You can’t fault Netflix’s commitment to comedy. It’s difficult to imagine any other network reviving an absurdist spoof of an ’80s summer camp movie that bombed at the box office 15 years previously. Or commissioning an animated sitcom about a half-horse, half-man D-list celebrity steeped in pathos. Or giving Chelsea Handler the freedom to go and get high for real on a controversial psychedelic drug in Peru.
Of course, not every original comedy series from the streaming giant has proved to be so daring. For every multi-layered meta-fictional show exploring mental illness in the most surreal of ways, there’s a dodgy canned laughter affair which could easily pass for a reject from the TGIF era. But on the whole, Netflix’s comedic hit rate is far superior to both their streaming and traditional TV rivals. Here’s a look at each of their 15 efforts, ranked from the worst to the best.
15. Fuller House
Some things should just be left in the past. Back in the more innocent times of the late ’80s/early ’90s, Full House was the kind of inoffensive and undemanding network sitcom that the whole family could sit round, and maybe learn a mawkish lesson or two along the way. It was perfectly fine for its time, but considering most of its appeal lay in the cuteness of the Tanner family’s youngest daughter, Michelle (played, of course, by twin sisters Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen), the possibility of a revival 21 years after its final episode seemed entirely unnecessary.
But for some reason, Netflix decided to jeopardise their reputation as a bastion of quality programming and ordered a 13-episode series which would bring the likes of DJ, Stephanie and Kimmy Gibbler into the 21st Century. In the end, the Olsen twins declined the offer to reprise their most famous role, and although the rest of the game original cast did their best to inject some life into the sugary-sweet clichéd script, the hopelessly dated Fuller House proved what a wise decision the Olsens had made. Rather depressingly, a recent report on Netflix’s hush-hush ratings stated that the show was actually Netflix’s most-watched.
14. The Ranch
Compared to Ashton Kutcher’s recent venture back into sitcom territory, Two and a Half Men, the Colorado-set The Ranch is a work of comic genius. It’s also one of the most tonally strange shows that Netflix is likely to ever produce.
The story of a former AFL star who returns to his red state hometown to revive his football career, only to end up working on his family’s troubled estate, The Ranch has all the hallmarks of a traditional prime-time sitcom – canned laughter, blindingly obvious fake sets, characters delivering their punchlines as if their lives depended on it. But you then find yourself thrown off balance by the liberal use of curse words, occasional nudity and rather grounded portrayal of working-class concerns. There’s not many laughs to be had here, but with a strong cast including Sam Elliott, Debra Winger and Danny Masterson, it’s never less than watchable. It’s just very, very odd.
There’s a moment in the first episode of Love which will immediately let you know whether the Judd Apatow-produced show is for you. Gus Cruikshank, a charmless geek played by Paul Rust, is at a party filled with younger and more attractive students when, despite having not uttered a word, he’s propositioned for a threesome by two completely out-of-his-league girls. After making it into the bedroom, Gus stops the menage a trois in horror when he finds out that the girls are in fact sisters, but by that time they’ve already exposed their breasts for all viewers to see.
It’s an objectionable scenario which screams of wish fulfilment fantasy (Rust is also a writer and executive producer) and continues Apatow’s ridiculous habit of matching nerdy/schlubby manchildren with extremely attractive women, something which rears its ugly head again when he gets involved with Gillian Jacobs’ self-destructive talk-radio producer. It’s hard to invest any faith in the show from that point on, and the likes of You’re the Worst and Catastrophe do the whole modern anti-romcom thing so much better anyway.
If ever there was a show that summed up the word ‘meh,’ it’s Flaked. Based on a self-appointed guru and the collapse of the ‘tangled web of half-truths and semi-bulls*** that underpins his all-important image and sobriety,’ the half-hour comedy is yet another series dedicated to the first world problems of a self-pitying middle-aged womanizer that the audience is somehow actually expected to root for.
In all fairness, Flaked isn’t as objectionable as many of the manchild dramedies that are neither dramatic enough to be called a drama or funny enough to be called a true comedy. And despite earning a reputation as the kiss of death when it comes to TV comedy (see Running Wilde, Up All Night, The Millers – all of which failed to make it past a second season), Will Arnett delivers an impressively subtle and more subdued performance than we’re used to seeing from him. But ultimately, it feels so inconsequential that it’s difficult to see anyone feeling compelled enough to give it the binge-watch treatment.
11. W/Bob and David
Having often stolen the show in Breaking Bad and proving he could carry his own Vince Gilligan creation in the spin-off Better Call Saul, W/Bob and David allowed Bob Odenkirk to return fully to his comedic roots. A reunion with David Cross, and indeed much of the team behind the cult ’90s HBO series Mr. Bob and David, this freewheeling sketch show proved that the pair had lost none of their touch.
Sure, it’s not Netflix’s most essential original series, and there are many times when the sketches overstay their welcome. But it’s regularly a delight to watch the old team (plus new collaborators Jeffrey Tambor, Paget Brewster and Keegan-Michael Key) showcasing their unique brand of irreverent humor once more, whether it’s a self-styled media guru delivering a TED Talk dominated by the word ‘digital,’ an interrogation scene which turns into a battle to be the ‘good cop,’ or a spoof trailer for an Oscar-baiting biopic named Einstein: Poster of Genius.
10. Netflix Presents: The Characters
One of Netflix’s boldest experiments, The Characters sees the streaming service give eight hotly-tipped comedians their own 30-minute show in which they can do pretty much anything they want. As you’d expect from such a premise, this ‘outlaw comedy’ is the pure definition of hit and miss, but what it sometimes lacks in laughs, it sure makes up for in sheer imagination.
Saturday Night Live’s Natasha Rothwell perhaps delivers the strongest installments with her inspired rap about being a basic bitch (“Got The Bachelor and Shonda on my DVR/I order a vodka cran at every bar”), Game of Thrones-spoilering homeless man sketch, and precocious brat character named Tynesha. But Lauren Lapkus, best known for playing prison guard Susan in Orange is the New Black, and John Early run her a close second with a spot-on satire of the reality dating show genre and brilliant but insufferable parade of self-obsessives, respectively.
Technically not a Netflix original series, but the first ever exclusive content that the streaming service offered, Lilyhammer proved that there’s more to Nordic TV than overwhelmingly bleak murder-mysteries. Aired in conjunction with Norwegian channel NRK1, the black comedy sees Steven Van Zandt’s former underboss Frank Tagliano escape to the wintry town of Lillehammer (chosen because of how idyllic it looked at the 1994 Winter Olympics), having testified against a new New York mafia head.
Of course, despite swapping his slick suit for a knitted woolly jumper, Frank can’t leave his old day job completely behind, and pretty soon he’s turned sleepy little Lillehammer into a haven of organized crime. Cue three entertaining seasons of fish out of water comedy, exquisite scenery, and occasional acts of brutal violence for what has been described as a cross between Van Zandt’s other classic mobster show, The Sopranos and ’90s Alaskan dramedy Northern Exposure.
8. F Is For Family
You couldn’t blame Bill Burr for cursing the popularity of a certain horse named Bojack that has completely stolen the thunder of his very own subversive adult animation. Had it come along first, then chances are that F Is For Family would be reaping the rewards of Netflix’s venture into distinctly family-unfriendly cartoons. Instead, it’s inevitably been entirely overshadowed.
Those who have dipped into the ill-tempered, foul-mouthed, baggage-handling world of the show’s antihero Frank Murphy will already know that F Is For Family has plenty to offer – a tone which cleverly manages to combine the profane with the poignant, an array of well-defined characters who all get their chance to shine, and a stellar voice cast including Justin Long, Laura Dern and Sam Rockwell. If you’ve already binged through the first three series of that other show, you could do a lot worse than giving this one a go while waiting for number four.
7. Chelsea Does
Chelsea Handler appears to be Netflix comedy’s chosen one. As well as screening her stand-up special Uganda Be Kidding Me: Live and giving her an eponymous thrice-weekly chat show akin to her E! late-night round-up, the service also allowed her to explore the subjects of marriage, technology, racism and drugs in her own typically caustic manner for the four-part documentary series, Chelsea Does.
Using a combination of round-table chat with her showbiz friends, therapy sessions and investigative journalism, Handler certainly doesn’t hold back, which can make for both genuinely gripping (witness her encounters with Confederate Civil War reenactors) and unnecessarily cruel viewing (you have to pity the poor guys she brutally dismisses in the first episode’s array of first dates). But as Handler has always been more compelling when she’s not trying to feign interest in celebrities promoting their latest ventures, Chelsea Does proves to be the perfect vehicle for her.
6. Grace and Frankie
While several of Netflix’s comedic efforts zoom ahead at lightning speed, Grace and Frankie takes a refreshing more leisurely pace. It’s an approach which often means that episodes conclude without anything particularly noteworthy happening in them. However, when you’ve got two leads of the caliber of Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, then it’s sometimes a joy to watch the two titular characters just shoot the breeze for 30 minutes anyway.
Co-created by Marta Kauffman (Friends), Grace and Frankie is the story of two polar opposites with a strained history who slowly begin to bond after discovering that their husbands of 40 years have been having a long-term affair. It’s an interesting premise which explores everything from coming out and online dating to adultery and female friendship from a unique later-in-life perspective – indeed, it’s hard to think of another show which pays so much attention to seventy-something sexuality. Admittedly, Sam Waterson and Martin Sheen don’t always convince as a couple madly-in-love, and apart from June Diane Raphael’s scene-stealing Brianna, most of the grown-up kids are fairly redundant. But overall, Grace and Frankie is a delightful piece of character-driven storytelling which only gets better with age.
5. Lady Dynamite
It’s fair to say that if you aren’t accustomed to Maria Bamford’s distinctive brand of comedy, Lady Dynamite may leave you feeling utterly bewildered. An unashamedly surreal sitcom which lurches haphazardly between depressive blue-tinted flashbacks, hyperactive fantasy sequences and showbusiness satire, this one-of-a-kind can be an utterly exhausting watch. But get past the too-leftfield-too-soon first episode, and you’ll soon find yourself hooked on its organized chaos.
Essentially a meditation on Bamford’s real-life struggle with mental illness, Lady Dynamite goes where very few other comedies have gone before. But with Pam Brady (South Park) and Mitch Hurwitz (Arrested Development) at the helm, a laugh-out-loud moment is never too far away, while an array of random celebrity cameos all add to its bizarre appeal, whether it’s Mira Sorvino taking on the most meta role ever, ex-Supermen Brandon Routh and Dean Cain proving that Bamford certainly has a type, or Ana Gasteyer taking no prisoners as her ghastly agent Karen Grisham.
4. Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp
A big-screen comedy starring Bradley Cooper, Amy Poehler, Elizabeth Banks and Paul Rudd would virtually be a guaranteed box office hit these days. However, back in 2001, when only the latter was really a remotely familiar name, Wet Hot American Summer bombed, taking less than $300,000 on a $1.8m budget. Spoofing the teen sex comedies of the ’80s, the film may have gone on to become a much-quoted cult classic, but it was still a surprise when Netflix announced it would be reuniting the summer camp gang for an eight-part prequel.
Perhaps more incredibly, all the aforementioned A-listers also returned to Camp Firewood – although Cooper reportedly shot all of his scenes in just a single day – alongside new additions such as Lake Bell, Chris Pine and Jon Hamm. The original cast’s loyalty was rewarded with a brilliantly goofy script which added to the film’s legacy (we finally find out why Mitch was turned into a can of mixed vegetables) but without alienating first time viewers too.
We couldn’t be more on board for the follow-up adventure.
3. Bojack Horseman
The second, and far superior, Will Arnett show to appear on this list, Bojack Horseman saw Netflix venture into the world of adult animation for the bizarre tale of a washed-up sitcom star – who just happens to be a fifty-something alcoholic horse – and his attempt to claw his way back up the showbiz ladder with a tell-all autobiography.
After a fairly perfunctory first 12 episodes, the show really came into its own in the second season when it skilfully added pathos, poignancy and profundity to all the throwaway, if admittedly often hilarious, jokes and slapstick. Indeed, who knew it was possible to get emotionally invested in a cartoon which features a dolphin pop star named Sextina Aquafina, a newsreading whale named Tom Jumbo-Grumbo and a feline policeman named Officer Meow Meow Fuzzyface? An even stronger third season suggests that Bojack Horseman has the potential to run and run.
2. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
From the moment the insanely addictive auto-tuned theme song first kicked in, it was clear that Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was going to be impossible to resist. Written by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock and starring Jane Krakowski as a fabulously narcissistic socialite, the show inevitably has plenty in common with their previous small-screen outing 30 Rock – the jaunty jazzy incidental music, the niche pop culture references, the razor-sharp quips which occur so often it’s impossible to catch them all in one viewing, just to name a few.
But UKS stands on its own merits thanks to a joyous lead performance from Ellie Kemper, a deceptively darker tone, and a brilliant supporting cast of characters including her larger-than-life roommate Titus Andromedon, delightfully batty landlady Lillian Kaushtupper and super-sweet love interest Dong Nguyen. No doubt that the NBC executives who passed on the show before it found its home on Netflix have been crying into their Pinot Noir ever since.
1. Master of None
Combining the adorableness of his Parks and Recreation character Tom Haverford with the insightfulness of his stand-up routines, Aziz Ansari, alongside screenwriter Alan Yang, delivered one of the most charming, warm and true-to-life depictions of life as a millennial ever committed to screen with Master of None.
The relationship between Ansari’s struggling actor Dev and Noel Wells’ delightful music publicist Rachel may take center stage throughout the ten-part series, and deservedly so – the episode in which they share their first proper date on a weekend in Nashville contains more authentic moments than a thousand Katherine Heigl romcoms could manage. But touching on everything from racial and sex discrimination to growing old and immigration (be warned: the superb “Parents” episode will both tug at your heartstrings and make you feel incredibly guilty about how much you take your own for granted), Master of None has far more to offer than its meet-cute. It may only have one season in the books so far, but its still the best Netflix comedy series to date in our opinion.
What’s your favorite Netflix original comedy? Let us know in the comments.