Dirty Dancing) as David's perhaps-bisexual mom Judy is a fitting homage to the era. And Paul Reiser shines as Getty, the jerk owner of Red Oaks.
Written by Jill Soloway (Six Feet Under), Transparent tells what happens to an already odd family when the father decides to make the transition from Mort to Maura. Soloway's writing is always smart, but it's the heavy-hitting cast that makes this project so exciting. Jeffrey Tambor (Arrested Development) won an Emmy for his portrayal of the "Moppa" (momma-poppa) of three adult children played by Judith Light (Who's The Boss, Ugly Betty), Gaby Hoffmann (Girls, Louie) and Jay Duplass (The Mindy Project). They all have their own issues that are as challenging and scandalous as Moppa's. Watching these versatile and powerful actors go head-to-head is charming, funny and awkward in the best possible way.
Tumble Leaf [Kids]
Amazon's Emmy-award-winning educational show for preschoolers is a visual feast of 3D animation, with most characters voiced by child actors. In each episode, the shiny-blue protagonist Fig the Fox finds new objects that teach the young viewers lessons, such as a bag of coins that illustrates how light reflects off objects and a flashlight that shows how shadows form. Fig enlists the help of neighborhood residents like Maple the purple bear and Hedge the porcupine in his investigations.
Behind the Mask [Documentary]
You don't have to be a die-hard sports devotee to find yourself inhaling this original documentary series. The show tracks the lives of the people inside your favorite (and also totally unknown) teams' mascot costumes. The stories of college, high school, semi-professional and NBA mascots are more compelling than you'd expect. The first 10-episode season garnered an Emmy nomination for Outstanding New Approaches in Sports Programming. Who would have thought that the lives of folks parading around inside foam heads would be so addictive? Well, other than Jim Henson fans.
Blue is a woman with a secret career that she struggles to keep hidden from her son: She's a call girl. The show, which stars Julia Stiles, began on the WIGS YouTube channel as part of an initiative to create programming by and for women, before Hulu picked it up for its third season. Blue is easily WIGS' most successful project to date, propelled to greater heights by Stiles' star appeal and the program's risqué content. In the tradition of shows like Australia's Satisfaction, Blue challenges the viewer to re-evaluate the portrayal of sex workers. All three seasons are available on Hulu.
Difficult People [Comedy]
Comedian Julie Klausner created and stars in this portrayal of New York performers who didn't make it, and never will. Her character, Julie, is a 30-something failing comedic writer who spends most of the show complaining about life with her catty friend Billy (Billy Eichner), a flamboyant gay actor who supports himself as one of New York's worst waiters. More than just difficult, the two characters are horrible stereotypes of churlish, self-obsessed New York wannabes, and their own narcissism is always their undoing. Fans of Seinfeld and the Ricky Gervais cringe comedy Extras will feel right at home with Difficult People.
Netflix assembled a fantastic cast for this dark family drama about ultimate betrayal. Kyle Chandler (Friday Night Lights) plays John, the model son of four adult children in the Rayburn clan, which runs an idyllic resort on the Florida coast. Ben Mendelsohn (Killing Them Softly) is the trainwreck of a prodigal son, Danny, whose return threatens the uneasy peace the family has built over its history of violence and betrayals. Mother Sally (Sissy Spacek) has a soft spot for Danny, while patriarch Robert (Sam Shepard) has utter contempt, blaming Danny for a tragic accident from his childhood.
BoJack Horseman [Comedy/Dramedy]
The strangest thing about this animated show is how quickly you accept that it stars a talking horse and focus instead on its clever, dark takedown of Hollywood culture. BoJack Horseman, voiced by Will Arnett, was a sensation in the 1990s with a top-rated sitcom. Today, he wallows in the past — drinking, womanizing and rewatching DVDs of his own show. Yet he quietly harbors dreams of a comeback, if he can just overcome cynicism to make it happen.
Netflix's first big venture with Marvel gets a lot right — especially its stupendous fight scenes. Charlie Cox (Stone of Destiny) masters the role of Matt Murdock, a superhero who came into contact with toxic waste and actually lost one of his powers: the power of sight. But his remaining faculties are enhanced, making him a blind superninja crime fighter by night while maintaining his job as a rookie lawyer crime fighter by day. Elden Henson (The Hunger Games) is a hoot as goofy sidekick Foggy Nelson, but Deborah Ann Woll, who kicked butt as Jessica in True Blood, comes off too Pollyannaish as love interest Karen Page.
House of Cards [Drama]
Based on the 1990 BBC miniseries of the same name, the Netflix original takes viewers to the back corridors of corruption, sex and greed in today's Washington, D.C. Created by acclaimed director David Fincher (Fight Club) and starring Oscar winner Kevin Spacey along with Robin Wright, House of Cards made history as the first-ever streaming series to earn Primetime Emmy nominations. Many critics consider it to be one of the highest-quality series online because of its level of acting, production and directing. The first two seasons are the most powerful, with the plausibility stretched increasingly thin as the series progresses.
This is not a show you'll love immediately, but it's absolutely worth the uphill climb of the first few episodes. Steven Van Zandt (known for The Sopranos and the time he spends rocking out with Bruce Springsteen) stars as a former New York mob boss (naturally) who moves to Norway in the hope of starting over. Things don't go as planned. The show's deft handling of a displaced American gangster evolves into something much more interesting and, at times, more comedic than you'd expect.
Marvel's Jessica Jones [Drama/Action]
What Netflix started with Daredevil it perfected with Jessica Jones — the other Marvel character who lives in the Hell's Kitchen part of Manhattan. Debuting in Marvel's first "adult" comic, Alias, Jessica Jones is a badly damaged former superhero trying to make a living now as a sleazy private investigator. This is not a Marvel show to watch with the kids: F-bombs and rough sex abound. Once a cheery soul, Jessica Jones was broken by the mind control of sadistic villain Kilgrave, played with icy precision by David Tennant (Broadchurch). When he returns, against all odds, she summons all her courage to stop him.
Master of None [Comedy]
Aziz Ansari is just a sweet guy — a top comic and actor who has only good things to say about women and family in his previous Netflix comedy specials. But he's still hysterically funny. Master of None continues those themes in the story of Dev, an Ansari alter ego trying to make sense of relationships in a fast-paced New York with an overabundance of options and distractions. Fans of fellow NYC comedian Louis C.K.'s show Louie will recognize the formula. The biggest treat: Dev's parents are played to hilarious effect by Ansari's real-life mom and dad.
It's a far cry from Miami Vice. Narcos is based on the real history of Colombia's Medellín Cartel, told from the alternate perspectives of kingpin Pablo Escobar (played by Wagner Moura) and DEA agent Steve Murphy (played by Boyd Holbrook), who also narrates the story. The brilliance of Narcos is its empathetic portrayal of each man's story. Escobar was a monster but didn't totally lack a sense of values, and Murphy, though he tried to do the right thing, often betrayed his values.
Orange Is the New Black [Drama/Dramedy]
Sentenced to 15 months behind bars for a crime committed in her younger days, Piper (Taylor Schilling) is forced to navigate the hierarchical world where a certain reaction can either make or break you. The show is full of unique characters and stories with the entire range of human emotions brought vividly to life. Based on the memoir of real-life inmate Piper Kerman, Orange Is the New Black is not only entertaining but also an influential pop culture insight into a criminal justice system few Americans like to think about. Warning: Due to its graphic sexual content, the series is not appropriate for younger eyes.
Contributions by Rebecca Jane Stokes