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The Disney-owned Hulu streaming service is still, more than 15 years into its existence, thought of first as a repository for new television (and, for many cord-cutters, the “live TV” option of choice) and second as a library of indisputable TV classics, usually in their entirety. But savvy viewers can also find a rotating library of movies, both new releases and recent classics, rivaling the collections of many of its competitors — if they know where to look. We’re here to help.
We also have lists of the best movies and TV shows on Netflix, the best of both on Disney+ and the best movies on Amazon Prime Video.
‘I Am Not Your Negro’ (2017)
This stunning documentary concerns the life and writings of James Baldwin, but it’s less focused on tracing the arc of its subject’s life than on the potency of his words. The director Raoul Peck uses as his framework the notes of Baldwin’s unfinished book, “Remember This House,” in which Baldwin was attempting to reckon with the legacies of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Medgar Evers; guided by Baldwin’s passages, Peck constructs an urgent and audacious essay about our past and our present. Our critic called it “a concise, roughly 90-minute movie with the scope and impact of a 10-hour mini-series.”
‘Boogie Nights’ (1997)
When this crime-infused comedic drama roared onto the indie scene in the fall of 1997, it was widely (and favorably) compared to “Pulp Fiction.” It’s not hard to guess why: the setting amid the seedy underbelly of the Los Angeles suburbs; the screenplay filled with sly cinematic allusions; the hotshot young auteur, directing his second feature. But Paul Thomas Anderson was no Quentin Tarantino wannabe. “Boogie Nights,” Anderson’s breakthrough film, is most memorable for the affection it shows its characters — a crew of pornographers and outcasts — and for its humanistic approach to their eccentricities. (If you love epic dramas, try “Once Upon a Time in America.”)
Kristen Wiig stars in and co-wrote (with her frequent collaborator Annie Mumolo) this “unexpectedly funny” comedy smash from the director Paul Feig. Wiig is Annie, an aimless baker whose lifelong pal, Lillian (Maya Rudolph), is getting hitched. When Lillian asks Annie to serve as maid of honor, an uproarious series of broad comic set pieces and thoughtful introspection are set off. The comedy and drama are played to the hilt by an ensemble that includes Rose Byrne, Jon Hamm, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Ellie Kemper, Chris O’Dowd and Melissa McCarthy, who earned an Oscar nomination for her role. (The following year’s “Bachelorette” explores similar themes with a darker edge.)
‘The Shape of Water’ (2017)
Guillermo del Toro won Oscars for best director and best picture for this gleeful, romantic and “altogether wonderful” stew of monster movie, fairy tale and Cold War thriller. Sally Hawkins stars as a mute cleaning woman at a government research lab who accidentally glimpses, and becomes enchanted by, a mysterious sea monster with a marked resemblance to the creature in “The Creature From the Black Lagoon.” As she moves from curiosity to emotional attachment, she must find a way to free the creature from his prison, and from the sadistic government agent (Michael Shannon) who wants to destroy him.
‘How to Train Your Dragon 2’ (2014)
DreamWorks’s “Dragon” trilogy is frequently overlooked in the sphere of contemporary family entertainment (thanks primarily to the Disney/Pixar juggernaut), but this series of family adventures is terrific, wittily written, gorgeously rendered and boasts an all-star cast (including Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill and Kristen Wiig). The most successful installment is probably this sequel, an Oscar nominee for best animated feature, which deepens the bond between the meek Viking kid Hiccup (Baruchel) and his dragon, Toothless, while adding the considerable gravitas of Cate Blanchett in the role of Hiccup’s long-lost mother.
When Steven Spielberg set out to make a film about Abraham Lincoln, the early scripts encompassed the entirety of his presidency. But Spielberg and his screenwriter, Tony Kushner, wisely chose to focus on a single moment in Lincoln’s life — the passage of the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery — and ingeniously use that struggle as an emblem not only of Lincoln the politician, but also of Lincoln the man. In doing so, this biographical snapshot tells us far more about its subject than the typical, shallow cradle-to-grave biopic. Nominated for a dozen Oscars (Daniel Day-Lewis won for his towering work as the 16th president), “Lincoln” is, according to A.O. Scott, “a rough and noble democratic masterpiece.” (For more period drama, stream “Atonement” and “Glory.”)
Kristen Stewart picked up her first Academy Award nomination for her subtle yet affecting turn as Princess Diana in this atypical biographical fantasy from the director Pablo Larraín. Like his earlier “Jackie,” a character sketch of Jacqueline Kennedy told only through the lens of the days after her husband’s assassination, “Spencer” confines its time frame to a single holiday weekend near the end of Diana’s marriage to Prince Charles, and its action to a remote mansion inhabited by both the royalty of the present and the ghosts of the past. A.O. Scott praised it as “an allegory of powerlessness, revolt and liberation.” (For more indie drama, stream “Saint Omer” on Hulu.)
‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ (1992)
David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, about real estate salesmen and the desperate measures they’ll take to keep their lousy jobs, was adapted into one of the most potent pictures of the ’90s, thanks to the brute force of Mamet’s dialogue and one of the most remarkable ensemble casts of the era: Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Ed Harris, Alec Baldwin, Kevin Spacey, Jonathan Pryce and Alan Arkin. It’s something of a profanity-laden counterpart to “Death of a Salesman,” its scorched-earth monologues and inventive insults providing the flashy surface to a melancholy indictment of empty capitalism and toxic masculinity. Our critic called it “a movie for which everybody deserves awards.”
‘Fight Club’ (1999)
Brad Pitt and Edward Norton memorably co-star in this “sardonic, testosterone-fueled science fiction” effort from the director David Fincher, adapting Chuck Palahniuk’s acclaimed novel. Norton stars as a yuppie Everyman whose consumerist beliefs are shaken to their core by a chance encounter with a charismatic, enigmatic stranger (Pitt) with mayhem on his mind. Gleefully provocative and darkly funny, it’s a take-no-prisoners indictment of turn-of-the-millennium norms that has divided audiences for decades. Fincher’s vision has rarely been so crisp, or as merciless. (Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” works a similar, dread-filled vibe.)
‘Palm Springs’ (2020)
The “Groundhog Day”-style time loop comedy gets an update and rom-com twist with Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti as a pair of wedding guests stuck reliving the same day, over and over — but together, falling in and out of something resembling love while for everyone around them it’s déjà vu. Samberg and Milioti shine, and the supporting cast is filled out with valuable players (including J.K. Simmons and June Squibb). The director Max Barbakow and the writer Andy Siara work out plenty of clever variations on the premise while gingerly tiptoeing into unexpectedly serious waters. Our critic called it “wildly funny” and “admirably inventive.” (For more raucous comedy, queue up “White Men Can’t Jump” or “Big.”)
Steven Soderbergh isn’t exactly the first person you’d think of to helm a globe-trotting action movie featuring a mixed martial arts champ, but he’s never really been one for easy categorization. That said, this is no typical action movie: Soderbergh uses wide shots and long takes for his action sequences, forgoing the incoherent compositions and rapid-fire edits of too many bone-crunching blockbusters to better showcase the skills and athleticism of the star Gina Carano. And the script, by Soderbergh’s “The Limey” collaborator Lem Dobbs, is a crisp, lean piece of work, in which a black-ops soldier (Carano) takes the fall for a mission that goes sideways, only to meticulously track down and take out the men who set her up. Brisk, witty and just plain fun, it’s the female James Bond movie you’ve always wanted. (For more action, stream “Speed” on Hulu.)
‘McCartney 3, 2, 1’ (2021)
The life and music of Paul McCartney are not exactly unexplored territory, but this engaging docu-series finds a refreshing way to approach his unparalleled body of work. The focus is on process rather than biography, as he’s joined by the producer and music savant Rick Rubin to break down the nuts and bolts of McCartney’s most memorable songs, with the aid of the original masters (with which they’re able to isolate and discuss individual elements). If it sounds egg-headed, it is, and gloriously so; McCartney has been an icon for so long, it’s wonderful to instead see him simply as a musician, who creates not via divine intervention but hard work, experimentation and trial and error.
Watch it on Hulu
‘The Assistant’ (2020)
Julia Garner is “magnificent” as the personal assistant to a TriBeCa-based film executive whose sexual harassment of hopeful young starlets is an open secret. The name “Weinstein” is never once uttered, and it doesn’t have to be; the writer and director, Kitty Green, uses what we already know to fill in the blanks. We don’t even see the monster in question — he’s just a presence and a voice, in snatches of overheard dialogue and muffled fits of rage, and Green’s beautifully controlled film captures, with brutal, pinpoint accuracy, how that presence infects a workplace, and what happens when someone decides not to play along.
‘Hell or High Water’ (2016)
The director David Mackenzie (“Starred Up”) draws on the mythos of classic westerns to tell this contemporary story of robbers driven to crime not by greed and status but by economic distress and desperation. Ben Foster’s trigger-happy thrill-seeker, Chris Pine’s rational man with a purpose and Jeff Bridges’s wise old lawman are so well drawn and authentically acted that the dialogue scenes are as thrilling as the shootouts. Our critic praised the “verve and tongue-tickling texture” of Taylor Sheridan’s dialogue.
Starting with an investigation into the death of a trainer at SeaWorld, the director Gabriela Cowperthwaite traces the sordid history of the capture of killer whales and their training to perform for audiences, creating a masterly juxtaposition of SeaWorld’s own commercials and promo videos with grisly tales of accidents, attacks and public relations spin. Paced like a thriller and written like a deft courtroom summation, it is intelligent, methodical and harrowing; our critic called it a “delicately lacerating documentary.”
This modest, gentle, charming musical romance from the writer and director John Carney serves as a sharp contrast to most bloated, cumbersome attempts to recapture the magic of the Hollywood musical. This microbudget Irish film, on the other hand, was shot quickly, on video, with no stars or recognizable songs — the genre stripped to its very basics, running on sheer emotion. Its stars, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, fell in love while making the movie, and you can tell; they have the kind of unvarnished chemistry that can’t be faked. It’s a slim movie, running a scant hour and 25 minutes, but it has richness well beyond its resources. (For more romance, try “Brown Sugar” or “The Weekend.”)
‘Diary of a Teenage Girl’ (2015)
This adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel tells a potentially salacious story with wit and intelligence, without ever being exploitative or judgmental. Minnie (Bel Powley) is a teenage girl with virtues and flaws, and “Diary” gives her the space to experiment, make some mistakes and learn from them. Powley astonishes in the leading role, carrying the film’s tricky tonal shifts on her shoulders with ease; and as the house Lothario, Alexander Skarsgard masterfully conveys the essence of a scumbag who thinks he’s a good guy. As Minnie’s self-involved mother, Kristen Wiig turns in a performance so nuanced and complicated that it’s easy to forget she’s a comic actor by trade. It’s a sharply drawn and painfully candid coming-of-age story.
‘Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead’ (2007)
The director Sidney Lumet (“Network,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “12 Angry Men”) capped off a 50-year filmmaking career with this 2007 caper drama, released four years before his death. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke are beautifully matched as ill-tempered brothers, both in desperate need of cash, who attempt to stage a robbery of their family jewelry store — a bad idea even if executed perfectly, which it is not. Albert Finney is staggeringly good as their perpetually disappointed father, while Marisa Tomei finds the right, difficult notes for her work as Hoffman’s wife (and Hawke’s girlfriend). It’s a tough and uncompromising swan song from a true modern master.
In a scant two seasons, Donald Glover’s FX comedy/drama has established itself as a true force in modern television — thoughtful, peculiar, cinematic, relentlessly entertaining. Glover (who also created the show, and frequently writes and directs) stars as Earn, a small-timer with big dreams who takes the reins of his cousin’s burgeoning hip-hop career, with mixed results. The supporting cast is top-notch, with Brian Tyree Henry, Lakeith Stanfield and Zazie Beetz as nuanced characters interpreted with fierce precision, but the show is most dazzling for its tonal improvisations; it feels like Glover and company can go anywhere, at any time, and the results are exhilarating. (Pamela Adlon’s acclaimed “Better Things,” also from FX, is a similarly personality-driven comedy/drama.)
‘Petite Maman’ (2022)
Céline Sciamma, the writer and director of the heart-wrenching epic “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (also on Hulu) follows up with a film far smaller in scope but just as emotionally devastating. Joséphine Sanz stars as Nelly, an independent and charming 8-year-old who is left to entertain herself as her parents pack up the remote home of her recently deceased grandmother. Wandering in the nearby woods, she befriends another young girl (played by Joséphine’s real-life twin sister, Gabrielle Sanz), and as they play together … actually, to reveal more than that is to rob this affecting story of its delicate power. It’s a short but spellbinding work from a master filmmaker. (For more international cinema, try “Amour.”)
‘What We Do in the Shadows’ (2019-present)
Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi adapted their hilarious 2015 mockumentary film into this FX sitcom, with “perfectly fun” results, finding the day-to-day lives (and irritations) of a group of Staten Island vampires to be a source for endless comic invention. Its quartet of undead housemates must wrestle with not only the logistics of bloodsucking but the general annoyance of roommates, and that incongruity gives the show its juice. Every member of the stellar ensemble shines, but special praise is due to Matt Berry, who finds just the right mixture of ornate theatricality and unapologetic horniness as the dandyish Laszlo.
The British comic actor Steve Coogan — best known for his long-running turns as Alan Partridge and as a fictionalized version of himself in the “Trip” movies and BBC series — made a surprising shift to the serious when he co-wrote and co-starred in Stephen Frears’s adaptation of the nonfiction book “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee.” Judi Dench received a best actress Oscar nomination for her performance (“so quietly moving that it feels lit from within,” per our critic) as the title character, an Irishwoman who is seeking out the son she was forced to give up for adoption a half-century earlier. Coogan (nominated for best screenplay) is the journalist who assists her and uncovers a horrifying story of religious hypocrisy. (Frears’s “High Fidelity” is also on Hulu; for more fact-based drama, stream “Call Jane.”)
‘The Worst Person in the World’ (2021)
The director Joachim Trier pulls a bit of a fast one with this “fast-moving, irreverent quasi-comedy” that earned two Oscar nominations this year (best international film and best original screenplay), at first seemingly following his heroine, Julie (Renate Reinsve), through the familiar beats of the modern romantic comedy. But by granting her a complexity uncommon to the genre, the narrative is scrambled — she doesn’t adhere to the expected behaviors, giving the picture a lived-in unpredictability. She’s not, of course, the worst person in the world; she’s messy, chaotic and doesn’t know what she wants. And who among us can say different? (If you like edgy comedy-dramas, try “Triangle of Sadness.”)
‘Abbott Elementary’ (2021-present)
Quinta Brunson’s new, yet already acclaimed, workplace comedy is more than a little reminiscent of “Parks and Recreation,” from its style (mockumentary) to its setting (a barely functioning government service) to its focal character (a cheerful optimist, also played by Brunson). But “Abbott Elementary” separates itself from such clear influences via the specificity of its storytelling; in detailing the true-to-life day-to-day woes of Philadelphia public schoolteachers, Brunson and her cast tap into a deeper well of resignation and desperation, while exploring the delightful character quirks that provide the show’s biggest laughs. (For more workplace comedy, check out “Superstore” and the original version of “The Office.”)
‘Bergman Island’ (2021)
“I don’t like it when artists I love don’t behave so well in real life,” notes Chris (Vicky Krieps), a filmmaker married to another filmmaker, Tony (Tim Roth); they’re taking a working vacation on the island of Faro in the Baltic Sea, where Ingmar Bergman, their shared hero, lived and made his films. It’s a conundrum of interest to the writer and director Mia Hansen-Love, who uses Chris’s journey to ask perpetually pointed questions about separating art from artists. But Hansen-Love’s film is also “slippery and enchanting,” as A.O. Scott noted — particularly in its second half, when we get a glimpse at the deeply personal screenplay that Chris is drafting while on the trip. Krieps and Roth have exactly the right handle on their characters and their prickly dynamics, as the two of them love, stimulate and annoy each other, all at once.
‘The X-Files’ (1993-2002, 2016-2018)
Chris Carter’s sci-fi procedural has been through the creative wringer — cast changes, movie spinoffs, a two-season reboot — but it’s remained a steady presence not only on televisions, but in popular culture. The premise is simple enough: Two F.B.I. special agents, one (David Duchovny) a believer in the supernatural and the other (Gillian Anderson) a skeptic, are teamed up to investigate cases involving unexplained paranormal activities. The mythology and conspiracy theories of the show are rich, but they’re not what keep it together — it’s the explosive chemistry between its leads, who pack exasperation, intrigue and sexual tension into every interaction. (For more thrills and chills, try “Castle Rock.”)
‘Only Murders in the Building’ (2021-present)
In this jazzy, entertaining comic thriller, Steve Martin has his first continuing television role (he also created the series with John Hoffman), alongside his frequent collaborator Martin Short and the pop star Selena Gomez. They play a trio of disengaged neighbors in an Upper West Side co-op who are thrown together by their affection for true-crime podcasts; when a fellow resident turns up dead, they decide to create one themselves. It’s wildly funny, along with being a well-crafted mystery and a keenly observed character piece. All three leads shine (as do such well-utilized supporting players as Amy Ryan and Nathan Lane), though as our critic noted, Short “steals every scene.”
‘The Great’ (2020-present)
Tony McNamara, who co-wrote the 2018 hit movie “The Favourite,” brings his bawdy and irreverent approach to historical costume dramas to this uproariously funny and unapologetically fictionalized take on the rise of Empress Catherine II, aka Catherine the Great. She’s played by Elle Fanning, who seems to have a fantastic time shaking off the shackles of the quiet waifs she typically plays to embrace Catherine’s calculated cool; “Favourite” co-star Nicholas Hoult is similarly, wickedly fun to watch. (Costume-drama fans may also enjoy the “Sense and Sensibility” mini-series.)
Nicolas Cage is magnificent in this “fiercely controlled character drama” from the first-time feature director Michael Sarnoski. As a revered Pacific Northwest chef who went off the grid for 15 years, Cage plays many of his scenes in silence and barely raises his voice above a rasp when he decides to speak; he makes his character an enigma, leaving the audience to wonder whether he chose to remove himself from his comfortable life or someone (or something) broke him. He returns to civilization when his truffle pig — and only friend — is kidnapped, but “Pig” is not the “John Wick” riff its ads promised. This is a rich, textured character study, with some of the finest work of Cage’s career. (For more character-focused drama, stream “Courage Under Fire.”)
‘Summer of Soul’ (2021)
The musician (and leader of the “Tonight Show” house band, the Roots) Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson makes a smooth transition to filmmaking with this Oscar-winning documentary about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, a series of weekend concerts in Mount Morris Park featuring some of the most important musical acts of the era, including Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, B.B. King, the Staples Singers, Sly and the Family Stone, and Gladys Knight and the Pips. The performances were recorded but never widely released, as the Woodstock festival upstate dominated the discourse. Thompson combines that long-unseen (and fabulous) archival material with new interviews and valuable historical context. “It’s an extraordinary event not just of musical history,” Wesley Morris wrote. “It’s a mind-blowing moment of American history.” (Documentary fans should also stream “Flee” and “MLK/FBI.”)
‘Her Smell’ (2019)
Elisabeth Moss comes on like a hurricane as Becky Something, a Courtney Love-esque punk rock star whose inner demons and self-destructive behavior threaten to collapse her career — a descent and resurrection captured in a series of unnervingly claustrophobic backstage meltdowns and recording studio encounters. But the writer and director Alex Ross Perry isn’t merely interested in watching her train wreck. He offsets the scorching theatrics with a sense of delicate melancholy, and allows Moss to find the character in her quieter moments. “Moss strips away every shred of her charm to reveal her charisma in its rawest state,” A.O. Scott wrote, “implicating Perry and the audience in a voyeurism that can feel almost holy.” (Moss is similarly electrifying in “Shirley.”)
‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’ (2005-Present)
Countless television series tried and failed to take on the mantle of “Seinfeld,” but none did as successfully — or for as long — as “the gang” from Paddy’s Pub. The show began like a low-budget, indie riff on Jerry Seinfeld’s smash, with a similar three-guys-and-a-girl configuration and snarky, insular spirit. But the arrival of Danny DeVito in Season 2 opened up the show to wilder possibilities; it got stranger, and on occasion, nastier. But “It’s Always Sunny” has remained fresh, funny and pointed for 15 seasons and counting. Our critic wrote that the actors “are as in sync as an ensemble cast can get.” (For more comedy with an edge, try “Difficult People.”)
‘King of the Hill’ (1997-2010)
When the “Beavis & Butt-Head” creator Mike Judge landed a half-hour animated series on the Fox network, most viewers and critics were expecting more of the same. No one could have predicted that Judge would deliver one of the most nuanced family sitcoms of its era. Judge voices the central character himself, a straight-laced patriarch of a Texas family struggling to maintain his values in a changing world. Judge is uproarious and Kathy Najimy is delightful as his wife, but the stand-out is Pamela Adlon — later of “Louie” and “Better Things” — as the Hills’ sweet and strange son, Bobby.
‘Another Round’ (2020)
Mads Mikkelsen stars in this Oscar-winning comedy-drama as a burned-out high school teacher who finds that he and his friends are simultaneously tumbling into their midlife crises. Their solution: an experiment in carefully controlled day-drinking, which they believe will loosen up their inhibitions and make their lives exciting again. It sounds like the premise for a 1990s Jim Carrey movie, but the director Thomas Vinterberg’s innate sense of cinematic naturalism keeps the picture grounded in emotional truth. Our critic deemed it “a sweet, strangely modest tragicomedy about the pleasures of (mostly banal) excess.” (For more character-driven comedy-drama, check out “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” or “Fire Island.”)
Frances McDormand builds another nuanced, sometimes prickly performance (and won a third Oscar in the process) as a widow who roams America living “the van life,” working temporary and seasonal jobs, making just enough to get by and keep moving. The Oscar-winning director Chloé Zhao uses real people who live that life in supporting roles, crafting the picture as something of a snapshot of this subculture; by its end, it feels as though you know how this scene works and how these lives are lived. But within that, “Nomadland” is a sensitive and intelligent meditation on solitude, mortality (and thus, on grief and loss) and making the best of what’s left. A.O. Scott called it “patient, compassionate and open.” (For more Oscar-winning acting, stream “Wall Street” and “The Fugitive.”)
‘Freaks and Geeks’ (1999-2000)
A pre-“Knocked Up” Judd Apatow and a pre-“Bridesmaids” Paul Feig teamed up for this cult hit comedy-drama, which looks back at high school life circa 1980 through the eyes of Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini), a math wiz who falls in with the slacker “freaks,” and her brother Sam (John Frances Daly), a perpetually picked-on “geek.” High school nostalgia is nothing new, but Feig, Apatow and their writers approach those years with a verisimilitude that frequently feels like an open wound, finding the quiet truth in these comic situations, and only then going for the laugh, almost as an afterthought. Bonus: a cast of future stars in their early years, including Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jason Segel, Busy Philipps, Sam Levine, Ben Foster, Lizzy Caplan and Martin Starr. (For a more contemporary coming-of-age story, try “Reservation Dogs” or “PEN15.”)
Loners at a subpar community college join in a study group to muddle through their joke of a Spanish class and end up forging unexpected bonds from their shared misery. It sounds like the setup for a crushingly typical TV sitcom, but “Community” is anything but; over its six tempestuous seasons, the creator, Dan Harmon, and his inventive writers, turned the classroom laugher into a “bracingly funny” and slyly surreal blend of sketch comedy, science fiction and metatelevision — while simultaneously creating the kind of complicated but sympathetic characters and delicate relationships it seemed too cool to indulge. (“Community” fans will also enjoy Harmon’s cult cartoon series “Rick and Morty.”)
‘Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations’ (2005-2012)
This long-running showcase for the late, great celebrity chef, author and raconteur is a globe-trotting celebration of the cultures and cuisines of the world, a well-balanced mixture of destinations close (Maine, New Orleans, New York’s outer boroughs) and far (Vietnam, Russia, Egypt, Turkey), which Bourdain explores with both curiosity and bravado. He combines history, political commentary, observation and (of course) food appreciation into an undeniably appealing mix, often propelled by the sheer force of his personality. Bourdain’s willingness to go wherever the journey takes him gives his show an inspired unpredictability and infectious energy.
‘Arrested Development’ (2003-2006)
Many a dysfunctional family has graced our televisions, but few boasted as many problems as Michael Bluth’s: His father is in prison, his mother is blissfully out of touch, one brother is a blowhard, the other seems to be from another planet, his sister is a dime-store Gwyneth Paltrow and his son is in love with his cousin. This “sharply satirical comedy” steadfastly refused to make its horrifying central family lovable or relatable, save for Michael (played wryly, and winningly, by Jason Bateman), whose dry, bemused reactions make him a useful audience surrogate. Hulu is only streaming the original three seasons of the series (Netflix financed, and thus hosts, its revival), but these are the best ones anyway. (For a portrait of a slightly happier family, check out ‘Parenthood’ on Hulu.)
Few television series run more than a decade without losing their flavor, their laughs, or their heart — but then again, few television series are as special as “Cheers.” Set in a Boston bar owned and tended by a former baseball star and recovering alcoholic (Ted Danson, in the role that understandably made him a star), “Cheers” took the conventions of the character-driven hangout sitcom and perfected them. Thanks to consistently razor-sharp writing and a flawless ensemble cast, the result was “pure comedy that was sophisticated but not pretentious.” Running 275 episodes (without a clunker in the bunch), “Cheers” has gone on to charm subsequent generations of viewers, who have found it as comforting and reliable as … well, as a trip to the neighborhood watering hole. (The show’s long-running spinoff series “Frasier” is also on Hulu.)
‘Bob’s Burgers’ (2011-present)
Though separated by nearly two decades, “Bob’s Burgers” is something of a “Cheers” for the 21st century — television comfort food, centering on a neighborhood mainstay and the weirdos who float through its doors (though this show’s characters are allowed to veer into even stranger territory by the animated format). But it’s also a clever riff on the family sitcom, as the establishment’s proprietor is the patriarch of a decidedly oddball family; most surprisingly, it treats that family with genuine affection, peccadilloes and all. Our critic compared it to a go-to restaurant, “reliably good, visit after visit.”
‘30 Rock’ (2006-2013)
Tina Fey co-created and starred in this long-running NBC metasitcom, inspired by her own experiences as head writer for “Saturday Night Live.” It’s written and played with the wink and nudge of knowing showbiz gossip and inside jokes, delivered at lightning pace. She came into her own as a performer over the show’s seven seasons, with the help of an unbeatable ensemble cast: Jane Krakowski as the show’s uproariously vain star, Tracy Morgan as a gleefully hedonistic superstar brought in to boost ratings, Jack McBrayer as the delightfully naïve network page, and (especially) Alec Baldwin as the gruff and cynical network executive in charge of the program. (For more fast-paced comedy, try “Broad City” and “Happy Endings.”)
‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ (1997-2003)
Few shows in television history sounded less promising than a series adaptation of an unloved, unsuccessful teen horror/comedy, launching midseason on a network no one had heard of. But from the ashes of the (vastly compromised, it’s said) 1992 feature film came Joss Whedon’s reimagined and recalibrated seven-season triumph, which slyly conflated the conventions of supernatural horror and high school life, and asked which was truly the fiery hellscape. Though a little bumpy early on — it took some time for Whedon and company to find their tone (and access to convincing special effects) — once “Buffy” finds its footing, it’s unstoppable. (Whedon’s short-lived but much-loved space opera “Firefly” is also available on Hulu.)
‘Hill Street Blues’ (1981-1987)
Few series of the 1980s were as influential or acclaimed as Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll’s seven-season cop drama, which shunned the flash and sizzle typical of police series of the era for something closer to the ground-level realism of ’70s cinema. There were sprawling, complicated narratives, messy and not altogether sympathetic “heroes” and a visual style that seemed to stumble upon scenes rather than stage them. “Hill Street” was operatic yet intimate, institutional but personal; it changed the look, feel and flavor of cop shows for decades to come. (Bochco’s later series “NYPD Blue” treads into darker territory.)
Robert Altman’s hit 1970 antiwar comedy didn’t seem like a slam-dunk for television adaptation, thanks to its raw style and bawdy humor. The series creator and TV comedy veteran Larry Gelbart sanded away most of those edges, yet found a way to ground the show in the horrors of war while keeping the laughs digestible. Much of that was because of the chemistry and camaraderie of the flawless cast — particularly Alan Alda’s brilliantly realized characterization of “Hawkeye” Pierce, the unflappable wiseguy who found, over the course of the show’s 11 seasons, that there were some things even he couldn’t manage to make light of. (If you’re looking for a more serious medical series, stream the ’90s fave “ER.”)
‘Veronica Mars’ (2004-2019)
The creator Rob Thomas ingeniously fused the conventions of hard-boiled private eye noir with high school drama for this clever, moody and frequently funny three-season marvel (subsequently revived for a 2014 movie and a recent fourth season), which our critics deemed one of the best TV dramas this side of ‘The Sopranos.’ It also made a star out of Kristen Bell, who seamlessly veers from tough to vulnerable as the title character, a postmodern Nancy Drew who answers phones at her dad’s investigation agency and explores the seamy underbelly of her upper-class seaside resort town. The mysteries are top-notch (frequently intermingling season-long puzzlers with one-off cases of the week), but what makes “Mars” special is the relationships — particularly the complex, affectionate byplay between Bell’s thorny Veronica and her protective pop, played by the wonderful Enrico Colantoni. (Thomas’s uproariously funny comedy series “Party Down” is also available on Hulu.)
One of modern television’s most discussed and dissected, analyzed and agonized, loved and loathed programs is this six-season story of a group of plane-crash survivors, trapped on a mysterious and (presumably?) deserted island. This simple setup proved fertile soil for shocking twists and copious fan theories, as well as for an admirably all-rules-are-off sense of storytelling, regularly veering off into extended flashbacks, flash-forwards and even the occasional flash-sideways. Some of its loose ends are frustrating, and some of the answers are unsatisfying. But it’s nonetheless a bold experiment in longform storytelling, and one whose “Wait, WHAT?” cliffhangers make for essential binge-watching. (For another unpredictable adventure, add “Killing Eve” to your queue.)
When it began in 2009, this “outrageously entertaining” animated FX comedy from Adam Reed sounded like a one-joke premise, and not exactly a fresh one either: an extended spoof on James Bond-style spy stories, set at a secret intelligence agency during an indeterminate and anachronistic pseudo-Cold War period. And yet it took flight (11 seasons and counting) thanks to the show’s frisky writing, winking self-awareness, willingness to reboot itself entirely, and the skills of the uproarious voice cast, including Jessica Walters of “Arrested Development” as another unstable mother and the “Bob’s Burgers” star H. Jon Benjamin as the boozing, womanizing title character. (Fans of this absurd comedy may also enjoy “Futurama” and “Absolutely Fabulous.”)
‘Saturday Night Live’ (1975-present)
Cultural constants are in short supply, but it seems like we’ll always have NBC’s impossibly long-running late-night variety program, which has been skewering politicians, the news media and the foibles of daily life for 45 seasons (and counting). Hulu doesn’t offer all of them; the service takes a giant leap from Season 5 to Season 30, which means you don’t get the glory days of Eddie Murphy, Adam Sandler, Mike Myers and several other MVPs. But there’s plenty of gold to choose from — particularly those first five years, featuring the original, comically peerless ensemble and such immortal characters as the Coneheads, the Blues Brothers and Roseanne Roseannadanna. (For more sketch comedy, check out “Key & Peele.”)
‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ (1970-1977)
You can find the DNA of this sophisticated, influential seven-season classic in everything from “30 Rock” to “The Office” to “Sex and the City.” Moore sparkles as a newly single working woman making her way in the big city of Minneapolis, where she spends her days in a bustling TV newsroom and her nights trying to reassemble her personal life. Midway through its run, our critic wrote, “Consistently tight writing and good acting have made this situation comedy the best of its kind in the history of American television.” He wasn’t wrong. (Co-star Betty White’s classic “The Golden Girls” is also on Hulu.)
‘Friday Night Lights’ (2006-2011)
When this series adaptation of the 2004 feature film — itself an adaptation of Buzz Bissinger’s nonfiction book — debuted on NBC in 2006, our critic led her review with a succinct proclamation: “Lord, is ‘Friday Night Lights’ good.” Over the five seasons that followed, this heart-rending drama, set in the world of small-town high school football (though not, in any traditional sense, solely about that world), taught lessons, complicated assumptions, and developed some of the indelible characters in modern television — chief among them Kyle Chandler as the idealistic and committed Coach Taylor and Connie Britton as his no-nonsense wife.
‘The Wonder Years’ (1988-1993)
Nostalgia tends to run in 20-year cycles, so filmmakers and television writers spent a good deal of the 1980s meditating on the 1960s — particularly the idealism of the Woodstock era, and how it faded away in the years that followed. This six-season family dramedy certainly trafficked in such wistfulness, but filtered it through a contemporary lens, as the adult iteration of its protagonist (voiced by Daniel Stern, played as a teen by Fred Savage) narrated his journey through middle and high school during this turbulent era. And the show is now seen through a prism of dual nostalgia, recalled with fondness by those who were themselves teenagers when it first aired, confirming that its stories of first love, teen awkwardness and familial rebellion aren’t confined to any specific era. (For more family-based comedy, check out “Malcolm in the Middle.”)