Netflix has a bit of a problem. When the streaming service first entered the world of original content in the early 2010’s with shows like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, they quickly established themselves as synonymous with the notion of “quality television” (we don’t need to talk about Hemlock Grove). Like HBO, Netflix became the hot new place to tune in for “proper” television, distinct from the phrase “good TV,” more often associated with trashy reality programing from the likes of Bravo. Netflix’s content seemed curated and carefully crafted a decade ago, and gave off the impression that behind closed doors their selection process for new projects was coveted and highly selective. Landing a Netflix original became a tangible, peak goal for creators, even already established ones. It started careers (The Duffer Brothers’ Stranger Things, for instance), and most programs were received with overwhelming positivity.
Fast forward to 2020, and Netflix is absolutely overrun with original content. You can’t scroll three rows into the app’s homepage without original programing trailers overtaking about 80% of the screen. The streaming giant’s approach in the last couple of years has very noticeably shifted from that of quality to quantity, purely in hopes of reaching the absolute widest audience possible. They’ve already hooked everyone and become a cultural juggernaut, so they need the content to keep them all wrapped up in a duvet on the couch all Christmas long binging. For every Ozark and The Crown there are twenty Fuller Houses and Disjointeds, with hundreds of inconsistent Black Mirrors in between. By today, the hacked out films and series vastly outnumber the “quality” work, and it’s all added to the queue to fill space.
That said, the hits certainly still hit harder than ever, and though Netflix has not maintained their reputation of an HBO-style bastion of quality, there is still plenty of wheat to combat the chaff, even if the ratio is way more off than it used to be. With that said, here is our countdown of the best, worst, and right-down-the-middle new original shows and films Netflix offered the sheep in 2020.
The Queen’s Gambit
There’s a reason this coming of age period drama became Netflix’s most-watched scripted miniseries ever. With smart writing, incredible attention to historical detail, and bolstered by an incredibly captivating performance by the (finally) breaking out Anya Taylor-Joy, The Queen’s Gambit is a spellbinding experience that not only keeps you hooked to your TV, but might even make you take up chess.
Watching Unorthodox take home its surprise Emmy win earlier this year was wonderfully gratifying, especially considering the masterful and complex tale told in just 4 short episodes. The miniseries dived deep into the world of the Jewish ultra-orthodox, a realm seldom explored on Western television, and lead actress Shira Haas’ nuanced performance only made us want more.
Da 5 Bloods
We are plenty used to war films by 2020, and on the surface Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods seems to follow the typical dry formula. But under the surface of a simple quest of four aging Vietnam vets looking for the remains of their fallen leader there is a thick layer of emotion and an expertly crafted singular vision of Spike Lee, a truly once-in-a-generation talent.
The Midnight Gospel
An odd choice perhaps, as the strange world of The Midnight Gospel largely went unnoticed by Netflix’s usual demographic. But for an original concept of structuring a story around real podcast experts by way of crude yet undeniably creative animation, the show kept us hooked enough to add it here. Trippy, profound, dense, heart-breaking and perplexing all in equal measure, it’s one of the most unique offerings we got this year.
I Am Not Okay with This
It is a massive shame that the COVID-19 pandemic led to Netflix’s premature canceling of this acclaimed series. With elements of coming-of-age, supernatural and hero tropes, I am Not Okay with This was a fresh take on the teen drama genre starring two of Hollywood’s rising young talents from the rebooted IT franchise.
Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness
Listen, we know Tiger King was the inaugural king of quarantine viewing for its bewilderingly wild narrative that reminded us more of a car crash than a gripping documentary. But the thing about rubbernecking is that once that car is finally out of sight, we tend to completely forget about it. For what it’s worth, we aren’t really talking about Tiger King anymore, least of all it’s abysmal tacked-on final episode, and frankly we’ve run out of interest
The Old Guard
The Old Guard may have garnered many positive reviews from critics, but to our minds the Netflix adaptation of the beloved graphic novel was more of a pulpy distraction than anything. As the first in a supposed series of films, it certainly served its purpose, and was far from bad. We just find the often-times sillier than intended film a lot shallower than expected. Sorry Charlize.
Every Netflix original Christmas movie
We cannot in good conscious add any of these films to the “worst” pile (expect maybe the pitiful Holidate), despite their predictable and pithy presentations. That’s because they are Christmas movies that are exactly what they set out to be: cheeky, Lifetime-esque self-aware romps that kill an hour and a half and give us something to enjoy with family over the holiday season. Nobody would call The Christmas Prince the apex of cinema, but damned if it and almost every other Netflix film of its ilk aren’t entertaining.
Netflix’s ice skating drama wasn’t universally panned of course, and many people enjoyed its short-lived story of a young skater working through a burgeoning career while battling her family’s history mental illness. Despite its earnestness and decent writing however, Spinning Out is certainly no I, Tonya, and in addition to being uneven and melodramatic, to us it commits the cardinal sin of just being dull.
AJ & the Queen
This one barely escapes the bottom list, frankly. RuPaul fans were certainly excited at the prospect of watching him traipse around the country encountering familiar Drag Race faces at every turn. Those fun cameos are fledgling however, and really the camp of them is the only thing keeping AJ & The Queen afloat. Everything else from the predictable story, tacky characters and trulls abysmal acting from its two leads makes the show just so difficult to get through. You haven’t seen uncomfortably bad acting until you’ve watched RuPaul fake-cry at the wheel of a run-down RV on the New Jersey Turnpike.
The Kissing Booth 2
Look, we know the demo for this film, and we know they aren’t after the emotional touchstones of heavy teen drama. That doesn’t make The Kissing Booth 2 any more enjoyable to watch, even as a kitschy aside. It is truly remarkable to see lead Jacob Elordi side by side here and on the amazing Euphoria though.
How did this one go so insanely wrong? Steve Carell playing Michael Scott over and over again has most definitely had its milage, but Space Force may just be the turning point. There’s rally no way to describe this comedy as anything other than just-plain unfunny.
The Goop Lab
Were we expecting much from The Goop Lab? Not at all. That doesn’t make it any more bearable. A 3-hour trudge through Gwyneth Paltrow’s obnoxiously pseudoscientific lifestyle is suitable only for the ultra-rich, white out-of-touch niche she so expertly has built up over the years. Netflix really should not have given this the time of day; 2020 is not the time for more shaky science.
The Last Thing He Wanted
With a whopping 5% on Rotten Tomatoes, it is almost impressive how inept the screenplay for The Last Thing He Wanted is. Dodgy dialogue, confusing plot, and generally boring all around make this one a hard skip. It’s the last thing we want.
Emily in Paris
It’s hard to summon up the enthusiasm to talk about this one. We fully understand its appeal; Eurocentric culture and architecture-porn. We really, really don’t need more stories about delusional white Americans pretending to respect other cultures, especially when they have absolutely no character or identity of their own. When it comes to cringe comedy, leave it to Rachel Bloom.