Netflix might still be the first and most prominent name in online streaming, but Hulu is quickly closing the gap. Despite its general reliance on being the best place to watch new episodes of shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, Blindspot, Arrow and so many others, Hulu also has a veritable archive of classic television series.
Given its shared corporate parentage with NBC/Universal, Hulu is the first stop for many classic TV shows, and it doesn’t even run into the same licensing problem as Netflix for many of them.
While we all know that Hulu is a great place to watch every episode of Seinfeld, The X-Files, and many other great programs, here’s the 10 Best Shows You Didn’t Know Were on Hulu.
10. Clarissa Explains It All
The brainchild of ex-Saturday Night Live writer Mitchell Kriegman, Clarissa Explains It All is one of the most memorable staples of live-action 90’s children’s programming. Clarissa, the best-dressed teenager on television, found herself in a variety of classic sitcom situations, but her fourth-wall-breaking narration and problem-solving prowess made her a much more enduring heroine than her peers. Also notable was the supporting cast, including Jason Zimbler as the amusingly annoying younger brother Ferguson and Elizabeth Hess as the hottest TV mom this side of June Cleaver.
Mitchell Kriegman has since continued Clarissa’s story in his novel, Things I Can’t Explain, in which a grown-up Clarissa, now in her mid-20s (don’t worry about the minor continuity discrepancy), tries to keep her sanity while working a tough journalism job and looking for love in New York City. Drama, comedy, and a ton of wardrobe changes ensue.
9. Sledge Hammer!
One of the great comedies of the ’80s, Alan Spencer’s Sledge Hammer! only ran for two seasons on ABC before it was canceled. Such was the fate of the only show brave enough to air opposite The Cosby Show, Dallas, and Miami Vice (but more on that last one later). David Rasche starred as the titular Inspector Sledge Hammer: half Dirty Harry, half Maxwell Smart, and decidedly half-witted. Hammer would talk to his gun, espouse the virtues of police brutality, berate liberals, and talk down to his female partner, Dori Doreau, the gorgeous and talented Anne-Marie Martin. And yet, he somehow remained affable and lovable, a testament to Rasche’s acting chops. Along for the ride was Harrison Page as Captain Trunk, short tempered even for the boss on a cop show!
Episodes were directed by such stars as Jackie Cooper, Bill Bixby, and Martha Collidge, and the title music was composed by none other than Danny Elfman.
Sample Episodes: On Hulu, the pilot episode is cursed with having an ABC-imposed laugh track, but is still a classic. If you’re still not sold, check out the season 1 episode, “Witless,” a loose parody of Witness, the Harrison Ford drama. Then there’s the downright legendary first season finale, “The Spa Who Loved Me,” which features maybe the greatest cliffhanger ending in the history of television.
8. The Dick Cavett Show
One of the most influential talk-show hosts of all time, Dick Cavett has been hosting talk shows on and off since 1968, after getting his start writing for The Tonight Show with Jack Parr, and later with Johnny Carson. On his own shows, many dozens of which are collected on Hulu, he demonstrated his skill as a passive interviewer, often letting controversial guests speak themselves into a corner, at which point maybe another guest would take the opportunity to rip them to shreds (surely the audience did!), but Cavett would merely observe or make a clever remark and move on. A soft-spoken precursor to the “cool” talk show hosts of today, as opposed to the more paternal hosts of yesteryear, Cavett’s jokes remain hilarious, and his wit outside of the hermetically sealed time-capsule of his television days remains as sharp as ever: his blog on The New York Times is hilarious, informative, and often heartwarming.
Sample Episodes: There are so many to choose from, and personal preference will dictate which episodes one will be interested in perusing, but Mel Brooks’s multiple appearances are a delight, especially his episode in the Comic Legends season, in which Rex Reed engages in righteous battle with a representative from the MPAA. From the same episode, the interview with Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin, stars of the controversial Zabriskie Point, has to be one of the most awkward and uncomfortable moments in the careers of all involved.
7. Speed Racer
Speed Racer was one of the first anime programs to really break out in the western world, and is a beloved cultural treasure all over the world. Essentially a soap opera for kids, young Speed would compete in grand cross-country automobile races in his outrageously cool car, the Mach 5, while bickering with his father, Pops, taking care of his little brother, Spritle, and winning the affections of his sweetheart, Trixie. Meanwhile, the mysterious Racer X (secretly Speed’s older brother, Rex) also partakes in the races, and attracts even more danger than Speed himself. The English dub has become legendary for its penchant for rapid-fire dialogue that would make Mamet proud.
Also see the 2008 film adaptation by The Wachowskis. Although it bombed at the box office, lost in the shuffle between Iron Man and The Dark Knight, it captures the spirit of the show while updating the storytelling to be palatable and mature enough for adults and children alike. It deserves a second chance, so let’s give it one.
Sample Episodes: The two part “Challenge of the Masked Racer” is full of everything which makes Speed Racer great: car explosions, charming dialogue, a youthful exuberance, and that inexplicable bit in which Speed randomly tries on Racer X’s mask just in time to be kidnapped by gangsters who mistake him for X.
6. The Rifleman
Chuck Connors is the epitome of cool, and he was at his undisputed prime as Lucas McCain, a single father trying to raise his boy and run his ranch in the territory of New Mexico. Producer Sam Peckinpah was always at odds with the television studio who wanted to turn down the violence and heavy themes in favor of more family-friendly antics, but Peckinpah won out in the end, leading to one of the greatest western series of all time. Nearly sixty years later, one of The Rifleman‘s most enduring features is its father/son dynamic, of Lucas’s struggle to allow his boy, Mark, a normal childhood while fighting against the lawless frontier and all sorts of characters who represent the best and worst of humanity… Also, the opening titles might just be the most masculine twenty seconds of television ever produced.
Sample Episodes: Unfortunately, only about 95 of the series’ 168 episodes are available to stream on Hulu, but they’re more than enough to become a veritable Rifleman scholar. For starters, check out season 1’s “The Safe Guard,” in which an ex-criminal is torn between his duty, to protect a bank’s safe which he has been hired to protect, and his loyalty, to his friends who have come to rob the bank. Also see season 2’s “The Baby Sitter,” in which Lucas and Mark are charged with protecting a young woman’s baby from the father, a zealous and wrathful fire-and-brimstone Christian who will do anything to to get his daughter back. Edgy stuff, especially for 1959.
5. My So-Called Life
The ultimate teen coming-of-age drama, My So-Called Life starred Claire Danes as Angela Chase, a 15-year-old high school girl trying to discover herself while being pulled in every direction by old friends, new friends, family, teachers, and, of course, boys. Particularly one played by Jared Leto at his cutest. Basically, if Clarissa Explains it All were a drama and lacked that show’s trademark fashion sense, it would be My So-Called Life. Running only one season on ABC in the 1994-1995 season, it nonetheless had a huge impact on its audience of teenagers, who launched the first ever internet campaign to save a cancelled show. It didn’t work, but the strategy nonetheless became the template for many fan campaigns to come.
Sample Episodes: With only one season, it shouldn’t take long for most viewers to binge-watch their way through the 19 episodes, though the pilot and “Guns and Gossip” are early standouts. In addition, “Life of Brian” was on the TV Guide’s 100 Greatest Episodes of All Time list.
4. Naked City
A spinoff from the classic 1948 film, Naked City is evidence that the “film to television spinoff” is much older than you may have realized, so don’t be too hard on Minority Report for giving it a try last year. Anyway, Hulu has the first two seasons, or 71 episodes of the series (seasons had a lot more episodes back then). The 1958 first season’s episodes are half an hour long, but after being canceled and revived, the 1960 episodes are a full hour, and have room for more nuanced characterization, even if the pace sometimes suffers as a result. Some prefer the more sprawling stories of the later episodes, though many also believe the faster and more action-oriented first season is more enduring in the long run.
Sample Episodes: From the first season, check out “One to Get Lost,” about infidelity, guilt, and vigilante justice, or lack thereof. From season 2, check out the premiere, “A Death of Princes,” about a corrupt detective looking through his own rogues gallery to assemble a team to pull off a heist during a high-profile boxing match.
3. Ally McBeal
The original nutty lawyer show, and David E. Kelley’s precursor to his even nuttier Boston Legal, Ally McBeal has kind of fallen by the wayside since its mammoth heyday in the late 90s. Ally McBeal starred Calista Flockhart as the title character, a hardworking lawyer looking for love in Boston. In contrast to Kelley’s other concurrent show, The Practice (which would eventually spin-off into the aforementioned Boston Legal), Ally McBeal was way more irreverent and comedic in tone, and full of downright silly motifs, like pratfalls, trippy dream sequences, and, of course, the legendary dancing baby.
Sample Episodes: “The Inmates” in season 1 was the first part of a story which concluded on The Practice, which was pretty wild, considering The Practice was on ABC while Ally McBeal aired on FOX. Another great one is the fourth season finale, “The Wedding,” in which, among other things, a young man (Josh Groban) sues a girl who backs out of going to prom with him after she had said yes earlier in the school year.
2. Miami Vice
Miami Vice is the definitive show of the 1980s, and one of the greatest television dramas of all time. Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas are Crockett and Tubbs, the coolest cops in Miami, who gradually lose their idealism as they fight the impossible War on Drugs, in which the villains are rich and powerful, and the heroes are working stiffs who don’t actually own any of the fast cars, speedboats, and fancy suits they use to sell their undercover personas. Its use of licensed music was unprecedented, and the show is arguably more remembered for its MTV-styled music videos than anything else. Either way, Miami Vice was the show that changed television, and every drama since then owes a debt of gratitude to Michael Mann and his vision of southern law enforcement.
Miami Vice was on Netflix in its entirety until about a year ago or so, and now it’s on Hulu, but a minor quibble keeps it from stealing the top spot on our list: the fifth and final season is sadly missing, which is a shame, since it has a distinct style from the preceding years, including new composer Tim Truman taking the show’s music in a different direction from the inimitable Jan Hammer.
Sample Episodes: Beyond the pilot, which is required viewing for anyone even remotely interested in television, season 1 has “Rites of Passage” (guest-starring Pam Grier!) and “Evan.” Season 2 has “Buddies” (with James Remar) and “Definitely Miami,” one of the best episodes in the entire series. Season 2’s “Back in the World” and season 3’s “Stone’s War” comprise a two-part saga starring Bob Balaban as a war journalist. It’s more like, which episodes aren’t worth watching? Well, there’s “Missing Hours,” the one with James Brown as an alien. We don’t talk about that one. “Amen Send Money” and “The Cows of October” also suck. But beyond those, it’s hard to go wrong with Vice.
1. Dead Like Me
Showtime has always played second fiddle to HBO in the premium cable wars, but they had a bona fide stroke of genius with this wholly original series from Bryan Fuller, about young Georgia “George” Lass, who, after being vaporized by a piece of space debris (the toilet seat of the Mir space station, to be specific) and crashing to earth, gets to become a Reaper, someone who guides spirits to the afterlife after their bodies die in tragicomic accidents. Ellen Muth’s acting is a highlight of this most unusual of coming-of-age stories: a perfect blend of misery, youthful enthusiasm, comic timing, and heartbreaking regret, the show also follows the remains of her family as they move on from their loss. Oh, and Mandy Patinkin plays the head Reaper and mentor, so there’s really no excuse for not watching Dead Like Me.
Sample Episodes: The first two episodes are unmistakable Bryan Fuller joints, equal parts bizarrely surreal and strangely believable. If you’re not on board after the first two half hours, then something may be wrong. Consult your doctor.
What else is on Hulu that we may have overlooked? Are you going to start watching any of these classics? Share, and tell us your thoughts in the comments below!