Amazon’s Prime Instant Video service has come a long way since it first started offering free streaming movies and TV shows to Prime members just over four years ago. What was once a pretty scant catalog has since grown into an offering formidable enough to take on the likes of Hulu and Netflix. With the relatively recent addition of a slew of HBO series like The Wire,as well as popular BBC America series like Orphan Black, Amazon now has something to offer for nearly any viewer. So if you’re looking for a new show to binge on but aren’t quite sure which is right for you, just browse our categorized list of our favorites. After all, there’s more to Amazon Prime than simply free shipping and Transparent.
In this surreal psychological thriller, FBI profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) struggles to catch serial killers while teetering on the edge of a mental breakdown. Unbeknownst to him, his therapist, Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelson), is himself a serial killer with dark designs for Will. As their friendship deepens, Will finds himself at the center of a symphony of violence. Made famous through an Oscar-winning performance by Anthony Hopkins, the character of Hannibal Lecter has been in a number of sequels of increasingly poor quality. Showrunner Bryan Fuller breathes new life into the franchise with arthouse cinematography and a chillingly charismatic performance by Mikkelson. It’s one of the goriest shows on television, but the direction and set design transform the violence into some of the most exquisite images on the small screen. Like its fiendish villain, Hannibal revels in the beauty of the grotesque.
Ron Perlman is an actor known for his showmanship — anyone who’s seen Hellboy can attest to that. However, it’s his subtle performance as a corrupt judge that renders his performance in Hand of God something of merit. The neo-noir show, which also stars the likes of Dana Delany and Andre Royo, chronicles Perlman as he works to serve vigilante justice at the request of what he believes to be God. His performance is equal parts vulnerable and terrifying, anchored in his emotional pursuit to avenge his son at the cost of others in his life. The first season, though slow-burning and sluggish at times, is teeming with unexpected twists and turns, all of which benefit from a slight dose of levity and a well-acted cast of characters. It’s Perlman at his best.
Perhaps the rawest cop show in television history, The Wire casts an unflinching gaze at the war on drugs and its effect on society. Set in Baltimore — the “murder capitol,” as many a character notes — the show begins as a police procedural following a group of detectives hoping to bust one of the biggest drug kingpins in the city. The show expands its outlook with every season, though, gradually revealing a city in which everyone is interconnected and every action has far-reaching consequences. The Wire is unique among cop dramas in the extreme attention it pays to the lives and minds of its criminal element. Even the most minor street-level drug dealers seem complex and relevant, every one a Rosencrantz or Guildenstern. It’s a show with an unmatched interest in sociology. The show never loses sight of the fact that all of its characters — cop or criminal, politician or lawyer — are members of a society and are thus shaped by the world around them far more than they shape it. Cynical viewers will find this show a feast: even the most major players are never safe, and their actions often seem meaningless in the face of a world that keeps turning, regardless of their actions.
A trailblazing original series straight from Amazon, Transparent follows Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor,) a transgender woman who comes out to her family. Not content to merely present a novel premise, the show show explores the relationships and neuroses of Maura and her children. A show that never wavers in its attempt to mine the depths of the human condition, it’s a bold offering from Amazon. Transparent is also the first show from a streaming service to win a Golden Globe for Best Series, which likely bodes well for the future of Amazon’s original content.
It’s 1981, President Reagan has just been elected, and like most Americans, Elizabeth and Philip Jennings are enjoying the country’s rising prosperity as the Cold War heats up. Unlike most Americans, however, the Jennings are actually KGB spies. From that singular premise emerges one of the most exciting thrillers on the air today. The political intrigue is exciting (as intrigue always is), but what makes The Americans stand out is its focus on the Jennings’ marriage. In examining the tensions of married life, the show demonstrates that personal issues like spousal conflict can be every bit as exciting as geopolitical maneuvers.
A modern twist on the Western genre, Justified is the story of Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), a U.S. Marshal who returns to his rural hometown beneath the shadow of the Appalachians. It’s a fiefdom where crime is king. The bad guys are ruthless, but unfortunately for them, Raylan is very flexible about what constitutes proper police procedure. Raylan’s aggressive approach to enforcing justice is complicated by the rise of his childhood friend, Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), as one of the leading crime bosses in town. The violent codes and posturing of Raylan and Boyd are a throwback to the bygone era of the frontier. If you miss the old-school machismo of ’70s Westerns but enjoy modern serialized storytelling, this might just be the perfect show for you.
For those who enjoy the political maneuvering and messy military battles of Game of Thrones but want something a bit more grounded, Vikings is sure to please. A down-to-earth historical fantasy saga, Vikings chronicles the rise of Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel) from farmer to legendary warrior. Ragnar sails around Northern Europe searching for plunder, accompanied by his warrior wife Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick) and other allies. It’s a grim series, drawing on the legends and propaganda surrounding viking raids in the Middle Ages. Although not the most historically accurate show, Vikings does maintain a grittier aesthetic than some of its fantasy contemporaries; there’s a lot of blood and a lot of mud.
A compelling legal drama that is surprisingly savvy about the law and evolutions in technology, The Good Wife follows attorney Alicia Florrick (Julianna Marguelis), a mother-of-two who returns to her legal career after her husband Peter (Chris Noth) is jailed for political corruption. Alicia has been out of the business for more than a decade, a significant hurdle to her career that is made worse by the fact that everyone in Chicago is aware of the scandal surrounding her family. A lesser show would portray this as a black-and-white issue: a cheating husband and the wronged woman who moves on from him. The show proves it has legs by keeping the characters and their motivations complex and shifting. The show’s creators developed the premise in response to a number of high-profile sex scandals that brought down major politicians, and a burning question inherent to each of them: why do the wives of politicians stand by their husbands in light of infidelity? Alicia grapples with conflicted emotions regarding her husband as she decides what the future of her family will be. Even Peter, whose personal failings set the series in motion, comes across as sympathetic. Watching Noth’s charming performance, it’s easy to forget the wedge he’s driven into his family.
Hailed by some critics as “the most influential television drama ever,” The Sopranos certainly seems like the blueprint for the modern television drama. The show features an aging, antihero protagonist, a large cast of interconnected characters, and all the scheming and violence that have recently become emblematic of dramatic television. Beneath the Shakespearean scope of the story, however, there beats a human heart. The Sopranos is, at its core, a family drama, and an examination of the man at the head of said family. Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) is a tragic figure, as the position of power he creates for himself in the Mafia brings with it pressures that threaten to break him.
An exemplary British period drama, Downton Abbey is an examination of the politics and personal lives of an aristocratic British family in the early 20th century. As they navigate the touchy social circles of high society, the Crawley family also reacts to the impact of seismic historical events such as the sinking of the Titanic and the outbreak of World War I. Of course, conflicts closer to home, such as the family’s financial problems and difficulty securing their inheritance, provide a solid emotional backbone for the show.