With over 160 million subscribers – which ranks somewhere between the population of Bangladesh and Nigeria – Netflix’s biggest shows command staggering audiences worldwide. But the streaming platform has also snapped up the rights to hundreds of lesser known series, some of which are just as good.
Here’s our pick of the undiscovered gems:
When it comes to sheer critical acclaim, few shows can match Rectify. From the moment this slow-burn crime drama debuted in the US in 2013, it was praised to the hills by television aficionados. Yet even after four successful seasons, and an excellent finale, the show remains relatively unknown compared to the likes of Breaking Bad and The Wire. Something that continues to baffle its fans.
Think of Rectify as a murder mystery in reverse. It tells the story of Daniel Holden, a Georgia man released from prison when his conviction – for the murder of his high-school sweetheart – is overturned on the basis of new DNA evidence. When Daniel returns to his small southern town, he’s forced to contend with an unfamiliar world, a shattered family, and the ongoing suspicion of a community that isn’t convinced of his innocence. It’s an excellent watch and one that stays with you for months afterwards.
Have you heard about the cult sitcom that satirised the uber-woke cliques of America’s West coast? When you put it like that, it’s hard to understand why Portlandia – co-created by Saturday Night Live’s Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein from cult band Sleater-Kinney – didn’t make more of a splash. Goodness knows it’s funny enough.
Perhaps it was a matter of timing. Portlandia’s first season aired back in 2011 – years before terms like ‘woke’ and ‘social justice’ hit the comedy mainstream. Still the show won praise for its smart social commentary, before finally falling foul of the locals – in 2016, a left-wing bookshop withdrew its premises as a filming location on the basis that it didn’t find the show funny. With all eight seasons now on Netflix, you can be the judge of that.
A fictionalised version of a hit 2012 documentary, Glow – or Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling to give it its full name – follows the travails of an all-female wrestling federation looking to make a name for themselves in 1980s Hollywood. With its kitsch aesthetics and 80s power-pop soundtrack, Glow looks and sounds just as camp as you’d expect. But the spandex period drama also delivers some solid storylines, delving into the private lives of its misfit characters.
While its managed to build a decent following over its first three seasons, Glow hasn’t quite tipped over into the big league – yet. Nevertheless, it makes for an excellent, and stupendously fun, watch. Season four lands on Netflix this year.
Broadcast jointly on BBC Two and Ireland’s RTE One back in 2013, crime drama The Fall pulled off a serious coup by bagging Gillian Anderson to take on its lead role. Anderson stars as Stella Gibson, a hardened Northern Irish detective who ends up on the trail of a cryptic serial killer in Belfast.
The show was also the first big outing for local lad – and fellow sex symbol – Jamie Dornan, later picked to play Christian Grey in the Fifty Shades franchise. Yet for all its star quality, The Fall, which bagged an Edgar (the prestigious awards for mystery writing held in honour of Edgar Allen Poe), has slumped into relative obscurity since the end of its last season in 2016. Crime fans should make this Anglo-Irish thriller their next box-set binge.
The Good Wife
When it debuted back in 2011 (back when Netflix was still in the business of mailing DVDs to subscribers), CBS’s The Good Wife instantly garnered praise for its emotionally-intelligent writing and sharp-witted court scenes. Even now, the show is regarded by many critics as an American classic. Yet it’s never enjoyed the name recognition that many feel it merits.
The Good Wife stars ER’s Julianna Margulies as Alicia Florrick, a politician’s wife whose life is turned upside down when her husband is caught up in a prostituion scandal. When hubby, who just happens to be the State Attorney, is sent to prison, Alicia returns to the world of corporate law, as she begins the dual task of supporting her children whilst also rebuilding her legal career from scratch.
One of the more understated Netflix originals, Maniac – a surreal, semi-dystopia based on a Norwegian dark comedy – arrived on the network back in 2018. Though Netflix keeps its viewing figures a trade secret, it’s fair to say that Maniac didn’t exactly set the world alight. Which is a bit of a shame really. Not only does it boast excellent turns from Jonah Hill and Emma Stone, it’s also emotionally-engaging, genuinely funny and very original.
So why, then, did Maniac struggle? My own theory lies in the show’s name. With viewers’ enduring fixation with all things grisly, I suspect most turned to Maniac expecting another serial killer slash-fest. When they were confronted with a slightly surreal sci-fi instead, I suspect they tuned out. More fool them, in my view.
The second product of Netflix’s billion-dollar deal with Marvel, Jessica Jones was, by any conventional measure, a serious hit. But while it was keenly devoured by Marvel’s millions-strong fanbase, this psychological thriller never quite achieved what Netflix really wanted – which was to win over viewers who would never consider themselves comic book fans.
The producers had hoped that by striking a more adult tone – and casting the likes of David Tennant and Breaking Bad’s Krysten Ritter – they would open up the Marvel world to older, and more mainstream, viewers. Given the success of Joker some years later, you can see the wisdom in their thinking. Yet Jessica Jones never really cracked the nut.
Still if you like your drama dark and edgy, it’s well worth a watch – even if you’d never be seen dead with a comic book.