Best Original Shows to Stream
Being able to binge classic movies and TV shows whenever you want has its charms, but subscription services are more than just repositories for stuff you've already seen. Amazon Video, Hulu and Netflix — the most popular streaming services on the web — produce some of the most creative and beloved original programming on the media scene today.
From dramas and comedies to science fiction and kids' shows, some of today's best TV isn't, strictly speaking, on TV at all.
Credit: Coco Van Oppens/NetflixTwo seasons in on Netflix, The Crown is one of the service's most praised shows yet. The series tells the story of Queen Elizabeth II, from her time as Princess Elizabeth and her 1947 wedding, to the present day. Claire Foy's won heaps of accolades for her portrayal of the iconic ruler, as has Matt Smith, who plays Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, who Elizabeth marries. In particular, the pair earned points for their easy-going chemistry, which has given these historic personalities a touch of humanity, and even earned some sympathy, which neither are particularly known for.
Bill Nye Saves the World
Mechanical engineer Bill Nye helped a whole generation of kids learn the fundamentals of science, and now he's back to help educate his audience once again. Instead of a straight science show, Bill Nye Saves the World is a talk show, in which Nye interviews esteemed guests on topics ranging from medicine to sex to video games. Along the way, Nye debunks pseudoscience and teaches the value of a skeptical, scientific mind-set.
A Series of Unfortunate Events
A Series of Unfortunate Events is a bizarre, subversive collection of children's books written by Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket). The Netflix series is everything fans could have hoped for. It's dark, it's funny, it's weird, and it's an enjoyable watch for both kids and adults. Malina Weissman and Louis Hynes star as the Baudelaire children: wealthy orphans left in the care of their greedy relative Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris), who wants their fortune for himself.
Part Steven Spielberg, part Stephen King, and part "that Dungeons and Dragons campaign you played when you were 12," Stranger Things is an enjoyable sci-fi/horror show with a distinct '80s vibe. When preteen Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) disappears, it's up to his friends, his family and a concerned sheriff to track him down. A mysterious girl called Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) may hold the key to finding him, as well as an even weirder mystery at hand. The series got even stranger in its second season, adding new kids in town, crazier special effects and even Sean Astin. A third season is expected to stream in 2019.
Voltron: Legendary Defender
A reboot of the classic 1980s series, Voltron: Legendary Defender has it all: space battles, magical powers and giant robots. Shiro (Josh Keaton) leads a team of young pilots from Earth as they get swept up in an intergalactic war. Princess Allura (Kimberly Brooks) gives each pilot access to a huge leonine robot, which could aid in the fight against an evil empire. Lauren Montgomery and Joaquim Dos Santos from Avatar: The Last Airbender produced this one.
Sense8 isn't just a trippy sci-fi drama from the Wachowski siblings; it's also one of the first sci-fi shows with a robust cast of LGBT characters. The show follows eight characters from all around the world, each one dealing with his or her own personal problems. Things get even worse for them, however, when they realize that they are "sensates" — psychically linked to each other, and under threat by an organization trying to hunt them down. While Netflix didn't want to renew Sense8 for a whole third season, a two-hour "Finale Special" aired to sate the legion of fans who expressed frustration over the show's cancellation.
Marvel has five shows on Netflix, but Daredevil is still arguably the best one. Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) is a lawyer by day, and a costumed vigilante called Daredevil by night. He protects the NYC neighborhood of Hell's Kitchen from both supernatural and terrestrial threats, crossing swords with gangsters, ninjas, dirty cops and even villains of a more mystical nature. Vincent D'Onofrio's Kingpin is one of the best Marvel villains on screen yet. Its second season added Jon Bernthal as Frank Castle, The Punisher, in a revenge-driven storyline that tested Matt Murdock's ability to trust other vigilantes. Bernthal continued to sizzle in The Punisher's spinoff show.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
"Females are strong as hell." That's the underlying theme of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and with Tina Fey as one of the writers and creators, it's not hard to see why. Ellie Kemper stars as Kimmy Schmidt: a bubbly Midwestern gal trying to make it on her own in New York City. There's just one twist: She just emerged from being held captive in an underground bunker for 15 years, and her culture shock generates some hilarious realizations.
At first glance, BoJack Horseman seems like a lighthearted sitcom about talking animals in Hollywood. Sit through even one episode, though, and you'll notice that it's a deep and thoughtful exegesis on the nature of clinical depression and the pitfalls of celebrity culture — with plenty of lighthearted talking animal jokes, though. BoJack Horseman (Will Arnett) is a washed-up sitcom star (also a bipedal talking horse) whose constant self-sabotage is equally entertaining and heartbreaking.
Arrested Development never quite found enough viewers during its first three seasons on Fox, but Netflix knew that this quirky, bizarre sitcom could get a second chance online. Season 4 of Arrested Development reunited the dysfunctional Bluth family, as its middle son, Michael (Jason Bateman) tries to rein in his relatives' bizarre schemes. There's a Fantastic Four parody, a reality show in a women's prison and even a murder mystery. Just roll with it. While that reunion didn't hit the nail on the head, due to how its cast were spread unevenly through each episode, the fifth season did a better job.
House of Cards
A remake of the popular British drama of the same name, House of Cards stars Kevin Spacey as ambitious, amoral politician Frank Underwood. Being a powerful congressman isn't enough for Underwood and his scheming wife, and the two will do whatever's necessary — legal or not — to advance in Washington's ruthless political machine. This is the series that put Netflix original content on the map, and it's still one of the service's most inspired shows. Its next, and final, season will not feature Kevin Spacey, after allegations of his misconduct with colleagues led to Netflix cutting ties with the actor. We're not sure that means for Claire Underwood (Robin Wright), his wife, but she has our vote.
The first two seasons of Black Mirror — Charlie Brooker's devastatingly-powerful tech-focused version of The Twilight Zone — may have aired elsewhere, but Netflix acquired the show and brought its well-reviewed third season to the air in 2016. Hits of that third season include Shut Up and Dance (a harrowing tale of blackmail), Nosedive (what happens when we live and die by ratings given by our peers) and the award-winning San Junipero (which revolves around a vacation town that attracts people looking for an escape). A fourth season hit Netflix on Dec. 29, and won massive praise for continuing to meet expectations.
The Marvelous Ms. Maisel
Credit: Amazon Studios
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is the latest stroke of genius from Amy Sherman-Palladino, its creator, writer and producer, who's best known for the beloved Gilmore Girls series. The show takes place in the 1950s and follows Miriam "Midge" Maisel, who finds accidental success as a standup comedian after breaking up with her hack husband, who she spent years coaching through failed attempts at comedy.
David Shore and Bryan Cranston created Sneaky Pete: a crime drama that's not nearly as dark and dour as a lot of its hour-long serial drama brethren. Giovanni Ribisi plays Marius Josipovic, a criminal, recently released from jail, who adopts his former cellmate's identity to thrive in a post-prison world. The first season was a smash hit among both viewers and critics, and Amazon has already greenlit a second.
The Grand Tour
The offbeat British auto show Top Gear may be no more, but The Grand Tour is here to fill the Jeremy Clarkson-shaped hole in your heart. Clarkson reunites with Top Gear troublemakers Richard Hammond and James May, and the three proceed to push fancy cars to their limits, all around the world. You don't have to be a fan of Aston Martins, Audis and Alfa Romeos to fully appreciate the sheer joy these three get out of cars.
The New Yorker Presents
Love it or hate it, The New Yorker is one of the most eclectic popular magazines out there, and its Amazon Prime TV show reflects how insightful, informative and downright bizarre it can be. The series takes articles, poems, memoirs and even cartoons from the magazine, then spins them out into full half-hour vignettes. Part documentary, part comedy and part high-concept drama, The New Yorker Presents is not like anything else on TV.
The Man in the High Castle
Based on the Philip K. Dick novel of the same name, The Man in the High Castle imagines what the United States might look like had the Axis won World War II. Split between German and Japanese hegemony, the U.S. plays host to a number of characters whose stories intersect in unexpected ways: like Frank Frink (Rupert Evans), who is trying to hide his Jewish heritage, and Nobusuke Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), who begins to question the Japanese occupation.
The 1980s teen comedy genre did not die with John Hughes. Gregory Jacobs and Joe Gangemi gave the world Red Oaks: an Amazon-exclusive series that centers on a college student caddy. David Myers (Craig Roberts) works at the hoity-toity Red Oaks Country Club, offering his services to wealthy golfers of every stripe, in order to save up some money for school. The resulting mix of inappropriate humor and life lessons is both familiar and entertaining.
The audience never lies, and the audience really likes Bosch. Back in 2014, Amazon let its users watch a number of pilots and pick which one merited a full season. Viewers picked Bosch: a police procedural about Harry Bosch (Titus Welliver), an LAPD cop who — you guessed it — plays by the rules when he can, but is willing to break them for the greater good. It's not exactly innovative, but it's a solid crime drama.
Mozart in the Jungle
Part comedy, part drama and completely in love with classical music, Mozart in the Jungle is must-see TV for fans of the New York Philharmonic. Based on Blair Tindall's memoir of the same name, it tells the story of a metropolitan symphony orchestra under the control of an idiosyncratic young conductor — not unlike the real-life Gustavo Dudamel. Lola Kirke stars as oboist Hailey Rutledge, while Gael Garcia Bernal plays new conductor Rodrigo De Souza.
Amazon doesn't just create new shows; it also gives niche favorites a second lease on life. Ripper Street was an underappreciated BBC series about the aftermath of the infamous Jack the Ripper killings. Edmund Reid (Matthew Macfayden) is a detective who teams up with both British and American allies to solve the mystery. The show ran for only three seasons on the BBC, but Amazon picked it up for a satisfying conclusion in Seasons 4 and 5.
Jeffrey Tambor's portrayal of Maura Pfefferman on Transparent isn't just entertaining; it's important, too. The show depicts Maura's transition from the patriarch of a dysfunctional family into its matriarch. Although Transparent has something to say on the topic of LGBT issues, it's also just a funny and heartfelt family drama that's about much more than a single woman's transition. The show also goes out of its way to include trans crew behind the scenes. Accusations of Tambor sexual harassing colleagues led to an internal investigation that were followed by the actor getting fired the show, and we're waiting to see how the series handles his departure.
Making a show that entertains preschoolers without driving their parents into paroxysms of insanity is a delicate balance, but Tumble Leaf pulls it off. The stop-motion animated show stars Fig (Christopher Downs), a bipedal blue fox who is insatiably curious about the world around him. With the help of the other residents of Tumble Leaf, Fig learns rudimentary lessons about big ideas like motion, flight and machines. It's sweet, but not cloying.
The Handmaid's Tale
In 1985, Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel, The Handmaid's Tale, probably seemed much less feasible than it does today. Hulu's new adaptation of Atwood's work follows the same storyline as the book. In the near future, the United States becomes a theocracy where women have no rights and no role, save for childbirth. Elisabeth Moss plays Offred: a handmaid who must bear a child for the aloof Commander (Joseph Fiennes), who may not be what he seems.
If The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits and Black Mirror are your kind of sci-fi/horror, Dimension 404 will be an easy sell. This sci-fi anthology show, hosted by Mark Hamill, presents a variety of near-future sci-fi scenarios, including the perils of algorithmic online dating, and what happens when even the internet can't remember that one cartoon you loved growing up. Guest stars include Joel McHale, Patton Oswalt, Megan Mulally and Constance Wu.
Based on Hallie Rubenhold's nonfiction book The Covent Garden Ladies, Harlots is a period drama about — you guessed it — prostitutes in Georgian England. Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton) is a brothel owner, looking to move up in the world and provide a better life for her daughters in the process. Along the way, she'll cross swords with clergymen, policemen and rival criminals. If saucy British melodrama is your thing, Harlots is an easy sell.
In an age without Buffy the Vampire Slayer, we have to take our supernatural high school drama where we can get it. Freakish follows high school student Violet Adams (Liza Koshy) and her group of friends as they try to survive in the aftermath of a chemical explosion. There's just one problem: the accident has infected the other students and turned them into horrific monsters. There's a metaphor in this somewhere.
Taking aim at Scientology and similar cultish movements, The Path is a thriller that pulls no punches in its criticisms of religions that go too far. Aaron Paul stars as Eddie Lane: a follower of the fictional utopian movement called Meyerism. When Eddie begins to suspect Meyerism is a cult, and the isolated compound where its followers live is a trap, he must decide whether his faith or his suspicions are stronger.
A fun romantic comedy tempered by a healthy dose of cynicism, Casual is a sitcom that explores the pitfalls and triumphs of modern dating. Valerie (Michaela Watkins) has just divorced her husband, and now lives with her brother, Alex (Tommy Dewey). As it happens, Alex is the inventor of a popular dating app, which puts Valerie in a unique position to get her love life back on track — or to mess it up even further.
The Mindy Project
Hulu can bring beloved shows back from the brink of cancellation, as it did for The Mindy Project. Mindy Kaling stars as Mindy Lahiri: a gynecologist with a variety of wacky co-workers. It's part Friends, part Scrubs, and part The Office, but if you like Kaling's blunt style of humor, you'll probably like the show's original Fox run and its Hulu continuation. The show's passionate fans were happy to see it return, at least.
Controversial tweets; outrageous restaurant schemes; ruined Jewish holidays; these are just some of the trials and tribulations faced by Julie Kessler (Julie Klausner) and Billy Epstein (Billy Eichner) in Difficult People. Best friends and misanthropes, Julie and Billy are mildly fictionalized versions of the actors who play them, trying to get their comedy careers off the ground in New York City. Like Seinfeld or It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, you can't help but root for the unpleasant protagonists.
Based on the best-selling Stephen King novel, 11.22.63 is a time-travel thriller that stars James Franco as Jake Epping. Jake is (in typical King fashion) an English teacher from Maine, who discovers a way to travel back in time to 1960. There, he becomes obsessed with stopping the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov, 22, 1963. Like most King adaptations, 11.22.63 is smart, intense, and plays with viewers' perceptions of right and wrong.
The Thick of It
The Thick of It first aired on BBC Four, but Hulu co-produced its fourth and final season, helping it go out on a high note. In this British political comedy, a variety of politicians try to navigate the complicated worlds of governance, media and public relations. There's no single protagonist, although Peter Capaldi as the foul-mouthed spin doctor Malcolm Tucker is a delight in every episode. Fun fact: It takes place in the same fictional universe as HBO's Veep.