There was so much great television this year that critics nationwide lamented the first-world problem of simply having too much TV. In all, there were 409 scripted shows this year, more than double the figure in 2009, according to FX. Lots of these shows were worth watching — but there simply weren’t enough hours in the day to enjoy them all.
Luckily for us, streaming services like Netflix, HBO, Amazon and more typically offer monthlong free trials. With a little strategic thinking, it’s possible to get caught up on a year’s worth of great TV in just a few months, thanks to those grace periods. So we’ve put together this handy guide of how to best make use of those free trials.
We’re focusing in particular on shows that aired new episodes in 2015, working on the assumption that people who really wanted to watch Breaking Bad or The Sopranos have done so. The programs listed below have all achieved some level of critical acclaim (a Metacritic score of 75 or higher) and they’re short enough (30 hours or shorter) that they could reasonably be run through within the length of a month-long free trial.
Using this guide, you’ll have plenty to watch for the first half of 2016 without paying a dime.
January – Stream Netflix’s Best Originals
It’s easy to get lost in Netflix’s sprawling library, but some of the best shows to arrive on the platform in 2015 were Netflix originals, especially comedies. Aziz Ansari’s romantic comedy Master of None (5 hours total stream time) has become one of Netflix’s biggest critical darlings, thanks to its earnestness and focus on people and topics rarely depicted on broadcast TV. “It’s rare for a South Asian actor to play the lead, and episodes approach, say, life as the child of immigrants or as a typecast aspiring actor from a perspective that’s very hard to find elsewhere,” writes TIME TV critic Dan D’Addario.
Other well-liked comedies on Netflix include the Tina Fey-produced Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (5 hours), and Bojack Horseman (10 hours), an animated show business satire show that’s surprisingly bleak.
As for dramas, the new series Jessica Jones (10 hours), about a private-eye with superpowers, has been hailed as one of the best pieces of Marvel entertainment on the big or small screen in recent years. D’Addario writes that the titular Jones is “Marvel’s most nuanced heroine yet.” Marvel fans can also try out the similarly styled Daredevil (10 hours), which debuted earlier this year. Narcos (10 hours), a retelling of the mythic rise and fall of Pablo Escobar, has also earned strong reviews.
February – Tap Into Amazon’s Big Cable Exclusives
Amazon has one must-see original show: Transparent (10 hours). The dramedy about a transgender parent and her self-absorbed adult children has picked up Emmy and Golden Globe awards for its breakout first season and earned strong reviews for its second.
Beyond that show, Amazon has secured exclusive streaming rights to several high-quality network and cable shows that can be binged in a month. The Americans (21 hours), a thriller about a pair of Russian spies posing as a suburban nuclear family, deftly makes marital arguments just as tense as shootouts with secret agents. Hannibal (19 hours), the NBC drama about horror movie fan-favorite Hannibal Lecter, is “formally bold, purely cinematic and just plain weird,” in the words of Entertainment Weekly’s Jeff Jensen. It’s worth a watch for those who aren’t squeamish.
For pure laughs, viewers can also check out Amazon original Catastrophe (2.5 hours), a sitcom about a couple whose one-week tryst leads to an accidental pregnancy. “The six-episode comedy is distinctive for taking this setup and dealing with the messy complications that naturally occur, but that romantic comedies generally try not to think about,” wrote former TIME TV critic James Poniewozik.
March – Explore HBO’s Lesser-Known Shows and Miniseries
HBO has racked up more than a decade’s worth of must-see programming that you can happily dive into with a one-month trial of the network’s standalone streaming service HBO Now. But if you’re looking for something a little easier to bite off than The Sopranos or The Wire, consider some of the excellent documentaries and mini-series the network has recently developed. The Jinx, a documentary about a New York real estate mogul who may also be a serial murderer, shocked viewers at the start of the year. There’s also Going Clear (2 hours), an in-depth account of the history of Scientology, and Bessie (2 hours), a biopic about the singer Bessie Smith starring Queen Latifah.
Comedy-wise, HBO’s current heavyweights Veep (20 hours) and Silicon Valley (10 hours) skewer Capitol Hill ineptitude and tech sector hubris, respectively. For drama, the popular choice is Game of Thrones (50 hours), which offers medieval maiming and political intrigue in equal measure. A shorter alternative is The Leftovers (20 hours), a drama that deals with the fallout of a mysterious event that caused 2% of the world’s population to disappear. Its second season earned wide acclaim but a paltry viewership.
April – Watch Showtime’s Critically Acclaimed Hit
The marquee Showtime program these days is definitely The Affair (22 hours), a mysterious drama about infidelity told from the conflicting perspectives of the two secret lovers, as well as others. The show upset more established programs like Game of Thrones and Downton Abbey to win a Golden Globe for Best Drama in its first season.
May – Catch Up on Big Network Shows Fast on Hulu
Unlike its competitors, Hulu only offers a scrimpy 1-week free trial (during promotions, the trial is extended to two weeks or a month, so keep your eyes peeled). That could still be enough time to blast through Fargo (18 hours), the quirky murder mystery inspired by the ‘90s Coen brothers movie of the same name. Each season has a totally new cast of characters, so you can also jump right into the second, which has earned even more positive reviews than the first.
You can also watch all of Empire (16 hours), the hip-hop melodrama that became the hottest show on TV in 2015. “The narrative bones of the show, a straightforwardly Shakespearean tale of filial loyalty and competition, are strong enough to provoke laughs and tears, along with endless tweets,” D’Addario writes.
Watch These Shows Free Whenever You Want
It’s harder to find a no-strings-attached free shows to watch online than it was a few years ago, but they’re still out there. All 20 episodes of the raunchy buddy comedy Broad City (10 hours), about a pair of twentysomething women getting involved in slightly surrealist capers in New York, is available on Comedy Central’s website. Ditto for Mr. Robot (8 hours), the acclaimed new USA show about a socially inept hacker who gets caught up in a conspiracy to upend the global financial system. You can also stream most of Rick and Morty (8 hours), a Futurama-meets-Adventure Time animated comedy from Community creator Dan Harmon, on the Adult Swim site. As we enter the new year, there’s definitely plenty of TV to go around.
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