Netflix’s new drama Narcos is a nimble, impressive series. But how does it stack up against Netflix’s other originals? For these purposes, we included only new or current series, and excluded stand-up specials, movies, and shows designed for children. This list also excludes shows Netflix saved or revived from cancellation: no Arrested Development (would have ranked highly!), no The Killing (uh, would not have ranked highly), no Trailer Park Boys, no Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp does qualify, however, because it’s not a continuation of an extant television series.
In a lot of ways, House of Cards seems like it should be Netflix’s signature show: It’s the most prestigious, with the most previously famous cast and pedigree, and it made such a splash when it debuted in 2013. And yet, looking at the overall landscape of the shows that have come to define the streaming service, HOC doesn’t seem like the crown jewel after all.
Bad wigs, bad writing, bad execution. When a show makes Under the Dome seem aspirational, we’ve hit a dark time.
It has an enchanting visual design, an impressively expansive cast, and a gutsy appetite for the unusual. The Wachowskis’ speculative-fiction creativity and style are mesmerizing. But none of this is enough to make up for the show’s lack of coherence.
12. Marco Polo
Ho, boy. If Marco Polo had just decided to be more like Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, and go full-camp, maybe it’d be on to something. Instead, it’s trying to be a fancy prestige show and assuming that opulent production values and lots of nudity will cover up for how soulless and boring the whole endeavor is. “Of the yin and the yang, you have an abundance of yang,” one teacher tells Marco Polo. Four episodes later, he says it again. Overall, too much yang. Perhaps Sense8 doesn’t have enough yang? Yang issues abound here in bottom portion of the rankings.
11. Hemlock Grove
First, props where they’re due: Hemlock is far and away one of the goriest, grossest shows of all time. It makes True Blood and American Horror Story look tame, and its balls-out embrace of all mythical horror creatures is really something to behold. Don’t behold anything else about the show, though; season one starts off okay enough, but all the stories get flabby along the way, and by season two, the show has more than exhausted itself.
10. Grace and Frankie
This one’s a heartbreaker: Who doesn’t want to love a show with Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, Martin Sheen, and Sam Waterston? It’s from one of the creators of Friends! But its tone is so off, the jokes either too broad or too quiet, and the show’s not able to navigate its tragic premise: That two long-term hetero marriages are over because the husbands have been closeted for all these years and are actually in love with each other. There’s a lot of anguish to be mined there, but G&F doesn’t know how to tackle it. We need to be doing better for Lily Tomlin.
Terrific fight sequences and effective mood-setting can’t make up for crummy dialogue and a petering off of originality. There’s a glut of superhero entertainment available now, and Daredevil lacks some of the pop and propulsion to stand out in the genre.
Another case of strong performances not being enough to make a show a viable entity. Ben Mendelsohn’s jangly, menacing performance as junkie brother Danny gave the show some much-needed edge, but its whole “every family has a dark secret!” premise overestimated how important the secret actually was. The split-time gimmick, used so effectively on the creators’ previous show, Damages, felt more like a distraction here, pulling us away from the relationship-driven areas of the show and into the half-cocked mystery-solving portion.
7. House of Cards
It’s not a bad show. But HOC is nowhere near as good as it seems like it is. It’s snazzy and stylish, and its gorgeous production values go a long way in disguising its narrative shortcomings. (R.I.P., “Twitter twat.”) Superb acting, especially from supporting player Michael Kelly as the badly broken Doug Stamper, keeps the show afloat, but it’s a series that doesn’t always know what it wants to say. Unless it’s in a direct-to-camera monologue, in which case Frank Underwood will tell us exactly what is pretty obvious, or what we already know.
6. Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp
Everyone always says to be careful what you wish for. You can’t go home again. Nothing gold can stay. Against all the odds, though, WHAS manages to be a worthy follow-up to its beloved original. It’s not a stand-alone piece — if you’re not already a big Alan Shemper person, there’s no joy here for you. But if you take things day bidet, First Day of Camp has all the loopiness you love already, now with even less tethering to reality.
The newest kid in class, Narcos delves into the life of Pablo Escobar, and the resulting portrait is fascinating and sharply paced. Think Goodfellas, and then think it again, because Narcos is a lot like Goodfellas. Kimmy Schmidt is nothing without Ellie Kemper, and Narcos is nothing without Wagner Moura, whose Escobar is hypnotic. The whole series feels charged, as scenes flip from domestic mundanity to blinding violence in a hot second, and a story about a poor kid who grew up to be among the world’s wealthiest drug lords is also a story about globalization, colonialization, and American interventionism.
4. Chef’s Table
Food porn at its porniest, and a hagiography at its most fawning. But somehow Chef’s Table is thoughtful and thrilling rather than bloated and self-congratulatory, like food-praise shows often are. Each episode profiles a different chef and his or her gastronomic history, with each episode ending with an up-close examination of their signature dishes, as lovingly arranged and photographed as a tableau on Hannibal. Each episode has its charms, but episode three, which profiles Argentine chef Francis Mallmann, is a marvelous joy.
3. The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Rounding out the top three: another dazzlingly funny comedy with a severe, essential dark side. How anyone ever saw this as a possible NBC show defies comprehension, but at least in these modern times what networks pass on, Netflix can revive. Kimmy’s commitment to its main character’s trauma flies in the face of sitcom convention, but it provides a much more complex backdrop for otherwise sitcom-y problems, like “yikes, I want to pass this test!” or “uh-oh, my old friend is visiting — and I want things to go well!” On ‘80s comedies, those are schlocky second-string plots. But on UKS, they become a referendum on survival, on Kimmy’s desire to have a meaningful, enjoyable, productive life, despite what she’s been through. Pass the pinot noir.
2. BoJack Horseman
Season one pulled off the impressive trick of being more than meets the eye, but season two topped that by being more aggressive on every front: more absurd in its absurdities, more profound in its profundities, darker in its darkest parts and sillier and lighter in its asides. BoJack wants to poke at every toxic corner of the human (horse … man?) condition, and then really dwell in and explore how the shittiest parts of someone came to be — and how that defines the pain you inflict on others for the rest of your adult life. All the nihilism would be tough to take, except that the show is so filled with jokes and buoyancy that the despair is at least chased by surgically precise jokes.
1. Orange Is the New Black
Easily TV’s best ensemble, and absolutely among its best writing. OITNB is a show obsessed with detail: Every single character has a worldview, a particular voice, and a motivation wholly their own. That kind of character-oriented structure frees up each episode to be about different ideas, and for the flashbacks to be emotionally illuminating while not having to serve a central plot or process. The series believes fervently in its characters’ multitudes, that Piper can be smart and acerbic and often funny while also being selfish, manipulative, and shortsighted; that Red can be terrifying, cruel, and dangerous, but also sensitive, devoted, and frightened; that Black Cindy can find Judaism; that Taystee can seem so innocent and yet have had such a troubled life. That kind of character depth when combined with the show’s willingness to be both hilarious and incredibly dark, often in the same moment, makes Orange the crown jewel.