Last year, Netflix’s original programming introduced a new female protagonist to Marvel’s small-screen universe (Jessica Jones), turned a box-office flop into a wet hot must-watch (Wet Hot American Summer) and joined the revival of the true crime genre (Making a Murderer). A tough act to follow, perhaps, but the streaming giant delivered in 2016, debuting more than two dozen wide-ranging new shows, which have largely sustained the high quality that has left many traditional networks trailing in its wake. (Let’s try to forget about Fuller House). Here are the ten most worthy of a spot in your queue.
Appreciation for this dramedy anthology may depend on your penchant for writer and director Joe Swanberg’s heavily improvised “mumblecore” style. If the likes of Drinking Buddies and Happy Christmas left you infuriated at their dawdling dialogue and general inconsequentialities, then Easy probably isn’t for you. But if watching familiar character actors attempt to resolve thirtysomething white hipster problems is your bag, then step right forward. For those somewhere in the middle, you’re likely to find the short stories of Easy a mixed bag. Dave Franco’s over-enthusiastic performance in “Brewery Brothers” may be the most obnoxious you’ll see all year, while Marc Maron doesn’t exactly stretch himself as a whiny self-obsessive in “Art and Life.” But “Vegan Cinderella” is a surprisingly sweet romance that proves Swanberg’s ability to craft a satisfying narrative, while the refreshingly light-hearted threesome story of “Utopia”—featuring Orlando Bloom’s second most notable naked appearance of 2016—and the intense, Spanish-language “Controlada” will leave you wanting more.
The term “YouTube star” may send a shudder down the spine of anyone born before the days of internet dial-up, but by skewering the very same culture that launched her to fame, deluded, tone-deaf wannabe Miranda Sings—a.k.a the actually very talented vocalist/comedian Colleen Ballinger—is one of the few with something to say. Occupying that surreal space between the kooky small-town antics of Napoleon Dynamite and the cartoonish naivete of Pee-Wee Herman, Haters Back Off successfully expands Miranda’s distorted world, introducing a whole family unit almost as oddball into the fold. (A brilliantly unhinged performance from Steve Little as the blindly supportive Uncle Jim almost elicits sympathy for Ballinger’s monstrous creation—his highly inappropriate backyard production of Annie has to be seen to be believed.) But whether she’s gate-crashing a church choir or using a stranger’s funeral as a career opportunity, it’s the wild-eyed, lipstick-smeared Miranda that commands attention from the moment she butchers “Defying Gravity” in the opening scene.
You wait for one visionary director’s love letter to the New York music scene of the 1970s, and two turn up at once. But while Martin Scorsese’s tiresome Vinyl made hedonistic rock ‘n’ roll seem about as thrilling as Antiques Roadshow, Baz Luhrmann’s The Get Down, which made Paste’s list of the Best 16 TV Shows of 2016, managed to recapture the vibrancy of the burgeoning disco and hip-hop scenes perfectly. Of course, its whopping budget undoubtedly helped—each episode reportedly cost an astonishing $10 million. But alongside Luhrmann’s usual high camp extravagance, The Get Down also boasts characters you care about, a refreshingly diverse and largely unknown cast (including a superb central performance from Justice Smith) and a pitch-perfect soundtrack curated by Nas, Nelson George and Grandmaster Flash himself. Sure, it’s all over the place, both tonally and narratively, and the interminably long pilot means that many viewers will have given up long before the show’s half-way pay-off (a binge watch this most certainly is not). Then, style over substance has always been Luhrmann’s forte.
In contrast, Netflix’s first Portuguese-language series builds its dystopian world on a budget that redefines ‘shoestring’ – its eight episodes were filmed for a total of just $3 million. Luckily, with Oscar-winning cinematographer César Charlone (City of God, Blindness) among its directors, 3% makes up in mood and atmosphere what it lacks in lavish production design. In fact, the financial constraints work in its favor: Unlike many of the young adult blockbusters that attempted to cash-in on the Hunger Games phenomenon, the Brazilian drama places just as much emphasis on its characterization as its set-pieces. Adapted from a 2011 YouTube short, 3% depicts a futuristic São Paulo in which a group of poverty-stricken 20-year-olds compete in a series of physical, social and mental trials to reach a promised land known as The Offshore. It’s a simple but gripping setup which doesn’t pull any punches—one poor applicant commits suicide after failing early on—and allows its intriguing cast to explore themes of inequality and immigration in a manner which feels authentic and all too timely.
Chelsea, Chelsea Handler’s attempt to shake up the late-night talk show hasn’t made the impact that Netflix bosses were likely hoping for when they signed her for a reported $10 million. But her attempt to shake up the docuseries has proven to be a far better use of her quick-witted and sharp-tongued talents. Combining investigative journalism with personal therapy sessions and the type of round-table showbiz chat she first employed on E!, Chelsea Does gives Handler free reign on four different and often provocative subjects (marriage, technology, racism, drugs). As you would expect, the caustic comedian doesn’t hold back. This can make for viewing that’s genuinely challenging (witness her appalled response to the ‘heritage not hate’ Civil War reenactors) and deservedly scathing (her treatment of Ashley Madison boss Noel Biderman), but also unnecessarily cruel (her behavior during a series of blind dates borders on the contemptible). In fairness, you don’t watch Handler for pleasantries, and Chelsea Does is never anything less than fascinating.
Lady Dynamite’s opening episode is such a whirlwind of hyperactivity, even those viewers accustomed to Maria Bamford’s idiosyncratic brand of comedy may feel like they’ve overdosed on E numbers. But make it through the utterly exhausting pilot and you’ll be rewarded with one of the most weirdly wonderful sitcoms ever to grace the screen. Indeed, despite lurching wildly from showbusiness satire and surreal flights of fancy to painfully raw depictions of mental illness, Lady Dynamite‘s organized chaos soon becomes far more palatable and increasingly poignant. A game cast, including Fred Melamed as Maria’s strangely lovable but highly incompetent manager, Ana Gasteyer as her ghastly, no-nonsense agent, and former Supermen Dean Cain and Brandon Routh as her boyfriends past and present all add to the show’s random bizarre appeal. And if that hasn’t sold you, there’s also an adorable talking pug that sounds like Werner Herzog.
Following Jessica Jones, Marvel (and Netflix) continued to fly the flag for comic book diversity this year with the first ever Black superhero show. Starring the highly charismatic Mike Colter as the infinitely cool crime-fighter, Luke Cage was also the grittiest, most grounded and arguably greatest chapter of the Defenders series so far. Steeped in the history of Black culture—from the nods to Blaxploitation to the reclamation of the hoodie—Luke Cage paints a picture of Harlem far more vividly than its two predecessors managed with Hell’s Kitchen. Moreover, Mahershala Ali as powerful gangster Cottonmouth and Misty Knight as savvy NYPD detective Simone Missick led an ensemble cast every bit as interesting as the central character. Guest performances from Faith Evans, Raphael Saadiq and Charles Bradley also helped it settle slowly but surely into its groove. Superheroes may be showing signs of fatigue on the big screen, but Luke Cage and company are proof that they’re thriving on the small one.
Netflix’s first sports-centric docuseries, like ESPN’s celebrated 30 for 30, makes its subject so gripping that even those typically apathetic towards any kind of physical activity will find themselves reeled in. Last Chance U shines the spotlight on the East Mississippi Community College Lions, a dominant football team based practically in the middle of nowhere, as they attempt to retain their national championship for a second consecutive year. The gifted but often troubled players who are given, and sometimes end up throwing away, their last shot at reaching the big time inevitably serve as much of the focus. But blustering coach Buddy Stephens and pleading academic advisor Brittany Wagner, the two authority figures given the thankless task of whipping the team into physical and mental shape, are just as eminently watchable. Exploring that fine line between victory and defeat, this six-parter is a riveting, inspiring and at times heartbreaking watch—whether you’re an NFL obsessive or someone whose knowledge of the game extends little beyond the Super Bowl halftime show.
The Royal family were allegedly concerned when creator Peter Morgan refused all offers of assistance in bringing The Crown to life. The fact that Netflix’s first costume drama manages to make someone as famously insensitive as Prince Philip appear deeply sympathetic proves the Palace needn’t have worried. That’s not to say that this fascinating portrait of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign is a piece of sycophantic fluff—it doesn’t exactly shy away from the conflicts that plagued her early years. But the first season, which centers on events from 1947 to 1955, does humanize the monarchy in a way that very few royal dramas have done before. Indeed, the reported $100 million budget has understandably garnered the most headlines, but as sumptuous as The Crown’s sets are, it’s Morgan’s meticulously researched screenplay that impresses the most. Exquisite performances from Claire Foy as the young woman thrust onto the throne in her twenties and a never-better John Lithgow as the formidable Winston Churchill also ensure that Netflix’s ambitious royal gamble well and truly pays off.
The throbbing synth scores of John Carpenter, the foreboding menace of Stephen King, the childlike wonder of Steven Spielberg. Brothers Ross and Matt Duffer seem to mix every element of early ‘80s cinema into their TV debut, and yet still manage to create something that feels fresh. Billed as a comeback for one of the decade’s poster girls, Stranger Things does indeed give Winona Ryder a juicy role as the frantic mother who’ll stop at nothing to bring her boy back from the otherworld. But she finds herself upstaged by a hugely likeable pre-teen cast that evokes the adventurous gang from The Goonies, including a star-making turn from Millie Bobby Brown. As the largely silent, shaven-headed, telekinetic Eleven, the 12-year-old often conveys more emotion in a single facial expression than more seasoned actors manage in a lengthy monologue. Throw in the superb electronic soundtrack from one half of S U R V I V E, a tightly-plotted mystery which doesn’t outstay its welcome, and a monster more terrifying than anything you can imagine, and it’s little wonder that Stranger Things became this year’s ultimate binge-watch.