I was hesitant to give a Netflix original a try back in 2013, but when the buzz around “Orange is the New Black” became too loud to ignore, I was swayed to appreciate the brilliant concept streaming really is: Consumers like it because of the lack of annoying network regulations and censorship, plus no commercials, and the ability to devour episode after episode without waiting a week in between (thanks to Netflix for that; other platforms like Hulu lack that particular perk). Showrunners probably appreciate the flexibility and innovation. And Netflix, well they get to see their numbers start shooting up because no one wants to be left out when the hype starts circulating about an awesome new show, so they hurry to sign up. Without delving into too much research, I believe Netflix was the first to offer streaming-only television. Now Hulu and others like Amazon Prime and HBO Go have jumped on the money-making bandwagon. I haven’t strayed too far from Netflix because it’s still top banana in my eyes, but I may have to make an exception soon to check out Aaron Paul in “The Path” (Hulu).
Anyway, the list of Netflix originals started small and has significantly expanded over the past couple of years and within the past few months, I’ve finally started to branch out and try a few more. Some of the newer ones with short episodes and truncated seasons take barely a day to watch. Others are more of a long-term commitment. And many are pleasant surprises. Below is a sampling of the ones I’ve tried so far and where they rank in my personal opinion.
The OG of Netflix originals. I was hooked instantly on the story of Piper Chapman, a wealthy good girl whose brief stint as a drug mule catches up to her just before the statute of limitations reaches its cut-off. She winds up having to leave her fiancé and incredulous family grappling with many questions and a slight inability to cope with these revelations as she enters a women’s prison in upstate New York for 15 months. What ensues is a very real, scary, uplifting, unflinching, funny, and sometimes heart-breaking look at life as an inmate. I read the biographical tale on which the show is based and was impressed with how the smallest paragraph in writing became a running theme for an entire episode on screen. I love learning the backstories of these incredibly complex characters. The show does hit some speed bumps, particularly as the seasons go on, but it still has that X factor that keeps you coming back for more. It’s also morphed into an all-out event that keeps viewers itching with anticipation. When season 3 was released a day early last year, the social handles for the show knowingly acknowledged that people would be devouring it all on the spot, tweeting out questions like, “Who’s still with us?” at 4 a.m. with winking emojis. It’s fun to feel like you’re part of a collective watching party and few shows elicit that vibe the way OITNB does.
2. Marvel’s Jessica Jones
I discovered my second favorite this past December. I was sick of watching the same Christmas movies over and over and needed to inject a little something new into the holiday season. I’d been hearing a lot about Krysten Ritter’s portrayal of the ex-heroine who tries to re-start her life following a personal trauma by working the seedy underbelly of Manhattan as a private investigator. I hesitated to watch a Marvel show, mainly because pop culture already seems so saturated with superhero origin stories and I don’t read comics and therefore always doubt that I’ll fully understand the plotlines, but I liked that it was a story about after the days spent in a cape and the downward spiral of a “hero” who resents her own abilities. Ritter was a great choice for the role, removing herself completely from the bubbly archetype I’ve known her to be in the past (Gilmore Girls, Confessions of a Shopaholic, even Breaking Bad wasn’t quite this dark) and I don’t think every heavy eye roll or sarcastic snap would’ve packed quite the same—sometimes literal—punch. The villain was a far left turn from the usual clichés and it made for a very interesting arc.
There was no question that I’d be giving this show the pilot test and presumably hate-watching the entire season in one weekend. The trailer oozed with cheese and when the reviews came in, they were terrible. So my expectations were low, but Full House was my first favorite TV show (it premiered the year I was born), pre-empted only by Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock, so when the Tanner family announced they’d be returning for an epic reunion, I had to hope that it would be worth witnessing and I felt like I owed it a chance. I found myself enjoying the heck out of the pilot episode. Cheesy? Obviously. Trying to be painfully relevant to a new generation of viewers? Of course. They even threw in a few cheap meta moments, proving that this newer version of the same old story was self-aware of its own place in the pop culture universe (squarely in the nostalgic soft spots of today’s millennials). Fuller House stays right within its lane with over-the-top acting and predictable plotlines, but with a few surprise turns—cuter kids, drug jokes, and infertility?!—and since it barely takes half a day to watch the whole season, it’s easy to stay with it to the end.
Did this look like an honest, meaningful portrayal of family dynamics and life as a rancher? Nah, it just looked like a “That ‘70s Show” reunion full of beer, trucks, and jokes that hit below the belt. And it is. That didn’t stop me from watching the entire first season in a single Saturday afternoon. I couldn’t help it. I laughed a few times, but mostly I zoned out while playing a game on my phone. As a huge “‘70s” fan and general admirer of most Kutcher projects, I had to stick to it through to the finale. And I’ll probably tune in again now that a second season has been greenlit. Just don’t expect too much from it or go looking for deeper meaning—there isn’t any.
COMING SOON, in a future Part 2: House of Cards, Master of None, and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Do you have a suggestion or recommendation for the next Netflix original I should try? Tell me in the comments.