This list was updated April 8, 2016 to reflect Amazon Prime’s current offerings.
If Transparent, Amazon Prime’s trailblazing-in-all-ways dramedy, was your first foray into the online behemoth’s members-only streaming service, congratulations! One show down, about 1,300 to go! To help you navigate Prime’s overabundance of programming, we’ve whittled down all the possibilities, giving you our picks for the best shows from all genres (in alphabetical order). And because shows are often displayed on Prime’s browsing interfaces organized (or really, disorganized) by season, we’ve also suggested which individual season of a show is the best for newbies to dive into first (or for old-time fans to cue up, should you fancy a binge down memory lane). Check it out, and feel free to tell us what we missed in the comments. We’ll update this list as titles are added and removed.
The Americans, Season 1
More people need to watch this show, and if describing it bluntly as “Alias meets Homeland” is a way of getting you to do so, that’s fine. What you’ll see once you get past that tagline-y depiction is a multi-multi-layered drama that brilliantly equates marriage and espionage. (Let’s face it, the latter is how the former sometimes feels.) Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys play Russian spies in the Cold War ‘80s who live in the suburbs of D.C., deep undercover as parents of two clean-cut American children.
Downton Abbey, Season 1
A classic, classist melodrama about British people acting very British. So old-fashioned, it feels new-fashioned and, to a distinct percentage of its fans, so bad, it’s good.
The Good Wife, Season 5
The Good Wife might accurately be called the best of the last of the great primetime network dramas. Excellently acted and confidently written, it’s exactly what you want from a legal drama and includes steamy (for CBS) sex scenes and occasional knowing splashes of social commentary. It’s also managed to get better with age, leaving behind its initial premise (Julianna Margulies as a politician’s stay-at-home wife who returns to her litigation career after her husband gets thrown in the slammer on corruption charges) and flourishing as a twisty-turny series that rarely disappoints. If you want to see The Good Wife at its very best, start with the fifth season.
Justified, Season 1
There are lots of great cops-and-robbers dramas around these days, lots of spellbinding detective mysteries, and toe-curling organized-crime capers, and medieval epics and so on. But there’s only one show that dares to reference the great Westerns of yore, and that’s Justified, based on a renegade-lawman character created by the late, great Elmore Leonard. In fact, Leonard himself called the show his favorite of the many movie and TV adaptations that have been made from his work, which is the best endorsement we can give this taut, fantastically acted series.
NYPD Blue, Season 3
Wherefore art thou, Dennis Franz? Nobody’s started a petition yet to get Franz back into acting since he unofficially retired almost ten years ago, so maybe you should watch this season (one of four that earned him an Emmy) and then go be that person. With David Caruso’s essentially one-and-done stint on the show behind it, Blue’s third season featured several great episodes and consistently exceptional direction, writing, and character development. Franz’s Detective Andy Sipowicz — a drunkard and a racist with a well-intentioned heart — still stands as one of the most marvelous TV creations of all time.
Oz, Season 1
The first one-hour drama HBO ever produced in-house (along with Homicide auteurs Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson) was about the big house, and it was both sadistic fun and totally messed-up (in a good and excruciating way). The cast alone is reason to tune in: Christopher Meloni did his best work ever as gay psycho inmate Chris Keller, and J.K. Simmons is quite possibly going to score an Oscar soon for Whiplash, so watch this and say you knew him back when he was just a Aryan rapist with an occasional soft spot for his drug-addicted adult sons. Some say the show, which lasted six seasons, went off the rails after the fourth, so start at the beginning.
Pride and Prejudice
This six-episode British adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic novel was made in 1995, before Colin Firth (who plays Mr. Darcy) became the Oscar-winning star he is today. It’s widely considered the best Jane Austen adaptation, but it’s also worth watching to see Firth give a master class on the art of staring longingly.
The Sopranos, Season 1 or 6
Every dark, antihero-driven TV drama you love today exists because, like the occasionally benevolent mob boss he was, Tony Soprano allowed them to exist. The Sopranos (which debuted all the way back in 1999) verily trademarked the TV-series-as-allegorical-novel conceit, telling an epic tale of family, duty, honor, and desire wrapped up in the irresistible canvas of a tawdry Mafia family bada-bing-ing around northern New Jersey. As for which season to watch or rewatch, let’s go with Vulture TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz’s recommendations: Either start with the first season, which contains the show’s best episode (“College”) or, if you’re not planning on watching it through all the way, read some Wikipedia entries and then try its sixth and final season, the most creatively ambitious.
The Wire, Season 3 or 4
We’re recommending two seasons here (and a reminder — if something is on this list at all, and it sounds like you might like it, you should watch all of it if you have the time). The third and fourth seasons of The Wire are widely considered its best, but narrow that down to a singular standout season at your own peril. (Seriously, tread lightly when discussing which season is better around Wire diehards.) Each season of The Wire had a different focus. Season three looks at drugs and street crime as they intersect with politics, while the fourth season goes inside Baltimore’s broken-down school system. So, you know, whatever systemic failure floats your boat!
ANIMATION & KIDS
Archer, Season 1
The most apt description and most ringing endorsement possible for this animated spy spoof comes from series creator Adam Reed, who once described it as “James Bond meets Arrested Development.” Now that you have what’s “obviously the core concept” (to use some signature “phrasing” from the show), time to dive deep into this delightfully raunchy, pop-culture-riddled gem: “Sploosh!”
Avatar: The Last Airbender
Disastrous movie attempt aside, Avatar: The Last Airbender had an excellent three-season run on Nickelodeon, effortlessly blending the showmanship of manipulating (or yes, “bending”) elements in a unique world – consisting of Waterbenders, Earthbenders, Firebenders, and Airbenders – while teaching relevant life lessons.
Blue’s Clues, Seasons 1–4
Some of you may be young enough to remember watching Nickelodeon’s best-ever educational program as a curious tot; others may be old enough that you first heard about Blue’s Clues while reading Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point. Either way, you know that this is an insanely addictive show, one that disproved the long-held belief that kids couldn’t be trusted to remain attentive through a half-hour program. Blue’s Clues (the title refers to a dog who leaves paw prints around the house for her friendly male owner so he can guess what she wants or is thinking about) was also unlike any other kids’ show in that it was quiet and unfrenetic, which makes it soothing viewing for adults as well. Just one thing: Stick to the earlier seasons, when Blue’s best buddy was played by Steve Burns. Everyone knows Steve was better than Joe!
Can Jim Henson do no wrong? The adorable anthropomorphic species of Muppets – Fraggles, Doozers, and Gorgs’ – live in a friendly underground commune right by Doc’s workshop, always ready to spew advice or sing a few tunes. The energizing silliness of Gobo, Mokey, Red, Wembley, and Boober that helps to translate serious issues may seem perfect for kids, but really, it’s meant for everyone.
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Any Volume
The late, great PBS painter Bob Ross gets all the accolades for being a human quaalude among Gen X-ers who enjoy a little irony with their peaceful TV viewing. But there’s no cozier onscreen sedative than Fred Rogers.
Pocoyo, Season 1
Sincere but witty, this internationally produced gem of a kids’ show, intended for preschoolers, features an adorable cartoon boy named Pocoyo who pals around with an elephant named Elly and a duck named Pato. The animation is sparse yet pleasing, the music peppy but never annoying, the lessons learned short and sweet, and the whole thing is narrated (in its English-language version) by British treasure Stephen Fry. A cute hoot.
Wallace & Gromit: The Complete Collection
This collection of the four half-hour short films that kicked off creator Nick Parks’s Wallace & Gromit franchise features two Oscar winners (The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave) and two nominees (A Grand Day Outand A Matter of Loaf and Death). Fun fact: A Grand Day Out, released in 1990, lost the Academy Award for Animated Short Film to another Park project, Creature Comforts.
DOCUMENTARY & REALITY
America’s Next Top Model, Cycle 2
You wanna be on top? Then start with the second season (sorry, Tyra:cycle) of ANTM. It’s the pinnacle of bitchiness, thanks to resident villain Camille, but also boasts some truly gorgeous photography and a few actually nice girls you’d want to be friends with. Cycle two also produced one of the most delightful shitshows in reality history: contestant Shandi’s transatlantic meltdown on the phone with her boyfriend back in the Midwest.
The Civil War: A Film by Ken Burns
Prime carries a huge chunk of Burns’s oeuvre, including this saga-length 1990 documentary that made him a household name. Come for the thorough but never-boring history lesson, stay for the now-iconic aesthetic flourishes (slow panning over archival photos, winsome musical scoring) that always give Burns’s documentaries their emotional resonance.
Ken Burns: The Dust Bowl
One of Burns’s most startling documentaries, this four-parter covers an American era that most likely wasn’t addressed in your high-school history class. And if it was, certainly not this starkly and movingly. Capturing the true frightfulness of the greatest man-made ecological disaster the world has ever seen (ahem, so far), The Dust Bowl plays like a creepy, slow-moving horror film even as it features some of Burns’s most breathtaking cinematography.
Ken Burns: Prohibition
National treasure that he is, sometimes Ken Burns’s exhaustive documentaries can be a tad, well, exhausting. So consider this three-parter a happy-hour-size dose of his always-engrossing fare. It’s really fun to watch this while drinking cocktails, of course.
24, Season 5
Although it came into being before binge-watching became a thing, 24 is actually perfectly designed for marathon viewing sessions. Each season is almost entirely self-contained, telling one overarching story — but hey, it’s only one day, right? Fans and critics were in consensus that 24’s fifth season was its best; it was both the highest-rated and the most award-winning, taking home Best Drama Series and Best Actor awards at the Emmys.
American Horror Story, Season 1
There may not be another producer working in TV today with more of a let-me-entertain-you ethos than Ryan Murphy, creator of such over-the-top fare as Glee, Nip/Tuck, The New Normal, and American Horror Story. Amid a pop-culture landscape currently overrun with vampires and zombies, Murphy’s AHS has consistently managed to provoke, titillate, gross out, and scare the pants off its audience by reinvigorating antiquated horror tropes like witches, sanitariums, and spooky houses. With each season so different from the next, this is one show where you should really ask around and get a consensus for which one you might like best. In addition to being the show’s first season, the haunted-house-set story is also one of its best.
Firefly, Season 1
Joss Whedon’s season-long, futuristic “space Western.” For the sci-fi-loving oddball in all of us.
Hannibal, Season 1
You could make a case for categorizing Bryan Fuller’s macabre, hypnotic take on the world of Hannibal Lecter under the header of drama, but that would give short shrift to what makes this series unlike any other on network or cable TV. It’s not just the horrific carnage, although Hannibal’s array of mutilated bodies takes gore to fantastical new highs (or, more fittingly, lows). What really sets this show apart is its bizarre artiness, which reimagines its otherwise-normal police-procedural elements into something enthrallingly disturbing.
Orphan Black, Season 1
Orphan Black is a Canadian-made series about a British woman living in America that airs in the U.S. on BBC America. If your head’s already spinning, then get ready for the delicious sense of dizziness that comes from the show’s bewildering premise: Con artist Sarah Manning (Tatiana Maslany, the best actress yet to receive a Best Actress Emmy nomination) witnesses the suicide of a female police detective who looks just like her, so she assumes her identity. She soon learns she’s got several doppelgängers, as she was cloned as part of a worldwide experiment, and someone’s plotting to kill all of them. Many Orphan fans will correctly tell you that the second season was better than the first, but start at the beginning to reduce your chances of plot-induced vertigo.
The Twilight Zone, Seasons 1–3
Most of the best episodes of Rod Serling’s seminal sci-fi anthology come from the first three seasons, but a caveat: A handful of the second season’s episodes were taped rather than filmed (which network brass insisted upon to cut costs), resulting in a much less sophisticated feel (which is why the network soon reversed that decision).
The X-Files, Season 3
X-Files fans tend to remember and reference specific episode titles when discussing the show, perhaps because it did such a great job of balancing overarching story lines with stand-alone, “monster-of-the-week” episodes. Season three has got some of the best of the latter, including “The Blessing Way,” “Paper Clip,” “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” and “Pusher.”
Arrested Development, Season 1 or 2
Thank goodness the fourth season of this show is stuck on Netflix so Prime users can pretend it doesn’t exist. Without it, Arrested Development stands as perhaps the most complete sitcom of all time, an all-you-can-laugh smorgasbord of spoof, satire, farce, slapstick, and wordplay that necessitates repeat viewings to catch every last joke filling every single shot. The third season was just a notch less splendid than the first two, but don’t worry: There’s always funny in the banana stand!
Better Off Ted, Season 1
A genuine satire that was, at times, brilliantly funny, Better Off Ted juxtaposed protagonist Ted Crisp’s attempts to instill a proper moral compass in his daughter while toiling away at an evil behemoth corporation called Veridian Dynamics, which engineered such brilliant-yet-pointless-yet-malevolent innovations as weaponized pumpkins and heat-resistance mice. Seeing Portia de Rossi as Ted’s slick boss is a treat, but the funniest part was always the show’s precise lampooning of corpspeak and Big Business drudgery.
Catastrophe, Season 1
When Irish schoolteacher Sharon gets pregnant after a weeklong affair with American businessman Rob, the two decide to make a go of it in London. As dark as the bleakest British humor, and occasionally as sweet as the best American schmaltz, Catastrophe sees Rob and Sharon clinging to the signposts of your typical rom-com as real-life complications drag them further and further into unknown territory. Added bonus: you can knock off all six episodes in a night.
The Comeback, Season 1
HBO recently righted a grievous wrong by bringing back Lisa Kudrow’s brilliant but canceled sitcom for a second season a decade after its first. While both are excellent, make sure to start with the first, a dark-as-night, black-as-coffee satire that sends up not just Hollywood but the scaly layers of insecurity blanketing all those who toil in that town. You’ll also get to glimpse Malin Akerman and Kellan Lutz in their pre-fame forms.
Enlightened, Season 2
Perhaps the single most difficult show to categorize on this entire list (we’re still debating whether it’s a comedy or a drama), Enlightened proves that even in this golden age of television, some shows are still just too freaking brilliant for the medium to handle. Laura Dern (who, likewise, is often just too good of an actress for Hollywood to know what to do with) stars as corporate executive Amy Jellicoe, who suffers a nervous “breakthrough,” then tries to reestablish herself as a New Age–y “agent of change” in both her personal and professional relationships. While both seasons of Enlightened are of course worth your time, start with the second if you can’t wait to see a show that amazes in the literal sense of the word and is, without exaggeration, the finest creation to grace a TV screen in years.
Frasier, Seasons 1–7
Some may insist that Cheers was and is the greatest sitcom ever. If true, then Frasier will have to settle for being the greatest spinoff of all time — albeit one that happened to win more Emmys than its predecessor and co-holds the record (with Modern Family) for the most consecutive Outstanding Comedy Series Emmys at five. What about this show wasn’t just perfect? The characters (Roz! Niles!), the casting (John Mahoney! John Mahoney!), that gorgeous Seattle high-rise bachelor pad, the title cards between scenes, the celebrities who made voice cameos as callers on Frasier’s radio show, Eddie the dog, the occasional return of Lilith (Bebe Neuwirth). Frasier lasted a whopping 11 seasons, and its humor grew a bit stilted toward the end, but enjoy everything up through and including Niles finally getting together with Daphne.
The Best of I Love Lucy, Volume 1
Be a TV fanatic who’s done your homework. Watch the entire episode where Lucy and Ethel go to work on a candy assembly line, not just the smidgen of it that Julia Roberts watches in Pretty Woman, and know that that episode is actually called “Job Switching.” Be able to say “Vitameatavegamin girl” ten times fast and get the reference you’re making. Laugh! Enjoy!
Louie, Season 1
Not so much a situation comedy as a living, breathing, rumbling, gurgling organism grafted from the organs of Louis C.K.’s stand-up material and his discomfiting offstage persona.
Mozart in the Jungle, Season 1
Amazon’s second comedy effort (after Transparent) takes on some of the trappings of a soap opera to get its plot moving. To its credit, Mozart quickly settles into a slower tempo, finding space for small observations about city life and the trials of an artistic career, which end up being the best part of the show. Lola Kirke (post-Gone Girl, pre-Mistress America) delivers in a deceptively difficult role as a young oboist, and Bernadette Peters occasionally stops by for some masterful scenery chewing.
Transparent, Season 1
This hilarious, painful, pitch-perfect dramedy that put Amazon Originals on the map is as good as everyone says it is. Put it on your watch list. Move it to the top of your watch list. Watch it.
Uncabaret, Season 1
Hardcore fans of alt-comedy circa the mid-1990s will love this Prime-exclusive collection of performances by Sandra Bernhard, Margaret Cho, Greg Fitzsimmons, Jen Kirkman, Tig Notaro, the Sklar Brothers, Casey Wilson, and Garfunkel and Oates.
Additional writing by Devon Ivie.