A handy guide for finding the best stuff released this year
As Netflix has become more ubiquitous, it’s also become more of a challenge to sift through the seemingly never-ending list of shows on the service. There’s a lot, from reality shows about questionable animal tycoons to a plethora of video game adaptations. Sure, the really big stuff rises to the top — Squid Game, Bridgerton, etc. — but there’s also a lot that’s easy to miss.
Lucky for you, I spend far too much time keeping up with the latest releases and have come back with 10 series that should definitely add to your Netflix rotation: everything from grisly horror to comfort food sitcoms to cozy post-apocalypses.
Arcane is a series based on the long-running game League of Legends, but you don’t have to know a thing about the game to enjoy it. In fact, this slick animated show actually serves as a great introduction to League and its steampunk-meets-fantasy universe. The story follows a handful of characters in a bustling city that’s quickly changing thanks to a new technology that can harness the power of magic. Things move at a rapid pace, making it great for binging, and oh, my goodness, is the animation incredible. This might be the best-looking animated project since Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse. And once you do finish, there’s a brand-new League of Legends RPG that’s a perfect follow-up.
If you haven’t actually watched Squid Game yet, you’re likely at least aware of it. The show was everywhere in 2021, from social media to Halloween costumes — and with good reason. The story follows a disturbing competition where hundreds of players, all struggling financially, compete at various children’s games for a chance at a huge cash prize. The twist is that the games are all deadly, and making it to the end means being the sole survivor. What follows is a grisly indictment of class and capitalism and also just a really great show that will keep you on edge the entire time. At least you’ll have some time to catch your breath before season 2.
Show titles don’t get much more literal than Hellbound. The show is about a mysterious phenomenon in which angel-like creatures start appearing before people, telling them that they’re bound for hell. Even worse, they’re given a specific time so they know exactly how long they have left to live. When that time hits, terrifying monsters attack, resulting in some very bloody deaths. These grisly episodes are at the heart of the show, but they’re also mostly an excuse to explore deeper questions about everything from the power of religion to internet-fueled mobs. Hellbound also doesn’t overstay its welcome: at just six episodes long, it’s prime binge material.
The Witcher’s first season helped solidify it as one of the best dark fantasy epics around, combining political intrigue and scary monsters with lots of sex and humor. It was tense and bloody but also a lot of fun. Now we have a second season, which leans a little more towards the serious side, but still manages to be a great watch thanks to the incredible cast, led by the gruff-as-always Geralt, played by Henry Cavill. And the franchise keeps growing: there’s an animated prequel out now and a live-action spinoff starring Michelle Yeoh on the way.
Sometimes you just need to turn off your brain, and there are few better ways of doing that than watching comedian Nicole Byers and chef Jacque Torres host a competition for the world’s worst bakers. What makes Nailed It work so well, beyond the undeniable chemistry of its hosts, is that everyone is in on the joke, so you never feel guilty laughing when someone serves a mushy pile of icing that’s supposed to be a cake.
There are a lot of post-apocalyptic shows, and the vast majority are grim and depressing. Sweet Tooth mostly avoids this. Partially, that’s due to the Americana vibe, which almost makes the end of the world seem cozy. But most of it comes down to the main character Sweet Tooth himself. The show’s version of the apocalypse begins when a sickness wipes out much of the population, coinciding with the mysterious appearance of animal-human hybrids. The story follows Sweet Tooth, a young boy with antlers whose wide-eyed curiosity and infectious cheer make it impossible not to root for him. The show is still dark and often uncomfortable, but it has just enough hope to make it tolerable.
Brand New Cherry Flavor
If there is an opposite of comfort viewing, that would be Brand New Cherry Flavor. The horror series follows a budding director who turns to a witch in order to get revenge on a backstabbing producer. From there, things just get increasingly more horrifying but in a way that’s hard to look away from. Brand New Cherry Flavor particularly excels when it comes to body horror; there are a handful of disturbing scenes that will stick with you long after you finish watching.
Sex Education is one of the rare high school dramas that just keeps getting better. The show is ostensibly about a therapist, played by Gillian Anderson, and her son, as they (separately) help just about everyone around them with sex-related problems. But from that simple premise, the show has blossomed to be one of the most frank and diverse explorations of sexuality on television. It’s a joy to watch these characters grow over time, and the new third season does an amazing job of introducing plenty of change without getting away from what makes the show work so well.
Director Mike Flanagan has had an incredible run of horror anthologies on Netflix. It started with the Haunting of Hill House, continued with the Haunting of Bly Manor, and now we have Midnight Mass. The latest series has plenty that will be familiar to fans of his work — a troubled family, mysterious supernatural elements, oh-so-long monologues — but it also takes a turn to more straight-up horror. It takes a little while to get going, but when Midnight Mass eventually ramps up, it becomes an exquisite mix of scares and heartbreak that reaches a fever pitch with a truly wild and bloody final episode.
What’s the deal with classic sitcoms on streaming services? While original series are typically what define a streamer, older shows are also a big part of the business. That’s why Netflix made such a big deal of bringing every episode of Seinfeld to the service earlier this year. And for a show that’s very much a product of the ’90s, it manages to stand up pretty well in 2021 — so long as you aren’t too bothered about aspect ratios.
Call My Agent!
Netflix has lately been featuring a number of series from non-English-speaking countries, and one of the most fun is Call My Agent! This French comedy takes us through four seasons of the trials and tribulations of a Paris talent firm as they deal with rambunctious movie stars (played as caricatured versions of themselves by the real actors), difficult love affairs, and desperate attempts to keep their floundering agency afloat. The series (originally called Dix pour cent or “Ten percent”) has been so successful that it’s spawned a couple of knock-offs and an upcoming fifth season. (Barbara Krasnoff)