Picking and choosing the best television programs on Hulu is a little different from cataloguing the top-shelf choices available on Amazon Prime or Netflix. Unlike those two companies, Hulu’s main thrust has always been television. It started life as a way to watch last night’s shows today, and that’s still its purpose for a lot of people — meaning that its catalog is constantly being updated with new shows.
So in looking at the best programming for your free time, we tried to focus (with a few exceptions) on shows that have been on for at least a few seasons, and mostly shows that are off the air. If a new program takes off, we’ll add it, but we tried to stick with modern classics or long-running current shows, with a handful of Hulu Originals sprinkled in, and currently-running FX shows, as a lot of them are exclusive to the service.
Often forgotten when people discuss the most influential and important shows of the Peak-TV era, this massive FOX hit is still a wildly entertaining show, even if some of its politics now look even more problematic than they did in the ’00s. If you can ignore some of the show’s stereotypes and politics, Kiefer Sutherland has never been better than he is as the iconic Jack Bauer, one of the most beloved TV characters of the modern era. The best seasons of 24 are more entertaining than any action movie released in theaters this year.
Tina Fey’s razor-sharp look behind the scenes at a late-night comedy show looks even smarter over a decade after its premiere. Who hasn’t wondered how this show would skewer changes in the world since it went off the air, from social media influencers to Donald Trump? Looking back on the entirety of one of the best network comedies of the modern age, we really miss Liz Lemon, Tracy Jordan, Jenna Maroney, and, yes, even Jack Donaghy.
There’s a wealth of Cartoon Network programming on Hulu — it’s one of the best streaming sources if you have kids — but this is arguably that cable channel’s best program ever. Pendelton Ward’s vision may first seem like just another parody of fantasy tropes, but it develops into something much deeper and smarter, even progressive in the way it captures diversity and individualism. It’s consistently clever and surprising — two things most cartoons are not.
Speaking of great cartoons, here’s one that’s definitely not for kids. Hulu is the best of the streaming services when it comes to FX programming — you’ll find a few FX shows on this list — and this is one of the cable network’s best shows in their esteemed history. Over its ten seasons and counting, Archer has redefined itself, starting as a straightforward, adults-only spoof of 007 and spy movies, but twisting over rebooted seasons that parody things like film noir and Miami Vice. As of this writing, nine seasons are available on Hulu, but the tenth-season space parody Archer: 1999 will likely join them soon.
Has the current quality of Arrested Development allowed you to forget that the first three seasons were pure genius? Don’t let that happen. Go back and watch the early brilliance of the Bluth family saga, and on Hulu you won’t have to worry about even being tempted to watch the revival, with previews for how far the show has fallen, like you would on Netflix.
Ash vs. Evil Dead
Since Ash rode off into the medieval sunset in 1989’s Army of Darkness, there were several aborted attempts to bring the cynical killer of the undead back to the big screen, but he actually ended up on the small one, in this three-season wonder from Starz. Bruce Campbell, star of Evil Dead 2 and living legend, returns as Ash, as do the trademark practical effects and cheesy humor from the Sam Raimi films. It’s a lot of fun.
The only place you can watch one of the ’10s best shows with a streaming subscription is Hulu. Over only two seasons, Donald Glover’s creative vision of life as a young black man in America has been as critically acclaimed as anything on television for a reason. It is daring, brilliant, hysterical TV, the kind of thing that is difficult to capture in words. Just see what all the buzz is about for yourself.
Another FX show! One of television’s smartest comedies is this gem created by and starring Pamela Adlon. The brilliant comedian presents a skewed version of her own life balancing parenthood with working as an actress, and the result is as confessional, hysterical, and daring as any comedy of the modern era. This show still feels a bit under the radar of where it deserves to be (and the third season was ridiculously snubbed by the Emmys). Time will correct that. Be on the right side of history now.
Everyone still seems to talk about veterans The Simpsons and Family Guy, but neither has been the best FOX Sunday Night animated program in years. That title belongs to this gem, a family comedy in cartoon form that works for (mostly) all ages. After a rocky first season, Bob’s Burgers developed into one of the smartest and sweetest shows on TV. At its best, it’s close to peak Simpsons. And it’s near its best right now. This is also one of the few shows on this list for which new episodes will be there the next day.
What were you thinking, FOX? After this beloved comedy’s cancellation, Jake Peralta and the 9-9 jumped over to NBC, where it now looks like they could air for years. This is another comedy that started off on shaky ground but became one of the best ensemble comedies after about a year or two. It’s now as consistently funny as anything on network TV. Prediction: You know how everyone watches The Office over and over again on Netflix? This show will be like that in about a decade.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Joss Whedon’s show is still dismissed by some people as a “teen soap opera with fangs,” but anyone who doesn’t recognize how brilliant and important this show is to the history of television simply hasn’t seen it. Buffy helped redefine audience expectations, proving that deep, progressive social commentary could be embedded in a show about monsters, and that people of all ages could get it. There is so many genre programs nowadays — from Stranger Things to Westworld — that owe a debt to this show.
The first season of Hulu’s series inspired by the universe of Stephen King was a bit rocky, but ambitious enough for it to make this list, and not only for fans of one of the most successful writers of all time. Sure, if you’re a King fan, this is a must-see, just for all of the Easter eggs, but it also has something for those who don’t know their Pennywise from their Cujo, particularly in the ensemble, which includes great turns from Andre Holland, Melanie Lynskey, Scott Glenn, and, most of all, living legend Sissy Spacek.
Any list of the best TV comedies of all time that doesn’t include Cheers is just wrong. For most of the ’80s, this was quite simply the best show on TV, and it’s held up incredibly well over the years. It’s still laugh-out-loud hysterical, anchored by one of the best ensembles in comedy TV history and razor-sharp writing. There’s a reason this show won 28 Emmys.
We got six seasons, now where’s our movie!? Fans of this NBC hit will get that reference, and those who don’t should check out this Dan Harmon-created laugher that struggled due to low ratings but stayed afloat and on the air due to its incredibly loyal fan base. Much smarter than critics ever gave it credit for being, this was a show that matched NBC darlings like 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation at its creative peak. The entire run is definitely rocky, but you should watch it all … so you’re ready for the movie!
The Dick Van Dyke Show
There was TV before 2001? You’d never know it given how much of the selection on streaming services is dedicated to modern TV hits. Consider this a history lesson in the form of a television comedy. It’s only one of the most essential shows in terms of how the medium was shaped, and it’s still remarkably funny, thanks in no small part to the absolutely perfect comic timing of Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore. They’re legends for a reason.
All three seasons (so far — year four is currently in production for a 2020 bow) are available on Hulu, and there’s really no logical reason not to watch this show as soon as possible if you have yet to see it. Noah Hawley’s critical darling is simply brilliant, starting with a wonderfully entertaining first season anchored by Billy Bob Thornton and Martin Freeman, and then developing into an arguably-better second season. Year three may not live up to the first two but remains must-see TV. Just trust us on this one. Watch them all.
The top of almost every list of “shows canceled too soon,” Joss Whedon’s FOX sci-fi show had a brief run that almost seems to have cemented its legacy. Would we still be talking about it so much if it had been on for years? The fact that FOX couldn’t see what they had in Firefly actually had a greater impact — illustrating how creatively naïve the networks were at a time when companies like HBO were stealing talent away. See for yourself how big a mistake they made.
What’s better: Cheers or Frasier? And is this the best spinoff ever? Why don’t you watch the massive NBC hit that won so many Emmys that they practically had to disqualify it to let other people get a chance and get back to us? In all seriousness, the saga of Frasier Crane and his put-upon brother Niles has held up marvelously. Frasier’s regularly defeated pomposity will never not be funny.
The Good Place
The best comedy currently on network TV is this existential laugher about a woman who dies and goes to the titular location, but not everything is exactly as it seems. This is a show that works better in binge format than it does week to week, as it’s incredibly difficult to watch just one and it’s really structured like one long film with the end of one episode often opening on the same scene in the next. The less you know about this great show’s twists and turns, the better. Just trust us.
Most animated programming aimed at kids goes on for years and years. It feels like there has to be at least 4,000 episodes of Spongebob Squarepants by now. But this Disney hit is a rare exception, running for only two phenomenal seasons, and leaving viewers wanting more. The result is a tight series run that really doesn’t have a single bad episode in it. The story of two kids whose uncle runs one of those tourist-trap mystery shops — only this one contains some actual mysteries — works for all ages.
The Handmaid’s Tale
Hulu has lagged behind Amazon and Netflix in the originals department with one huge exception, the Emmy-winning drama based on the Margaret Atwood novel about a dystopian future that feels increasingly and disturbingly like life in 2019. The show has struggled some since its universally-acclaimed first year, but the performances continue to make it worth everyone’s time, especially the leading one from Elisabeth Moss, one of the best actresses of her generation.
A lot of Hulu’s best shows are ones that struggled with Nielsen even as they were developing a loyal fan base like Community, Firefly, and this ABC comedy that never got the ratings but still gets buzz on social media. Why do people still hope for a reboot? Because Happy Endings was the rare smart relationship comedy on network TV, one that treated its characters seriously while also being charmingly goofy. It also had a perfect ensemble. All of you people who watch Friends repeats till you know them by heart? Try this one out.
The series run of Showtime’s Emmy winner has been a rollercoaster, even for its most diehard fans. Only the first five seasons of the show are now available on Hulu as of this writing — two more have aired on the cable network — and that run of the series features incredible highs and incredible lows. The first season remains the best, a showcase for the talents of Claire Danes, Damian Lewis, and Mandy Patinkin. You’ll want to keep watching from there and some of your loyalty will be rewarded, but don’t say you haven’t been warned.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
FX’s longest-running show also has one of the network’s most devoted fan bases. The dark comedy about a bunch of misanthropic lunatics in a Philadelphia bar has been surprisingly consistent over its remarkable run — season 14 starts this September! If you like shows about selfish people behaving very badly, take a look at this, and marvel at how often this program has pushed the envelope in terms of taste and somehow survived changes in TV comedy to remain as popular as ever.
Key & Peele
Now that Jordan Peele is an Oscar-winning writer-director, it’s even more interesting to look back at the development of his voice over three seasons on this Comedy Central smash hit. Matched by his best buddy Keegan-Michael Key, Peele pair created some of the smartest sketch comedy of the ’10s, and they had the nerve to go out on top after only 53 episodes over five seasons. Watch them all. Then watch them again.
AMC’s huge hit mystery series became a controversial chapter in TV history when its first season didn’t end with a resolution to its central murder mystery. Fans were furious, and the outrage likely inspired the limited series approach we now see way more often. A network or streaming company wouldn’t dare leave a murder unsolved from season to season now. The controversy overshadowed a show that had decent episodes after that first season too, although would never quite live up to year one’s captivating examination of the ripple effect of unspeakable crime.
Right now, only the first season of BBC America’s hit show is on Hulu, although it’s likely to be joined soon by the Emmy-nominated sophomore year. Watch whatever you can while you can or you’ll be behind when people talk about one of the most-buzzed shows in years, a whip-smart hybrid of thriller and character study with two phenomenal performances from Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer.
Who wants a little Canadian humor? What if we told you that this quirky comedy was one of the biggest hits from our neighbor, a show that recently won an award for Best Canadian Comedy series and earned a commitment for dozens more episodes? Starting life as a web series and now branded as a Hulu Original in the U.S., Jared Keeso and Jacob Tierney’s comedy about life in a very small town is charmingly stupid, not unlike King of the Hill or Beavis & Butt-head relocated to the land of hockey and Mounties. Don’t get it wrong — it takes smart, talented people to make something this dumb this entertaining.
ABC’s last great drama premiered in 2004 and became an overnight sensation. The road over the next six seasons would be rocky, although history is starting to come around to remember the peaks of this brilliant show more than its valleys. If you haven’t seen it, we’re jealous of what you’re about to experience. Just watch the pilot, still one of the best ever made, and try not being hooked immediately.
Does anyone else miss the days when network TV produced dramas as reliably well-written and performed as this Stephen Bochco hit? Sure, the 12 seasons of this ABC cop drama fluctuated wildly in terms of quality, but when NYPD Blue was good, it was among the best shows on television. And it rarely gets the credit it deserves for reshaping the form in terms of what was allowed for adult audiences. TV wouldn’t be the same today without it.
Don’t get too excited. Only the U.K. version is available here, so you won’t be able to subscribe to Hulu for Michael Scott once Netflix’s No. 1 show jumps ship. Still, the Ricky Gervais original is a comedy classic, a masterful study of extremely awkward behavior that built the foundation for the NBC show you know and love so well.
Parks and Recreation
If The Office has a challenger in the department of best modern network workplace comedies, it’s this brilliant program, a show that took a few seasons to really find its groove but then never looked back. By season three, when Rob Lowe & Adam Scott are on the show and the writers have learned how to write for their amazing ensemble, this was one of the funniest shows on TV. We still miss it.
Hulu made some progress in the original comedy department in early 2019, premiering acclaimed shows like PEN15, Shrill, and this program, their best original comedy to date. Ramy Yousseff creates and stars in a quasi-biographical story of what it’s like to grow up Muslim in New York in the ’10s. It’s like Atlanta and Master of None in the way it blends issues of race into universal stories about being young in America. Don’t miss this one.
Life at Sacred Heart Hospital was part of the comedy scene for pretty much the entirety of the ’00s. Bill Lawrence’s beloved show lasted nine seasons and survived a jump to another network and a cast reboot. Launching the career of Zach Braff, Scrubs contained some of the decade’s best ensemble comedy when it was at its peak. All of you people crying over losing The Office on Netflix? Give this one a try. It’s shockingly rewatchable and still more often funny than it’s not.
Maybe you’ve heard of it? You can’t watch arguably the best sitcom of all time on Netflix or Amazon. The only streaming service that includes Jerry Seinfeld’s masterpiece with its subscription cost is Hulu. You would think they would put that on their commercials. It would probably boost subscribers given how much people still absolutely adore this show.
No, you can’t exactly relive your childhood through Hulu as only the last six seasons of this PBS staple are available on the streaming service, but that’s still a lot of time with Elmo, Oscar, Big Bird, and the gang. And any parent will tell you that streaming children’s entertainment is a gift when you need to soothe an angry child. Sesame Street isn’t your typical braindead kids’ show, either — it’s a smart, educational, progressive thing to show your kids. Heck, some adults could stand to relearn some of its lessons, too.
The only place you can watch one of the best cop shows of all time is Hulu. Shawn Ryan’s FX drama helped shape the modern TV landscape with its no-holds-barred presentation of cops who operate in a very gray area of morality. Michael Chiklis and Walton Goggins really drive the show, but the entire ensemble works, especially later season-long guest stars like Glenn Close and Forest Whitaker. This is a must-see.
Only the most recent season of this FOX hit is available on Hulu, and probably not for long given that the show is reportedly going to jump ship from streaming services to yet another network-specific offering, but this is all the streaming Simpsons you’ll find right now, so take what you can get. Is The Simpsons as good as it was in its prime? Is anything? There’s still an episode every now and then worth watching, even if just to remind us of how this was once the best show on television.
Sons of Anarchy
Kurt Sutter’s macho reimagining of Hamlet in the world of a California motorcycle gang often gets a bad rap as nothing more than macho posturing. This is a much smarter, more daring show than you might think at first, and it’s anchored by stand-out performances from Ron Perlman and Katey Sagal, who was robbed of at least one Emmy nomination for her work here. This is another long-running drama with some rocky, sub-par seasons, but the entire trip is worth the ride overall.
Hulu has a habit of including only a few seasons for some of their shows, but that’s not the case with this breakthrough animated series — you can watch 22 seasons and counting. For over two decades, Stan, Kyle, Cartman, and Kenny have been pushing boundaries and making headlines with their raunchy, progressive brand of humor. When it’s great, South Park is still one of the funniest shows on TV.
John Wells, the producer of ER and The West Wing, took a genuine creative risks with this ensemble cop drama, one of the most underrated shows of the Peak-TV era. For five seasons, TNT’s best show brought us into the lives of its officers in ways that other cop dramas weren’t willing to do. And the show featured an incredible ensemble, especially now-Oscar-winner Regina King. If you’ve loved her award-winning work on American Crime and Seven Seconds, just wait till you see her here. She should have won at least one Emmy.
This one is on the Mt. Rushmore of ensemble dramas. With programs like Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere, the adult network TV drama was redefined from a story-of-the-week format to something richer and more character-driven. All six seasons of this massive ’80s hit were nominated for the Emmy for Best Drama, and the show launched careers, including David Morse, Howie Mandel, and a young actor named Denzel Washington.
Don’t start yelling at us — we’re not dumb enough to pick a favorite and so are just bundling all the current Star Trek offerings on Netflix into this one entry. The truth is you could spend days watching just Star Trek episodes on Hulu. They have the original series, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise. Why not watch ’em all and pick your favorite? We’re too scared.
One of the smartest comedies on TV doesn’t get nearly the critical attention it deserves but that’s starting to change as it goes into its fifth season. Every year of this ensemble comedy has been stronger than the one before. It starts off a little shaky but check out this spiritual child of The Office that relocates that show’s ensemble brand from a paper company to a big box store. As you get to know the characters, it only gets funnier and funnier.
The undisputed king of the reality series is there on Hulu in its entirety. Yep, you can relive all the buzzworthy moments over the stunning 30-plus seasons of this show. There have been some stinkers, but Survivor remains a strong performer for CBS for a reason. It still has the most addictive structure to its game, demanding both social and physical acumen, and it has the best host in the history of reality TV in Jeff Probst. As they continue to play with the format and the rules, it feels Survivor could outlive us all.
The catalog of limited series gems isn’t as deep on Hulu as some of the competition, but they do have exclusive rights to this AMC horror hit from 2018, soon to return in a very different format — it appears that the show will follow an American Horror Story structure with a different story every season. The first one is based on the hit novel by Dan Simmons and stars the great Ciaran Hinds and Jared Harris in a semi-fictional story of a lost expedition in the middle of the 19th century. It’s creepy and unforgettable.
Top of the Lake
Oscar nominee Jane Campion wrote and directed both seasons of this critically acclaimed mystery series, both starring the great Elisabeth Moss. The Handmaids Tale star plays Detective Robin Griffin, investigating different mysteries in both seasons to date, both involving the fates of young girls. Holly Hunter guest stars in season one; Nicole Kidman and Gwendoline Christie in season two. The first is superior, but both are worth your time for the performances alone.
The Twilight Zone
One of the best shows of all time is about to be rebooted again, this time by the one and only Jordan Peele. Why not catch up with Rod Serling’s wildly influential and brilliant creation, a show that still works brilliantly more than a half-century after it first aired, before you return to The Twilight Zone? This is the kind of TV that will never truly grow old, visions that tap into our greatest fears, anxieties, and needs. It was a masterpiece then and it’s a masterpiece now.
Those of us old enough to remember when the mystery of who killed Laura Palmer dominated the cultural conversation will never forget it. There had never been anything like Twin Peaks on television and there wouldn’t really be anything like it again until David Lynch returned to this world 25 years later. Sadly, the Showtime reboot isn’t on here yet, but catch up with the original and mark the days until it is.
It’s the show that wouldn’t stop! When this critically acclaimed teen mystery series premiered in 2004, who would have possibly guessed that not only would we have seen a feature film based on it but that it would be rebooted for a fourth season in 2019? The new year, a Hulu Original, has gotten some of the best reviews in the history of the Kristen Bell series. See what all the hype is about. (Note: As of this writing, you can only watch the movie if you have the HBO add-on package.)
You’re the Worst
Stephen Falk’s FX comedy stars Chris Geere and Aya Cash as a couple who defiantly refuse to be a couple. Smarter about relationships in the age of sexting and Tinder than nearly any other modern show, this hit just wrapped its run after five successful seasons. Watch the first four on Hulu now and keep your eyes open for year five to drop, because they really wrapped it up in style.