It’s popular now to “binge” shows on Netflix, especially shows that you’ve just discovered but have a huge amount of episodes for you to get through. I’ve already covered my thoughts on half-hour comedies and hour-long science fiction and fantasy, so now here’s my stab at hour-long dramas.
*Disclaimer* These are shows that are set in a realistic world. Shows like Lost, that tend to veer towards the supernatural, got placed on my list of sci-fi and fantasy shows.
2013-Present, Series In Progress
Bates Motel is a prequel to the renowned Hitchcock film Psycho, which I’ve actually never seen. I do know the basics, that young Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) grows up to become mentally unstable, a murderer, and talks to the skeleton of his mother. I don’t worry about spoiling it, because that foreknowledge makes watching this show an incredible experience, knowing where it might end up.
Paired with Highmore is Vera Farmiga as his mother Norma (yes, Norma and Norman). It’s their relationship that builds the core of this series, as it falls somewhere in this spectrum between unconditional love and uncomfortable adoration. You get to see the things that take place, that cause a high schooler to become delusional, unstable, and a killer. You see the warning signs, you see the train coming, and it’s an absolute joy.
To give us that story, we see a series of events taking place in smalltown coastal Oregon (finally, more shows in Oregon). There’s mysterious visitors in town, a turf war over marijuana, and some sketchiness in the police department, which gives us some incredible and enthralling stories for our heroes(?) to partake in. Most episodes have at least one shocking moment, which means pushing that “Next episode” button is really easy. There’s two seasons on Netflix and it’s been a blast, full of great performances, and some edge-of-your-seat action.
Pros: Stellar character-driven performances, tons of shocks and twists, absolutely enthralling television. Cons: A little scary for those of you who don’t like thrills, knowing how the whole thing ends might ruin the suspense for some.
2008-2013, Series Completed
There’s two types of people. Those that absolutely love Breaking Bad and those that have never seen it. I’ve met very few people that have tried watching and given up. I’m sure a small group exists, but for the most part, Breaking Bad makes a fan out of anyone that gives it a shot. I was unconvinced for the longest time, as I had seen a few episodes out of order and didn’t understand what was the happening. The magic only happens if you start from the beginning. This is the story of Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and his journey from hero to villain. That isn’t spoiling anything, since even in the first few episodes you get a glimpse into what he’s capable of.
And that is what makes this story so interesting. It is a smart character study of what a man will do for his family, and in turn, what those actions turn him into. He begins a mild-mannered chemistry high school teacher who is told that he has cancer. In order to pay for treatment, he teams up with an old student of his (Aaron Paul) and together they create the best meth that New Mexico has ever seen.
Some people might have the complaint that Breaking Bad is a little slow because there might be multiple episodes that come and go without much action. But this isn’t an action show. This isn’t 24. Again, this is a character study. In those quiet moments, you see the transformation occurring and it’s absolutely fascinating. That doesn’t mean there isn’t action, though, as there are many moments that leave your jaw dropped in shock. The show just builds to those moments and excellently executes them.
The show is also the perfect length, ending at 5 seasons and without ever resorting to much fluff to keep the show running.
Pros: A great character study with stellar performances by Cranston and Paul, perfect length of the show, amazing action that accentuates the emotional build-up. Cons: Can be a little slow if you’re impatient, lead character becomes a bit hard to root for.
2007-2012, Series Completed
I missed Chuck when it first aired so I only recently worked my way through it. I have a few people that repeatedly told me to watch it, so my expectations were high going in. Maybe a little too high.
Chucks revolves around a computer repairman (Zachary Levi) who somehow gets caught up in a CIA operation that embeds a computer system into his brain. To protect this system, he is assigned a handler (Yvonne Strahovski) and a bodyguard (Adam Baldwin). He must balance his new life as an operative with his old life as a normal guy with a normal life.
In discussing Breaking Bad, I referenced that 5 seasons was the perfect amount but Chuck somehow managed to make 5 seasons feel way too long. I think the show did two things to cause some early fatigue. It made a few big changes that were a little unwelcome, which shows usually do in their last season (such as “Now ___ is an agent too!” or “Instead of secret agents, now they’re ___ instead!”). These big shifts might’ve been entertaining in theory but it constantly shook up what made the show work in the early seasons. The show also had a lot of fluff built in, so working through these 20-something episode seasons was draining. Finishing this show was a bit of a chore, even though I found it fun and entertaining.
In terms of casting, Zachary Levi carried the show, though I never really felt attached to Strahovski as his love interest. I was more invested in Chuck’s relationships in the real world, including his best friend (Joshua Gomez) and his sister (Sarah Lancaster). One thing that drew me out of the show was its constant pushing of outside cameos that tried to please its nerd fans (“Hey look! It’s Lana from Smallville!” or “We got Superman Returns’ Brandon Routh, see!”). This constant obvious pandering to its target demographic was distracting.
Pros: Funny overall, great work by Levi, some interesting arcs. Cons: Too many radical changes that didn’t pay off, too many cameos that lacked substance, a lot of fluff episodes.
2004-2012, Series Completed
I covered Desperate Housewives in-depth with this Finally Caught Up feature but here are some summarized thoughts.
The show follows four (or five, some seasons) housewives that live in a cul-de-sac and relish in drama. It begins fairly mild-mannered, with the occasional affair, but the show quickly charges into daytime soap opera territory when it begins to introduce murders, terrorism plots, and fake identities. It’s entertaining yes, I just didn’t expect the show to go that route. There’s also a rotating cast of men in the show, but they almost always turn out to be evil/murderers/psychopaths.
In the end though, it wasn’t these crazy ridiculous stories that I gravitated towards, it was the more human-centric stories, which were definitely there but sometimes overshadowed by whatever huge conspiracy was also happening. Those of you that like the drama of daytime soap operas (or to an extent, even the forced drama of reality television) might really enjoy Desperate Housewives. I liked it enough to finish it, so that has to say something.
Pros: Some touching human stories, high drama mystery, some nice performances. Cons: Some mysteries weren’t engaging and overshadowed human stories, too cheesy and dramatic at times, 8 seasons was way too long.
2006-2013, Series Completed
Dexter is divisive for two reasons. There are seasons that are some of the best television you’ll ever see. And then there are seasons that are absolutely atrocious and the show ends with an ending that most fans will be unsatisfied with. So is it worth it?
The show stars Michael C. Hall as Dexter Morgan, a blood splatter specialist with the Miami Police Department. He’s got a secret though and it’s eating him up inside. When criminals get free but he’s convinced they did it, he murders them, and always gets away with it because he understands what the police will look for. It’s an interesting tale of vigilantism paired with a mental disorder. Each season of Dexter revolves around one key serial killer that Dexter seeks to find and kill (basically). Like I said, some seasons are the best that TV can do. I thoroughly enjoyed seasons 1 and 2 and then season 4, which features John Lithgow as the Trinity Killer, one of the most chilling villains in recent years.
Hall is great as the emotionless Dexter, managing to imbue just enough personality to keep us interested but not enough to really have us rooting for him (kind of how I felt with Breaking Bad‘s Walter White). Some of the supporting cast is grating, most notably Dexter’s sister Debra (Jennifer Carpenter). I couldn’t stand her.
So this show is a toss-up. It lasted way too long and the later seasons were forgettable. After the highlight of season four, the next four seasons wander into bad places and ruin the momentum (and potential) this show had.
Pros: Great work by Michael C. Hall with an interesting character, some stellar villains, intriguing premise. Cons: Lasted too long, entire seasons were forgettable, and some supporting characters were irritating to watch.
2004-2012, Series Completed
This is another show I missed completely when it was first on television and only recently got through. It stars Hugh Laurie as Gregory House, a diagnostic specialist who helps handle the rarest and strangest of cases. He has a rotating team of assistants throughout the eight seasons, along with a crew of other doctors and peers at the hospital. House M.D. has a pretty standard formula, each week tackling a few unique cases, in a format similar to other shows like CSI or Grey’s Anatomy. Whatever solution they guess at the beginning is definitely not right and they spend 45 minutes figuring out the mystery.
What makes House M.D. special is its main cast of characters. Hugh Laurie as Gregory House is spectacular, as the genius yet self-destructive lead. You want him to save the day but he’s an absolute jackass the whole time. And “jackass” is a light way of putting it. He does things throughout the series that are verging on irredeemable. Things that no real person would forgive. But he’s saving lives, so how much is he allowed to get away with? It’s compelling to watch House fall apart and burn every bridge he’s ever made and every episode you’re hoping that he might finally change.
The show manages to merge two things that people love. Weekly mysteries that make you think and a character so flawed and complicated that you hope he can change. We all know someone with self-destructive qualities so it’s hard not to transpose that onto the show.
House M.D. lasts eight seasons, which is beyond what most shows deserve. It manages to work though, through smart writing and how they handle the supporting characters. House’s team rotates throughout seasons but the past team doesn’t disappear. When someone leaves the main cast, they stick around in a supporting role as a surgeon or doctor in the emergency room or whatever. It makes sense that they would get promoted to another area, which also gives us a chance to occasionally catch up on them. The new characters that get rotated in also manage to stand out and be interesting, as opposed to the usual resentment of replacements. House M.D. also manages to change settings a few times, taking House and putting him in entirely new situations, but it never lasts long. Other shows would spend a whole season in a new environment but House is smart enough to only spend a few episodes and let us see House in a new way, before bringing him back to the familiar. It makes eight seasons feel right and each change is a refreshing one, something very few shows get right.
Pros: Great cast and a great way to weave them in and out, some intriguing mysteries and a reliable formula, and Hugh Laurie’s lead is incredibly compelling to watch. Cons: Sometimes it is hard to root for House but as a character study, he’s fascinating.
2013-Present, Series In Progress
Probably the flagship series for Netflix, House of Cards was the first show to really legitimize streaming networks. It’s boosted by performances from Hollywood heavy hitters Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, who play married couple Frank and Claire Underwood. When the show begins, Frank is the “majority whip,” a Congressman who is responsible for gathering votes and making sure things happen. Frank is known for his cutthroat methods and do-whatever-it-takes attitude.
The show is about politics, so you kind of expect going in that things might get a little slow at times, and that’s definitely true. Season-long arcs often focus on making sure a certain bill or vote passes and some of the details drag a little bit. There are definitely high points in terms of action, with key characters being killed and big shocker twists, but a majority of the show is debates, secret meetings, and logistical exposition. It’s fascinating, don’t get me wrong, but not everyone has the attention span for it.
What makes the show really worth watching is Kevin Spacey’s portrayal of Frank Underwood. He’s manipulative and deceptive and it’s absolutely incredible to watch. He’s not a character you’re rooting for but I liken it to watching Breaking Bad, as the journey of this villain is just too enthralling not to watch.
Pros: Excellent acting (most notably Spacey and Wright), intriguing political struggles, beautiful cinematography. Cons: Can be slow at times if you’re looking for nonstop action, some political verbage went above my head.
2014-Present, Series in Progress
This is likely one of the most hyped shows on television right now, especially now that Viola Davis took home an Emmy for her performance. I watched the show hesitantly but I found it to be really entertaining though not the absolute best show I’ve ever seen. There’s a lot to love but a lot that doesn’t work too.
Viola Davis stars as law professor Annalise Keating, who teaches criminal law courses that essentially teach the students how someone could get away with murder. It’s through this lens that we get “murder of the week” episodes that feature someone needing her (and her students’) help. She picks a handful to be her assistants throughout the school year and these students become entangled in a murder mystery they would have never expected. The show is structured in both present day and flashbacks, though the flashbacks feature more prominently.
In terms of performances, Davis is the shining star. Unfortunately, I couldn’t stand many of the students. The acting is inconsistent and the characters are shallow. Again, Davis (and her character) carry the show, but the same attention isn’t given to the students that we spend most of the time with. The smaller mysteries are really fun to watch unfold, but the larger murder mystery seems unnecessarily convoluted and confusing, if only to keep us from guessing what’s happening. A few twists seemed to exist only to throw us off the scent. All of the flashforwards happen during one night and all of those shots have this grainy dark-green sepia thing going on, which made all those scenes blend together and were relatively uninteresting to watch after a few episodes.
Pros: Standout performance by Viola Davis and an incredibly deep character for her to play, interesting episodic cases to tackle. Cons: Larger mystery felt unnecessarily confusing, bad writing made students feel superficial.
2015-Present, Series in Progress
This “based on real events” series focuses on the rise of Pablo Escobar (Wagner Moura) and the launch of cocaine trafficking into the United States from Columbia. We meet Escobar as he’s beginning this endeavor and follow him til he becomes one of the richest men in the world (spoiler alert?). This all happens in the span of a season, so there are several time jumps to keep the action going. There’s two plotlines we follow, one being Escobar’s, and the other being the DEA agents stationed in Columbia to take him down (Boyd Holbrook and Game of Thrones’ Pedro Pascal).
The biggest lure of this show is the fascination that this (essentially) really happened. We know the big milestones in Escobar’s career but we don’t always know how one thing led to another, so the show creatively fills in those blanks, so it’s not exactly a true story. Still, the story is fascinating, and shot in a way that reminded me of Fincher (and specifically The Social Network) where fast cuts and dialogue give you lots of exposition without boring you. We watch as the first cocaine mule flies into Miami, how the first factories were created, how this man became a myth. It’s incredibly engaging and visually stellar.
Like I said, there’s two storylines. Escobar’s is fantastic, most notably due to Moura’s incredible and subtle performance. He is kind of charming but at all times dangerous and manipulative. However, the storyline involving the DEA is a little less engaging and Holbrook as our lead “hero” is uninteresting and bland, so I found myself disengaged everytime he appeared on screen. Pascal as his partner was much more interesting but couldn’t carry the burden of the entire show.
Pros: Incredible villain with stellar acting by Wagner Moura, great cinematography and direction, compelling real-life events keep you watching. Cons: Holbrook as our lead is uninteresting and his storyline drags the show down.
2013-Present, Series In Progress
This somewhat-biographical series focuses on Piper Chapman (Taylor Shilling) as she gets sent to prison and must learn to survive by making uneasy alliances with other women in the big house. Things get complicated when her ex-lover Alex (Laura Prepon) shows up and makes Piper rethink her relationship on the outside (Jason Biggs).
In the two seasons currently available on Netflix, we slowly get to know the characters via a flashback mechanic similar to Lost, where we see character-centric episodes that slowly reveal why these characters are in prison and what their lives were like. This is where the show gets interesting, as its supporting cast is much more interesting than its leads. I found myself caring less and less about Piper as the show progressed but luckily we do get to spend substantial time with these other characters.
The outstanding supporting cast includes Kate Mulgrew (Star Trek: Voyager), Uzo Aduba, Samira Wiley, and Laverne Cox. While they may go episodes without much screen time, when we do get a sneak peak into their past lives, it’s always fascinating and their performances are incredible.
Pros: Outstanding character work, interesting premise that actually gets better as the show progresses, stellar talent to back it up. Cons: Leads become the most uninteresting characters, some great characters go episodes without being seen.
2005-2009, Series Completed
Prison Break is one of those shows that people just kind of stopped talking about. It makes sense why, though, as Prison Break was built to only last a season. It’s a shame more shows aren’t specifically made to only last a season, they might be better for it (I’m looking at you Heroes, Once Upon a Time, and The Following). The problem here is that the main conflict in the show is resolved and therefore the rest of the series is ultimately uninteresting.
Let’s back up. For those of you unfamiliar… Prison Break is about Michael Scofield (Wentworth Miller), who goes into a prison to help break his innocent brother out (played by Dominic Purcell). The trick here is that Scofield managed to score blueprints of the prison and has done extensive research on everyone inside, so when he shows up, he has a season-long plan of escaping. It’s great television, with some incredible performances.
Spoiler alert: They escape. This means seasons 2-4 are a struggle. Season 3 tried to recapture the magic by placing our cast in a Panama prison, but it failed to spark the same creativity as season one. And season four was a strange and convoluted way to end the series.
So should you watch? Like Dexter, I’m conflicted. Some great stuff in season 1 but 2-4 are forgettable. If you have the willpower, you could probably just stop after the season 1 finale.
Pros: Super interesting and engaging first season, some outstanding performances. Cons: Lasted too long, failed to recapture what worked in season one, some performances are shallow and uninteresting.
2012-Present, Series in Progress
Kerry Washington stars as Olivia Pope, a “fixer” who takes national scandals and somehow gets her clients through it, either by deception, uncovering the truth, or inventing their own version of the truth. She has a team of experts, including computer hackers, lawyers, and even people ready to dispose of a body and clean up a crime scene. Each week she handles a new scandal in a procedural nature but there’s also a larger scandal that involves Pope herself, as she’s wrapped up in a love affair with the President of the United States (played by Tony Goldwyn).
While I wasn’t too interested in the “will they or won’t they” nature of her affair with the President, the weekly cases that they tackled were incredibly engaging. Imagine a show like Crime Scene Investigation but instead of necessarily finding the truth, they manipulated the situation to get the outcome they wanted. It’s an intense show, featuring lots of death and mayhem, but the romance subplot(s) make this show interesting to a huge range of viewers.
In terms of performances, Washington can be a bit melodramatic (her scenes with Goldwyn as the President can sometimes be cringeworthy) but some darker arcs give her an incredible depth and a lot to work with. Season four ends with a finale that should’ve been the series finale, so I worry about the show moving forward, so the score for this show may go down if the last season(s) drag the plot on for too long. Only time will tell.
Pros: Great performance by Washington, stellar week-to-week cases, lots of intensity and cliffhangers to keep you engaged. Cons: A bit overdramatic, affair plot with the President is uninteresting at times.
2008-2014, Series Completed
This show kind of flew under my radar until the final season was airing on television and I finally started catching up on Netflix. We join Jackson “Jax” Teller (Charlie Hunnam), as he tries to control a chaotic motorcycle club called the Sons of Anarchy. He’s the Vice President under his surrogate father figure (Ron Perlman), who is now with his mother (Katey Sagal). Jax struggles to do what’s right, while still doing what’s best for his club, which often involves drug and weapon shipments and plenty of death and mayhem, all taking place in the small northern California town of Charming.
The first season of Sons of Anarchy is extremely compelling, thrusting you into this dangerous yet somehow alluring world. Like other violent and gripping television shows, it relies on plenty of shock twists at the end of episodes, creating that sense of “I need to watch the next one!” that is perfect for Netflix binge-watching. However, since it’s so easy to get rid of important characters, the show did struggle with replacing them with characters we might care about. As the series entered its past few seasons, some of the more interesting characters were dead or gone and replaced with filler characters, that really just dragged the story down. And some characters that should have been killed off stuck around for way too long.
And while some shows manage to create a villain as the main character (Dexter, Breaking Bad), this show failed to make Jax Teller a character you’d root for (or even care about).
This show falls in the same category as other shows like Weeds, Chuck, and Dexter. It could have been a great four or five season show but stretching to seven meant storylines that didn’t mesh, confusing motivations from our characters to trigger new plot points, and uninteresting characters sticking around much longer than they should’ve. It’s an entertaining ride but it has a rough landing in the final season, which was a bit disappointing.
Pros: Fascinating world, lots of shock moments and twists, great action. Cons: A few filler characters, last few seasons struggled to keep momentum, Jax Teller is an unlikeable character and that makes the show a little frustrating.
2006-2010, Series Completed
I joined Ugly Betty in its second season but it was hard not to fall for this show, as it’s full of charm and wit and wasn’t really like anything on television. It stars America Ferrera as title character Betty Suarez, an aspiring fashion journalist who gets a job as the assistant to a womanizing socialite (and head of one of the world’s largest fashion magazines). The dynamic between Betty and this playboy Daniel (Eric Mabius) is what keeps this show running, as she learns to run a magazine and he learns to be a human being. It’s a touching story mostly, with great performances on both sides.
The show manages to succeed on both fronts, as both a laugh-filled comedy and a tear-jerker drama. Most of the laughs come from the eccentric characters that Betty’s workplace is populated by and most of the tears come from her home life, as she struggles to take care of her father and her sister.
The show lasted a perfect amount of time (only four seasons) but Betty’s path through the profession made sense and happened quickly enough to make sense. The finale left me satisfied though some fans were upset it didn’t end “the way they wanted.” I was fine with it and thought it gave all our characters appropriate closure.
Pros: Hilarious yet some really touching episodes, stellar work by Ferrera as our lead, perfect length for this type of show. Cons: Some have criticized Mabius for being flat, I don’t agree.
2005-2012, Series Completed
Mary-Louise Parker stars as Nancy Botwin, a suburban mother who is down on her luck financially and resorts to growing/selling weed to make money. It’s kind of like a happier and less extreme version of Breaking Bad. The show tends to be funnier with the help of Kevin Nealon and Justin Kirk who add some serious comedy firepower to the show. The show went on for eight seasons, moving the Botwin family to several different cities.
The show worked for the first few seasons. Lots of secrets, drama with other drug dealers, lots of comedy… But then the show made a weird left turn when they moved the Botwin clan to the San Diego area, where Nancy then somehow ended up dating a Mexican drug lord. It was a super weird story and lacked the appeal of the first few seasons. Unfortunately, viewership dipped at this point and even when the family returned up north, it didn’t really stick for me anymore.
So should you watch? I’d say yes, it’s an entertaining show with a fair amount of comedy, but there’s just a few seasons in the middle that failed to make an impact. There are plenty of other solid one-hour shows I’d recommend first.
Pros: Interesting premise the first few seasons, great comedic work, some solid twists and turns. Cons: Lasted too long and made some strange left turns that negatively impacted the show.
What do you think? Agree or disagree? What shows haven’t I covered that I should check out on Netflix streaming?