With the number of original scripted television shows hitting TV and mobile device screens increasing each year — an estimated 455 in 2016 — choosing truly binge-worthy TV has never been more difficult. But Rotten Tomatoes’ staff buckled down, reviewed the contenders, and selected our personal favorites. (Turns out couch sores are covered by insurance!) Read on to see our top picks of outstanding programming from the past year. Each of these series is available to watch right now via streaming or on demand, so that you can get to binging pronto.
What It Is: Luke Cage is an ex-con with some impressive abilities, including super strength and steel-hard skin. But unlike those flashy Avengers downtown, Cage just wants to be left alone and under the radar. To keep a low profile, Cage is working a couple of jobs in Harlem to make ends meet, but (this being a Marvel story) he eventually decides to use his abilities to keep his neighborhood safe. But as Cage takes on organized crime in Harlem, his own past is coming back for piece of the action.
Why You Should Watch It: Netflix and Marvel have delivered Daredevil and Jessica Jones, both of which were acclaimed by fans and critics alike. But Luke Cage may be the best Marvel series on Netflix yet. It’s anchored by quietly powerful performance from Mike Colter, who imbues Cage with a combination of reluctance and determination that is fascinating to watch. The supporting cast includes reliable talents like Rosario Dawson, Mahershala Ali, Alfre Woodard and Theo Rossi, but the breakout performance may be Simone Missick as Misty Knight (here’s hoping Misty gets her own series). Series creator Cheo Hodari Coker has crafted a show that fits right in to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and also has smart scripts that take on topical issues like race, crime and law enforcement. There are a lot of superhero adaptations these days, but if they’re going to be this good, then keep them coming.
Where to Watch: Netflix
Commitment: 13 hours
Picked by: Matt Atchity, Editor-in-Chief
What it is: A Wild West-themed amusement park of the future is staffed by robots that entertain human guests in realistic settings and dramatic scenarios. Guests may violate their “Hosts” in any manner of humiliating and vile ways, which leads to a robot uprising when stealth computer code grants the robots varying degrees of sentience.
Why you should watch it: HBO’s latest fantasy drama was Rotten Tomatoes’ top TV page this year. Stars Anthony Hopkins, Thandie Newton, Jeffrey Wright, Evan Rachel Wood, and James Marsden elevated this sci-fi movie-to-series adaptation with exceptional performances, while writer-creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy asked viewers to contemplate existence in ways usually seen in academia, not popular TV fiction. A whodunit undercurrent overlaid with extreme violence and sex handed the network a new hit series to complement the end days of its Game of Thrones-branded television domination.
Commitment: About 10.5 hours
Picked By: Debbie Day, TV Features Editor
What it is: A young Hill staffer working for her senator brother finds out that aliens
have invaded Washington and are eating the brains of members of Congress, putting them under their control, and bringing D.C. to a standstill.
Why you should watch it: From Michelle and Robert King, creators of The Good Wife, and executive produced by Ridley Scott (Alien), BrainDead is odd, absurdly current, and funny. This single-season show wasn’t a big hit in ratings, which means you might have missed it entirely, but is extremely engaging, and features great performances by Mary Elizabeth Winstead (10 Cloverfield Lane) and Tony Shalhoub (Monk). It’s part political thriller, part sci-fi comedy with plenty of dark humor that will change forever how you feel about ants, or the 1980s hit “You Might Think.” And what’s that coming out of your ear now?
Commitment: 9 hours
Picked by: Julio de Oliveira, Project Manager
What it is: A Pakistani-American college student is accused of murdering a girl with whom he spent one wild, drug- and alcohol-fueled night, and an eccentric attorney-for-hire agrees to defend him in court, despite a mountain of incriminating evidence.
Why you should watch it: I could mention the incredible performances from Riz Ahmed, John Turturro, and Bill Camp, who are all compelling to watch for different reasons. I could also single out the exquisite production values, which meet the high standards of a prestige HBO series. Or I could talk about the writing, which is thoughtful, layered, and crafty enough to keep you guessing. But honestly, just give the first episode a watch, and see if it doesn’t hook you by the time the credits roll.
Commitment: A little over 8.5 hours
Picked by: Ryan Fujitani, Editor
What it is: Underachieving layabout Earn Marks (Donald Glover) ditches his job shilling credit cards at the airport to manage his cousin Alfred (Bryan Tyree Henry), who’s experiencing his first flush of success as the budding MC “Paper Boi.”
Why you should watch: The relatively spartan setup might make it sound like your standard sitcom, but Glover — who created the show as well as writing and/or directing a handful of episodes — has a lot more on his mind. Instead of settling for easy laughs, Atlanta probes a series of timely themes, subtly weighing in on poverty, racism, and cultural mores with a blend of comedy and drama that can shift from laugh-out-loud funny to gut-wrenching — or just flat-out surreal — in a matter of moments. One in a growing number of acclaimed FX series that regularly push the boundaries of half-hour scripted TV, Atlanta is tough to pin down — and easy to fall in love with.
Commitment: 5 hours
Picked by: Jeff Giles, Associate Editor
What it is: A young boy mysteriously goes missing on his way home one night, propelling his friends, his family, and the local police chief into a desperate search to find him — a search that brings them face to face with horrifying supernatural forces and mysterious experiments enveloping their small town.
Why you should watch it: Stranger Things is more than a mere 1980s tribute — it became an instant classic this past summer. Yes, you will watch it and feel the warm, cozy comfort of your favorite fantasy-fueled, kid-driven, and at times frightening movies of the ’80s (E.T., Goonies, Poltergeist, Stand By Me). At the same time you will lose sight of the past and feel completely and utterly engrossed by the Duffer Brothers’ unique homage to the decade and storytelling masters like Steven Spielberg or Stephen King. An engaging and brilliant cast, 1980s synth swells, and stylishly shot visuals recommend this irresistibly binge-worthy adventure. Plus, Winona Ryder delivers a killer performance as Will’s mother and could justifiably be reason No. 1 to tune in.
Where to watch: Netflix
Commitment: 7.5 hours
Picked By: Andria Hopkins, Review Aggregator
What it is: This lavish drama chronicles the ascension of Queen Elizabeth II, and the events of the British monarchy, government, and royal family during her reign.
Why you should watch it: The budget for this Netflix series was regal (about $130 million), but the real riches lie in the command performances given by the cast of this biographical drama. Those who have seen Claire Foy’s performance as Anne Boleyn in Wolf Hall knew she had the talent to rule in the role of HRH Elizabeth II, but John Lithgow is formidable as PM Winston Churchill, and while Matt Smith may always be best known as the 11th Doctor in Doctor Who, his performance as Prince Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh, makes the case that this is the role he was truly meant to play.
Where to watch: Netflix
Commitment: About 10 hours
Picked By: Beki Lane, Associate TV Editor
What it is: In this sequel to (not reboot of) the original 1973 horror classic, The Exorcist, the family of a demonically possessed teenager is consumed by fear as two courageous (and outcast) priests attempt to exorcise the entity, to horrifying results.
Why you should watch it: Horror fans often have difficulty watching the genre when it comes to television. We can get picky about our TV horror, because we are easily disappointed and I, for one, have turned off Penny Dreadful (I know), Hannibal (I know, I know), and True Blood (well, duh) well before their expiration dates. But one horror-fest that I’m absolutely smitten with is this year’s debut of The Exorcist. Geena Davis, for one, is remarkably believable in the role of a mother who will do anything to help her possessed daughter escape the demon inhabiting her body and soul. (The show seems to have now possessed our bodies and souls, too!) The series indulges in some genre-appropriate sexy hotness, as per usual (not overdone), but the bulk of the show is terrifying. As someone who has always had a soft spot for demon horror, I may be a little biased, but just wait till you hit episodes five and eight! FOX gave this show a devilishly bad time-slot on Friday nights, but it was definitely worth DVR-ing and tormenting family members with over the weekend. Now you can do that all in one day’s time!
Time commitment: About 7 .5 hours (without commercials)
Picked by: Kerr Lordygan, Associate TV Editor
What it is: This stellar, heartfelt dramedy follows a family of five through their trials, tribulations, and triumphs.
Why you should watch it: This Is Us lives up to all the hype. Billed as the next Parenthood, it will tug at heartstrings you didn’t even know you had, and it is lead by one of the most talented ensembles currently on television. This Is Us deals with everyday issues, including obesity, race, self-esteem, love, and loss. You will cry, you will laugh, and then you will cry some more. No tagline on television has ever been truer: “This is real. This is love. This is life.”
Commitment: About 8 hours
Picked By: Zoey Moore, Production Coordinator
What it is: A London doctor (Elizabeth Debicki) finds herself back in her Tasmanian hometown, where she’s treated with suspicion because of an incident in which her best friend went missing 15 years prior. Now it appears strange things — perhaps of a supernatural nature — are once again afoot.
Why you should watch it: This is it: the best show that absolutely nobody’s watching — in America, at least. The Kettering Incident offers proof that peak TV can be found well beyond our borders. Like a cross between Top of the Lake and Stranger Things seasoned with a dash of Don’t Look Now, The Kettering Incident is a meditation on guilt and grief, set in a town without pity that’s teeming with otherworldly disturbances. It doesn’t exactly make for light viewing, but it’s riveting, suspenseful, and flawlessly performed by some of Australia’s finest character actors.
Where to watch: Amazon
Commitment: 8 hours
Picked by: Tim Ryan, Senior Editor