Polygon’s latest series, The Masterpieces of Streaming, looks at the new batch of classics that have emerged from an evolving era of entertainment.
The idea of marathoning TV shows existed before the advent of streaming, but Netflix turned it into a model. Though the term began popping up in the 1990s, the streaming service popularized “binge-watching” in 2013 once Netflix rebranded from a TV-on-DVD mail service to a platform producing original content. In the years since, this model has changed not only the way we as consumers and fans watch television, but arguably also how it’s created and written. More and more shows feel designed from the jump to be binged in one sitting — or at least in batches of multiple episodes — with changes to traditional pace and structure making the next episode almost imperative to understand what is going on.
Not every show produced for a streaming service has curbed to the style or is even best watched as a binge. Some lack the necessary narrative momentum, while others focus on such serious subject matters that each episode demands to be thoroughly processed before the next one plays. (Barry Jenkins’ The Underground Railroad is a recent, perfect example of the latter.) But the binge-watch remains unique to the Streaming Age as an experience viewers have only come to know in the last decade.
In an attempt to determine the successful binges of the era, we looked at all the original series that debuted on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Disney Plus, Apple TV Plus, HBO Max, Peacock, Paramount Plus, Discovery Plus, and YouTube Premium since 2013 (sorry to Quibi, may it rest in peace). While our first inclination was to include only the shows that were initially released all at once, in the tradition of the original Netflix binge model, a weekly release schedule doesn’t necessarily preclude a streaming show from being inherently bingeable since most writers and showrunners have little say in how their products are delivered. We also realized that to limit shows in this way would be to discount another modern tendency: waiting for full seasons of shows to be available before watching or watching batches of episodes whenever time allows, often resulting in mini-binge sessions throughout an entire season.
When it came to including international programs, things got a bit trickier. Many shows that air linearly overseas are released as full seasons on streaming services in the U.S. Unless one is well versed in licensing content and worldwide distribution, it’s possible they’re unaware the show they’re watching wasn’t intended to be viewed all at once on a streaming platform. So, for the sake of this story, and because we’re in the U.S., international programs that were exclusively released in the States on a streaming service are considered to be streaming shows simply for this exercise.
So, without further ado, these are the 25 best and most bingeable shows of the Streaming Era.
Babylon Berlin (Netflix)
An example of an international series that aired weekly overseas before taking off on streaming in the United States — albeit a little slowly given some people’s continued reluctance to watch shows with subtitles — the exceptional German series Babylon Berlin is a striking noir set against the backdrop of the waning Weimar Republic. Based on the novels of Volker Kutscher, the series follows Gaeron Rath (Volker Bruch), a young detective and veteran living with PTSD and survivor’s guilt who is tasked with investigating a pornography ring in Berlin. Unofficially assisted in his endeavors by a flapper with her sights set on becoming Berlin’s first female homicide detective (Liv Lisa Fries), Rath embarks on a twisted journey through the city’s seedy underworld, where he comes face to face with unscrupulous gangsters and experiences surprising heel turns. With impressive visuals that perfectly capture the prosperity of the times and a complex, layered narrative that sows the seeds of political unrest, Babylon Berlin is a beautiful and captivating drama that holds your attention, urging you to keep watching even though you know—or perhaps because you know — the Great Depression and the fall of democracy are both banging on the door. —Kaitlin Thomas
Another example of an international series that aired weekly on linear television overseas, the British series Bodyguard was released all at once in the U.S. via Netflix. The show stars Game of Thrones’ Richard Madden as David Budd, an Army veteran dealing with the effects of PTSD who has become a police sergeant in the Metropolitan Police Service. After successfully foiling a terrorism plot, he lands a new position as the protection officer for the ambitious but controversial Home Secretary (Keeley Hawes). David’s new position thrusts him into an increasingly dangerous and intense environment full of personal and professional intrigue as sexual tension spills over, complex conspiracies are revealed, and bombs threaten to explode. The six-episode political thriller is the definition of bingeable, with a perfectly paced story that ratchets up the tension with each episode before cliffhangers immediately have viewers clicking play on the next episode. The conclusion leaves viewers breathless and desperate for a second season, though one has sadly yet to materialize. —KT
Netflix’s experiment with the romance genre paid off big time in the winter of 2020 when the world fell madly and instantly in love with Bridgerton, a heady and luxurious adaptation of Julia Quinn’s Regency Era romance novels. Focused on the aristocratic Bridgerton siblings and their search for love in London’s high society, much of the show’s success is the result of a dashing leading man, Regé-Jean Page’s Simon, the Duke of Hastings, who makes viewers everywhere swoon with his charm, and the will-they, won’t-they relationship he engages in with eldest Bridgerton daughter Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor). While many viewers impatiently binged episode after episode to see the two finally get together, others were drawn to the the show’s rather steamy, unapologetic approach to sex, while more still were preoccupied by Lady Whistledown, the show’s very own Gossip Girl, and the modern flourishes that help to eliminate the stuffiness that often permeates period dramas. When all of those elements are combined, they create an addictive series dripping with sexual tension that stands out not just from the rest of the romance genre, but from all of TV. —KT
Western anime has a reputation for being far inferior to the Japanese imports they emulate, but there are exceptions to every rule, and Castlevania is one of them. Based on the video game franchise of the same name, the four-season series finds a mourning Dracula (Graham McTavish) declaring war on humanity after the church burned his mortal wife at the stake on false accusations of witchcraft. In order to save the people of Wallachia, excommunicated monster hunter Trevor Belmont (Richard Armitage) teams up with the magic-wielding Sypha Belnades (Alejandra Reynoso) and Dracula’s half-human son Alucard Tepes (James Callis) to take on the army of demons wreaking havoc across the land. Castlevania is a fun, fast-paced adventure with a wicked sense of humor and no aversion to gore. And with episodes clocking in at under 30 minutes, you’ll find yourself tearing through seasons before you even know what you’ve done. –Sadie Gennis
Dark is a masterpiece of mind-bending science fiction. It’s the type of show that seems to have been constructed with binge-watching in mind, as each new episode spawns enough new questions that viewers immediately want to watch the next hour to see if it offers even a hint about what the hell is going on. The ambitious German time-travel series pulls the rug out from under its characters as much as its viewers, frequently bending back on itself as it tells the story of four interconnected families in a small town who all, in some way or another, have a role to play in an impending apocalypse. With a gripping central narrative that is grounded in its many characters’ conflicting emotions, the show raises important questions about determinism and free will as Louis Hofmann’s Jonas Kahnwald attempts to unravel a mystery so complex you need a family tree to keep everyone straight and enough free time to watch the show’s three seasons multiple times just to understand it all. —KT
Derry Girls (Netflix)
Comedies are easy to marathon: Episodes are usually short, you don’t have to expend a lot of mental energy trying to remember minute details or follow complex narratives, and, most importantly, they make you laugh, which releases all the happy chemicals in your brain. Who wouldn’t want to binge that feeling? Derry Girls, a coming-of-age series that aired linearly overseas before hitting Netflix all at once in the United States, is a shining example of one such show. Set in Northern Ireland in the 1990s during a period of conflict known as the Troubles, the comedy follows four desperate-to-be-cool teens (Saoirse-Monica Jackson, Nicola Coughlan, Jamie-Lee O’Donnell, and Louisa Harland) and their one English friend (Dylan Llewellyn). Together, they embark on various absurd adventures in between the army checkpoints around Derry, like when one of them pretends to have experienced a divine miracle in order to spend more time with a hunky priest. It’s a shame there are only six episodes per season, because with the show’s lightning-fast joke delivery and the surprisingly healthy dose of sincerity that accompanies every episode, Derry Girls has all the makings of a comedy that can go the distance. –KT
Difficult People (Hulu)
Premiering in 2015, Hulu’s Difficult People is one of the best comedies to come out of the streaming industry, though it remains painfully underappreciated. The acerbic comedy stars creator Julie Klausner and Billy Eichner as two pop culture-obsessed misanthropes who don’t care what bridges they burn as long as they get off some good jokes along the way. And Difficult People’s jokes are more than good, they’re fantastic. The series commits so fully to its characters’ acid-tongued abrasiveness that when it comes to delivering inventive, rapid-fire digs, the show’s only true rival is Veep. It’s fearless, funny, and filled with myriad high-profile and completely unexpected guest stars (John Mulaney! Debbie Harry! Ken Burns!), making Difficult People an absolute delight to revisit time and time again. —SG
The Expanse (Amazon)
Though it has one more season to go, The Expanse already stands as one of the great science fiction series of all time. Based on the popular books by James S.A. Corey, the Syfy-turned-Amazon drama is a thrilling adventure that provides powerful insights into the intersections of capitalism, colonialism, and cultural oppression. And though the themes it tackles are heavy, The Expanse’s underlying belief that there is a better world worth fighting for keeps the dark realities it explores from ever becoming suffocating. It helps that The Expanse also features some of the most sensational action sequences on TV, along with some truly biting one-liners (often delivered with perfect comedic timing by stars Shohreh Aghdashloo and Wes Chatham). There really is nothing The Expanse doesn’t execute to the highest quality, and its exceptional world-building makes spending several consecutive hours (or even days!) getting lost in its universe an exhilarating ride. —SG
Fleabag (Amazon Prime)
Although Fleabag’s universally beloved and Emmy-winning second season usually gets all the praise, the undeniable truth about the show is that it was excellent from the start, it just took time for everyone to catch on. Created and written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and based on her one-woman stage play of the same name, Fleabag is made up of just 12 25-minute episodes, which are the perfect length for bingeing. Remarkable for its frank ability to capture the many facets of the human condition, the show’s first season focuses primarily on its lead’s struggle with grief over losing both her best friend and her mother — and her lingering guilt over the former. Meanwhile, the second season’s love story between Fleabag and a hot Catholic priest (Andrew Scott), one of the few people who seems to see her and appreciate her for who she is, takes the story to a new level by deepening and rebuilding her relationships with herself as much as with others, thus allowing Fleabag to begin to heal. With her sharp writing and perfectly structured arcs, Waller-Bridge proves that she knows how to build anticipation and leave viewers wanting more. She had everyone primed for a happy ending after a season built on longing—that we were left with heartbreak takes nothing away from the lessons that were learned along the way. —KT
The Flight Attendant (HBO Max)
Kaley Cuoco deserves credit for the overall strength and watchability of HBO Max’s The Flight Attendant, a well-paced comedic thriller based on the novel of the same name by Chris Bohjalian. A comedy veteran who’s been in the business for nearly three decades, Cuoco anchors the series as Cassie Bowden, a hard-partying, alcoholic flight attendant who, after spending a night with a handsome passenger (Game of Thrones’ Michiel Huisman), wakes up to find him dead in bed the next morning. This shocking discovery sends Cassie on a frequently funny but often tense adventure full of intriguing twists and turns as she attempts to not only clear her name but also find out what happened that night. Although the show was initially released in batches leading up to the season 1 finale, it’s primed for bingeing. A breezy, fast-paced show that barely introduces one thought before moving on to the next, The Flight Attendant is a brilliant example of how to blend comedy with suspense to maximize entertainment. —KT
If we’re being completely honest, our expectations were low going into Girls5eva, a musical comedy about an early 2000s girl group staging a revival. But while the series does show signs of growing pains in the early episodes, by the time the credits roll on the season finale you’ll be begging for more. Created by Meredith Scardino (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) and co-executive produced by Tina Fey, Robert Carlock, and Jeff Richmond, Girls5eva delivers on what we’ve come to expect from these collaborators: high-speed jokes, pop culture references, absurdist shenanigans, and eccentric underdogs you can’t help but root for. However, it’s Renée Elise Goldsberry who truly makes this a must-see marathon. As Wickie, the girl group’s resident diva, Goldsberry delivers dialogue with such self-important conviction that she completely sells you on the character, and ultimately the show. Because in the end, where else are you going to see a Tony Award-winning Hamilton star discuss a production of The Mask-ical: The Musical by saying, “It was a pastiche of the Jim Carrey oeuvre?” —SG
The Great Pottery Throw Down (HBO Max)
Reality competition series are often best consumed with episodes parsed out over time, as the formulaic nature grows a bit stale once you hit hour four of your binge. However, we could watch The Great Pottery Throw Down for 48 hours straight and still never tire of the British import. Basically “The Great British Bake Off, but for ceramics,” the HBO Max series is the perfect binge for when you want to be cocooned in a bubble of feel-good comfort. It’s soothing and sweet, with the potters developing a true camaraderie throughout the competition and judge Keith Brymer Jones often being moved to tears by the beauty he sees in their creations. (We are not joking when we say this man has wept over the artful perfection of a toilet!) When watching The Great Pottery Throw Down, the world seems a bit kinder, a lot more joyful, and overflowing with beauty in the smallest everyday items. —SG
The Haunting of Hill House (Netflix)
Mike Flanagan’s remix of Shirley Jackson’s novel of the same name is an atmospheric horror story with as much sweet sentiment as genuine scares. The Netflix series follows the Crain siblings, whose traumatic experiences as children living in the haunted Hill House left indelible marks and a large hole in their once idyllic family. Each episode focuses on a different family member, revealing new pieces to the mystery of what really happened at Hill House all those years ago and providing compelling explorations of the various ways people cope with trauma, grief, addiction, and mental illness. Filled with superbly unsettling horror imagery, soul-shaking suspense, and beautifully grounded character development, The Haunting of Hill House remains one of Netflix’s best Originals and a show that will keep you up all night — as much from its ability to instill fear as viewers’ inability to stop watching. —SG
High School Musical: The Musical: The Series (Disney Plus)
Whether or not you’re a fan of the High School Musical franchise, Disney Plus’ musical comedy spinoff is an absolute treat. A perfect balance between sincere and self-aware, the world’s longest titled series (don’t fact-check that) has an abundance of charm and a perfectly cast ensemble, led by reigning pop queen Olivia Rodrigo. High School Musical : The Musical: The Series never takes itself too seriously, but it does care deeply about its characters, whose experiences with the typical trials of growing up are set to a toe-tapping soundtrack. And it doesn’t just mine the Disney vault for its tunes; the series uplifts its talented young stars by giving them opportunities to write original songs for the show, including Rodrigo’s first breakout hit “All I Want.” It’s hard not to watch HSMTMTS without a smile on your face, and the show’s incredible musical numbers and dance routines will have you rewinding to watch them again and again. For many of us, high school is not a time we’d ever like to revisit, but HSMTMTS makes us want to live in this lively, lovely world. —SG
A relatively new addition to Netflix’s robust international slate, the French drama Lupin is a contemporary reimagining of Maurice Leblanc’s gentleman burglar and master of disguise Arsène Lupin. Light and quick on its metaphorical feet, the show stars Omar Sy as Assane Diop, a charming thief who uses the tricks laid out in the pages of Leblanc’s literary works to pull off his own awe-inspiring feats. When the show debuts, he’s attempting to steal a necklace from the Louvre, the first step in his plan to avenge the death of his father, who was framed years before by the wealthy family for whom he worked. Things don’t always go smoothly for its leading man, but the series delivers all the suspense of an Ocean’s Eleven-style heist with the emotionality of a complex family drama. Tension (and the show’s binge-ability) builds as Assane gets closer and closer to his goal, and if he’ll extricate himself from whatever precarious situation he’s found himself in. In the end, the show is staggeringly good for a series that, like Lupin, came and went before most people even noticed. —KT
Making a Murderer (Netflix)
Many true crime series sour with age as viewers, undistracted from the spectacle of real horrors turned into darkly compelling entertainment, take the time to think about the truths left unexamined on screen and question the biases of the filmmakers. But unlike Tiger King, which contributed little to the culture besides providing a brief unifying obsession in the early pandemic, there is still value in Making a Murderer. When the first season debuted in 2015, it became a surprise hit thanks to the docuseries’ riveting examination of the failings and corruption of the criminal justice system through the case of Steven Avery, a man convicted for the 2005 murder of Teresa Halbach. Unfortunately, the second season pales in comparison to the first, due largely to how only a handful of major developments in the case had to be stretched to fill too large of an episode count. However, Making a Murderer’s first season remains one of the best true crime shows any streaming service has produced. Equal parts addictive, shocking, and infuriating, Making a Murderer’s patient investigation into the case and conspiracies surrounding Avery’s arrest will leave you glued to your screen even all these years later. —SG
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amazon)
From the chic period costumes and dizzying dialogue to the stunning set pieces, everything about Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is designed to dazzle viewers. Set in 1958, the show begins as Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan), a former Upper West Side housewife, discovers her passion for stand-up comedy and pursues it as a career with dogged ambition. Midge is fearless, upbeat, endlessly chatty, and a perfect vehicle for Brosnahan, who delivers a star-making, Emmy-winning turn in the role. And while Maisel isn’t too interested in diving too deep beneath the surface of any issue, the surface is kind of the whole point. The show’s enchanting visual spectacle, commanding performances, and thrilling momentum are perfectly constructed to whisk audiences from one episode to the next, so that they can happily stay immersed in this vibrant world for hours on end. —SG
On My Block (Netflix)
Some shows are bingeable because they leave you wanting to know what happens next, while others bring out feelings of goodwill and happiness worth soaking up. Netflix’s On My Block, a coming-of-age series that follows a tight-knit group of Black and Latinx teens growing up in South Central Los Angeles, manages to be both at once. The half-hour dramedy, which stars Sierra Capri, Diego Tinoco, Jason Genao, and Brett Gray as lifelong friends, mixes an absurd sense of humor —like an obsessive, Goonies-like search for long lost treasure or a gnome-obsessed former gang member — with the emotional realities of a youth spent surrounded by crime and unforgiving violence. It’s a tricky balancing act that is made all the more precarious as the teens go through more universally familiar experiences like the tragedy of first love, a loss of innocence, and simply trying to figure out what they want from life. But although On My Block doesn’t shy away from serious subject matter, the series remains a bright spot in Netflix’s lineup as the teens and their friendships offer plenty of heart alongside lots of laughs. —KT
Russian Doll (Netflix)
Anchored by the incomparable Natasha Lyonne, who also co-created the series and wrote several episodes, Russian Doll is a trippy, inventive, and devastatingly poignant dark comedy that is best viewed knowing next to nothing about it. Though the show’s premise initially seems quite simple — Lyonne’s Nadia is stuck in a time loop, reliving her 36th birthday after continuously dying by various means — the show grows more ambitious with each episode, taking the story in unexpected directions that examine the darker aspects of the human experience. The series’ ability to deliver electrifying turns combined with Lyonne’s wondrous performance, in which she brings something new to each moment, no matter how many times Nadia has experienced it before, makes each new cycle of the time loop feel absolutely fresh and imperative to watch as soon as possible. Marathoning the four-hour series is simply riveting, as Russian Doll masterfully reveals each new piece of its central puzzle, and with it unlocks a deeper understanding of Nadia and those around her. –SG
Search Party (HBO Max)
The cult comedy Search Party found new life (and a new audience) once it moved from TBS to HBO Max after a three-year hiatus. The series begins as Dory Sief (Alia Shawkat), a twentysomething New Yorker, becomes obsessed with the disappearance of a college acquaintance, Chantal Witherbottom (Clare McNulty). Dory recruits her gang of friends — played by John Reynolds, Meredith Hagner, and John Early — to hit the street and solve the mystery. But the amateur investigation leads to several twisted developments that reveal far more about the insidious nature of Dory and her crew than any purported foul play that may have befallen Chantal. Part millennial satire and part high-tension thriller, this darkly funny series constantly finds ways to subvert and surpass all expectations, leaving you hooked as Dory and company sink deeper and deeper into the situation. —SG
Stranger Things (Netflix)
Perhaps the most bingeable series to come out of the Streaming Era, Stranger Things is a throwback to the classic sci-fi films of the 1980s that manages to never feel like it is mimicking the greats. Rather, it feels like a forgotten relic of the time that was only just discovered at the bottom of a closet. Created by the Duffer Brothers, the series begins when a young boy (Noah Schnapp) goes missing from the small town of Hawkins, Indiana. As his friends and family attempt to find him, more and more layers of the show’s central narrative are peeled back to reveal an urgently compelling mystery about a creepy alternate dimension encroaching on our world and a government conspiracy involving a young girl (Millie Bobby Brown) gifted with telekinesis. The show built a following on little more than word of mouth, eventually growing into one of the biggest shows of the last decade, and it did so by drawing people in with its nostalgia-inducing power and a sense of originality that kept viewers glued to their screens. —KT
Ted Lasso (Apple TV Plus)
The success of the sports-themed comedy Ted Lasso might be the result of the show debuting in the middle of a pandemic when the show’s genuine positivity and optimism was much needed and easily funneled into viewers’ hearts. It might also be that the show simply invites viewers in with its good-natured humor and envelopes them in the equivalent of a bear hug so comfortable they never want to leave. Starring Jason Sudeikis as an American football coach who becomes the new head coach of an English Premier League team, the 10-episode first season is so delightful and pure that it goes down without a fuss. Like Parks and Recreation or Schitt’s Creek before it, the show mixes humor and kindness to reveal what’s possible when you give people a chance. So viewers inevitably keep watching not just to see whether or not Lasso’s unusual coaching style can turn AFC Richmond’s fortunes around, but to find out if it also has a real and lasting impact on everyone involved. —KT
An existential exploration of grief, mental illness, and family, Undone is a spellbinding work of art. The eight-episode first season follows Alma (Rosa Salazar), an aimless and troubled 28-year-old, as she begins seeing her dead father, Jacob (Bob Odenkirk), after waking up from a coma having survived a catastrophic car accident. While Jacob, a former theoretical physics professor, aims to use Alma’s ability to stop him from ever having died, Alma is left wondering if she truly has the power to manipulate reality or if what she’s experiencing is schizophrenia, an illness that has affected other members of her family. Using a blend of rotoscoping and oil paintings, Undone is filled with such lush visual splendor that you can get lost in a single frame. And as the show’s mystery unravels in a kaleidoscopic, non-linear fashion, the series burrows into your own psyche, raising profound questions about the thin line between self-destruction and self-healing. —SG
The Witcher (Netflix)
There is a learning curve when starting a new fantasy series as viewers are introduced to complex new worlds (often with somewhat confusing names) and a whole new set of rules for protagonists to follow. But because they prioritize creativity and offer a chance of escape, fantasy shows are also some of the most rewarding to watch. So while a nonlinear narrative structure may have kept some viewers from bingeing the first season of Netflix’s high fantasy series The Witcher, that arguably has less to do with the show and more to do with viewers’ willingness to commit. With a multi-layered story based on the stories of Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski, the series captivates as it reveals a deeply realized world populated by characters like Henry Cavill’s Geralt of Rivia, a monster-hunter-for-hire less than excited by his job but whose destiny is tied to a young princess (Freya Allen’s Ciri) and whose heart belongs to a stubborn sorceress (Anya Chalotra’s Yennefer). When you add in quests, a catchy song that gets stuck in your head, and a surprising but never out of place sense of humor, The Witcher is a series that asks you to binge not because its greatness is always obvious in the moment but because it knows the narrative payoff is worth it. —KT
There’s a reason that YOU only became a sensation after hitting Netflix: the show is built to be binged. All the mini-cliffhangers built around ad breaks and the show’s episodic storytelling only furthered the mounting tension in the first season as we watched Joe’s (Penn Badgley) deadly obsessions with the women in his life unravel. When the show officially moved from Lifetime to Netflix for its second season, YOU didn’t fall victim to the streaming bloat, choosing to stay true to its cable-built structure and delivering an equally suspenseful sophomore outing that turned the tables on its central stalker. With its ability to consistently deliver shocking twists and build suspense, it’s hard to break free from YOU’s thrall once you press play. And thanks to the show’s cheeky sense of humor, there’s just enough levity in YOU’s dark storylines to be captivating without becoming claustrophobic hours into a marathon. —SG