American viewers are accustomed to hearing just how much better television audiences have it across the pond. Most British TV imports tend to be either comedies or BBC miniseries; who hasn’t plowed their way through The IT Crowd on Netflix or mooned over Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy? But with the recent ascendancy of BBC America, the network behind critically acclaimed shows like Orphan Black, we’re reminded that there’s more to UK TV than laughs alone. Here’s our guide to the best British dramas on television both past and present, from science fiction to spying.
Any show that’s able to survive, on and off, for a half a century has got to be doing something right. And while Doctor Who is certainly prone to silliness, its ever-evolving protagonist and his revolving cast of companions have captivated generations of viewers, both the children the show is supposedly meant for and adults. In the time travel epic’s most recent incarnation, the show has seen fantastic work from David Tennant, Matt Smith, Freema Agyeman, Karen Gillan, and a host of other talented actors; Sherlock‘s Stephen Moffat currently holds the reins as showrunner. Also worth a mention is Torchwood, Doctor Who‘s decidedly more adult spinoff series that’s at four seasons and counting.
A ten-season-long exploration of what goes on behind closed doors at MI-5, Spooks draws obvious comparisons to James Bond, but stands on its own thanks to a stellar cast (including Matthew Macfayden) and a massive budget. It’s hard to do the show’s labyrinthine plots and sprawling list of characters justice in a short blurb, but Spooks exemplifies British writers’ affinity for the spy drama, a genre that’s markedly less popular across the pond. Maybe that’s because most American network shows wouldn’t kill off a protagonist in their second episode, let alone show her being tortured via deep fryer.
Idris Elba gets the leading role he rightly deserves in this crime drama, where The Wire‘s Stringer Bell switches sides to play the titular detective. With just two full seasons under its belt, Luther has already established itself as one of British television’s best contemporary dramas, a worthy parallel to antihero-driven American shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men. Elba’s protagonist bears a striking resemblance to figures like The Wire‘s Jimmy McNulty or Hannibal‘s Will Graham: a gifted, maverick law enforcement officer with a messy personal life, consumed by his job and the grim realities it forces him to deal with. It’s about as far from the drab police procedural as it’s possible to get, and we like it that way.
The Sopranos it’s not, but Skins nonetheless merits inclusion for its raw, frank depiction of the teenage experience, one of the truest to date. There’s breakups, sex, and drugs, of course, but Skins is a far cry from Gossip Girl, introducing viewers to a fresh cast of convincingly messy, non-fabulously wealthy characters every two seasons. Some parts of high school life are grossly exaggerated — no, most 16-year-olds don’t pack off to weekend-long forest raves on a regular basis — but the most important elements are there: the politics of teen friendships; discovering the joy and sadness of no longer being a child; and most interestingly, soap opera cliches like death-by-brain-aneurysm done right.
Life on Mars
Life on Mars combines British drama’s two specialty genres: science fiction and crime. Policeman Sam Tyler wakes up in 1973 after getting hit by a car in 2006, and the resulting series is somewhere between vintage Law and Order and LOST. Dealing equally with Tyler’s Manchester and Salford Police cases and the question of how, exactly, he wound up 33 years in the past, Life on Mars hits the sweet spot between episode-by-episode and series-long plots, all while maintaining the ambiguity surrounding Tyler’s condition. The full series is only 16 episodes long, so it’s perfect for a weekend of marathon binge-watching.
Stephen Moffat and Mark Gattiss’ reboot of the classic detective stories may have its weak moments — we like to pretend that second episode with the Chinese gangsters never happened — but it’s still the most convincing, tightly written take on Sherlock Holmes to date. Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman give riveting performances as the sleuth whose powers of observation make human relationships borderline impossible and his hapless, relentlessly empathetic companion, while Andrew Scott plays the best villain-as-protagonist’s-evil-twin since Heath Ledger’s joker. It’s funny, fast-paced, and shot in a miniseries-like format that’s perfect for adapting Conan Doyle’s original short stories. And that Season 2 finale cliffhanger was one for the ages.
Ben Whishaw, also known as Q from the newest James Bond movies, also known as Bright Star‘s young Keats, is a good reason to watch just about anything, but The Hour‘s depiction of Cold War-era newsmaking is more than just its star. Set in 1956, the short-lived series pairs Whishaw with Dominic West, who made American television history in his turn as Jimmy McNulty on The Wire, and Romola Garai as the journalists and producer behind an hour-long news program documenting major events like the Hungarian Revolution. It’s like The Newsroom, but with cooler outfits and a thousand times more tolerable.
Like its American counterpart, Shameless was more of a dramedy than a straight drama, but its whopping 11 seasons, aired over nine years, earned it a place on any roundup of notable British TV. Viewers of the Showtime series are already familiar with the premise: the many members of the working-class Gallagher family deal with their myriad problems, giving viewers catharsis and entertainment in equal measure. Its American adaptation made a few significant changes, but much like The Office, the basic DNA remains intact, making Shameless one more cultural debt we owe to our friends across the pond.