Settling in for what should be a chilled night in front of Netflix has become a daunting prospect, with the sheer haystack of titles increasingly overwhelming.
In response to this eternal struggle and the fact everyone loves a list, we have selected our top five Netflix Original series released in 2019 so far – including new seasons of existing shows.
5 – THE SOCIETY
This teen mystery series made its debut in May, and the first season of Christopher Keyser’s The Society overcomes a slow start to reveal a well-constructed, impressively paced and substantial drama that ticks not only all the teen boxes, but a few more.
An ensemble cast including Kathryn Newton, Rachel Keller and impressive newcomer Toby Wallace play a group of high school students in the fictional West Ham, Connecticut, who return from a field trip to find that every adult in the town has disappeared without trace. Some take initial joy in their sudden freedom, but others try to maintain order and establish authority while attempting to get to the bottom of their mysterious predicament.
Despite an initial tiresome concern with petty romantic dynamics and familiar conflicted loyalties, the show gains momentum, with twists and turns becoming increasingly wrong-footing, while its ideas are well-drawn – an obvious comparison is to William Golding’s Lord of The Flies and its questions of absent authority and the dangerous folly of youth.
That it manages to be engaging while only sporadically addressing the initial premise is testament to how strong the writing is. Add in strong performances and it is little wonder that Netflix renewed The Society for a second season in July.
4 – STRANGER THINGS
We don’t need to wax lyrical about how great Stranger Things is – since arriving in 2016, it’s become as much of a pop culture fixture as the 80s references so influential to the Duffer Brothers.
If you don’t know who Eleven is or haven’t heard of the Upside Down, you must have been living under a rock for the last three years. Even without seeing a single episode of the 80s sci-fi series, there’s every likelihood the adventures of Will (Noah Schnapp), Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and friends as they investigate the odd goings-on in their town of Hawkins are somewhat familiar. Netflix famously withholds viewing figures, but it’s safe to say this has become their most successful original product.
The third season – presented as Stranger Things 3 – does not suggest the hype train will be slowing any time soon. Some had questioned if the child stars, growing up fast, could still be as endearing and believable as adolescents. The Duffers responded by crafting the most vibrant storyline yet and a changing world mirroring the coming-of-age experiences of the gang, while packing a mighty emotional punch.
Add in the now-iconic Scoops Troop (if you know, you know) and a healthy dose of Russian conspiracy, and Stranger Things 3 reaffirms the show’s place as the millennial Goonies or E.T.
3 – MINDHUNTER
Mindhunter’s second season, released in mid-August, was one of the most anticipated Netflix releases of 2019 – the show holds a 98% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Joe Penhall and David Fincher’s periodic procedural crime drama is based on former FBI agent John E. Douglas’ true crime book of the same name, but laces its recreations of real history with dramatic freedom and doesn’t play hard and fast with the truth.
Its first season centred around the creation of the FBI’s Behavioural Science Unit (BSU), a division of the bureau set up in the 1970s to investigate not only the what and why but the how – how a killer’s mind works. The BSU’s methods centred around interviews with the most notorious serial killers in America, including the ‘Co-ed Killer’ Ed Kemper, brilliantly played in Mindhunter by Cameron Britton. Jonathan Groff and Holt McCallany are Holden Ford and Bill Tench, fictional versions of Douglas and his partner Mark Olshaker, who conduct the interviews and begin to apply their findings to active cases.
The strange thing about Mindhunter is a conspicuous lack of conventional action. Excluding the very first scene of season one, there is little to no violence and no death scenes, which makes the show all the more impressive that it stays intense, engaging and suspenseful throughout.
Season two is a masterclass in all of that and more, the agents’ work encroaching on them in new and frightening ways, while the Atlanta child murders of 1979-81 provide the grim backbone of the story arc.
2 – THE OA
The second season of Brit Marling and Zal Batmangij’s mind-bending creation was also its last – despite a critical response hailing a world that pushed TV’s boundaries, Netflix cancelled the show in August, five months after The OA ‘Part II’ dropped.
An outraged ‘#SaveTheOA’ campaign followed, and while the show apparently never boasted enough viewers to merit renewal, those who did watch were so captivated they took the cancellation personally. Why? Because The OA is one of the richest, most vividly conceived sci-fi worlds ever to grace screens big or small.
Marling is not only creator but star, playing an adopted young woman called Prairie who, at the beginning of season one, makes a mysterious return after being missing for seven years. Previously blind, Prairie will not say where she has been, but her eyesight has returned and she now has strange scars. She assembles an odd-ball group of people, selected to hear the truth and help her.
That plot summary feels inadequate as The OA defies explanation. It is a sprawling work of epic proportions that Part II somehow expanded further. The writing is remarkable, the level of realisation staggering, the cast impressive, the score mighty and moving. It might not be coming back, but it’s not too late to discover this delightful world.
1 – WHEN THEY SEE US
This dramatisation of the true story of the ‘Central Park Five’, five young men wrongly convicted of a New York assault and rape in 1989, is as harrowing as it is remarkable. When They See Us is a four-episode limited series created, directed and co-written by Ava DuVernay, and it is an essential triumph of humanity and empathy with passionate performances and a shocking portrayal of corruption at its heart. Kevin Richardson (Asante Blackk), Antron McCray (Caleel Harris), Yusef Salaam (Ethan Herisse), Korey Wise (Jharrel Jerome) and Raymond Santana (Marquis Rodriguez) were accused of the crime with the authorities under pressure to act. The drama details their arrest, trial and the far-reaching consequences for the young men’s lives.
Prior knowledge of the real-life events will not dampen the staggering impact of this retelling, and it gives nothing away to say that the sheer abhorrent injustice portrayed will evoke anger, tears and wide-eyed horror. The tragedy of the fact is such that when any hint of redemption arrives, it offers profound uplift.
Jerome (Moonlight) is particularly strong, but the ensemble produces electrifying performances.
With more than a hint of sad contemporary relevance, DuVernay’s creation is not an easy watch, but it is also utterly essential.