What to watch on Amazon Prime: Best TV dramas (July 2021)

What to watch on Amazon Prime: Best TV dramas (July 2021)

Clockwise, from left: Alias (Screenshot), The Americans (Photo: Jeffrey Neira/FX), Homecoming (Photo: Jessica Brooks), House (Screenshot), Mr. Robot (Photo: Elizabeth Fisher/USA Network)

Clockwise, from left: Alias (Screenshot), The Americans (Photo: Jeffrey Neira/FX), Homecoming (Photo: Jessica Brooks), House (Screenshot), Mr. Robot (Photo: Elizabeth Fisher/USA Network)
Graphic: The A.V. Club

Streaming libraries expand and contract. Algorithms are imperfect. Those damn thumbnail images are always changing. But you know what you can always rely on? The expert opinions and knowledgeable commentary of The A.V. Club. That’s why we’re scouring both the menus of the most popular services and our own archives to bring you these guides to the best viewing options, broken down by streamer, medium, and genre. Want to know why we’re so keen on a particular show? Click the links for some in-depth coverage from The A.V. Club’s past. And be sure to check back often, because we’ll be adding more recommendations as shows come and go.

The following are our recommendations for the best television dramatic series currently streaming for Amazon Prime Video customers—minus science-fiction, horror, and fantasy shows (we’re saving those for a later list) and not including anything that comes with a Prime Video Channel subscription (otherwise, the picks would be overwhelmed with vintage cartoons and MTV reruns). Don’t have Prime? For more on Amazon Prime, check out the best genre shows and comedy shows. Here are our guides to the best shows on Netflix and Hulu. Not into Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon? Here are shows you can stream for free, with limited commercial interruption.

Alias

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Screenshot: Alias

From our Primer on TV Spies & Secret Agents:

In a way, 24 is the prime example of the modern secret-agent show, wherein the heroes complete shadowy missions while fully aware that what they’re doing may not always be “right.” And if not 24, then perhaps the definitive 21st-century super-spy series is Alias. Created by J.J. Abrams—and marked by his unique ability to punch right to the heart of the zeitgeist—Alias featured all the elements of the spy hits of previous generations, including high-tech gadgets, international intrigue, flashy action sequences, and goofy disguises. But it was all compressed into a suitably modern sensibility, as Abrams added a lot of the crazed mythology that would pop up again in his series Lost, as well as relationship dramas for the ladies and a sexy, ass-kicking Jennifer Garner for the fellas. What made Alias feel especially cutting-edge was how it held its cards close to the chest regarding who, exactly, were the good guys. Garner’s Sydney Bristow, recruited fresh out of college, was barely allowed to get comfortable with her job before she found out that the agency she worked for was hurting her friends, destroying her family, and—for all she could tell—doing as much harm to the world as the terrorist outfits they claimed to oppose. Keeping the goals and leadership of groups like SD-6, APO, and Prophet Five murky kept Bristow on constantly shifting moral ground—and kept the audience guessing.

The Americans

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Photo: Patrick Harbron/FX

To cross paths with The Americans is to learn how closely it mirrored the methods of married Soviet sleeper agents Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys): The Cold War thriller creeps up from behind, and before the viewer knows it, they’re stunned, captured, emotionally devastated—or a combination of all three. It was a thrilling, seductive show about how there’s nothing thrilling or seductive about spycraft, its own craft immaculately on-point: Fiery performances (Russell and Rhys got the awards attention, but don’t forget Holly Taylor, Noah Emmerich, and—poor Martha—Alison Wright), minutely observed domestic storylines, nerve-jangling missions, a world so alive and crackling it could transform an antiquated piece of technology into a vital member of the ensemble. File The Americans in a place of prominence next to all the classic recordings of internal and external conflict, suspicion, and complicated devotion that set the tone and atmosphere for its near-perfect run. [Erik Adams]

Billions

Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti in Billions

Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti in Billions
Photo: Jeff Neumann/Showtime

It’s no small feat to write a season finale that mostly acquits a wobbly season, especially when it’s the first season of a show. Billions creators Brian Koppelman and David Levien managed to do it, and “The Conversation” is a truly thrilling hour of television that I wouldn’t have expected from this show. They chose a fine time to show what Billions looks like when it’s firing on all cylinders. Prior to this episode, Billions was the type of show that people will me ask about three years from now and talk about how good it is, and I’ll have to say “Oh yeah, I gave that a season but it wasn’t my thing.” By being surprisingly great, “The Conversation” complicates that decision for me. I’m still not sure if Billions is my thing, but I’m much more likely to tune into the season two premiere to continue trying to figure it out. [Joshua Alston]

Downton Abbey

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Photo: Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2015 for Masterpiece

The Mad Men of the 1910s, Downton Abbey is an immaculately constructed period drama that follows the lives of a rich noble family tasked with maintaining an abbey and the lives of its many maids/butlers. During the show’s excellent first season, it’s often impossible to tell who has it worse. The dire search for a suitable abbey heir is just as important and pressing as a servant-driven plot to oust a perfectly friendly worker. One of the noble daughters bonds with a maid, while another scoffs at those below her, and the maid is punished for not knowing her place. Like Mad Men, the series embeds itself into a specific time and place so deeply that the accompanying aesthetic feels both completely alien and hauntingly familiar. [Steve Heisler]

The Fall

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Photo: RTÉ One

This intense crime drama, set in Belfast, follows two characters on a collision course: a married grief counselor who is living a secret life as a serial murderer of young women and a take-charge police detective who is on his trail. This smart, challengingly fresh take on the procedural genre is powered by a chilly but compelling performance by the increasingly busy Gillian Anderson. She plays a blunt, intelligent investigator whose ability to enjoy sex without love is a source of confusion and dismay to her male colleagues, though it’s part of what makes her a higher order of being than the repressed, misogynistic killer. [Emily VanDerWerff]

The Fosters

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Photo: Freeform

The Fosters is about the lives of interracial, same-sex couple Stef and Lena, and the trials and tribulations that come with raising a multi-ethnic, blended family. It’s a show that not only positions LGBT characters as the leads—something still lacking on much of television—but also deals with issues of family and identity with nuance and heart. There are “event” episodes that deal with adopted children meeting their biological parents, or teen pregnancy and the morning-after pill, but more than anything, The Fosters is about the chaos and rewards of the family unit in all of its forms. [Kyle Fowle]

Homecoming

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Photo: Jessica Brooks/Amazon

Let’s raise a glass to the half-hour drama! Trimming away any potential bloat, showrunner Sam Esmail’s decision to tell this story in smart and efficient 30-minute slices of narrative led to a creatively triumphant adaptation of the Gimlet media podcast, a 10-part series that nonetheless felt as much like a five-hour movie as anything in the TV medium. And what a story it was: a show that moved fast while never feeling rushed, that took its time unveiling its secrets without playing coy or indulging in cheap mystery-box trickery to delay the reveals. The two-part tale, split between the past (i.e., now) and the present (four years in the future), follows Julia Roberts’ Heidi as she optimistically runs a recovery and societal reintegration program for returning U.S. soldiers, only to drop the other shoe by showing her future self is working as a waiter in a ramshackle waterfront restaurant, with no explanation of what happened. The dogged investigator (an excellent Shea Whigham) working to discover what transpired between Heidi and a soldier in the program (Stephan James) functions as audience surrogate while we slowly peel back the layers of deception, finally arriving at an answer that deeply satisfies even as it sets up subsequent seasons. Mr. Robot was no fluke: Esmail knows how to draw a viewer in—and better still, has the talent to deliver once they’re hooked. [Alex McLevy]

House

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Screenshot: House

Of the many permutations of Sherlock Holmes who’ve made television their deducting grounds in the 21st century (see below), none can match Dr. Gregory House (Hugh Laurie) for sheer prickliness. Ornery, manipulative, needy: He’s the complete package, leading—as much as a miserable cuss like House can be considered a leader—gifted diagnosticians as they solve medical mysteries that are as difficult to turn away from as they are outrageous. The show’s Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital can feel like a high-speed revolving door for House’s team—which includes, at one time or another, Olivia Wilde, Kal Penn, Omar Epps, Jennifer Morrison, and Peter Jacobson—and later seasons have a tendency to push the good, pill-popping doctor’s bad behavior to extremes. But Laurie is never less than captivating in a role that netted him six Emmy nominations, particularly when he’s engaged in a verbal sparring match with his boss and foil Dr. Lisa Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein) or standing in stark contrast to the more straightforwardly noble Watson figure working on the edges of Vicodin Holmes’ parade of peculiar maladies and symptoms that don’t suggest lupus, Dr. James Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard). [Erik Adams]

Monk

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Photo: USA Network

Monk, USA’s comedy-procedural about a detective with OCD, was originally conceived by ABC executives as a show about a Clouseau-like buffoon starring Michael Richards. Richards passed, and ABC handed it over to USA. Then SNL alum Andy Breckman was brought in, and he turned to Holmes as an inspiration. He created the character of Adrian Monk (superbly played by Tony Shalhoub) and surrounded the detective with a Watson-like nurse, Sharona (Bitty Schram) and a Lestrade equivalent, Police Captain Stottlemeyer (Ted Levine). Dimwitted Lieutenant Disher (Jason Gray-Stanford) rounds out the main ensemble.

While Monk shares many of the qualities of his fellow sleuths—narcissism, a strong sense of justice, uncanny deductions—he lacks any of their coolness. Monk too can be offputtingly square at first glance, with its goofy sense of humor and preoccupation with puzzles. The macho aspects of Sherlock Holmes, his boxing background and occasional cocaine use, are gone. What remains is a fragile and lonely genius. Monk is the cowardly lion of the sleuthing set, terrified of everything from germs and heights to ladybugs and milk. [Matt Crowley]

Mr. Robot

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Photo: Elizabeth Fisher/USA Network

Sam Esmail’s knotty curlicue of a hacker drama has never quite shaken its first-season reputation as The Show With One Big Twist. It’s too bad—those who stuck with it found a series that cracked the code for using exhilarating heists, conspiracy-laced mysteries, and timely mythology to tell an all-too-human story about loneliness and the need for connection. It’s a plain enough message, but let’s be honest: Mr. Robot’s signature off-center direction and Kubrickian framing make it look awfully cool. [Alex McLevy]

The Night Manager

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Photo: AMC

The Night Manager stars Olivia Colman, Tom Hiddleston, and Hugh Laurie, which should be enough to hit “play.” Based on the novel by John le Carré, it hits all the notes you’d expect from the British espionage author, as Hiddleston’s Jonathan Pine (the titular night manager) tries to foil Laurie’s international arms dealer. The 1993 book has been geographically updated for the 2010s, and a few other updates help freshen it up, as well—namely Olivia Colman, whose character in the book was a man, as dogged British agent Angela Burr, who’s on a quest to bring down Laurie’s Richard Roper. She masterminds a deep undercover job in which Pine joins Roper’s inner circle, and the ensuing series—which is beautifully shot across four countries—unspools its action with near-perfect tension, at Susanne Bier’s direction. Hiddleston and Laurie, ostensibly on opposite sides of international law, bring nuanced charm and danger to their respective roles. Although le Carré is nearly always adapted to the big screen, The Night Manager makes an excellent case for espionage miniseries. [Laura M. Browning]

Psych

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Photo: James Dittinger/Peacock

In the battle between authentic and fake psychics, the poseurs have a clear advantage. They coast on the bona fides of the real deal and link up with police precincts without suffering from any painful flashbacks from someone else’s life. But, they do have to produce results, otherwise they won’t be able to keep buying the pineapples and whatever fruit the fake psychic turned legit investigator enjoyed on CBS’ glossy Psych knockoff, The Mentalist. Luckily, Psych’s Shawn Spencer has an eidetic memory, extraordinary observational skills, and police training courtesy of his dad, which all come in handy. The Mentalist’s Patrick Jane, meanwhile, has a similar set of very particular skills, but assists a completely different law enforcement group. On their respective shows, Shawn and Patrick solve cases by making very educated guesses and recalling things that slip the minds of most murderers. It’s a career move so obvious that we watched it play out twice on TV. [Danette Chavez]

Route 66

If anybody remembers Route 66 today, it’s because of the theme song or the car or the controversy over the exit of one of its two stars, one of the original conflicts between an actor and his producers. Route 66 ran briefly on Nick At Nite in the ’80s, and it’s popped up recently on some of the nostalgia-based local affiliates that buy up cheap syndicated programming and air it against the major networks (a surprisingly effective business strategy). But it’s simply not as well known as many other shows of the period, despite garnering big ratings for its first couple of seasons, launching one of its two original stars to minor movie stardom, and featuring a theme song that did well on the Billboard charts. The reasons for this are many, but foremost is simply that Route 66 represents something of an evolutionary dead end for the TV drama. It was an attempt to blend the closed-off, social-issues-based storytelling of the best anthology dramas with the recurring characters of a more traditional drama series. [Emily VanDerWerff]

Small Axe

Amarah Jae St. Aubyn and Michael Ward in Small Axe

Amarah Jae St. Aubyn and Michael Ward in Small Axe
Photo: Parisa Taghizedeh/Amazon Prime Video

In the month since it premiered, Steve McQueen’s Small Axe has proven to be a landmark of long-form cinematic storytelling. The limited series, comprising five feature-length films, each taking a different approach to the decades of racism faced by London’s Black West Indian population, is an astounding achievement regardless of the rubric you apply to it. Naturally, that hasn’t stopped critics and cinephiles from hand-wringing over whether it qualifies as cinema or television.

Ask Steve McQueen and he will tell you that Small Axe is five interconnected standalone films. Each feature stands alongside McQueen’s immaculate and heralded films like the Oscar-winning 12 Years A Slave or its follow-up, Widows. As a television series, Small Axe has a scope and stylistic variety without many peers. But one of its most striking achievements is how deftly the series occupies both mediums at once, how resoundingly it has blurred the lines between cinema and television to the point of making such distinctions irrelevant. [Chris Feil]

Vikings

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Photo: History

From our 2014 Inventory of 23 great Game Of Thrones substitutes:

The world of the Vikings makes for several great, Thrones-like entertainments. History Channel’s first scripted series, which just concluded its second season, seems to be designed to be Game Of Thrones Lite: It has the HBO series’ moody gray landscapes and sword fights, its long-haired heroes and able warrior-women. It even has a lot black birds flapping around portentously, which is 90 percent of Game Of Thrones anyway. Ragnar Lothbrok is kind of like Rhaegar Targaryen, if Rhaegar hadn’t died years before Thrones even starts: He’s sensitive, heroic, and eerily multi-talented. Oh, and he cheats on his wife, too. Vikings isn’t quite as tightly written or narratively surprising as Thrones, but it’s a lovely period piece on its own.

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