Netflix is a cultural Rorschach test. In addition to being a revolution of the way we watch movies and television, it’s a prestige factory that’s helping to bring Oscar-quality entertainment to your home. And it’s massive enough to be whatever you need it to be at whatever time you need it.
Seven years after House of Cards changed our perceptions of what streaming content could look like, Netflix has amassed a library of more than 100 original series (and that’s only counting the English language stuff). Here are 16 of the best.
Who knew 1984’s surprise hit film about a Valley karate rivalry between two teens would lead to one of the most binge-worthy series of 2020? Cobra Kai takes the characters of The Karate Kid and joins them in middle age, as successful car dealer Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) once again crosses paths with wayward Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) and a new generation of kids struggles with the warring philosophies of their respective dojos. Part nostalgia trip and part martial arts soap opera, Cobra Kai has all the right moves. Three seasons are currently streaming, with a fourth on the way.
Nadia (Natasha Lyonne, who also co-created the series) is a game developer stuck in a time loop that keeps killing her and depositing her back at her own birthday party. If you roll your eyes at Groundhog Day situations, roll them back, because this incredibly inventive take from Lyonne, Leslye Headland, and Amy Poehler is deeply funny, strange, sad, and celebratory all at once. One woman’s existential crisis is our binge-worthy content. As a bonus, Harry Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up” will be permanently stuck in your brain.
Based on his (also excellent) 2014 feature, Justin Simien takes us back to prestigious Winchester University, where social justice bard Samantha White (Logan Browning) navigates the growing pains of collegiate romance and friendship while trying to make her classmates recognize the social divisions at their school. Through three seasons (with a fourth coming in 2020), the show has faithfully delivered outrageous humor with its singular blend of satire and soap opera.
4. GLOW (2017-2019)
Anchored by Alison Brie, Betty Gilpin, and a stellar ensemble cast, GLOW follows a group of women who launch a wrestling show backed by a trust fund kid and a cranky cult horror director (brilliantly played by Marc Maron). It scored laughs for how awkward everything was early on, but the show really sailed when Brie and her cohorts began to fully own the weird, wonderful spandex assault they were creating. You can enjoy all three seasons now.
Tim Robinson is a Saturday Night Live alum whose sketch show couldn’t be further from that mainstay’s sensibilities. Where SNL is the McDonald’s of comedy, I Think You Should Leave is the hole-in-the-wall place only you and your friends love because it keeps changing the menu with new dishes you can’t get anywhere else. It’s fair to call the show outlandish, but its comic brilliance stems from the simplicity of its setups and the deranged lengths that the characters go to in order to stick with that premise. Learn nothing else and dive in.
It’s the silly cartoon show here to make you think about death and get sad and stuff. Like emo music for grownups, Raphael Bob-Waksberg and Lisa Hanawalt’s brilliant series focuses on the addiction, self-loathing, and career envy of its titular anti-hero as he attempts to crawl out of the cheesy ’80s sitcom stardom of his past and into something more respected. No other show can get away with this many animal puns while exploring the depths of despair that result from trying to fill a bottomless pit in your soul.
Allora! Although it has dipped its toe into experimentation, Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang’s relationship comedy works largely because of the likability of Dev Shah (its main character, played by Ansari). It’s buoyant and feels like you’re hanging out with friends but, fair warning, it will make you deliriously hungry for pasta.
Plenty of high school comedies have focused on how awkward sex and romance is for high schoolers, but this fantastic show from Laurie Nunn wanted to raise the stakes by making the young, sexually ambivalent main character’s mom a sex therapist. In another ingenious move, they hired Gillian Anderson to play that sex therapist mom, and she delivers all the frank, embarrassing talk you could possibly ask for. So what happens when the insecure son of a sex therapist starts his own sex therapy side hustle to help his high school friends? An excellent, empathetic series that uses its laughs as a release.
9. Sense8 (2015-2018)
Eight strangers living all over the world discover they are emotionally connected to each other. They can feel what others in their cluster are feeling and can communicate with each other despite physical separation. Teaming with comic book and screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski, the Wachowskis have pulled another big-think, sci-fi rabbit out of their hats with this globetrotting thriller that’s never met a third-rail issue it didn’t want to explore. When they’re not running from a mysterious entity bent on their destruction, the fascinatingly diverse crew of connected characters break down everything you’re not supposed to talk about around the dinner table. So maybe we should be talking about them around the dinner table?
One of Netflix’s original originals is still one of its best. Jenji Kohan found a perfect follow-up to Weeds with this adaptation of Piper Kerman’s memoir about a young suburban woman going to a minimum-security prison. The fish-out-of-water comedy, drama, and horror only lasts as long as it takes for the show to blossom into a gorgeous, emotional roller coaster that shines the spotlight on all of its women—from the surly cook Red (Kate Mulgrew) to the sweet/troubled Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba)—to humanize them beyond the personas they adopt to survive. The show is a hilarious self-peeling onion, tears and all.
Within the first two minutes of Astronomy Club, a talking garlic bulb shoots a gun at Dracula and shouts “Tryin’ get this money in 2020, baby!” Fortunately, it gets weirder. This sketch show from some Upright Citizens Brigade alums is framed around a fake reality show that wisely lets us get to know these new performers while mocking every Real World descendant and the cast themselves. The comedy ranges from self-aware and absurdist to straightforward and even socially-conscious, and it all blends together smoothly. A one-of-a-kind winner.
Peter Morgan’s historical drama has taken advantage of the new format and the lengthy reign of Queen Elizabeth II to craft a charming, devilish exploration of the scandals and triumphs of her adult life. As The Crown has covered decades and decades, it has shifted from Claire Foy playing the young queen (post-WWII) to Olivia Colman playing her through middle age (Winston Churchill’s death and Soviet espionage intrigue) and will eventually star Imelda Staunton as the older queen closing out the show in the early 2000s (the years, not her age). It’s an anglophile’s delight with keen dramatic instincts and a huge list of world events to tackle.
Based on Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit, the series—created by Joe Penhall and executive produced by David Fincher—uncovers our earliest understanding of serial killers and the pioneering research conducted by letting FBI agents interview the country’s most notorious murderers about their crimes. The fictionalized team played by Jonathan Groff, Holt McCallany, and Anna Torv battle bureaucracy and old paradigms in order to get their fledgling, vital program to succeed in using the criminal mind to help solve future cases. It’s a delicate, gorgeous show exploring our worst impulses and, chillingly, uses real serial killers’ own words to describe their acts.
If there were an Audience Choice Award winner for this list, this nostalgia-bomb from the Duffer Brothers would score it. An absolute phenomenon that stuffs Steven Spielberg, The X-Men, and D&D into a blender and pours the results into a Trapper Keeper, the adventures of the psychokinetic Eleven and her band of merry young men are wondrously creepy fun. Perfect PG-13 horror where puberty and a Cthulhu-esque behemoth from a different dimension are equally strong villains.
15. The OA (2016-2019)
After being missing for seven years, a blind woman named Prairie Johnson (Brit Marling) resurfaces, now with the ability to see and calling herself the Original Angel. The series is a stunning blend of sci-fi and fantasy that explores past trauma and near-death experiences with the backdrop of dimension-hopping adventure. It’s an epic, intimate story that’s truly unlike anything else, and diving into the magnetic first episode comes with the risk of getting addicted to a series that (for now) ends on a cliffhanger.
American Scandal is undoubtedly the best show ever made about misdemeanor penis drawings. What might have been a crass, surface-level parody of our obsession with true crime stories is elevated to the highest of comedic heights due to the unwavering dedication to taking its juvenile crimes seriously. The first season focuses on a high school slacker who swears he’s innocent of drawing the aforementioned phalluses on dozens of cars in the school parking lot while the second uncovers the truth about who spiked cafeteria lemonade with a laxative to cause an event known as “The Brownout.” Imbued with all the twists and obsessively granular details of Serial, it’s a miracle that they filmed any of it with a straight face.