Of all the many ways Netflix and other streaming video services have changed the idea of television, one stands about above the rest: television’s new sense of time. Before Netflix, viewers had to wait week by week for their favorite TV show to progress its story; anticipation-building naturally follows from having to wait for the next episode of a TV show to air.
But with streaming services making whole seasons and series available at the click of a button, the viewer has the choice both of what shows to watch and how fast they want to watch them. Rather than having to wait a week — or perhaps even longer — to see where a story will go, Netflix users can simply queue up the next episode and get cozy. This phenomenon is most commonly known as “binge-watching,” i.e. the practice of watching whole TV series either in one sitting or extended bouts.
A poll run by Harris Interactive in 2013 found that over 61 percent of Netflix users admit to binge-watching; of that number, 73 percent believe binge-watching to be a fulfilling practice. Netflix’s convenience makes binge-watching easy, and even inevitable. After all, if a show is really attention-grabbing, why not sit through as much of it as you want? With Netflix offering a free 30-day trial period to customers, it’s easy to get through a lot of TV at little to no cost.
Netflix offers far too many excellent TV viewing options to be fully encompassed in a list of ten picks, but the options below are some of the standout titles in Netflix’s large corral of binge-able viewing experiences. Despite lacking some in-demand bingeable titles (such as Game of Thrones), Netflix is, on the whole, anything but lacking.
Be warned: these 10 shows are addictive, so you might want to ready the couch before you’re done reading. (The shows are listed in no particular order.)
I love a good Netflix binge! – Simone Biles
House of Cards (drama; hour-long episodes)
In 2013, Netflix stepped up its game. Well revered as an online rental and streaming service, Netflix decided to incorporate something that would make it a closer analogue to its counterparts on network television: original programming. By 2015 the company’s desire to develop new and original content was substantial, and the company even expressed interest in raising its money spent on original content (10%) nearly fourfold (up to 50%). Amidst an impressive roster of Netflix original shows, House of Cards — an adaptation of a 1990 British miniseries of the same name — stands alone. The show captures the dark and murderous rise of a South Carolina congressman, Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), who with his wife Claire (the icy Robin Wright) sets his eye on the presidency after being denied the promised post of Secretary of State. The superb acting and chilly cinemaphotography are key superficial attractions of the show, but its knotty and backstab-heavy plot is what will keep you glued to your couch for hours. Netflix has produced four seasons of the show, with a fifth on the way in 2017.
Scrubs (comedy; half hour-long episodes)
Bill Lawrence, the creator of Scrubs (which follows up his successful ’90s program Spin City), described the show as an attempt to bring together M*A*S*H and The Wonder Years, two of his favorite shows. Over the course of eight seasons (and one regrettable ninth spin-off season), Lawrence and his top-notch cast achieved far more than that. Often compared to Family Guy for its zany fantasy sequences, Scrubs tracks the career and personal development of “J.D.” John Dorian (Zach Braff), a fresh-faced med school graduate, who takes up a post at the fictional Sacred Heart Hospital. (Fun fact: the show was almost entirely shot in an abandoned hospital in Los Angeles.) Alongside J.D. stands his best friend Turk (Donald Faison), Carla, Turk’s wife (Judy Reyes), and his sometime love interest Elliott (Sarah Chalke). These actors are joined by a superb group of performers, including John C. McGinley, Ken Jenkins, and Neil Flynn. As silly as Scrubs often is, its true success comes in balancing broad comedy with the serious issues of life and death that accompany working at a hospital, which is masterfully captured in the season five episode “My Lunch.”
House, M.D. (medical procedural; hour-long episodes)
For the rest of his days, the British actor Hugh Laurie will be associated with the cantankerous and brilliant American doctor he depicted for eight seasons on House, M.D. As Dr. Gregory House, a “diagnostician” who specializes in seemingly impossible medical mysteries, Laurie gave one of the most distinctive television performances in recent memory. Misanthropic, perceptive, and insufferable, House is a character that’s both easy to love and hate; his ability to save people on the brink of death from mystery ailments is matched only by his cold and cutting bedside manner. Those who work under him (a shifting cast that includes Omar Epps, Jennifer Morrison, Jesse Spencer, Olivia Wilde, Peter Jacobson, and Kal Penn, among others) have to face the pressure of solving medical cases that numerous other doctors have failed, all the while dealing with House’s cynicism about human beings, best summed up in his famous dictum: “Everybody lies.” House M.D.‘s procedural setup — with a new medical mystery every episode — makes it easy to fall into rhythm with the show, but its sharp dialogue and complex character interactions put it several notches above the average procedural.
How I Met Your Mother (comedy; half hour-long episodes)
Often billed as the 21st century answer to the famed ’90s sitcom Friends, How I Met Your Mother takes a simple premise and complicates it hundreds of different ways. Ostensibly, the show is about Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor) telling his two young children about how he met their mother. Not long into the show’s second of nine seasons, however, it becomes that How I Met Your Mother is about far more than just that. In actuality, the program traces the late ’20s/early ’30s of Ted and his friends Marshall (Jason Segel), Lily (Alyson Hannigan), Robin (Cobie Smulders), and the infamous playboy Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris). The writers of How I Met Your Mother are principally talented in the art of time-bending; most episodes rely heavily on flashbacks and flash-forwards that playfully mess with the viewer’s expectations for the plot. The series finale in season nine was a source of much controversy for fans and critics alike, but whatever one’s opinion of the ending is, it’s hard to deny that the show as a whole makes for an addictive viewing experience.
Cutthroat Kitchen (cooking competition show; hour-long episodes)
Starting in 2014, Netflix incorporated many Food Network shows into its online streaming service. Of the many to choose from, Cutthroat Kitchen is the most liable to induce binge-watching. This four-round competition show pits competitors against each other by having them bid on “devilish” auction devices to impede the other chefs from being able to compete their dish in the allotted amount of time. Zany host Alton Brown relishes in the head-butting that results from the auctions, which allows competitors to force their opponents to, amongst other things, cook a whole dish using only a blowtorch, cook with one hand tied behind their back, or cook using frozen ingredients. As the show gets into its later seasons, the challenges become increasingly bizarre and hilarious; one chef has to cook a meal with his head in a pumpkin. Cutthroat Kitchen is a viewing experience that is in equal measures intriguing, absurd, and hilarious — be sure to bring snacks.
Arrested Development (comedy; half hour-long episodes)
Arrested Development is a unique case for Netflix. Originally, the cult comedy, which documents the zany lifestyle of the once-wealthy Bluth family, aired on the FOX network from 2003 to 2006, and was cancelled to much chagrin on the part of die-hard fans. In 2013, Netflix brought back the show for a streaming-exclusive fourth season. The return of Arrested Development happened after years of fans clamoring for the short-lived show to come back; Netflix heard the call of the die-hard fans and answered. Arrested Development‘s appeal is in its quirks, in-jokes, and easter eggs: to this day, lines like “there’s always money in the banana stand” live on in perpetuity. Come for the merry band of misfits that make up the Bluth family; stay for the endless eccentricities that Netflix helped bring back to the small screen.
The Office – US and UK versions (comedy; half-hour long episodes)
The Office is a binge-watching experience that is also bound to lead to prolonged debates. The Ricky Gervais-led program initially aired on BBC Two in 2001, airing for two six-season episodes, in addition to two Christmas specials. A few years after the British show’s conclusion, reputable comedy writer Greg Daniels developed an American version of the BBC hit, with Steve Carrell taking up the role played by Gervais on the BBC original. Both shows feature an identical core premise: a group of seemingly normal office workers are brought together under the control of a hapless and crass boss (Gervais and Carrell) who complicates what would otherwise be a boringly normal workspace. Shot in a mockumentary style, The Office — in both of its iterations — takes on the difficult task of making the mundane not only hilarious, but significant. There’s plenty to love in both versions, meaning that one could do an extended binge of both to compare. But if you find your favorite, Netflix provides both series in full, including the lengthy nine-season American Office.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (comedy; half hour-long episodes)
One of the more recent Netflix originals, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a star-making feature for Ellie Kemper, who also features in the American Office listed above. The titular Kimmy Schmidt, played with an infectious joie de vivre by Kemper, is a woman who takes up residence in New York after being held captive in an underground bunker by a deranged cult leader (Jon Hamm, in his wackiest performance to date). Kimmy’s naïveté is over-the-top, which along with her brightly colored, ’90s inspired outfits makes her stick out as a beacon of enthusiasm amidst the hustle and bustle of New York. Taking up residence with the flamboyant Titus Andromedon (Tituss Burgess) and the sassy Lillian Kaushtupper (Carol Kane), Kimmy takes to exploring the big city, and is in the process exposed to a world infinitely larger than the bunker she was forcibly kept in. Predictably, this meeting of small and large worlds results in hijinks that have made Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt one of Netflix’s most popular original titles.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (comedy; half hour-long episodes)
To be sure, the rag-tag gang at the core of FX’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia isn’t one that most people would like to spend any actual time with. Dennis (Glenn Howerton), Dee (Kaitlin Olson), Mac (Rob McElhenney), Charlie (Charlie Day), and Frank (a superbly unhinged Danny Devito) are truly terrible people, and many episodes of this seemingly nihilistic sitcom end with all five of them getting away with reprehensible behavior. Yet it is a major credit to all five players that they make the anything-goes mayhem of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia both addictive and hilarious; iconic episodes like “The Nightman Cometh” and “The Gang Solves the Gas Crisis” will hold appeal even to those put off by the unhinged antics of the gang. If nothing else, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is the kind of show that, once you get into it, inevitably concludes each episode with the question: “Well, what are they going to get away with next?”
Parks and Recreation (comedy; half hour-long episodes)
Amazingly, there was a brief time when Parks and Recreation looked like it would end up nothing more than a short-lived attempt to copy the comedy mockumentary aesthetic of The Office. That brief time is Parks and Recreation‘s tepidly received first season, which in retrospect is hard to believe is the seed of what would later grow into one of network television’s best comedies. Beginning with season two, Parks and Recreation blossomed into an earnest but endlessly creative sitcom, tracking the antics of the goofy and loveable Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) and her coworkers in the Pawnee, Indiana Parks Department: the man’s man Ron Swanson (the scene-stealing Nick Offerman), the aspiring mogul Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari), and the teddy bear-esque Andy Dwyer (Chris Pratt) and his comically morose wife April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza, the show’s not-so-secret weapon). Like The Office, Parks and Recreation is all about transforming the mundane into off-the-walls comedy, but it does so in its own unique way, with one of the strongest comedy casts in recent memory to boot.
The ten excellent shows listed above form only a small sampling of what Netflix has to offer. There is plenty more in Netflix’s endless trove of television programming to get hooked on. While the jury is still out on the benefits and harms of binge-watching, the phenomenon has become a permanent fixture in the modern television viewing experience. If there is such a thing as “bingeing responsibly” on TV, any of the above titles in Netflix’s expansive categories are an excellent bet.