When it comes to television tastes, I’m quite the Anglophile. Streaming titans Netflix and Hulu have made it possible to enjoy more British TV shows here in the States than ever before, and although my queues are impossibly long, I’m doing what I can to soak up all the English goodness out there.
I was introduced to English humor at a very early age by my West Indian father who had spent formative years in London before finally settling in the US. First via clunky VHS tapes and later through cable programming, I grew up on “Monty Python,” “Are You Being Served,” “Coronation Street,” “Fawlty Towers,” “EastEnders,” “Keeping Up Appearances,” and sigh, “The Benny Hill Show.”
As I got older, I got into “Yes Minister,” “I’m Alan Partridge,” “Coupling,” “The Office,” “Gavin and Stacey,” “The Catherine Tate Show,” “Little Britain,” “Skins,” “Luther,” and pretty much anything by the impeccable Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, including “French and Saunders,” “The Vicar of Dibley,” and of course, “Absolutely Fabulous.”
A few years ago, before streaming was A Thing, I ordered the entire series of my favorite campy British soap, “Footballers’ Wives,” from the UK because most of the seasons weren’t available in the US. I designated that my laptop was a UK/Region 2 zone only and had mini-marathons.
These days, it’s all so easy. Seasons upon seasons (or series, rather) are available for viewing in a few clicks. In celebration of this abundance, I’m counting down my top 5 British TV discoveries of late, made possible by Netflix and Hulu.
5. “Peep Show”
I had been familiar with comedy duo David Mitchell and Robert Webb from their various sketch comedy projects together, notably their TV show “That Mitchell and Webb Look,” but I had somehow missed out on the joy that is “Peep Show,” which pre-dates that show by a few years.
“Peep Show” is a sitcom but its rough-around-the-edges-ness along with the quirky camera style elevate it from the stale world of canned laughs and exaggerated takes to the camera. In fact, “Peep Show” doesn’t have any gratuitous mugging for the camera because it is largely performed toward the camera, using a POV framing that may not be everyone’s cuppa, but that I adore.
The show is essentially an odd couple pairing of friends Mark and Jeremy, who are thrust into cohabitation in the pilot. Mark is the stuffy, “responsible” one, and Jeremy is the lovable goofball, but their antics are played out with the sort of painful awkwardness that is characteristic of contemporary British comedy.
4. “The Inbetweeners”
“The Inbetweeners” popped up as a suggestion based on my “Peep Show” mini-marathons, and at first glance I wasn’t even remotely interested in watching a comedy about four teenage boys and their high school awkwardness. However, I gave it a try and it drew me in right away.
The main character, Will, comes across as a genuine nerd, lovable in all of his intellectual prowess and social awkwardness, as opposed to a TV “nerd” who’s a haircut and an outfit change away from being a leading man.
Watching Will and his mates experiment with drugs and girls is delightful because they are that rare beast in many television landscapes: fully-drawn characters. The comedy comes not from them being portrayed as some sort of hideously untouchable nerds, but, as the title suggests, guys trying to figure things out in between boyhood and adulthood.
They’re definitely NOT in with the Popular Kids or the Cool Kids, but one of them is at least cool-ish and they all have experiences with dating and sex. The fun comes from very specific ways in which these experiences go left, not from broad goofiness.
There was an American effort to re-make this show that I want to acknowledge for the information’s sake, but that should really never be spoken of. Moving on.
3. “New Tricks”
“New Tricks” is the newest discovery on this list for me, and I’m still in the early years of its impressive 12 seasons, the last of which has yet to even air. “New Tricks” is described as a “comedy-drama” or even worse, a “dramedy,” two terms that usually make me run screaming through a wall like a cartoon cat.
I would describe “New Tricks” as a procedural crime drama with some humor judiciously sprinkled throughout, which is really tough to pull off. When “New Tricks” began, there was a glut of procedural crime dramas featuring “experts” or “consultants” who would really never be let within a mile of a crime scene, but who people tuned in to watch clash with actual law enforcement officers while solving the crime, week after week.
The “New Tricks” take on that makes a crucial change that immediately sold me on the premise, which is that the crime-solving team members are all retired former law enforcement officers who’ve been assembled for a task force, led by Detective Superintendent Sandra Pullman (played Amanda Redman). DSI Pullman is forced to lead the crew of older former Detectives on the fictional Unsolved Crime and Open Case Squad after an incident that halted her career advancement.
What works about this show for me is that the task force has legitimate expertise and crime-solving training, and the ongoing conflict arises from their advanced years, being the “old dogs” that the title refers to, leading them to not always do things in the most modern fashion. Still, they’re not bumbling idiots.
They’re older characters dealing with the loss of a wife, serious alcoholism and sobriety, multiple ex-wives and adult child management, and possibly the most realistic portrayal of obsessive-compulsive disorder I’ve seen in entertainment. It’s refreshing to watch a character deal with taking medication for anxiety and OCD in a way that is neither condescendingly false nor played for laughs.
DSI Pullman is a flawed leading lady, rising above the trope of Tough As Nails Female Boss to show us instead a tough woman with a clear backstory to explain her toughness, as well as motivation to reveal her softness in more vulnerable moments.
Also, it makes sense that cold cases could be passed on to a group deemed “lesser,” which makes for some juicy allegory about how one’s life still matters, even if it seems that you’ve been forgotten about.
“New Tricks” gets bonus points for featuring Dennis Waterman, who does indeed sing the theme song for the show also, as he has done multiple times during his formidable career, and was lampooned for in a recurring sketch on “Little Britain.”
“Hustle” makes this list on a technicality, since I first learned about it a decade ago when AMC partnered with the BBC as co-producers/US presenters during the third season of the show. An astute friend recommended it, knowing that I love stories about grifters, con artists, and anything that involves reading people and getting revenge.
“Hustle” is beautiful in its simplicity: it’s about hustlers. A crew of expert grifters execute long cons both for profit, but they only choose marks that have exhibited hurtful, greedy, or lascivious behavior. Lest we get too saccharine with the shades of Robin Hood, the show reminds us that these people simply make the best marks; the very qualities that led the to hurt and cheat others will lead them down the long con lane.
The cons are fascinating, and I enjoy that the show has a hyper-stylized, sexy, sleek look and pulls off elaborate cons, and they always explain where the money comes from. Sometimes I watch a show and it’s just not engaging enough to stop me from wondering where did those characters get the money for [X item or activity]?!
On “Hustle,” sometimes the crew has to pull a short con to get the money to run the long con, and sometimes they’re doing both simultaneously. There are lots of messages about what you have to expend in order to gain a significant reward and patience, as well as some fantastically experimental camera angles and storytelling sequences used to impart them.
I had originally bought the DVDs of seasons 1-4, AMC stopped airing them, and I thought that was that. So imagine my delight to find all EIGHT seasons available on Hulu last month! There were some casting changes in the later seasons, but I’m still savoring every episode.
1. “Black Mirror”
My love of “Black Mirror” is difficult to communicate using the language I presently have at my disposal. This love makes me hesitant to go into any detail about the show, nor I will include a still image nor a video clip here; I don’t want to sully the memories for those who’ve already experienced it, nor do I want to spoil anything for the uninitiated.
“Black Mirror” is an anthology series, which makes it an oddity in the context of today’s television because Money. It costs much more to produce each episode in a new location with different sets and actors than it does for a serial narrative show. “Black Mirror” goes a step further and has each episode exist within a different reality.
One could say that the episodes all take place “in the not-so-distant future,” but that cliché doesn’t begin to aptly describe the brilliance of this series. Its worlds involve AI and imprisonment (both literal and figurative), and technological advances that are possibly within reach in that close future, being used and misused in ways that illuminate our present struggle with technology and humanity.
I’ve never seen such a compelling indictment of technology and pop culture obsession in my life. “Black Mirror” makes me feel like people I’ve never met somehow made a television series just for me, to suit my tastes and propagate ideas that are potentially very unpopular in a way that is captivating and entertaining.
As an actor and a writer, “Black Mirror” exemplifies the sort of immersive storytelling I aspire to be involved with. Regardless of how far-fetched the reality established in any given episode, it’s presented in a way that communicates to the viewer that your choices are to accept the story and go along for the ride or shut it off immediately; there is no happy medium.
There is little happy in “Black Mirror” at all, and I suppose my zealot-like worship of it speaks volumes about me.
So which shows speak volumes about you? Are you streaming these shows with me? Which gems have I missed? Let me know below!