Master Of None, Love, The Ranch, Grace And Frankie, Bloodline, Narcos and more. These Netflix Originals all deserve recognition...
Netflix Originals are a strange beast because they're not always on Netflix and they're not always original. Take a glance at some of the properties currently touted as being a Netflix Original: Scream, Orphan Black, and Better Call Saul. Each originally aired on a separate channel and were made by a different production company.
While some of the shows that aren't real Netflix Originals are excellent, for the purpose of this article we'll be casting our eyes over the productions made by Netflix available solely on Netflix. We'll confine things to TV for now, although some of Netflix's cinematic output is well worth a watch (The Fundamentals Of Caring and Tallulah are excellent starting points).
Looking at legitimate Netflix Originals, with flagship shows such as House Of Cards and Orange Is The New Black defining the company, there are plenty of underappreciated gems. House Of Cards proved in its characteristically stylish, taut fourth season that it is, essentially, a glammed-up soap opera whilst Orange Is The New Black's recent run only reaffirmed its position as Netflix's best homegrown show. Beyond these are shows similarly worthy of plaudits but not always ones that receive the praise they deserve.
From the outside looking in it was initially hard to see why Bloodline hadn't set the world on fire. It had a spectacular cast - the family at the show's core are played by Sam Shepard, Sissy Spacek, Ben Mendelsohn, Kyle Chandler, Linda Cardellini and Norbert Leo Butz - as well as gorgeous cinematography, bitter familial conflicts (a gold mine of material for screenwriters) and it was a Netflix Original show.
Soon into the show's first season you get an idea of why it didn't quite bag all the Emmys. Bloodline struggles with its structure, featuring lots of cold opens and time jumps that do the show no favours. I persevered because of the cast and the dreamy backdrop and yes, Bloodline's writing doesn't quite do its actors justice but when you've got a cast as strong as Bloodline does, they can lift any material. Season one also picks up considerably in its second half although season two doesn't maintain the standard. A third season, which will hopefully recapture some of the thrills of the first run, is on its way.
Bloodline is enjoyable and terrifically acted and suitably exciting. It's no Orange Is The New Black but there's plenty to like and the location - the sun-kissed sands of the Florida Keys - is practically a character in itself. The excellent title sequence does a great job of setting the sombre mood and Bloodline gives atmosphere in spades. Plus any show that casts Chloë Sevigny is a good one in my books.
Grace And Frankie
Season one of Grace And Frankie was the kind of light, good-natured before-bed treat that surprised no one. It was a sitcom more traditional than it would care to admit but one buoyed by the talents of its tremendous leads. Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin were the reason most people started watching Grace And Frankie and their rapport is inimitable, making a somewhat so-so sitcom great fun.
Season one of Grace And Frankie mostly confined its leads to pretty run-of-the-mill storylines. Its best moments were when it allowed its characters to confront the tragedy of their situation. The premise - two frenemies, the Waspish Grace and more boho Frankie become unexpected housemates when their husbands come out as gay, desiring to marry each other - is ripe for humour and poignancy, and season two capitalises on this.
Grace And Frankie season two is a stark change from the first. It's a more mature piece of work but still very funny in parts, exploring the more serious topics of living with Alzheimer's and assisted dying. It's on level with Transparent for sheer emotional payoff and once again Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin bring their absolute A-game. Undoubtedly one of the most overlooked shows on Netflix.
There is almost no show on TV as diverse as Sense8. Lilly and Lana Wachowski's first foray into television boasts a fine cast of trans characters, gay characters, non-white characters, and characters drawn from all over the world. Whatever its faults, Sense8 has to be commended for its truly representative cast.
Those faults lie in its slightly off pacing, which has the most impact on the first few episodes of season one making them a bit of a slog. But once you're in, you're in. Sense8 chugs along with a fascinating core mystery, plenty of juicy drama in its large cast's personal lives and top-notch effects. What Sense8 has that is absent from a lot of shows is a through line of optimism and hope. For all the show's darker moments, it still wants to see its characters happy. Worth a binge before a Yuletide special lands at the end of the year.
Making A Murderer
It could be argued that the much-discussed Making A Murderer isn't quite as underrated as some of the other shows it sits beside on this list but it's one that should continue to be recommended. It's Netflix's answer to Serial, the wildly successful This American Life spin-off podcast, but without Sarah Koenig's euphonious guiding voice it's a starker piece.
Making A Murderer focuses on the story of Steven Avery, a Wisconsin native who was twice jailed in two different incidents, and the state's case against Avery and his family. It's not exploitative, instead respecting the Averys to the hilt and loaded with interviews as compulsive as any fictional account. Making A Murderer is a real investment, more so than anything else on this list, with a slow burn (occasionally too slow for some) approach to Avery's case and it often makes for harrowing viewing. But it really is worth checking out, just for its insight into a formerly low-profile case and as proof that life can sometimes be truly stranger than fiction.
Bo Burnham: Make Happy
Make Happy, a taping of a show from Bo Burnham's recent tour, makes an incredible first impression. You could see the comedian as a Marmite figure with slightly too-quick, whip-smart theatrical shtick that might grate on some, as if you dialled up the Eleventh Doctor's neuroses and gave him a stage. Burnham goes deeper than you would expect from a tight one-hour performance. He's dismissive of the superficiality of pop culture, aiming barbs at the likes of the popular Lip Synch Battle ("It's always one of two things on celebrity lip-synching. It's either a male celebrity lip-synching to a woman's song. Or it's a rich, young white actress ironically lip-synching to a hip-hop song"), the catchy, meaningless inspirational pop song and the size of Pringles cans.
Burnham keeps you beguiled with some very studious jokes, inventive music and fascinating pre-filmed cutaways that bookend the special. Gird yourself for the ending, which is deep in a way you really would not expect from a comedy special. Excellent stuff.
The newest addition to Netflix, Stranger Things is one of those shows that feels like it's mostly comprised of references to other, better films and TV shows. And that may be the case but Stranger Things does it with an endearingly unironic touch, doffing its cap to its influences but never being meta about it. It's got nostalgia in its blood and writers/directors the Duffer Brothers clearly have such great affection for the old-school days of Amblin flicks.
Stranger Things features the wonderful Winona Ryder as the mother of a missing boy, whose disappearance is investigated by the altogether dubious police department of Hawkins, Indiana. Oh, yeah, there's also a shadowy government facility nearby, some good old Romeo and Juliet romance and the missing boy's appropriately intrepid friends also searching for him. Yes, a lot has already been said of Stranger Things (confirmed to be returning for a second season) and much of it on this site, but if you've yet to have the pleasure, we urge you to watch.
BoJack Horseman is the story of a depressed and washed-up anthropomorphic cartoon horse that, in no way, feels like you are watching the story of a depressed and washed-up anthropomorphic horse. It's a programme with rich, unexpected depths.
Since BoJack Horseman's first season its success has snowballed, leading to a hugely acclaimed second run and, recently, it struck gold once again with its third season. BoJack is darkly humorous and cynical and sad but it's offset by the surreal way it presents its ideas. Having a world cohabited by humans and animals alike leads to many wonderful puns and one-liners that contrast with BoJack's hard-bitten outlook. It helps that so many familiar stars lend their voices to the show - Will Arnett is BoJack himself while Amy Sedaris is his agent, Alison Brie is his ghostwriter and Aaron Paul is his permanent houseguest.
BoJack Horseman is far more than another sweary adult cartoon, it's got a genuine heart and something to say.
Master Of None
Even if you weren't too gone on Tom Haverford, Aziz Ansari's cocksure man-child character on Parks And Recreation, it's difficult not to be endeared to Dev, his role in his semi-autobiographical series, Master Of None. It's the slickest HBO comedy series not made by HBO and an absolute gem of a comedy series.
Warm, smart and endowed with a genuineness that's hard to come by, Master Of None isn't a particularly ambitious comedy. The trials and tribulations in the life of a struggling actor are hardly a groundbreaking concept but Ansari, who co-wrote the series with Alan Yang, offers invaluable ruminations on race, modern romance (which he explores further in his and Eric Klinenberg's excellent novel neatly called Modern Romance) and surviving your twenties. It looks a bit samey on paper but in its execution it's moving, funny, sweet and honest, and highly deserving of your time. If anything, Master Of None short, clocking in at just over five hours, and if you get into it you'll find yourself devouring it in no time.
After Breaking Bad the world needed a new drug-dealing antihero. Netflix has followed in the footsteps of the hit show and its spinoff, Better Call Saul, and delivered another story with drugs at it heart. Using a real life kingpin raises all kinds of questions about sensationalism but Narcos is rough enough around the edges to avoid criticism of diluting the real life events it's based upon.
What you have with Narcos is an entertaining, robust and well-acted (especially by Wagner Moura, who stars as Pablo Escobar, and Boyd Holbrook and Pedro Pascal, the drug enforcement officers on his trail) crime series that zips along at an agreeably quick pace. The biggest criticism that can be levelled at Narcos is that it's been done before - and it has, but when it's exciting and as tense as this, you can forgive that.
Professional man-child Colt Bennett (who was once arrested for flashing Shania Twain) returns to his family's homestead after a series of unsuccessful attempts at being a semipro quarterback. Having been softened by the big city, Uggs-wearing Colt clashes with his stony, Trump-voting father (Sam Elliott is pretty much the best person for the role) and his brother Rooster, who opted to stay at home. Despite how uninspired that sounds, The Ranch is a show that's surprising in many ways.
It helps that the lead quartet - Ashton Kutcher, Sam Elliott, Danny Masterson and Debra Winger - are old hands at this sort of thing. Winger and Elliott, naturally, bring the most nuance but Masterson and Kutcher form a remarkable, convincing repartee. They also deliver when the script asks for more from them, and if it weren't for the excellent performances (the strength of which drowns out the intrusive laughs from the enthusiastic studio audience), The Ranch wouldn't be quite as good as it is.
There's the feeling that with a tighter script and a more assured direction, The Ranch could have been a lot better than it is in its current state. But if you want something watchable and silly then The Ranch is most certainly for you.
Love throws together Mickey and Gus, as played by Community's Gillian Jacobs and comedian Paul Rust, who inevitably have their meet-cute. But this is a show that takes its time, by depicting Mickey and Gus' relationship like a real relationship. They don't meet until the end of the first episode and even after that the show strives to truthfully portray the ups and downs of a real life relationship.
Some of the indie quirk could be too much for some viewers. Likewise, it's another example of the gauche nerd getting the hot chick (and she's another sufferer of the 'foul-mouthed, weed-smoking but pretty girl' trope that has recently reared its head in Hollywood) but look past all that and you have a smart, evenly paced and likeable romantic comedy series that you'll have binged in a weekend.