What To Watch On Netflix, Part 2: Pretty Good Bets

The shows on the following list of Netflix recommendations generally have two things in common: They have some really good seasons, and they have some really dodgy seasons.

Quite a few shows listed below took a while to figure out what they wanted to do and how they wanted to do it, and an even greater number of them ran out of steam before they were finally canceled. That said, even if they're not necessarily as consistent or as ambitious as the shows on my list of Netflix Classics, the good runs of these shows make them worth watching. Would I blame you if you bailed before the final episode of "Alias," "The Office" or "The X-Files"? No, I would not. But I was crazy for all of those shows at one time or another, and I still have a great deal of fondness for them.

Long story short, even if the Pretty Good Bets are not in the very top tier of Netflix's offerings, the shows on this list have a lot to offer and could keep you busy for quite some time.

To complete the trio of lists Anne Helen Petersen's essay inspired me to come up with, I also recently published a roster of Classic Shows and Overlooked Gems available on Netflix. And here are some important caveats for all of the lists:

  • They reflect my tastes, and I'll be the first to admit I haven't seen everything on Netflix. Also, these lists reflect how I'd classify these shows, and I accept that not everyone would classify them in the ways I do. No worries, these rosters are just meant as general guidelines.

  • These lists do not contain shows currently in production, on the air or otherwise un-canceled. Before you yell at me in the comments about something that isn't included, remember: If a show is still creating new episodes or will do so in the near future, it won't be found on any of the three lists.
  • The shows on this list are available on Netflix in full, with a couple of exceptions. I tried hard to stick with shows available in their entirety.
  • I'm not counting Netflix's own shows in the mix, so don't look for "Arrested Development," "Orange Is the New Black," "House of Cards," etc.
  • You'll only find scripted programs on these lists. There are fine documentaries and reality shows on Netflix, but I'm sticking with fictional, episodic TV for the purposes of these rosters.
  • Remember, this isn't a list of all shows worth watching (that would be much longer), it's just a selection from what's available for streaming right now on Netflix.
  • Final caveat: Netflix's lineup changes from time to time, and its offerings vary by country, so these lists are not set in stone and may contain shows that are unavailable where you live.
  • Like all long-running comedies, it has its ups and downs, but "30 Rock's" sharp, savage ups make it well worth sticking through the downs.

    Jennifer Garner runs down hallways! Many, many times! Often while wearing a wig! Even creator J.J. Abrams admits "Alias" got too convoluted for its own good in its last season or two, but this soapy, action-oriented spy drama was a lot of fun for quite a while. See Bradley Cooper before he was That "Hangover" Guy!

    If there's one thing that consistently ticked me off about the coverage of Joss Whedon around the time of "The Avengers," it's that most stories about him either didn't mention "Angel" or minimized its place in the Whedonverse. Nerd rage!

    Granted, most of the first season of "Angel" is, um ... problematic, to put it mildly (please don't say the name Kate Lockley in my presence). But once the show found its groove, "Angel's" finest seasons rival "Buffy's" best seasons. Yeah, I said it. No one ever accused David Boreanaz of having a huge range as an actor, but the writers found ways to use him and the rest of the cast well, and "Angel" evolved into a captivating, soul-searing, emotionally ruthless ensemble drama. With occasional dancing!

    Once you've seen this savagely funny John Cleese-Prunella Scales satire of hotel life, you'll never approach your vacations the same way again. My English husband spent several years growing up in the bed-and-breakfast his parents ran, and when people ask him what that was like, he says, "I was Manuel."

    "Frasier" combined smart, knowing comedy with physical humor, silliness and farce, and the long-running show generally made all of that look easy. It's really not. Remember when NBC had a lot of shows this good? Sigh.

    To watch the first season of "Fringe" is to witness a show figuring itself out on the fly. But no matter how bumpy the road to the show's high points (a number of which arrive in the generally fantastic third season), John Noble is great throughout, and "Fringe's" heart is very often in the right place. Of all the "X-Files" homages of the last two decades, this one is the most emotionally resonant.

    It's a cycle we're used to by now: A brash cable drama comes along and captures the media's attention and healthy ratings, then (possibly in pursuit of more of the same) it gives into its worst instincts and goes spectacularly off the rails. That's my way of saying that "Nip/Tuck's" early years are not necessarily perfect but are often very good. But be warned: If you stick with it through the entire Carver arc and beyond, expect to give your eye-roll muscles a demanding workout.

    "The Office" (U.S.)

    The American version of "The Office" follows a pattern similar to that of "The X-Files" -- after a generally swell bunch of seasons, around Season 5 or so it becomes less consistently good and the commitment of many involved begins to look shaky. But don't let the iffy later seasons scare you away from the Dunder Mifflin antics. "The Office's" heart, humanism and amused observations about the lives of white-collar drones made it more than just another comedy.

    Why are the audiences of the broadcast networks eroding? Here's one reason: It's far more rewarding to watch comedies like "Scrubs," "Cheers" and "Frasier" on Netflix than stale, desperate fare like "Sean Saves the World" and "The Michael J. Fox Show," which are allegedly new but come off as lame attempts to capture past sitcom glories.

    As for "Scrubs," it quite often managed to be demented, surreal, razor-sharp and deeply compassionate, sometimes all in the same episode. Comedies that can make you cry are rare, and "Scrubs" is in that exclusive club.

    As is the case with all "Trek" series, the first two seasons are rocky. But once "TNG" finds its groove, its classically structured storytelling, its efficient and thrilling two-parters and its humanist vision are very rewarding a lot of the time. Sincerity is the show's default mode, and if it occasionally lapses into corn, it's usually kind of lovable corn, and the ensemble knocks the good material out of the park. The original "Star Trek," "Voyager" and "Enterprise" -- all of which have their merits -- are also on Netflix, but for my gold-pressed Latinum, "TNG" and "Deep Space Nine" are the franchise's greatest hits (more on the latter soon).

    This recent Sundance Channel miniseries (which I reviewed here) was a terrific showcase for Elisabeth Moss's phenomenal acting skills and for director Jane Campion's magnificent eye. The central story of a missing young girl evolves into an incisive commentary on small-town power dynamics and the difficulty of defining, let alone achieving, justice.

    With its third season, "Torchwood: Children of Earth," this sci-fi drama broke into the pop-culture mainstream. The previous two seasons display their own zippy sense of fun, an energetic cheekiness and a very Whedonesque array of emotional dilemmas for its main characters. Netflix does not have the fourth season, "Torchwood: Miracle Day," which is a relief because after a decent start, it quickly went downhill and ultimately gave way to the sloppy, dumb self-indulgence that only occasionally marred the earlier seasons.

    There are a few reasons to watch this chronicle of a drug-dealing suburban mom, but here are two big ones: The supporting cast of this show was always second to none, and it's a way to get a taste of Jenji Kohan's character-driven writing before "Orange Is the New Black" returns next year.

    I certainly respect "The West Wing," but I will fully admit that it I was never particularly obsessed with it. Still, it's indisputably a Quality Drama with a fine cast, and when Aaron Sorkin is on his A-game, "The West Wing" crackles with idealistic energy.

    Beyond Season 5 or so, I make no promises about consistency or quality; there are some good episodes to be found, but the second half of the show's run is dicey territory, to say the least.

    At its best, however, "The X-Files" offered an addictive mixture of spooky supernatural tales and wackadoodle mythology, and it created the template for many of the otherworldly shows that followed. Many of those have failed to learn its central lesson: Give people distinctive characters and a core relationship to care about, and viewers will follow them literally anywhere.

    If you missed them, here are my lists of Classic Shows, the Overlooked Gems and lastly, here are the Reader Suggestions -- thanks for all of those!