Netflix spent somewhere around $13 billion on original content this year. Of course, much of that money went into shows and movies that will materialize at a later date, but 2018 still featured more Originals than Netflix has had in years prior.
This year, Netflix went from releasing one or two quality Originals each week to dropping more than a dozen projects in that timespan. Where I was once able to watch the majority of what Netflix offered, over the course of the year, I had to become more and more selective.
In 2017, I struggled to fill a year-end list with true, bona fide recommendations for Netflix shows. I liked plenty of what Netflix offered, but loved few. I had the opposite problem in 2018. This time around, the hard part was deciding what to leave off to make sure this list didn’t become bloated and unreadable. (Though I still couldn’t help myself from adding a few “Honorable Mentions” at the bottom of the list.)
All of this is to stress that I have real love for all the shows featured and recommended below. I’m defining “best” as the shows that most filled my heart. That’s a subjective approach, of course. But I still believe you should watch them all in the hopes you will find the same joy that I did.
Premise: A fictionalized take on the the real-life rise of the Mexican drug trade. In this retelling, a man tries to unite various drug growers and dealers in Mexico under a new cartel based in Guadalajara. The fledgling DEA tries to stop him.
Value: This show has much more intellectual heft than the traditional action thriller. From the show’s opening scenes, it takes a near-documentary style approach to teach the viewer about the Mexican drug trade. Against all odds, the use of a narrator feels, pardon me, narratively earned. The choice succeeds in setting the real-life stakes for the thriller that unfolds.
“Narcos: Mexico” also has more beauty than you might expect from such a violent project. Sweeping shots of the Mexican landscape abound. Period-piece costuming flaunts stylish colors. The show features attractive actors for almost every role, even run-of-the-mill DEA agents.
As a quasi-narrative reboot from the original “Narcos,” this could have felt stale. But the project filled me with both creative excitement and, of course, the natural excitement that comes from a well-executed thriller. If you can handle the gruesomeness, then you’ll struggle to not binge through the gripping twists and turns of this story.
7. “Salt Fat Acid Heat”
Premise: Samin Nosrat explores the culinary world in an attempt to find the best examples of food made with cooking’s four pillars: salt, fat, acid and heat. Her original book with the same name became a New York Times bestseller upon publication and won a James Beard award in 2018.
Value: Few shows have truly original ideas that can rewire your brain. In this case, the original idea started with Nosrat’s book, but for those who don’t have the time to read large cooking books, this Netflix project accomplishes much of the same effect. As you spend more time with the project, you realize Nosrat’s idea can be applied to all areas of life. We live in a great amalgamation of elements and tend to derive the most pleasure by combining the seemingly disparate. This show could practically start a religion.
Nosrat also succeeds as a charming host. For such a heady concept, this could have turned out to be a brainy slog of a project. And yet “Salt Fat Acid Heat” is delightful through and through.
Of course, the show also features bountiful shots of delicious-looking food. Even ignoring the show’s intellectual bent, images that make your mouth water is winning television. I know I wanted to jump into my television and join Nosrat on her culinary adventures.
6. “Queer Eye”
Premise: Five gay men travel across Georgia to make over various lives. Most of these communities welcome them with open arms, but the conservativism of the area looms over their mission. The episodes seem designed to make the viewer cry.
Value: I admit I bawled a few times while watching this show. I wouldn’t consider myself someone who cries easily, but this show found a way to repeatedly yank at my heartstrings. I guess I’m a sucker for witnessing someone struggling to improve, seemingly doing so and then expressing immense gratitude. Perhaps real life is more cynical and this show buries a lot of “truth,” but sometimes it’s nice to just lose yourself in a great story.
That said, this show wouldn’t have worked if it weren’t for the immense quality of the hosts. All five are experts in their own way (even if that expertise is only immense charisma). More often than not, I actually learned things from their improvement suggestions. Yes, the “nots” were glaring ― the constant product placement and a recurring arch of “improving” a life by simply giving the subject thousands upon thousands of dollars worth of things felt a bit tiresome. But by the end of each episode, I still felt compelled to start the journey again and watch another one.
“Queer Eye” also fills a need for a “good” show that’s also “pleasant.” So many good shows shed light on the atrocities of the human condition, but I can’t watch those sorts of things right before bed after a long day of work. Sometimes you just need a pleasant show that still has some intellectual value. This reality show fills that niche.
5. “The End of the F***ing World”
Premise: Two teens decide they need to run away from their dreadful suburban lives. They know what they don’t want, but given their youth, these kids still struggle to figure out what they actually do want. They ultimately face many horrific perils during their attempted escape.
Value: This show came out of nowhere. Netflix admitted they had no idea this would be a hit and yet it became one of the most popular shows of 2018 on any platform. The official trailer on YouTube alone has earned over 10 million views. Most Netflix trailers didn’t even crack 1 million this year.
The audience response to this highlights something that should be more well-known: Audiences love simple stories with both fun and dark elements. Too many shows try to go too dark or too fun or get overly complicated in the narrative. Of course, it’s no easy task to balance these things, but “The End of the F***ing World” should still serve as an inspiration for more writers.
The show is also very short; the episodes last about 20 minutes and there’s only eight of them. You can watch this show in the time it takes to watch a long movie, but with set-breaks so you don’t feel guilty about stepping away if you need to. More than any other show on this list, I could see Netflix using “The End” as a sort of North Star for future programming.
Premise: A women-led wrestling company tries to get off the ground during the 1980s. The business of male wrestling becomes a global phenomenon during this period, but these female stars still struggle and live in squalor. On top of this, the men who run their business keep holding them back.
Value: It recently came out that Netflix’s algorithm department has begged company execs to cancel this show. Apparently, the show doesn’t have a meaningful audience, despite critics stumbling over themselves to heap more and more praise on it this year. Out of every show on this list, this probably has the biggest disconnect between what the critics want and what subscribers chose.
And that’s a shame. “GLOW” somehow finds a way to balance extreme camp and giddy violence with nuanced portrayals of human emotion and struggle. The show dives deep into the horrors of trying to make it in this world as a woman, let alone a female athlete in a fledgling business that values sexiness. As such, “GLOW” has much to say that we should be listening to in this cultural moment.
I also appreciate the way this show knows how to play with the concepts of quiet and loud. The actual wrestling product onstage is obnoxious and eye-catchy and brash. And those full-throttle exclamation point scenes allow you to appreciate the more silent moments outside the ring, where only screaming on the inside is allowed.
3. “Wild Wild Country”
Premise: This docu-series focused on the rise of the Rajneesh movement. The Rajneesh followers built a cult-like community in Oregon called Rajneeshpuram. Their attempt at a new civilization and way of life quickly went off the rails, to say the least.
Value: This is a rare documentary project that makes you wonder if its subject is even real. During the first episode, I definitely wondered if the show was actually a fiction project using the documentary form as a conceit. With a few Google searches, I realized this did happen, and then started to question how I had no idea this took place in America only a few decades ago.
Besides focusing on a truly compelling subject and telling that story with great skill, “Wild Wild Country” makes the fascinating choice of trying to suck you into the beliefs of the religious community at the center of this. The first couple episodes highlight the various ways the Rajneeshpuram experiment was great and could have changed the world if it weren’t for America’s puritanical beliefs and traditions. Once you’re hooked, the series veers and rips out your heart. It’s an experience that makes you empathize with the subjects and teaches you how people can get sucked into a situation they might not ultimately believe in.
Noting that choice, “Wild Wild Country” still makes a case that the Rajneeshpuram had a few good ideas. By watching this bewildering community in their unique, shades-of-red clothing, I definitely felt awe for the infinite possibilities of this world. Since Rajneeshpuram did, in fact, exist, that means a human life can be far more strange and wonderful than the doldrums we tend to settle for. But ... that “weird” life might not last long.
2. “BoJack Horseman”
Premise: In this fifth season of “BoJack Horseman,” the sad horse-man gets a new acting gig for a Netflix-esque streaming company. He also has to reckon with the awful things he has done and the people he has damaged. But with jokes.
Value: As one of Netflix’s earliest Originals, this show has already had many popular and critically acclaimed seasons. By Season 5, viewers wouldn’t be surprised if the show had already run out of gas. That wasn’t the case though. In fact, this might have even been the show’s best season.
“BoJack Horseman” had a bit of course-correcting to do after Season 4. Although that season still earned critical praise, it veered way off the previously established narrative path and focused on trauma over jokes. Season 5 made sure “BoJack” could be considered a comedy first and foremost again. It also refocused the storyline from the previous seasons, but still found a way to deal emotional blows.
As with every season, the writing stands out as something all television shows should strive for. This show keeps finding innovative ways to balance deep explorations into personal demons with some of the best jokes in any comedy. And that’s a writing feat that deserves heaps and heaps of praise. Most comedies, let alone cartoons, have little to say about the existential nature of existence. “BoJack Horseman” gives you the opportunity to rethink the meaning of life straight from the horse’s mouth.
Premise: Two broken people try to fix themselves through an experimental drug trial. The science behind these drugs may be revolutionary, but exploring this new frontier comes with unexpected and bizarre problems. The two experimenters may not be seeking love at the moment, but they do need to form a bond to survive.
Value: Netflix had a few releases this year that could be considered “blockbusters.” Most of these were shoddy movies such as “The Cloverfield Paradox” and “Mute.” When “Maniac” came along with A-list acting talent and yet another big-budget marketing rollout, I figured it had a good chance to be yet another misfire for Netflix. I was wrong. “Maniac” lived up to the marketing hype and then went on to surprise me to no end.
Despite the famous actors, creativity is the real star of this show. Patrick Somerville, the show’s writer, had permission to let his imagination run wild. This show brims with one-off sight gags, outrageous characters and truly bizarre storylines that somehow still credibly fit together like an elaborate puzzle.
Perhaps the most surprising part of this show was its humor and levity. While a show like “BoJack Horseman” presents as a comedy and you can expect to laugh, “Maniac” presents more as a drama about mental health. To find a few of the best jokes I saw all year amid a dive into depression, well, that thrilled me. You haven’t lived your best life until you’ve seen Jonah Hill transform into a hawk and then voice a weird, echo-y overdub to yell words of encouragement as his hawk character flies through New York City and barren landscapes. “Maniac” is magical.
Eight more exceptional shows that I really enjoyed, but didn’t quite make the cut. You should still check these out though ...
- “American Vandal”
- “Big Mouth”
- “Dear White People”
- “The Haunting of Hill House”
- “Ugly Delicious”
- “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”