The 20 Best Netflix Shows of All Time — Ranked
It’s been a rough few years for the once-dominant streaming service, but Netflix has still managed to produce some of the best television ever
Netflix finally got some good news last week — sort of — after a long stretch of the bad kind. In its latest earnings call, the streaming giant announced that it had lost almost one million American subscribers over the second quarter of 2022. How is this good news? Because the company had previously projected it would lose two million.
Netflix was once out so far ahead of the competition that it may as well have been the entire streaming video business for a while. Now, though, many of its most-watched library titles, like The Office and Friends, have moved to streamers owned by their respective corporate parents, while the most buzzed-about originals of the last couple of years also tend to come from non-Netflix streamers, whether it’s Apple TV+’s Ted Lasso and Severance, Disney+’s The Mandalorian, or Hacks on HBO Max. Things have gotten so rough for the floundering streamer that it’s planning to introduce a cheaper, ad-supported plan next year to attract new subscribers (or, at least, to keep from losing more).
So what happened? How did Netflix go from wiping Blockbuster off the map to potentially becoming a business school cautionary tale in its own right? Some of it is simply competition; once every entertainment conglomerate realized it needed its own streaming service to survive, Netflix ceased to be everyone’s first choice for where to spend their home-entertainment dollars. Still, some of it seems to be the result of an ethos among Netflix executives to aim not for great shows, but for ones that are just good enough. The suits trusted that the superior caliber of their user interface, the power of their recommendation algorithm, and a heavy emphasis on serialization and cliffhangers would make people want to keep watching more and more Netflix, no matter what. And when few Netflix shows feel as essential as what can be found elsewhere, that’s how you get to a huge subscriber loss being presented as relatively “good” news.
But it hasn’t all been intentional mediocrity for Netflix. In the nine-plus years since House of Cards debuted and changed the streaming originals landscape, some excellent shows have escaped the algorithm’s clutches and made their way onto our screens. Some have been well-executed versions of familiar TV forms, while others have seemed so wholly new that it’s hard to imagine them existing in the pre-streaming era. Here, we count down our 20 favorites.
20. ‘Sex Education’ (2019-Present)
Photo : Sam Taylor/Netflix
YA has been a fruitful category for Netflix, particularly this rollicking Britcom. Shy teenager Otis (Asa Butterfield) has been miserable growing up with a single mom who’s an outspoken sex therapist (Gillian Anderson). But when the kids at his school start having relationship difficulties, Otis, his queer best friend Eric (Ncuti Gatwa, in a star-making performance), and Otis’ crush Maeve (Emma Mackey) start up a bootleg sex clinic to help their classmates get satisfaction. A comedy as sweet as it is silly, it explores a wide range of sexual and romantic relationships.
19. ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ (2018)
Photo : Steve Dietl/Netflix
Horror filmmaker Mike Flanagan has graced Netflix with an unofficial franchise featuring many of the same actors (see also The Haunting of Bly Manor and Midnight Mass), starting with this crackling adaptation of the Shirley Jackson novel about a family that can’t escape the history of the haunted house where they lived (and some of them died). Even at a time when it feels obligatory for a prestige drama to do long, continuous shots, the Hill House episode presented that way was a marvel.
18. ‘The Baby-Sitters Club’ (2020-2021)
Photo : Kailey Schwerman/Netflix
Though adaptations of famous IP are all the rage right now, Netflix somehow couldn’t find a big enough audience for this warmhearted take on Ann M. Martin’s beloved book series about a group of middle-school girls who start up their own babysitting business. But those who did watch found a lot to cherish in the ways the show modernized aspects of the novels — in one episode, the shy Mary Anne (Malia Baker) stands up to ER doctors who keep misgendering her latest charge — while staying true to their coming-of-age heart.
17. ‘Lady Dynamite’ (2016-2017)
Photo : Beth Dubber/Netflix
In its earlier years, Netflix built a large stable of shows whose individual audiences may not have been huge, but which were designed to be some viewers’ all-time favorites. Perhaps no series symbolized this creative ethos more than Lady Dynamite. Inspired by star Maria Bamford’s struggles with bipolar disorder, it was weird, sad, and surreal as it bounced through multiple eras of her life, including the future.
16. ‘The Crown’ (2016-Present)
Photo : Robert Viglasky/Netflix
The “10-hour movie” storytelling model has been bad for most Netflix dramas. One exception: Peter Morgan’s old-school (in every sense) docudrama about Queen Elizabeth (played so far by Claire Foy and Olivia Colman, with Imelda Staunton set for the final seasons). The show wisely goes with a traditional crisis-of-the-week format, so that each episode has its own conflicts, even as they feed into fascinating larger questions about how the royals have to sublimate their own desires in service to an ideal they were born into.
15. ‘Dear White People’ (2017-2021)
Photo : LARA SOLANKI/NETFLIX
Not every movie lends itself well to being adapted for television. The translations that work tend to involve ideas where there was more to say than could fit into a feature-length film. Case in point: Justin Simien’s expansion of his sharp 2014 film about Black students at a predominantly white Ivy League school. The show had four seasons’ worth of room to explore the perspectives of what felt like everyone on campus, and to do bold experiments like turning much of the final season into a musical.
14. ‘Squid Game’ (2021-Present)
Photo : Netflix
Netflix has been way ahead of other streamers in terms of acquiring or developing programming for its international markets (Elite, Money Heist, Lupin). The best of these series — as cemented by its 14 Emmy nominations, including for Outstanding Drama Series, the first foreign-language show to get that nod — is Squid Game, a riveting dystopian thriller out of Korea about financially desperate people who agree to compete in a deadly, winner-takes-all competition inspired by schoolyard games like Red Light, Green Light. A triumph of both social satire and production design, it became a rare word-of-mouth phenomenon.
13. ‘Stranger Things’ (2016-Present)
Photo : Courtesy of Netflix
Like Steven Spielberg’s Jaws sent the movie business on a never-ending hunt for blockbusters, the success of Stranger Things — itself an homage to the Eighties works of Spielberg and Stephen King — transformed Netflix from a company happy with boutique hits and critical acclaim into one that wanted its shows to attract huge audiences. If the series has begun to feel bloated in its later seasons (and if the kids look old enough to run for Congress), it’s still terrific popcorn entertainment that’s made at least one great new star in Millie Bobby Brown as the telekinetic Eleven.
12. ‘When They See Us’ (2019)
Photo : Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix
It was an infamous real-life story made even more harrowing when it became clear the cops and the media had gotten it so wrong: A woman was brutally raped in Central Park in 1989, and five young men of color were convicted, only to be exonerated years later, when the real attacker confessed. Ava DuVernay’s dramatization of the story packs a wallop throughout, but especially in the sequences depicting what Korey Wise (Emmy winner Jharrel Jerome) endured as the only member of the Central Park Five sentenced as an adult.
11. ‘Mindhunter’ (2017-2019)
Photo : Patrick Harbron/Netflix
David Fincher executive-produced House of Cards, but his best contribution to Netflix was his return to the serial-killer territory of Se7en and Zodiac. This time, he approached the genre from a different direction, with a drama about the FBI agents (played by Jonathan Groff and Holt McCallanny) and psychiatrist (Anna Torv) who created the science of criminal profiling. The bulk of the show is just the agents talking with incarcerated monsters — making Mindhunter the odd thriller that’s all talk and little action, and much more interesting for it.
10. ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ (2015-2019)
Photo : Eric Liebowitz/Netflix
We have to blur the lines to call Kimmy a Netflix original, since the first season was produced to air on NBC, before network executives there panicked that the show — about a young woman (Ellie Kemper) rescued from years trapped in a doomsday cult’s underground bunker — would be too weird or sad to work for them. But Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s creation had a healthy and frequently hilarious four-season run when it surely would have died within a few weeks on NBC. A win-win.
9. ‘One Day at a Time’ (2017-2019)
Photo : Michael Yarish / Netflix
Even beyond Kimmy Schmidt, Netflix built an early reputation as a viewer-friendly place by rescuing canceled shows from broadcast and cable networks. Eventually, the roles reversed, and we had a situation where this smart, funny, and poignant Norman Lear revival — starring Justina Machado as a Cuban American single mom raising teen kids with the help of her mother, Lydia (Rita Moreno), and dealing with hot-button issues like immigration, sexuality, and PTSD — was canceled by Netflix and then revived for a fourth season by the cable channel Pop.
8. ‘Unbelievable’ (2019)
Photo : Beth Dubber/Netflix
Netflix and actress Merritt Wever have been a strong team over the years. She won an Emmy for her gun-slinging role in 2017’s Godless, stole scenes in Marriage Story, and was phenomenal here as an empathetic cop (alongside Toni Collette) on the trail of a serial rapist. TV is inundated with mediocre true-crime dramatizations, but Unbelievable — which featured a fantastic Kaitlyn Dever as a victim of the rapist who was somehow charged with lying to police about it — is one great enough to live up to its title.
7. ‘Master of None’ (2015-Present)
Photo : K.C. Bailey/Netflix
Aziz Ansari’s Master of None was among the best of the wave of auteur-driven TV in the 2010s. He wrote, directed, and starred in the show’s ambitious and lovely early seasons, which mixed stories of his alter ego, Dev, who was looking for love, with tales of the people in Dev’s life: his immigrant father’s journey to America, his friend Denise (Lena Waithe) gradually coming out to her family, even a digression about New York cabbies. After a long break, it returned last year with a Scenes From a Marriage-inspired story about Denise, which was less interesting, even as it suggested that Ansari and Waithe had not run out of ambition.
6. ‘I Think You Should Leave With Tim Robinson’ (2019-Present)
Photo : Netflix
Each season of Tim Robinson’s sketch-comedy delight is six episodes of less than 20 minutes apiece. Yet within that efficient packaging exist indelible, explosive comedy bits, many of them about people who take some dumb belief and refuse to let go of it until everyone around them is deeply uncomfortable. Bonus points for the hot-dog car sketch (“We’re all trying to find the guy who did this!”) becoming the single most useful meme of the past four years.
5. ‘Big Mouth’ (2017-Present)
Photo : NETFLIX
An animated show about middle schoolers that probably shouldn’t be watched by middle schoolers, Big Mouth focuses on the rampaging horniness of characters like Nick (co-creator Nick Kroll), Andrew (John Mulaney), Jessi (Jessi Klein), and the pillow-molesting Jay (Jason Mantzoukas). And that’s even before we get to all the filthy fantasies put into the kids’ heads by hormone monsters like Connie (Maya Rudolph). Yet for as graphic as the series gets, it has a fundamental empathy for kids going through one of the most uncomfortable stages of life.
4. ‘American Vandal’ (2017-2018)
Photo : Tyler Golden/Netflix
Speaking of scatological adolescent ridiculousness, consider this note-perfect spoof of true-crime podcasts and docuseries in which a pair of high school filmmakers investigate two mysteries: Who defaced 27 cars in the faculty parking lot with drawings of penises, and who contaminated the cafeteria lemonade to make their classmates lose control of their bowels? As satire alone, it was wonderful. But beneath all the dick and poop jokes was an insightful and poignant look at the kids caught up in all this gross-out behavior.
3. ‘Russian Doll’ (2019-Present)
Photo : NETFLIX
We’re finally entering the realm of Capital-G Greatness. Natasha Lyonne graduated from the next show on this list to her own co-creation: a high-concept series that bent genre as easily as it bent the laws of physics. In the flawless first season, Lyonne’s irrepressible Nadia was cursed to die and be reborn over and over again on her 36th birthday. In the messier but still delightful second season, she began quantum leaping into the young lives of her mother and grandmother. Russian Doll is brimming with ideas and energy in a way few recent series (on Netflix or otherwise) can equal.
2. ‘Orange Is the New Black’ (2013-2019)
Photo : JoJo Whilden/Netflix
House of Cards was the kind of middle-aged-male antihero drama that television had seen plenty of before. Orange, a dramedy set at a federal women’s prison with an enormous cast crossing boundaries of race, sexuality, gender, and more, felt brand-new, and like a sign that the streaming era would have lots of room for TV to keep evolving. That’s not quite what happened, and Orange was more creatively uneven than many shows on this list. But its best moments were remarkable and symbolize a road the streamer hasn’t taken nearly as often as it could.
1. ‘BoJack Horseman’ (2014-2020)
Photo : NETFLIX
Yes, the one indisputable Netflix masterpiece is an animated dramedy about a depressed horse (Will Arnett) who once starred in a bad Nineties family sitcom and now contents himself with abusing both drugs and the trust of anyone who cares about him. BoJack was a parody of modern dramas about middle-aged male antiheroes who get away with everything. But it was also a supreme example of the form, as laugh-out-loud ridiculous and as soul-crushingly sad a show as has been produced during the streaming era.
From Rolling Stone US.