I’ve stated this before but I am addicted to Netflix Original shows. I watch any show produced and made by Netflix as I’ve never been disappointed so far. I’ve watched pretty much all of them. This has got me watching shows I wouldn’t normally have given the time of day.
I’ve tried to do something I promised myself I would never do: A top 5 list.
This is the top 5 list of my favourite Netflix Originals TV shows. As is usually the case, I always second guess these things as soon as I’ve written them, but this can be taken as a good and representative list. It goes without saying I think you should watch them all.
#5 Stranger Things
What? Stranger Things is at the bottom of this Top 5 List? It did surprise me a bit as I thought it would have positioned higher. Possibly it would have done if this was a 2016 list but I’ll never know for sure. This isn’t a problem with the quality of Stranger Things, far from it, but just an indication of how blessed we are with respect to TV these days.
I know what some people are going to say that read this. It’s all about nostalgia. All it is is a series of homages. The only way you can remotely enjoy it is if you’re a nostalgia junky. I get where that comes from but it has nothing to do with why I like the series.
I don’t believe I do nostalgia.
When I watch Stranger Things I don’t see nostalgia porn I see a period piece. The period just happens to be a period that only exists in the world of 80’s films. This isn’t that big a proposition, it can be argued that this is no different to films about any historical period as they’re all artificial constructs associated with certain styles of story, film techniques and they rarely have anything to do with how the period actually was.
Once you get passed the fact that Stranger Things nails a number of dramatic set-ups I do have a penchant for, High School and Small Town US dramas, as well as the way it is filmed, it comes down to the characters. This is especially true as series two unfolds which manages to make the transition from the mini-series feel of series one to the ‘this is about watching these characters age and grow’ of future series. This is particularly true in the epilogue of series two which, without giving away any spoilers, is both beautiful and moving.
I guess Stranger Things is a bit like Harry Potter. I want to see more adventures in the weirdness magnet that is Hawkins, Indiana and, more importantly, I want to see the group of kids age year by year and see how this changes them and the dynamics between them. Will some become popular? What happens when they truly discover girls? How will the stories change as the characters replace the older teens that currently feature in the show? How might they deal with death? Wrap that all up with the mad science and the threats of the Upside Down ‘other dimension’ and I just can’t wait to see how it unfolds.
Stranger Things is just a brilliant show, telling a type of story I’m an avid fan of in a way that I find compelling.
#4 The Crown
I shouldn’t like The Crown as I don’t watch British period costume dramas. That’s the mistake a lot of people make though, it’s not so much a British period costume drama such as Downton Abbey, but a marvelus piece of historical political fiction seen from the perspective of the Royal Family.
This brings up the second point: why the hell would I watch a drama about the British Royal Family? In the beginning I thought the same and thought, despite it being a high value, Netflix produced show, I’d give it a miss. It got so many good reviews though I gave it a go. The key thing is to not look at it like a drama of the British Royal Family but one about fascinating characters in a very unique, dramatic crucible and on that basis you have a fascinating show.
The Crown is totally riveting and one of the best examples of historical fiction currently being produced.
The key thing The Crown achieves is to ensure the characters are people you care about and are interested in, this is especially true of Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret, and to a lesser extent Prince Philip. You realise they exist in a unique and elevated form of privilege, but this does not make the characters, the circumstances that surround them (a great dramatic crucible) and the British politics and world events that they live through any less fascinating. Indeed, it is part of the mosaic which makes the whole series so fascinating.
The Crown also does something else that enhances its appeal. The historical fiction element of the series is just very well done. I’ve not got the historical expertise to know how accurate the events are but they are fascinating to watch. The weakness of some of the British Prime Ministers. The moment when the Royal Family first realises they need to modernise. The feelings of the Queen around Jackie Kennedy. The challenges Prince Margaret faces who you wish had been born a generation or two later.
How accurate is it all? No idea, but it is enthralling.
The challenge for The Crown moving forward will be the change of actors as the show is very much tied up in the tour-de-force performances of Claire Foy, Matt Smith and Vanessa Kirby and series three will jump forward in time and the entirety of the cast will be placed. It’s also going to be interesting to see how the show fares once events feel more like contemporary events rather than historical ones as that raises a different set of challenges and subtleties.
What can I say about Riverdale? Other than I absolutely love it. These days I look for TV shows that have something special, something ethereal and elusive that can only be described as beauty. Some TV shows these days are just beautiful and Riverdale is one of those TV shows.
The key brilliance of Riverdale is it takes a couple of genres, puts them in a pot, and lets them simmer to absolute perfection. These genres are the US small town mystery series combined with a high school drama. It combines these and creates a series that represents the pinnacle of both. The show even recognises this and consciously plays with it as the parents of the primary high school cast are actors from previous shows in these specific genres, namely Twin Peaks and Beverly Hills 90210.
I say Riverdale is beautiful because, just like it combines two genres to peak perfection, it also takes all its ingredients script, cinematography, costume design, etc, to produce perfect episodes that are gorgeous. The framed narrative helps as it allows for the script to adopt a perspective outside of the characters heads. The script themselves contain enough of the wit associated with films like Clueless without dragging the serious drama down. The characters are impeccably dressed all the time re-enforcing the iconic nature of their characters. Hell, the costume design is that good even I recognise how integral it is to the show and I’m a middle-aged, straight white fella who buys the same clothes every year. All of this would make for a great show but the stories are brilliant as well.
Does it help that the cast are gorgeous. Of course it does. It’s designed that way as the majority of high school dramas are. On that basis I don’t think it’s wrong to say a small part of me watches it because Betty Cooper and Veronica Lodge are beautiful. Well, there you go, that word again.
It’s just a beautiful show.
#2 Thirteen Reasons Why
Thirteen Reasons Why is the perfect example of a show I probably would not have watched if it had not been a true, Netflix produced original. A long form drama about a teenage girl who committed suicide? It sounds way too depressing.
It was depressing, but it was also fascinating. I literally binged watched it from beginning to end in almost one sitting. There are a number of reasons why Thirteen Reasons Why still resonates with me despite me seeing it a lot earlier in the year.
The series is essentially a high school drama, but a particularly brutal one. You go into it knowing this, but it turns out to be more brutal than you expect. It starts out with a very typical set-up and then as each tape peels away the layers of the past events character relationships take on different meanings than how they were originally interpreted. This slow, but not too slow, peeling back of the true horror of the dynamics between the principle protagonists in their high school is fascinating and horrific.
It also has some of the trappings of a high school romance. The misunderstood guy and girl who you know should be together but spend the whole story being confused by each others intentions and actions. In this case it is a particularly tragic high school romance but it is one nonetheless. I suspect many people will find it strange that I see the series this way, but it’s true. A central core of the show is the ill-fated romance between the two main characters.
The final three episodes are brutal. Painfully brutal. Yet you can’t look away. I found the final three episodes upsetting and unsettling yet I had to watch the story play out.
I understand there is going to be a second series of Thirteen Reasons Why. I’m an open minded, but very doubtful about all this. If the story moves on to other things I’m not exactly sure what the point is. If it trawls over the events of the suicide again from different perspectives I can understand how that has an artistic validity but I’m not sure it would work practically.
As a singular series though, Thirteen Reasons Why was a show I didn’t just watch, it had a physical impact on me.
At first I thought Mindhunter was a documentary and was only half interested in it. I even tried to watch the first episode once and it didn’t work for me at all. I guess, considering where this show is positioned, I just wasn’t in the best mood at the time.
The interesting thing about Mindhunter is I started watching it, for the second time, shortly after I’d tried to give The X-Files series ten a go and found it totally uninspiring. While working my way through Mindhunter I I said it was delivering on my X-Files itch even though, in truth, it was nothing like the X-Files beyond that fact both have had serial killers on and they features FBI agents.
Though none of the serial killers can stretch and fit into small spaces, obviously, and there was only a handful of serial killer episodes on The X Files anyway.
The reason it hit a similar itch to The X-Files is Mindhunter along with delivering brilliant TV across all the usual criteria of acting, interesting characters, looking great, etc, is a TV series largely about the discussion and exploration of ideas which makes it unique in this Top 5 list and why it is at the number one spot. It manages to weave great drama, characters, acting, the exploration of a particular period in law enforcement and explores the challenges of forming and introducing new ideas while keeping it all absolutely compelling.
The ideas and conflicts the show revolves around are totally fascinating as the main protagonists initially belief in their ideas almost through faith which becomes more scientific as the series develops. The ethics around collecting information make this the most exciting TV show to feature discussions on data collection methods and research ethics. Then you have the power and ethics around using profiling and when it is best and used and when it might be dangerous as it does allow a small degree of predicting the fuure. It’s all fascinating stuff and intimately tied into the character development and drama.
I’ll tell you another show Mindhunter reminds me of? The Wire. Yeah, I know, lofty claim, but it really does. The way the show merges the discussion and implication of ideas and concepts and merges that with drama is exactly the same. It’s also a show that doesn’t do much explaining to the audience, similar to The Wire.
I don’t know how true to life Mindhunter is. I understand it is based on the book Mindhunter: Inside The FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit which tells the story of the set-up of the FBI’s Behavioural Science Unit. This establishes another factor that makes Mindhunter compelling. It’s essentially historical fiction but instead of it being about a famed, ancient historical figure it’s about more recent times and the transformational ideas they developed and introduced.
The show also brings Anna Torv back to a TV show I’m watching, which I’m always thankful and she is totally compelling in this series.
It’s a fascinating show. If you’re a fan of anything with depth of ideas but not at the loss of characters and drama you should watch it. If you’re a fan of things like Silence of the Lambs you should watch it. It’s a very good show.
Analysis and Near Misses
It’s interesting to note that three of the series on this list have a strong vein of being High School dramas? I’m not sure where this comes from, but it’s definitely a thing due to being a fan of Beverely Hills 90210, Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, Glee, Gossip Girl, Awkward, My So Called Life, The O.C, Skins, Party of Five and Popular.
Two of the shows are also focused around small town USA settings. I’ve never thought of where this comes from either but on thinking it through for this article I think I have it nailed. I read a lot of Stephen King books as I was growing up and I still speculate that IT might be a novel that would make it onto an all time favourite list. You know, without ever actually making that list. IT is one of the quintessential small town US novels.
There are probably a lot of near misses. A few are worth a specific mention though. For a while Glow was going to make it on the list in position five. Then I remembered I completely forgotten The Crown. I thought about it hard and concluded it needed to be dropped. I did really like Glow though. It’s a brilliant show.
Another I’d call out is the Dear White People TV series, which I thought was very well done. Considering the topics it covered it was a veritable masterpiece. Why isn’t it on the list? Purely because the five on the list stand out in my mind more. This doesn’t take anything away from Dear White People though.
What about Sense8? I know. In many ways Sense8 is one of those shows that cried out to be on this list. Every scene is a delight. The series falls into that beautiful category. It’s beautiful in its global landscape and it’s approach to diversity feels natural and glorious at the same time. It is a fascinating show, but I just couldn’t bring myself to put it on the list. I think that has something to do with the overall plotting. As while the character stuff is great the over-arching plot could be better.
The big near miss due to being ill-timed is undoubtedly Black Mirror. Season three aired in 2016 so isn’t included and season four hits Netflix on 29th December so was too late for this article. Basically, it’s fell between the cracks.
So, that’s it my top 5 Netflix Original shows of 2017. When I started this I thought I’ll pick five and never be satisfied with the list, but I’m feeling pretty good about it. Yes, there are a whole host of other Netflix shows I’ve watched because I watch all of them, but when I think if they should be on the list I’m happy to say no. They’re good. I found them thoroughly entertaining. They don’t stand out above the rest like these five.
We live in a glorious time when it comes to TV. I’m glad to be living in it. I am quite open and honest about the fact that I now consume TV series like I used to consume novels. Some might say this is a bad thing. I’m happy with the change.
When it comes to TV it’s a great time to be alive!