It’s difficult to declare one show the absolute best Netflix original series of 2016. The innovative streaming platform has put their focus on quality shows and the effort makes them stand out, not only for originality but for a diversity of programming that traditional television and cable lack. While it might be hard to pick just one, here are some of the best Netflix original series of 2016.
The Get Down
Lavish director Baz Luhrmann has made his mark on the entertainment industry with huge films, such as Romeo and Juliette and The Great Gatsby. It’s no surprise then that he’d create this musical drama, set at the dawn of hiphop. In the late 1970’s Bronx, talented and ambitious Zeke is in love with the religious singer Mylene. The Get Down follows them and their talented friends through the graffiti riddled streets and clubs as they forge a new path through uncharted artistic territory. The Get Down has been lauded for its music and dance scenes, something that should be no surprise to fans of the bombastic Luhrmann. The show has been renewed for a second season, set to be released in 2017.
This comedy from the iconic Judd Apatow and comedian Paul Rust follows the hapless Gus as he struggles to take control of his life following a breakup. Like Rust’s comedy and Apatow’s movies, it’s funny and sweet, with just a touch of the absurd. The series costars former Community star Gillian Jacobs as Gus’ love interest Micky, a troubled twenty-something struggling with a relationship herself. They weave through exes, jobs, and life as opposites and equals. The writing is easily the show's strongpoint, it stands out not only for its humor but its deft plot and strong characters. Love was one of the best Netflix original series of 2016, so it’s no surprise that it’ll return next year.
Chelsea Handler’s long running talk show was a big success, so it’s not surprising that her follow up, the more focused comedy documentary series Chelsea Does, would be great. Handler discusses topics such as marriage, racism, and drugs with guests ranging from comedians to family members. She also ventures out to interview experts on the subjects for more in depth coverage. These excursions are the highlight of the show, often in depth and unexpected. Handler's biting comedy reigns throughout, but there’s an earnestness that was absent from her talk show as well. Notably, her interviews about race show a stark contrast to the usual vacuum in which it’s discussed. With only four episodes, Chelsea Does leaves us wanting more.
A spinoff of another hit for Netflix, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage was released at a time when racial tensions were high, and the show handled the issues with class. The hero, Luke Cage was a groundbreaker when he debuted in the 1970’s as one of the first major black superheroes, and star Mike Colter translates that icon status perfectly to the screen. Cage continues the down and dirty realism trend with movies and TV series based on comic books to great effect. The blood, sweat, and tears aesthetic transfers to the characters as well, no two dimensional drawings here. The series has been lauded for its gritty design and it’s deft translation of the classic comics. It too has been renewed and the second season is slated for a 2017 release.
Roman Empire: Reign of Blood
Docudramas can easily go poorly on television, turning quickly from ambitious visions to pure schlock. Roman Empire: Reign of Blood, fortunately, has avoided this common fate. This series of reenactments placed alongside in depth interviews from experts has drawn praise for it’s attention to detail. Narrated by Sean Bean, it tells the story of Commodus, played by newcomer Aaron Jakubenko, the Emperor who eventually brought down the longstanding empire. Roman Empire isn’t Netflix’s first foray into doc series, but it stands on it’s own as a benchmark.
Joe Swanberg became known for heading the unfortunately titled “Mumblecore” scene of the early 2000’s. The films, generally focusing on twenty-somethings waxing agnostic about societal fears, were popular in indie circles. Swanberg worked at a frenetic pace, completing up to 4 per year. That work ethic crosses over to his Netflix series Easy with Swanberg writing and directing all 8 episodes. The loosely connected stories follow a string of young couples through close analysis of relationship troubles from small to large. It features established stars from film and comedy such as Emily Ratajkowski, Marc Maron, Orlando Bloom, Jake Johnson, Hannibal Buress, and Malin Akerman, as well as several up and comers. Swanberg pulls a surprising amount of tension out of seemingly mundane situations, making this easily one of the best Netflix original series of 2016.
This isn’t the first, nor the only children’s program from Netflix. It is, however, one of the best. The vocabulary focused animated series from a venerable production team at the Jim Henson Company has been a hit, and Netflix released 2 seasons of the show in 2016. The show features 4 enthusiastic diapered animals and encourages viewers to interact with them, teaching them lessons as they go. The format promotes learning through doing and builds confidence in kids that watch it. The series also marks a departure for Netflix, as it’s geared towards a younger, toddler audience, whereas the platform’s other children’s shows are generally meant for the big kids. The collaboration with the Jim Henson Company is exciting as well, and it’ll be interesting to see what else comes out of it.
Biopics have a fine line to walk between fact and drama, but The Crown, released in November of this year, balances beautifully. The first season of the series follows Queen Elizabeth II in the early days of her reign, until 1955. The Queen is portrayed with grace and nuance by Claire Foy, and is backed up by a stellar supporting cast, including the Doctor himself, Matt Smith, as Prince Phillip. It was Netflix’s biggest budget series, and the money seems to have paid off. The show’s been getting great reviews. Fortuitously slated for a 6 seasons, 60 episodes in total, the series plays out with enough drama and pomp for both royal watchers and not, and offers an interesting insight into a society foreign to most. This, like many Netflix dramas before it, is a show to be excited about.
Maria Bamford has been on the comedy scene for 20 years. Her unique self deprecation has appealed to a small group of loyal fans, none more championing than her fellow comedians. She finally get’s her due with the fascinatingly unique and hilarious Lady Dynamite. A fictionalized view of Maria’s life and mental illness, the series bounces back and forth from Hollywood, where Maria’s career goes through ups and downs, and flashbacks to Duluth, Minnesota, where she recovers from a breakdown at her family’s home. In addition to Bamford, Fred Melamed is hilarious as her agent/manager/friend Bruce Ben-Bacharach. The series features a string of guest stars, many of whom are Bamford’s comedy brethren, like Patton Oswalt, Jason Mantzoukis, and Jenny Slate. Between the talking dogs, the accidental union suppression, the sheep herding competition, and the countless truly bizarre situations it’s a surreal show, but it’s worth the weirdness.
It was hard to miss Stranger Things, Netflix’s outrageously fun sci-fi adventure show. The stars of the show, with an average age of 13, have been everywhere since this summer, including handing out sandwiches at the Emmys. To recap in case you’ve been stuck in the upside down, young Will Byers disappears into a mysterious vortex, and the only people to save him are his mother, played beautifully by Winona Ryder, and his team of young friends. Of course, it’s set in the early 1980’s and reminds viewers of E.T., The Goonies, and other kid action movies of the era. It’s beautiful nostalgia done right, not a rehash but an homage. It’s also immaculately designed, from the title sequence and theme song (which will go down in history) to the clothing. There’s magic and sci-fi and action and… why have you not watched this yet?
The last show for Netflix in 2016, just under the wire after being released on December 16th, is another sci-fi mystery hit. In The OA, a woman mysteriously resurfaces after missing for 7 years. She’s inexplicably able to see, after previously being blind, and refuses to cooperate with authorities, instead opting for a trusted circle of friends. The series was developed over the course of three years by star/writer Brit Marling and director/writer Zal Batmanglij. It’s received favorable reviews and has been a hit with fans. No word yet on a second season, but fans are pulling for one.