Last week, bowl of untouched pasta in my lap, I browsed Netflix long enough for my mom to call once and my cat to poop twice. I’d been waiting for something in the New section to produce a flash of recognition — You Vs. Wild, Mighty Little Bheem, Black Summer, No Good Nick, Who Would You Take to a Deserted Island? — but every title drew a blank. What were these shows? Who were they for? And most importantly, could any redeem the sunk cost of the 30 minutes I’d spend perusing them without making a decision? In the end, I picked Instagram.
Back in 2013, when Netflix dipped its toe into original programming, I made a point to watch every release. House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black the first year; then Sense8 and Narcos; Stranger Things and The Crown. Between 2013 and 2016, Netflix released only 12 original shows. Each drop felt thoughtful and likely to become a viral success (and many of them were). But within two years, according to Quartz, that number would jump to over 850 original titles — 345 of which premiered in 2018 alone. That’s an average of nearly 30 new shows per month. Add in the growing original titles available on Hulu and Amazon Prime and it’s a miracle anyone can ever decide what the hell to watch these days.
This new maze-like landscape, the presumed result of freedom from the constraints of cable line-ups and spending a shit-ton of money (Netflix allocated $13 billion to original programming last year and saw record-breaking profits), does have its upsides. For around $10 a month per service, there are seemingly infinite shows for everyone and every taste — a personality-quiz approach to TV I’ve seen reflected in Netflix’s ads. (“You have 6 shows in common with anyone on this train,” read a recent one on the subway. “Find yours.”) It’s also meant more shows with diverse creators, directors, and casts, meaning a viewer today is more likely than ever to see themselves represented on screen. And, in the case of straight-to-streaming movies, it’s meant a resurgence of the mid-budget film, a refreshing shift away from $100 million-plus blockbusters that have dominated Hollywood for the last decade.
But even if TV’s never been better, it’s also never been more frustrating to navigate. Per psychologist Barry Schwartz’ “paradox of choice,” whereby having more options paralyzes instead of liberates, picking a show (not to mention a service) to unwind has become, ironically, a source of stress. That may sound a little absurd, but consider our generation’s obsession with productivity, perennial burnout, and unprecedented rates of anxiety and it becomes a little less surprising. In the words of my therapist, we can make anything stressful.
The MC Escher-like state of streaming isn’t helping though, and it makes me wonder whether the industry is already poised for another disruption. As TV becomes less communal and more tailored to the individual, will viewers become increasingly isolated from each other? Will tighter curations become the new streaming luxury or just lead us further into echo chambers?
The conversation raises more questions than answers, but one thing I do know is I’m far more likely to trust the TV recommendations of my peers (or more generally, people on the internet) than an automated “Picked for you” section, no matter how sophisticated the algorithm. Which is why, last week, post-spiral, I asked the Man Repeller team for their most whole-hearted recommendations. Their replies were so good I decided to share them below, along with my own. Chip in with yours too. I plan to come straight here next time I’m going in circles, tepid leftovers in my lap.
The Comedy-Drama You’ll Be Quoting for Weeks
What to watch: Russian Doll
Why: I knew I loved Natasha Lyonee before, but Russian Doll solidified how much of a genuinely original talent she is. I wish I could thank whoever gave her a budget and let her go wild. This show, a sort of modern New York-spin Groundhog Day, is totally outrageous, charming and addicting, and it’s so obviously true to her vision. If you haven’t had a chance to watch, I highly recommend. It’s pretty quick and easy to get through, and very much worth the hours. -Haley, Deputy Editor
The Soap Opera That Doubles as a Security Blanket
What to watch: Jane the Virgin
Why: I’ve been wanting to write something about Jane the Virgin for a long time. I spent years overlooking it for its title (I hate it), but I finally gave it a go last year after it was nominated for yet another award. I was in the midst of packing up my apartment to move (a.k.a. lots of time to idly watch) and I ended up finishing all four seasons within a month. It’s a great show to watch alone or while you’re doing chores. It’s cheesy and absurd and so neatly contained within its own universe (same characters, same locations) that it serves as the perfect escape from reality. It’s also cleverly written and straight-up fun. I count it among my top binge-watching experiences. -Haley (again)
The Show That Will Make You Cringe AND Cry
What to watch: PEN15
Why: PEN15 celebrates a true-to-life adolescent awkwardness I didn’t realize I’d never seen mastered on screen, homing in with hyper-specificity about what was so hard and fun and weird about coming of age in the time of dial-up AOL. It is so refreshing to see a show attempt to paint late girlhood in an unflinching way, honoring how hard it can be. PEN15 never laughs at its characters but doesn’t shy away from their flaws. It’s also comedically genius. -Nora, Copywriter
Sci-Fi for People Who Don’t Think They’re Into Sci-Fi
What to watch: The OA
Why: I watched season 1 a few years ago when it aired on Netflix, and afterward became the world’s expert on actor Emory Cohen. Season 2 (or “Part II” as it’s called in The OA universe), released this year, was even better than the first: It’s the most gripping show I’ve streamed in a really long time. I’m not a sci-fi person by any means, but the way that Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij have written this riddle of a story, with so many intertwined storylines teeming with cultural commentary, has captivated me completely. Every detail of it is considered, from the music to the costume design to the penmanship on a series of cassette tapes in the protagonist’s office. -Edith, Senior Photo Editor
The Teen Thriller That Knows Its Angles
What to watch: The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina
Why: This is definitely an absurd choice, because this really goes against the fundamentals of what I enjoy when it comes to consuming film/TV, but I truly love it. It was camp beyond camp. The occult, the monsters, the plot twists and turns, the cast of characters… everything about this show is just *fun*. Sometimes you cringe, but then you remember that the show is incredibly self-aware in its tweeny-ness and cheese (in a way that I think Riverdale has failed to be). I’ve blown through all the episodes so quickly that I actually returned to them to re-watch recently. -Amalie, Social Media Editor
The Campiest Organized Crime Drama on TV
What to watch: Claws
Why: I typically have two modes of television programming I’m drawn to: the reality-ish (Drag Race, Project Runway, Queer Eye, Real Housewives of anywhere, etc.) and dramas (Pose, Ozark, American Horror Story, etc.) but when I started binging Claws last year, I was instantly hooked. The styling, the writing, and the acting are all flawless, but what keeps me refreshing for a season 3 release date is how the show seamlessly blurs the lines of drama and camp in such a fun, entertaining way. -Matt, Head of Operations
The Wholesome Show About Teenage Dirtbags
What to watch: Derry Girls
Why: Totally unlike anything else on Netflix, Derry Girls is about a group of teenagers growing up in Northern Ireland in the ’90s. The main characters go to an all-girls Catholic school — though they’re not all girls — and have been aptly referred to as “wholesome teenage dirtbags” by the The New Yorker. This show is weird, totally unpredictable, and, depending how familiar you are with the Irish accent, may require subtitles, but it’s also hilariously delightful. -Gyan, Managing Editor
The Show That Will Genuinely Surprise You
What to watch: Killing Eve
Why: I had almost no idea what Killing Eve was about but I kept hearing people say it was good so I decided to give it a try. Plus, Sandra Oh is a queen so that really pushed it over the edge for me. But the show is so funny and dry I find myself pausing it frequently so I can laugh. What really stands out to me is how amazing the music choices are; it’s on par with how perfect the music was in Game of Thrones when *spoiler* Jaime gets his hand cut off. I watch a lot of TV and there’s something really unique and refreshing and honestly surprising about Killing Eve that has made me really excited to start each episode. -Hillary, Product Manager
The Comedy Series That’s Short and Easy to Digest
What to watch: Patriot Act by Hasan Minaj
Why: Since watching his Netflix special, Homecoming, I’ve become a really big fan of Hasan Minaj. I didn’t really know much of him when he was on The Daily Show but I watched Homecoming alone, then with my parents, and then once again with my brother and we all agreed that he nailed it. Patriot Act, as he describes it, positions him as the Indian John Oliver, tackling a different topic each week from Amazon and Supreme to content moderation and, very recently, the Indian elections (risky, I know!). I find him a really refreshing addition to the comedy scene, the show is short, funny, easy to digest and well thought-out, and, on a personal note, he’s someone I can relate to. -Jasmin, Director of Partnerships
The Show With the Juiciest Courtroom Scenes Since The Good Wife
What to watch: The Good Fight
Where: Amazon Prime
Why: It’s filled the void in my heart left by The Good Wife, for one (and the same creators are behind it), but more than that, it’s the rare show that’s both incredibly entertaining and unafraid to call out the absurdities of our current political landscape. Juicy courtroom drama scenes and plot development are interrupted by occasional animated shorts that explain things like congressional articles of impeachment or the history of Roy Cohn’s relationship with Donald Trump. It sounds weird, but it works. Overall, though, it’s just really, really good television — original storylines, characters you genuinely root for and a starring role for Christine Baranski. -Harling, Fashion Editor
The Series That Will Inspire Awe and Action
What to watch: Our Planet
Why: Being concerned about climate change feels like being concerned about the White Walkers in Game of Thrones. In comparison, every other topic feels like discussing whether the Lannisters or the Starks or the Targaryens should be sitting on the iron throne. (This metaphor makes zero sense if you don’t watch Game of Thrones, sorry.) Our Planet is beautifully shot and both inspiring and heartbreaking in its storytelling. I watch each episode feeling like I’m more connected to the individual examples of how climate change is impacting the world we live in. It’s entertainment that makes me feel smarter for having watched. -Naveen, President
The Plot-Twist-Filled Show That Will Keep You on Your Toes
What to watch: Sneaky Pete
Where: Amazon Prime
Why: After seeing Sneaky Pete ads in the subway, Henry and I decided to give it a go. And wow, it hit all the markers: gripping twists and turns that left us speculating outcomes for hours after each episode, and the plot remained thrilling without being overly heavy. It was a present-day plausible-enough plot that had us screaming and laughing and rapid-predicting and not once checking our phones. -Starling, Office Coordinator
Others that regularly induce office-wide discussions include This Is Us, Schitt’s Creek, Game of Thrones, and Insecure. What other shows recently cut through the noise in your recent memory?
Photos via Netflix.