fb-pixel Skip to main content

The streaming services’ 10 best original shows, ranked

Claire Foy and Matt Smith in "The Crown."
Claire Foy and Matt Smith in "The Crown."Robert Viglasky

It has been eight years since “House of Cards” and, a few months later, “Orange Is the New Black” opened the floodgates.

They were the popular Netflix shows that sparked every streaming service to make its own originals in earnest, rather than relying on content from outside sources. At this point, we’re living in Peak TV, with Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Disney+, and others releasing their own series and miniseries on a regular basis, deluging viewers with options and more options.

In compiling this list, I saw clearly that the streaming revolution has not yet produced the same level of material as the cable revolution that arrived circa 1999, with the premiere of “The Sopranos.” There are many really, really good shows, but not many era-defining standouts.


With a few exceptions, such as “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the binge aesthetic of streaming seems to get in the way of the kind of ambitious TV masterpieces — “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men,” “Six Feet Under,” “The Wire” — in which each episode has its own resonance. “The Crown” and “Master of None” are the rare streaming shows that aren’t necessarily designed to be viewed briskly, each episode being one car in a long train rolling by. You can sit with a single episode of “The Crown” and think about how writer Peter Morgan structured it; you can’t easily do that with, say, “Dead to Me” or “The Flight Attendant” or even the more ambitious “Ozark.” They are blurs — entertaining, sometimes artful, easy-to-consume blurs.

By the way, I’m choosing the best shows made by streaming services here. I did not include titles that were finished and then imported — sorry, “Call My Agent!” “Fleabag,” and “Shtisel” — or originally commissioned for a non-streaming outlet, such as two of my favorites of the streaming era, “Catastrophe” and “Black Mirror,” both of which would have been in my Top 10 otherwise.


Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth II in a scene from "The Crown."
Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth II in a scene from "The Crown." Liam Daniel/Netflix via AP

1. “The Crown” (Netflix)

Hear me out. It’s a unique series that breaks new formal ground, as it sweeps forward in time across decades with new leading cast members every other season. The subject — Queen Elizabeth II — may be staid, but conceptually “The Crown” is innovative, in a way that is indigenous to the medium of TV. The epic series has been beautifully crafted from the start, not just in terms of costuming and production values, but in its approach to storytelling. Each hour has its own focus, with its own transformative arc, a snapshot of some moment in history, and then each season hangs together thematically. I know there has been jabber about the license that creator-writer Peter Morgan has taken with history; that’s not a concern for me, since almost all tales of royalty, including Shakespeare’s, contain a degree of fiction.

Aziz Ansari in "Master of None."
Aziz Ansari in "Master of None." Netflix

2. “Master of None” (Netflix)

Few saw this one coming, given Aziz Ansari’s years as the hustling Tom Haverford on “Parks and Recreation.” His comedy series, which he co-created and writes with Alan Yang, can be romantic, moving, and shrewd. It’s basically about Ansari’s struggling Indian-American actor in New York, Dev, as he looks for love, good food, and roles that don’t require him to put on an exaggerated Indian accent. Each episode (after the weak premiere) is a little movie, with its own filming flourishes, and some of them — his look back at his father’s youth, his lesbian friend’s Thanksgiving — are little classics.


Natasha Lyonne in "Russian Doll."
Natasha Lyonne in "Russian Doll."Netflix via AP

3. “Russian Doll” (Netflix)

Like the amazing “Fleabag,” this unusual New York comedy doesn’t present its most important theme — unresolved, long-delayed grief — until later on. The depth creeps up on you. Natasha Lyonne’s cynical Nadia keeps dying and getting resurrected on the night of her 36th birthday, “Groundhog Day”-style, for reasons that are unclear at first. There’s slapstick, absurdity, and farce until it slides into a well of sorrow, with Nadia finally facing the early loss of her mother. A Borscht Belt nihilist, she begins to understand how her own defense mechanisms work, and how they no longer protect her. Season two is on the way.

Elisabeth Moss in "The Handmaid's Tale."
Elisabeth Moss in "The Handmaid's Tale." George Kraychyk/Hulu via AP

4. “The Handmaid’s Tale” (Hulu)

This series should have ended after the third season, but not because it has failed creatively. The basic fact that Elisabeth Moss’s June is still alive in a dystopian world where independent women and rebellious behavior are silenced — it strains the logic of the story. That said, “The Handmaid’s Tale” is as haunting as any near-future-styled drama ever made, particularly as it initially found its way to us during the Trump-Pence and the #MeToo eras, when its themes of the subjugation of women were especially resounding. The acting is top-notch, not just by Moss — whose eyes are so expressive she could play her part in a mask — but by Ann Dowd and Yvonne Strahovski, and the mesmerizing set design and camerawork are perfectly in sync with the subject matter.


Shira Haas (in the white dress) in "Unorthodox."
Shira Haas (in the white dress) in "Unorthodox."Anika Molnar/Netflix

5. “Unorthodox” (Netflix)

This moving miniseries follows a tiny 19-year-old woman, Shira Haas’s Esty, as she flees her Satmar Hasidic community in Brooklyn and the husband with whom she was matched. Her goal: to study music in Berlin. Music, it turns out, is her true religion. The series is about the process of mustering up bravery and the social and cultural chains that restrain people from self-realization. Haas, also a treasure in “Shtisel,” is riveting from start to finish.

Jacob Fortune-Lloyd and Anya Taylor-Joy in "The Queen's Gambit."
Jacob Fortune-Lloyd and Anya Taylor-Joy in "The Queen's Gambit." Phil Bray/Associated Press

6. “The Queen’s Gambit” (Netflix)

This stealth feel-good story is told with strikingly inventive visuals that give everything a magical vibe. Essentially, it’s the story of a Dickensian orphan who becomes a chess genius after years of addiction and depression. She’s a misfit of sorts, coming of age and finding her niche. But it’s also about the game of chess, and the art of thinking ahead a step or two or 10. The exotic miniseries is thoroughly engaging, and the performances by Anya Taylor-Joy, Marielle Heller, and Bill Camp are indelible.

Storm Reid and Jharrel Jerome in "When They See Us."
Storm Reid and Jharrel Jerome in "When They See Us."Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix

7. “When They See Us” (Netflix)

Ava DuVernay tells the story as it should be told, of five young men whose lives were blown apart in one of our justice system’s most heinous blunders. This take on the Exonerated Five — formerly known as the Central Park Five — doesn’t just appeal to our conscience; it reaches for the heart, as each of the accused becomes an individual. The miniseries also features unforgettable performances by, among others, Jharrel Jerome, Freddy Miyares, and Asante Blackk, whose baby face drives home the youth of the boys at the time they were falsely accused.


Ncuti Gatwa (left) and Asa Butterfield in "Sex Education."
Ncuti Gatwa (left) and Asa Butterfield in "Sex Education."Jon Hall/Netflix

8. “Sex Education” (Netflix)

This comic portrait of teen sexuality could have been a British version of “American Pie.” Instead, it’s about the emotional underpinnings of emerging sexuality and gender, told with good humor and plenty of wisdom. Asa Butterfield is hugely sympathetic as 16-year-old Otis, who is terrified of sex, and Gillian Anderson shows her expert comic timing as his sex therapist mother. The twist is that Otis winds up counseling his high school friends on their sexual experiences, despite — or perhaps because of — his own hang-ups. It’s a sunny pleasure.

Nicholas Hoult and Elle Fanning in a scene from "The Great."
Nicholas Hoult and Elle Fanning in a scene from "The Great." Ollie Upton/Hulu via AP

9. “The Great” (Hulu)

This series was largely ignored by the Emmys, which makes me love it even more. “The Great” is a super-cheeky satire set in the 18th century about the rise to power of Catherine the Great. What you need to know is that it was written by Tony McNamara, the co-writer of “The Favourite,” and it has that movie’s bawdy, profane disposition as it ridicules the excesses and sexism of the time. Elle Fanning as the ambitious Catherine and Nicholas Hoult as her ragingly narcissistic husband, Peter, seem to savor the brilliant script, which is studded with divine insults.

Haaz Sleiman in "Little America."
Haaz Sleiman in "Little America." Apple TV+

10. “Little America” (Apple TV+)

“Minari” made me think of this lovely anthology series. Each half-hour zeroes in on one immigrant to tell an entirely discrete story about his or her experiences in America, in coming to America, or in having to adjust to America. Many of the episodes — some joyful, others less so — seem to have the reach of full-length movies as they aim to make each ordinary character fully human. In some, America is a savior, in others it’s a tangle of red tape, and in still others it is a new cultural universe to be learned and understood.


On a different day, any one of these might have been in the Top 10.

“Dickinson” (Apple TV+): I came late to this treat, a look into the heart and soul of Emily Dickinson, quiet rebel genius.

“Ted Lasso” (Apple TV+): An unexpected upper with Jason Sudeikis as an optimistic American football coach leading a soccer team in England.

“Ozark” (Netflix): The first two seasons were an uneven buildup to the blazing third season, with Laura Linney finally taking over.

“Transparent” (Amazon): It hasn’t aged well, given the allegations against star Jeffrey Tambor, but it’s nonetheless a groundbreaking story about family, gender, and sexuality.

“Normal People” (Hulu): It’s a simple story — a romance between young adults in Ireland — that’s told with remarkable detail and intimacy, featuring emotionally precise performances by Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal.

“PEN15” (Hulu): It sounds like a “Saturday Night Live” sketch, but this 2000-set comedy featuring 31-year-old actresses playing seventh-graders is honest, insightful, and just satirical enough.

“Unbelievable” (Netflix): This procedural miniseries takes us inside a justice system that fails rape survivors, featuring memorable turns by Kaitlyn Dever, Merritt Wever, and Toni Collette.

“Alias Grace” (Netflix): A quiet but piercing adaptation of a Margaret Atwood book about a maid accused of murdering her master and his mistress in the mid-1800s.

“Difficult People” (Hulu): A spiky post-“Seinfeld” sitcom about a pair of New York misanthropes — played by Julie Klausner and Billy Eichner — and their pop-cylopedic banter.

“The Kominsky Method” (Netflix): A witty and heartfelt look at aging that revolves around the bond between old friends played by Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin. There’s one last season on the way, without Arkin.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at matthew.gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.