Netflix has built its 200 million+ subscriber base on the backs of some great original TV series, and there’s a fair chance you’re watching (or have already binged) the biggies: Bridgerton, The Witcher, Stranger Things, Tiger King, The Queen’s Gambit, Lupin, etc. Even if you’re haven’t seen them, they’re buzzy enough that you know their names. But there’s lots more where they came from — and some of it is as good or better than those flagship series.
Yes, while Netflix began life as a streaming service by licensing previously released material, over the last eight years — since the launch of its first original, House of Cards, in 2013 — the DVD rental company-turned-media giant has developed a huge library of original series and miniseries, so many it can be hard to keep up.
Here, in no particular order, are some of Netflix’s most entertaining and impressive original hidden gems — shows you probably aren’t watching, but definitely should be.
Special (2019 — 2021, two seasons)
One of the benefits of the age of streaming television has been the increase in real representation for diverse groups — in many cases moving light years beyond broadcast TV in telling stories by and about more than just the usual suspects. Special is a great example: a heartfelt, funny work and sex comedy about a gay man with cerebral palsy, starring and created by… a gay man with cerebral palsy (Ryan O’Connell). The result is charming and real, while also touching on perceptions of disability, as early on, Ryan rewrites his own narrative by telling people that his distinctive mannerisms are the result of a car accident.
Gentefied (2020 — , renewed for season two)
A half-hour comedy-drama, but with an emphasis on the comedy, Gentefied follows three Mexican-American cousins who have built lives in Los Angeles, only to be faced with a new challenge: the looming gentrification of the neighbourhood they helped to build. This bilingual series has a lot of heart, and room to grow — luckily, it’s been renewed for a second season.
Feel Good (2020 — 2021, two seasons)
Co-created by and starring Mae Martin, the semi-autobiographical Feel Good goes to dark places to find the light (it’s firmly in comedy-drama territory). Living in Manchester, comedian and former drug addict Mae meets the highly repressed George, and the two very different women are forced to come to terms with their separate issues as they attempt to build a relationship together. The second and final season was released earlier this year.
Sex Education (2019 — , renewed for a third season)
There’s plenty of sex on TV (not complaining), but that’s not the same thing as sex-positivity. In this British comedy-drama, Asa Butterfield and Gillian Anderson star as an insecure, shy teenager named Otis and his mother, Jean, a frank and sometimes painfully honest sex therapist. When a school bully needs some sex advice, Otis dispenses some of the wisdom he’s picked up from mum, eventually making a name for himself around school by selling his knowledge as expertise. It’s funny and charmingly raunchy show, treating sex with humour and positivity.
Raising Dion (2020 — , renewed for a second season)
There’s a bit of a Stranger Things-vibe to Raising Dion — a single mum helps her kids to cope with a wildly unexpected turn of events in their lives — but instead of supernatural horror, they’re dealing with their burgeoning superpowers. Seven-year-old Dion, specifically, develops mysterious abilities following the death of his scientist father (played in flashback by one of the show’s producers, Michael B. Jordan). The show wisely doesn’t shy away from depicting the unique challenges of being a Black single mother, which grow further complicated, naturally, when your kid can freeze objects in mid-air.
Dark (2017 — 2020, three seasons)
Dark began as a mystery involving a missing child and evolved over its three seasons into one of the most complex series on television: a time travel-driven narrative that explores (appropriately) dark family secrets over the course of several generations. The first Netflix original import from Germany, it’s got a striking look and an incredibly atmospheric feel. After a few episodes, you won’t even notice the subtitles.
Sacred Games (2018 — 2019, two seasons)
A crime-drama with a uniquely complex facility with world-building, this Indian import begins with an honest Mumbai cop played by Hindi-language film star Saif Ali Khan. Just as the rookie has become entangled in the police department’s corruption, he’s contacted by a long-believed-dead crime boss who warns him that, without his help, everyone in Mumbai will be dead in 25 days. The familiar cop-show beats play out against a larger-than-usual canvas, making for one of the best recent crime dramas from any country.
Ghoul (2018, one short season)
Netflix’s second original Indian import (after Sacred Games) is also a Blumhouse production (in part), so go figure. It’s an effective and unique miniseries that blends dystopian science fiction and horror in the story of a fascist regime and the military officer willing to do just about anything to prove her loyalty to the state. When she’s tasked with interrogating a prominent terrorist, she comes to understand that her target is something other than human.
Seven Seconds (2018, one season)
They had me at “Regina King,” though this miniseries isn’t always an easy watch. On one level, it’s a gripping crime drama that deals with the aftermath of the death of a Black teenager, hit while riding his bike by a car driven by a white cop. The ensuing coverup leads to violence, as investigators and families search for the truth. Of course, with a premise that explosive, the show does well not to limit itself to the tropes of the crime procedural, widening its scope to become a powerful indictment of a deeply flawed system.
Atypical (2017 — 2021, four seasons)
There are plenty of shows featuring characters who serve as analogues for individuals on the autism spectrum (think Big Bang Theory), but very few that seem willing to, I dunno, forefront characters with autism. In that regard, Atypical isn’t perfect — in trying to show the positive face of autism, the well-intentioned series doesn’t always let the characters feel like real people. Still, issues aside, it’s a likable and funny show that gets closer to a realistic portrait of life on the spectrum than most.
Sense8 (2015 — 2018, two seasons and two specials)
Look, it’s a superhero show, but with orgies. That’s not the actual tagline, but maybe the show would’ve gone past two seasons had it been. Really, though, it’s a high-concept science fiction premise involving eight strangers from around the world who find with and between themselves with a deep, inexplicable connection. On one level, that means they can share their special abilities when needed. On another, it’s an impressively uplifting call for connection, and a recognition of our mutual interconnectedness. Also, the show is super queer — unsurprisingly given it sprung from the mind of the Wachowskis (who co-wrote the episodes with Babylon 5‘s Michael J. Straczynski).
3% (2016 — 2020, four seasons)
The metaphor isn’t terribly subtle: in a near-future dystopia, the young, impoverished people of Inland have one chance to get out — “The Process”, a gamut of tests and puzzles to determine who will get to set off forever to live in a bountiful paradise. Most fail, and some die, leaving 3% of participants to move on to a utopia that it’s not much of a spoiler to say isn’t quite all it’s cracked up to be. Yeah, it’s more-or-less a Brazilian Hunger Games, but with longer-form storytelling and well-drawn characters that sell the concept.
Godless (2017, one season)
Godless leans into many of the conventions of the western genre, and hard. Whether that strikes you as a positive or not will depend on your own tastes, but it’s undeniable the show is an absolutely gorgeous (and bloody) spectacle, making the absolute most its New Mexico locations. It also introduces a wrinkle to the genre in its tale of a former outlaw who seeks sanctuary in a town entirely populated by women.
Alias Grace (2017, one season)
In some ways, it’s the other recent Margaret Atwood novel adaptation (existing well in the shadow of the bigger, buzzier Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu), but this miniseries is every bit as biting and well-crafted. It’s based on the true story of a poor Irish immigrant found guilty of a double homicide in 1843 under somewhat mysterious circumstances, and following a life of trauma. Years later, a psychiatrist comes to examine her and explores her past and the circumstances that might (just might) have driven a disenfranchised and powerless girl to murder.
One Day at a Time (2017 — 2019, three seasons on Netflix)
This one has received a fair bit of acclaim, so there’s a good chance you’ve heard of it, but the viewership never quite seems to have lived up to its quality or credentials. Norman Lear’s popular and groundbreaking ‘70s/’80s original is refreshed (complete with a Gloria Estefan cover of the theme song) to focus on a Cuban-American family lead by a single mum struggling with her return to civilian life following a career in the Army. It’s a traditional sitcom on the surface, but stocked full of believable characters and real emotions. Plus, it’s got Rita Moreno! The show lasted three seasons on Netflix before being picked up for a fourth season by Pop — though the pandemic meant only seven of a planned 13 episodes were produced. Unfortunately, the second cancellation seems to have stuck.
On My Block (2018 — , renewed for a fourth season)
The comedy and the drama don’t always sit together comfortably in On My Block, perhaps by design. It’s the story of four friends just starting high school, and the various complications that test their relationships. At moments it can feel almost like a sitcom, as when one of the friends has to hide the fact that he quit the football team from his parents by faking injuries. But the show is set in South Central LA, and refuses to look away from the realities of life in a neighbourhood where gunshots aren’t uncommon. Even if it doesn’t always gel, it explores something much closer to real life than we get from other, frequently sanitised teen dramas. It’s been renewed for a fourth and final season.
Derry Girls (2018 — , renewed for a third season)
A legitimate sitcom that just happens to be set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles of the 1990s, when clashes between nationalists and unionists frequently resulted in violence. It’s a fascinating contrast, brought to life by a writer and creator (Lisa McGee) who lived it. It’s also laugh-out-loud funny — though doesn’t make any allowances for audiences unaccustomed to Irish accents, so don’t feel bad if you need subtitles until you get the hang of it. A third season, postponed due to the pandemic, is on the way.
Ethos (2020, one season)
There’s no catchy high-concept here, just a solid, smart drama that follows several characters in Istanbul, all of whom discover an unlikely connection to Peri, a part-time cleaner who consults a psychiatrist following a series of fainting spells. It’s built on solid performances and thoughtful interpersonal drama, and in that sense feels a bit more grown-up than many of the flashier genre shows that get all the attention. Its variety of characters also paint a vivid portrait of modern Turkey, a society with uniquely diverse, and sometimes conflicting, components.
Hilda (2018 — , probably renewed for a third season)
Hilda’s world feels a bit like it could have come from Miyazaki, but with more trolls (it’s not Japanese, for the record, but based on a British graphic novel). The title character lives with her mother in the remote wilderness, a magical landscape filled with magic and animals that adventurous Hilda is very familiar with. Circumstances force the two to move to the city of Trollberg, a place that appears to have significantly less magic. It’s a distinctly lovely looking show, with a curious and empathetic protagonist who’s also incredibly stubborn and set in her ways. It’s wonderful for kids and adults. Rumour has it a third season is on the way, though nothing has been strictly confirmed.
Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts (2020, three seasons)
A collaboration between DreamWorks and the South Korean animation studio Mir (The Legend of Korra), this enchanting adventure series follows Kipo Oak as she seeks out her father in unique future dystopia: at some point, mutated animals rose up against their human oppressors and forced humans into underground burrows. During her journey, Kipo discovers new things about herself (for example, that she’s not 100% human), and finds friends and allies among the animals. It’s a gorgeous and delightful adventure, with a fair bit of casual diversity and queer representation.
Anne With an E (2017 — 2019, three seasons)
It doesn’t sound, on its face, like a great idea: Lucy Maud Montgomery’s classic novel Anne of Green Gables is pretty well synonymous with old-timey kid lit and a beloved ‘70s miniseries, and any modern adaptation could have run to treacly irrelevance or edgy revisionism. Instead, the reboot revisits the novel and mines its text (and subtext) for new ideas without betraying the spirit of the work. It feels perfectly fresh modern in unexpected ways.
Street Food (2018 — , not yet renewed for a third season)
There are plenty of food and cooking shows, and even others that deal with varieties of street food. But where Street Food excels is in emphasis on the human stories behind the preparation of these often incredible looking dishes. Sometimes it’s about family connections, tradition, or cooking as a way out of poverty, each episode establishes a web of connections. The first season travels across Asia, while the second visits Latin America. A third is on the way, hopefully.
Immigration Nation (2020, one season)
There’s perhaps no better evidence of the organisation’s power and arrogance than the fact that ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) participated in this documentary miniseries, presumably believing that they’d come off far better than they do. Filmmakers Christina Clusiau and Shaul Schwarz were given unprecedented access to the agency, both in the field and behind desks. What’s revealed, very often from the mouths of agents and administrators, is a portrait of a brutal agency operating on the bare fringes of legality, with devastating impacts on the lives of those desperate to experience the promise of America.
The Pharmacist (2020, one season)
The opioid epidemic has fallen out of the headlines for understandable reasons, but it hasn’t gone away. This thoroughly fascinating documentary miniseries revisits the beginnings of the crisis in an unexpected way: The barely investigated murder of his son set pharmacist Dan Schneider on a quest for justice that gave him the skills and resources to examine the growing surge in OxyContin prescriptions in the early 2000s. It’s an unlikely lens through which to explore the very timely issue, and an important look at a deadly epidemic that hasn’t gone away just because we’ve stopped paying attention to it.
Our Planet (2019, one season)
At 95, David Attenborough is every bit as prolific as he’s ever been, perhaps having developed a greater sense of urgency in his mission to educate on issues of the environment and conservation. His focus in Our Planet, Netflix’s first nature documentary miniseries, is on species endangered by climate change. A spin-off of the Planet Earth series, its wall-to-wall, high-def nature footage is every bit as stunning as you’d expect.
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