In the nearly six years since Netflix released the first season of House of Cards, the Big Three streaming networks (Netflix, Amazon, Hulu) have produced and premiered close to 150 original scripted series for adults. If you add in kids’ programming, foreign acquisitions and the occasional continuation of a show canceled by a more traditional American network (The Mindy Project, The Killing), that total skyrockets to a number frankly too high to calculate without bursting into tears.
That quantity has not always been matched by quality. For the most part, the streamers seem content with shows that will creatively grade out at best anywhere between a B- and a B+. And the way that so many streaming drama seasons are structured as really long movies means that even the better ones tend to suffer from bad pacing and repetition.
But when the Twittersphere recently asked for a list of the best shows ever produced for the streaming networks, I had to take the bait. (Ranking TV shows is a habit of mine.) Here, I am only considering series developed by and for Netflix, Amazon or Hulu. So Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt doesn’t count, as its whole first season was made to air on NBC. Catastrophe and Fleabag would rank very high, but both are international shows that Amazon just owns the streaming rights to. (Same for Netflix and Bablyon Berlin.) With those caveats in mind, let the countdown — and the debates — begin.
20. Jessica Jones (Netflix)
This far out from the top spot, there are a lot of options, including Netflix’s profane animated comedy F Is For Family and its often frustrating but occasionally spectacular global sci-fi epic Sense8. But while Netflix’s partnership with Marvel has mostly been a disappointment, it did give us one mostly great (if still overly-long) season in the debut adventure of Jessica Jones, a drunk, self-loathing, superstrong private eye played with verve by Krysten Ritter.
19. The Kominsky Method (Netflix)
This may be recency bias at work, but Michael Douglas and (especially) Alan Arkin are just that good as a pair of elderly Hollywood pals shuffling through their final years together. Because the streamers only care about subscriber totals rather than advertiser-friendly demos, they’re free to cast a wide net and make shows specifically targeted to, and about, older people. This is a funny and poignant example of how effective that aim can be.
18. Casual (Hulu)
Until The Handmaid’s Tale came along, Casual — the small and intentionally awkward story of two damaged siblings (a terrific Michaela Watkins and Tommy Dewey) malfunctioning as each other’s support system — was the class of Hulu’s original productions, and a fine example of how an indie movie aesthetic could feel richer when elongated for TV. Hulu released the first few seasons weekly, despite the show being tailor-made for a binge; now all four bittersweet years are available to dive into at once.
17. Bosch (Amazon)
Stop me if you’ve heard the one about the hard-boiled cop in the big city who doesn’t play by the rules. Yes, this adaptation of the popular series of crime novels is just one cliché after another, but executed at a high level that reminds you why we loved these ideas long enough for them to become pat. As the title character, Titus Welliver isn’t playing any new notes, but he’s playing the role very well. And the writing — especially if you skip over the shaky first season — makes it all feel new enough. Also, it’s one of the few current shows, streaming or otherwise, that knows how to use the “it’s a 10-hour movie/novel” structure without things falling apart after a while.
16. Mindhunter (Netflix)
The last thing TV needed was another gritty drama about how FBI agents hunt serial killers by learning to think like them. But the David Fincher-directed Mindhunter reinvigorates the tropes by showing how they were invented. It’s the Seventies, and a pair of FBI agents (Jonathan Groff and Holt McCallany) and a shrink (Anna Torv) are literally writing the book on what drives and defines serial killers and how they can best be caught. The show is much more interested in conversation than in gore, because it understands that hearing these monsters casually discuss their crimes is far more horrifying than any Silence of the Lambs retread could be.
15. The Crown (Netflix)
The Crown, which dramatizes the reign of Queen Elizabeth across the decades (Claire Foy played her in the first two seasons; Olivia Colman takes over for Season Three), avoids the streaming drift problem by smartly adopting a Royal Crisis of the Week storytelling model, as Her Royal Highness (or, in some cases, Britain’s prime minister) confronts a specific problem in each episode. Meanwhile, we chart the long-term ebbs and flows in her marriage to Philip (Matt Smith), her relationship with sister Margaret (Vanessa Kirby) and the way her personality is inexorably pushed aside by her inherited role. The series can be too much in the tank for the royals in general, and Philip in particular, but it gets superb performances and looks gorgeous throughout.
14. Lady Dynamite (Netflix)
Gone but not forgotten, this autobiographical series allowed comedian Maria Bamford to dramatize her struggle with bipolar disorder by bouncing among the past, present and an unsettling future, and by deftly mixing the sad with the surreal. In all the best ways, it’s the strangest show on this list. (Keep this in mind as you read the descriptions for shows No. 4 and No. 1.)
13. GLOW (Netflix)
In this Eighties dramedy, a pair of actress frenemies (Alison Brie and Betty Gilpin) sign on to help launch a women’s wrestling league. It’s a warm and clever underdog story with empathy for all the outcasts in the group (including Marc Maron as the washed-up cult-movie director in charge of the thing) and enough confidence to try departures like devoting a whole episode to letting us watch the show-within-the-show. Brie’s cartoonish Russian accent as wrestler Zoya the Destroya alone might land this show a spot in the top 20, but the rest is pretty swell, too.
12. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amazon)
Amy Sherman-Palladino’s first streaming show, the Netflix sequel Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, was a reminder of the perils of revisiting beloved material. Mrs. Maisel, on the other hand, illustrates how thrilling it can be when a gifted creator tries something new and gets it right. We journey back to Fifties New York for the tale of an energetic Jewish housewife, Midge Maisel (Emmy winner Rachel Brosnahan), whose marriage implodes, in the bargain helping her discover an untapped gift for stand-up comedy. The period recreations are lush, Palladino’s dialogue crackles in the way Gilmore did at its best, and the show avoids the Studio 60 problem (a central character whose entertainment-biz product does not match their alleged talent) by making Midge seem like a plausible rising comedy star.
11. Stranger Things (Netflix)
Because Netflix zealously guards its data on how many people are actually watching what it puts out into the world, we can only guess at which of its shows are hits and which aren’t. But of the streaming shows you’re most likely to see billboards for and hear discussed at Thanksgiving or in a doctor’s waiting room, Stranger Things is the best. A nostalgic mix-tape of Eighties sci-fi and horror tropes, it has the advantage of making shorter seasons than almost any other Netflix drama, so it doesn’t run out of steam the way the rest of them inevitably do. But it’s also energetic and self-aware in its shameless pastiche; fun goes a long way in a field where a lot of the competition, even the good stuff, can feel like an ordeal to be survived.
10. Homecoming (Amazon)
It’s not a coincidence that the majority of shows in the top 10 are half-hours. The streaming model lends itself to brevity, even if most of the people making streaming shows so far don’t seem to grasp that. And the half-hour shows tend to put more emphasis on making each installment its own distinct and compelling experience. Case in point: this dazzling, Hitchcock-style suspense thriller, adapted from a podcast, that played with the literal camera frame as much as with its running time. Director Sam Esmail (Mr. Robot) offered exciting angles and elicited compelling performances from Julia Roberts, Stephan James and more. Where so many streaming dramas become a slog before the end, Homecoming‘s first season skipped thrillingly along.
9. One Mississippi (Amazon)
Tig Notaro turned her diagnosis with breast cancer into a career-making stand-up set. Then she expanded it into this marvelous and unfortunately short-lived autobiographical dramedy, where Tig moves back in with her brother and stepfather (John Rothman, a That Guy giving a career performance) to deal with her mother’s death and the after-effects of her cancer treatment. A sweet show that’s modest in scope but not the least bit shy, as evidenced by a cutting Season Two story arc involving a thinly-veiled version of Notaro’s former mentor — and one of the show’s (hands-off) executive producers — Louis C.K., here presented as a boss who unabashedly masturbates in the middle of a meeting with a female subordinate.
8. One Day at a Time (Netflix)
Old-fashioned in the best possible way, this remake of the vintage Norman Lear sitcom was reimagined to focus on a Latinx family where the single mom (Justina Machado) is a military veteran with PTSD, the grandmother (Rita Moreno, fabulous as ever) is a Cuban emigré concerned about her citizenship and the older daughter (Isabella Gomez) is worried about coming out of the closet. The new One Day deftly mixes broad humor that the studio audience greets with approving cackles, and sincere dramatic moments where you can practically hear a pin drop in between the dialogue. Traditional multicamera sitcoms have a bad reputation because so many of them have been poorly done for too long. This is a great example of what the format can do and be.
7. The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu)
Handmaid’s would be remembered as an all-timer if it had wrapped up after its first season adapted the plot of Margaret Atwood’s sci-fi novel of the same name, about a religious dystopia where fertile women like Elisabeth Moss’ Offred are made slaves subject to ritualized rape. In Season Two, the show began to feel more mechanical as it kept contriving ways to keep its punishing status quo in place by any means necessary. But it still featured jaw-dropping performances from Alexis Bledel, Yvonne Strahovski and especially Moss that can forgive a lot.
6. Orange Is the New Black (Netflix)
With its huge, diverse cast representing many ethnicities, sexualities and gender identities, and with a tone so varied it’s been submitted to the Emmys as both a comedy and a drama, Orange was an early standard-bearer for the ways in which streaming shows can knock down barriers that even the best of premium cable rarely tries to. But it’s stuck around long enough for its flaws to become just as apparent as its strengths, featuring so many characters and tones that its unevenness seems baked-in. (It doesn’t help that so much of the narrative revolves around Taylor Schilling’s Piper, a privileged POV character whom the show understands is annoying, but maybe doesn’t understand it enough.) There are times, like the darker second season, where all the elements seem totally in balance, until it goes veering wildly down some unfortunate path for a while. Though it feels past time to wrap things up (the next season will be the last), its glorious highs have made the rocky ride well worth it.
5. American Vandal (Netflix)
As the streamers began throwing small fortunes at shows featuring big stars, Oscar winners and what have you, who would have expected that two of the five best streaming shows to date would be astonishingly filthy teen comedies obsessed with dicks and poop? American Vandal (recently canceled by Netflix, but hopefully to find a new home elsewhere) is a note-perfect parody of true crime documentaries and podcasts, as two AV club nerds investigate profane acts of vandalism. But it’s also one of the best and kindest dramas of recent vintage about what it’s like to be a teenager in the age of social media. Who drew the dicks? Maybe the better question is, who knew the dicks would lead to so much genius?
4. Big Mouth (Netflix)
Big Mouth similarly toes the line between scatology and sympathy with its baroque animated tales of middle school kids battling the horrors of puberty with only each other’s bad advice to lean on (plus periodic kibbitzing from Hormone Monsters, Shame Wizards and the insane ghost of Duke Ellington, just because). Good luck getting the original songs (the R.E.M.-style menstruation anthem “Everybody Bleeds,” for instance), the disembodied furry penises or Maya Rudolph’s pronunciation of “bubble bath” out of your head.
3. Master of None (Netflix)
Parks and Recreation colleagues Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang reunited for this fantastic series that’s both a slow-play romantic comedy and an anthology in disguise. It alternates between the love life of Ansari as Dev and standalone tales of life in New York, immigrant journeys to America, Dev’s best friend Denise (Lena Waithe) gradually coming out to her family and whatever else Ansari and Yang find interesting and empathetic. A big, heartfelt experiment (which, like many experiments, occasionally falters) currently on indefinite hiatus.
2. Transparent (Amazon)
Like Master of None, this show (and the one ranked ahead of it) stretches the limits of what a television show can be, and whom and what it can be about. Transparent was introduced as a comedy about a family adjusting to its former patriarch going through a gender transition, but quickly evolved into a half-hour drama, a historical epic and at times a musical. It can be achingly beautiful, and the performances — led until recently by Jeffrey Tambor, who was fired, in a disappointingly ironic twist, for allegedly harassing trans members of the cast and crew — run as deep as you’ll find anywhere, even as the characters seem designed to test the audience’s patience and sympathy. The series has begun to feel less focused in recent years, and Tambor’s exit is a big mess that could either invigorate the final season or suggest things should have ended a year or two earlier. No matter which direction it heads, it remains a hugely important and frequently wonderful trailblazer of the streaming frontier.
1. BoJack Horseman (Netflix)
So far, streaming has produced one show that feels like an inner circle Hall of Famer. Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s animated series — about a depressed, alcoholic, narcissistic horse (Will Arnett in the title role) who was a Nineties sitcom star — is capable of being TV’s funniest show and its saddest, often within seconds of each other. It takes advantage of the serialization that streaming subscribers so often want, even as its individual episodes often stand out as instant classics. It satirizes itself and the TV business as a whole while galloping rings around almost anything that business has done over the last few years. Everything else on this list ranges from very good to excellent but flawed; this is the one unequivocally Great streaming original so far.