With an extra day off work and a plethora of content available to binge-view on these fabulous interwebs, we thought we’d do our part and help narrow down your choices by picking some of our favorite series available to stream either through Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Instant. There’s something for everyone in this list, from coming-of-age comedic drama, time travel action/adventures, and brooding firefighters to crime-solving detectives, super-powered criminals and a sci-fi western. We’re also aware that this list will make you keen to watch all these shows, so, in the interest of making the most out of your Labor Day, we’re also providing you with key episodes to watch, just in case you want to catch up on more than one series (because you deserve it, you hard workers, you!)
So sit back, crack open a cold one and read through our picks to find the series you’ll be with for the next 24 hours.
Let’s start with a bit of lighter fare by highlighting this much-loved Joss Whedon series that lasted only a handful of episodes but spawned a legion of dedicated fans (who dubbed themselves “Browncoats” after the simple brown dusters worn by the soldiers of the Independence faction on the series) and even a $39 million dollar big-screen film. The show is a sci-fi series set in a future played to look and feel like the old West, and follows a ragtag group of space pioneers, living their lives among the stars by taking whatever job (not all of them legal) floats their way. Although the series starts off at kind of a slow-burn pace (possibly one of the contributing factors to its early demise), by episode three, “Bushwacked”, the writers find the show’s voice and, from then on, never miss a beat. Although the series had its dramatic moments, the humor is what many fans and critics remember best about the show, as seen in this fan-made clip of some of the best jokes from the series (minor spoilers):
If you’re looking to do an abbreviated version of the show, and then tuck in for the movie, we suggest watching the following episodes (in order, please): “Serenity” (the pilot), “Bushwacked,” “Our Mrs. Reynolds” (look for Mad Men‘s Christina Hendricks as the titular Mrs. Reynolds), “Jaynestown,” “Out of Gas,” “Ariel,” and “Objects in Space.” You’ll have a shiny time watching this series, we goram promise ya!
Our allies across the pond have proven time and time again they know how to produce great TV, especially genre-driven shows (Paging Doctor Who…). Which is why when Misfits premiered in 2009, it was no surprise that creator Howard Overman (who previously had adapted Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently series for BBC Four) had twisted NBC’s Heroes concept (regular folks get super powers!) into a skewed, slightly more cynical look at superheroes. From the moment you hear the kick-ass opening song (The Rapture’s “Echoes”), you’ll be pumped and intrigued by this smart and often hilarious series, which follows a group of young criminals working a community service program who are gifted with super powers after surviving a freak electrical storm. The first two seasons of the show (there have been 4 with a 5th season on the way) are the ones to watch. Without spoiling anything, after the season two finale, several of the main cast members left the show, taking a lot of the charm with them. That said, those first two seasons are so great they really shouldn’t be missed. Some may find the accents hard to parse at first; The show is streaming on Hulu with the option of turning on subtitles, and we suggest you turn them on for at least the first two episodes until you get comfortable with the dialect and slang. Here’s the Season One trailer to whet your appetite:
Say you work as an astronaut and you’re just sick to death of space-based adventures, or maybe you spend your days fighting crime and cannot stomach another superhero story. This next series might be just the break you desire from all that outer-space travel and bad-guy punching. The FX “dramedy” Rescue Me, created by Denis Leary and Peter Tolan, followed firefighter Tommy Gavin (played by Leary) and his family both in and out of the firehouse as they deal with post 9/11 trauma and domestic problems. Long before Walter White was the guy audiences loved to hate, Leary introduced audiences to Gavin, a self-destructive, manipulative, alcoholic suffering from tremendous survivor’s guilt after the loss of his cousin and best friend Jimmy Keefe, who died on September 11, 2001. The survivor’s guilt manifests itself in the form of haunting visions — usually of Cousin Jimmy as a tortured spirit — which Tommy desperately tries to drink away. If it all sounds a bit too depressing, we promise, it really isn’t (okay… sometimes it is, but when is good drama not a little depressing?), due in part to the fantastic supporting cast. Jack McGee, a character actor with an IMDB page that reads like a laundry list of TV shows, brought a fatherly warmth to Fire Chief Jerry Reilly, while Daniel Sunjata, Steven Pasquale, and Mike Lombardi played firefighters Franco, Sean, and Mike like a modern day vaudeville act, delivering snappy, hysterical quips between tensely shot warehouse fires providing just the right balance of comic relief. The guy who really steals the show is John Scurti, as Lt. Kenneth “Lou” Shea, one of the most interesting and complex characters you’ll ever have the pleasure of meeting. Lou is a poet at heart, a lover stuck in the bulky body of a fighter who tries to balance his fondness for spirituality and yoga with the bro’d-out nature of his job, and often fails.
The show ran for seven seasons and should be watched from start to finish, which won’t be a hard sell once you’ve gotten to know the extended family, like Tommy’s Uncle Teddy (Lenny Clarke), an ex-firefighter, chronic gambler who once modeled for a men’s sports magazine, or Tommy’s crazy sister Maggie (Tatum O’Neal), a female version of her brother with an even nastier drinking habit and an unhealthy addiction to pornography. However in the interest of cramming as much TV in as possible this weekend we’re going to suggest Seasons 1 and 2 and the final 3 episodes of season 3. That should be plenty to get you started and keep you hooked.
First of all… how are you not already watching this show? No, really. This one should be a no-brainer for you. Not only is it one of the smartest takes on the character in a long time (and with series writers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, it isn’t hard to see why), but it also kickstarted the career of Benedict Cumberbatch, who you’ll recognize as Khan in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek Into Darkness. Each season has three 90-minute episodes, so really you’re getting three feature-length Sherlock Holmes movies, each fairly self-contained, although there is a larger story running subtle throughout. Within minutes of starting the first episode, you’ll understand why Cumberbatch has been critically lauded for his portrayal of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 19th century master detective and has fast become one of the definitive interpretations of the character. The success of the show is due, in no small part, to the relationship that Sherlock shares with his equally well-known sidekick, Dr. John Watson. Martin Freeman provides comic relief as the formidable Watson, recently returned from military service in Afghanistan, who shares a flat with Holmes, who is re-imagined here as a “consulting detective” to the Metropolitan Police Service. Each episode is loosely based on one of Doyle’s original stories, but Moffat is known for the clever twists he’s thrown into Doctor Who over the years, and he’s brought his A-game to Sherlock, so even die-hard fans of the original stories can expect many last-minute reveals and revelations.
A fitting pick for our list, given that the creative minds behind this hit BBC series have gone on to thrill American moviegoing audiences with a trilogy of films that concluded with The World’s End (in theaters now). However, back in 1999, Simon Pegg and co-writer/co-star Jessica Stevenson (now Hynes) were less well-known when they presented the world with Spaced, a sitcom about two friends who pretend to be a couple in order to impress the landlord of a perfectly-priced apartment. Joined by future collaborators Nick Frost and Edgar Wright, Pegg and Stevenson wrote all 14 episodes of the series by themselves. Frost plays Mike Watt, best friends with Pegg’s Tim, a hopelessly immature man-child who eventually ends up also living in the building. The show was shot with a single camera and clearly shows the beginnings of what has become Wright’s signature cinematic style, as well as liberally borrowing stylistic mannerisms from a variety of genre films. The series is rife with pop culture references to everything from sci-fi movies to horror films (early glimpses of Shaun of the Dead are obvious), comic books, and video games. If you’re a fan of their films and you’ve never seen this series, then stop reading now and watch them all on Netflix this instant!
By now everyone has caught an episode of NBC’s American remake of this British show, but if you think you’ve seen enough of Steve Carell’s version of the series to skip the original… you’re dead wrong. The differences between the shows are vast (especially once the American version diverted from direct adaptations of the British scripts) but none more notably than comedian Ricky Gervais’ portrayal of David Brent, the (original) British version of Carell’s Michael Scott. Where Carell brought his own brand of self-deprecation and political incorrectness to the Scott character, Gervais’ David Brent is especially cocky as the skill-deficient, often insulting, usually clueless boss of Wernham-Hogg Paper Merchants. The rest of the ensemble cast is equally (some would argue more) entertaining than their American counterparts. Tim (changed in the US to Jim) is played by Martin Freeman with his usual nervous charm, and though the romance between Tim and Dawn (Lucy Davis) moves at a much quicker pace than Jim and Pam’s (The UK series is only 12 episodes long — plus a Christmas special — as opposed to the U.S. version’s final count of 201), it is by no means devoid of the same amount of passion and heart. Meanwhile, before Dwight Schrute ever left his beet farm for the hallowed halls of Dunder Mifflin, his British counterpart Gareth Keenan (Mackenzie Cook) was the butt of office mate Tim’s practical jokes and a much more sycophantic foil to Gervais’ Brent. Due to the shortness of the series, we recommend watching the whole run of episodes if you’re in the mood for some particulary cheeky Britisn humor.
The Shield introduced the world to corrupt cop Detective Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis), a cold-hearted son-of-a-bitch with a propensity for violence who winds up in over his head when his “Strike Team” is put under heavy investigation following the murder of a fellow officer. The series took place in the fictional Farmington district of Los Angeles, with the detectives working out of a converted church (“The Barn”) as their police station. The Shield examined not only the corruption of the police but also the social impact of drugs and gangs on the citizens of the city. Chiklis’ Mackey is surrounded by a supporting cast of characters portrayed as having both vice and virtue; Jay Karnes’ detective “Dutch” is initially portrayed as a straight-laced nerd, but as his character unfolds, we learn of a darkness beneath his sunny exterior. Even Mackey is shown to have a softer side, as a loving father of two and a husband struggling to keep his marriage afloat, that sharply contrasts with his gruff attitude on the streets. This is another series that really should be watched in its entirety, but if you’re looking to wet your whistle with just a taste, we recommend starting with the pilot before moving on to Season 2’s “Co-Pilot”, then to season 3’s “Bottom Bitch”, then skip ahead to season 5’s “Kavanaugh,” with series guest-star Forest Whitaker, then you can wrap up with Season 6’s “Chasing Ghosts” for a masterclass in acting from both Chiklis and series regular Walton Goggins (now Boyd Crowder on Justified). Once you’ve seen the highlights, you can move on to the next show on our list, but chances are you’ll want to know how it all ends. If that’s the case, watch the entirety of season 7; there are too many amazing moments, and the story is too tightly scripted to highlight a single episode. You’ll need them all.
NBC’s award-winning series that details the lives of fictional President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) and his cabinet of advisors is available in its entirety on Netflix, although we’re going to argue the case here that only the first four seasons of this show are worth your valuable extra weekend hours. It was after those initial four seasons that series creator Aaron Sorkin (The Newsroom, A Few Good Men) left the show in the hands of veteran TV producer John Wells. Unfortunately, with Sorkin’s departure, the quality of the writing massively declined, losing the familiar themes and patter of Sorkin’s dialogue. But we’re not here to dwell on the negative, we’re here to talk up the amazing first four seasons, available for streaming on Netflix. Since The West Wing was a network show, there are 22 episodes per season, making this a huge commitment for the weekend, so once again let us help you out by suggestion some of the highlights: From Season 1, you’ll want to check out “The Pilot”, “20 Hours In L.A.” (episode 16), and “What Kind Of Day Has it Been?” (episode 22). In Season 2, you’ll not want to miss the first two-parter of the series, “In The Shadow Of Two Gunmen” (episodes 1 & 2), “Somebody’s Going To Emergency, Somebody’s Going to Jail” (episode 16), “The Stackhouse Filibuster” (episode 17), and the season finale “Two Cathedrals” (episode 22), in which Martin Sheen delivers a powerful monologue to an empty church at the funeral to a dear friend. In Season 3, make sure to view “Indians In The Lobby” (episode 7), “Bartlet For America” (episode 9) and “Posse Comitatus,” that season’s final episode. Finally, begin season 4 by watching “20 Hours In America,” the first two episodes of the season that follow the Bartlet re-election campaign into the heart of the Midwest, then watch “Game On” (episode 6), and end with the season four finale “Twenty Five,” which ends on a bit of a down note for a series finale but, trust us, season 5 and beyond only gets worse.
Jason Katims, the mastermind behind Friday Night Lights, has crafted one of the best family dramas in recent memory. Without ever getting too sweet, this series examines the hardships of everyday life and the people we surround ourselves without whom, as much as they might drive us insane, life would be impossible… our family. The stellar cast includes Peter Krause as Adam Braverman, the oldest Braverman sibling, happily married to wife Kristina (Monica Potter); Dax Sherpard plays Crosby, the black sheep of the family, forced to take responsibility for his actions at the beginning of the series when he finds out he’s a father. Series regulars also include Mae Whitman, the rebellious teenage daughter to Lauren Graham’s single mother Sarah Braverman, and Erika Christensen as the youngest of the Braverman children, Julie, a happily married, successful attorney who struggles as she balances her career with her desire to be a full-time mother. The first three seasons are available on Netflix, with the fourth streaming at Hulu Plus. Catch up on this amazing, sometimes heartbreaking, almost always uplifting drama before the start of season 5 this fall.
We saved the best for last with this pick. If you can only watch one show and you’re even remotely a fan of well-written science fiction, you need to be watching Continuum. You’re in luck, because the first season of this Canadian series is streaming on Netflix and with season 2 having just wrapped, there’s a good chance those episodes could be added soon as well. So what’s it about? Well, without spoiling anything (and trust us, you’re going to want to go in with as little information as possible), the series follows future cop Kiera Cameron, who is sent back in time to stop a violent group of rebels from altering the past to improve their future. The series is beautifully written by creator Simon Barry, and makes brilliant use of its limited TV budget to deliver powerful action sequences in nearly every episode. Once again, we’re trying really hard not to spoil anything for you, because the show is the most enjoyable if you can be surprised by the constant string of twists it throws at its audience, but if you’re still not convinced, perhaps Kiera’s narration from the opening credits of each episode will help: “2077. My time, my city, my family. When terrorists killed thousands of innocents, they were condemned to die. They had other plans. A time travel device sent us all back 65 years. I want to get home but I can’t be sure what I will return to if history is changed. Their plan, to corrupt and control the present in order to win the future. What they didn’t plan on was me…”