Pretty much everyone knows beloved British shows like Doctor Who, Monty Python, and Bake Off. I fondly remember watching BBC America with my family in middle school (we really loved Cash in the Attic), but with the advent of streaming, lots more British shows make it across the pond now than they did even a decade ago. But plenty still remain in Britain, deemed too costly, too racy, or too “British” to air abroad. Sometimes they get turned into successful remakes (The Office, Shameless, Strictly Come Dancing… does Veep count as a remake of The Thick of It?) and sometimes not-so-successful ones (Skins, The Inbetweeners, that unaired Gavin and Stacey remake called Us and Them… seriously, there’s an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to this.)
But the great thing about being here is that it’s easy to find lots of new British shows to love, and pray us Yanks don’t ruin them all with remakes. Here are the ones I’m currently loving, and encourage you to find online if you can.
You wouldn’t expect a comedy about the Northern Irish Troubles, much less a gleefully raunchy one. And you probably wouldn’t expect it to focus on teenage girls like Erin, Michelle, Clare, and Orla, dealing with the neuroses of adolescent girlhood, soldiers on their school bus, budding sexuality, and poor 1990s fashion choices. The title ‘girls’ get shaken up a bit when Michelle’s cousin James comes to live with her, and becomes the first male pupil at their all-girls Catholic college–they couldn’t have possibly enrolled him in the boy’s school, he’s English. That sort of self-aware humour fuels Derry Girls, but it strikes a balance with deeper meditations on national and personal identity. The young actresses, Saoirse-Monica Jackson as Erin especially, are so talented it’s hard for the cast to not worm its way into your heart. You may just have to turn on the subtitles–the Derry accent is thick. I guess calling this a ‘British’ show is mildly contentious, but it’s on Channel 4 and it’s good and the last episode will maybe make you cry a bit. Watch it.
Most London-set shows make it seem like everyone lives in the shadow of St. Paul’s, works in a fancy high-rise in Canary Wharf, and can afford to take cabs everywhere. Oh, and they tend to completely ignore the fact that 40% of London’s citizens are nonwhite. Chewing Gum is a refreshing antidote, focusing on main character Tracey’s experiences as an Anglo-Caribbean woman in North London. The premise is simple: raised in an ultra-religious household, Tracey wants to break out of her shell, and more specifically, lose her virginity. Hilarity, of course, ensues, bolstered by Tracey’s fourth-wall-breaking speeches. You’re not really watching Tracey, you’re a friend along for the ride. It has much of the same zaniness and fish-out-of-water charm as Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, but with a bit more character depth. Michaela Coel is an unstoppable force as Tracey, but you’ll have just as much fun with Danielle Isaie as Tracey’s acid-tongued best friend Candice and Susan Wakoma as Tracey’s neurotic sister Cynthia. A particular standout episode is Season 2’s ‘Replacements,’ in which Tracey rebounds from her ex with the City banker of her dreams–but has a change of heart when she suspects he’s fetishizing her identity. Also there’s a guest appearance from Stormzy. I’ll let you find that one on your own.
The End of the F***ing World
This show might be the most acquired-taste out of this list, but if it manages to hook you, you’re in for a wild ride. Based off a graphic novel (which, curiously, was set in the United States, not England), James and Alyssa find themselves on a road trip together–except Alyssa is trying to track down her estranged father, and James… thinks he’s a psychopath and Alyssa would make a good first victim. But he isn’t sure. This, thankfully, is not a let’s-romanticize-a-murderer show, and it takes a pretty sharp turn once James and Alyssa find themselves in over their heads on their joyride. This show is unpredictable in the best type of way–when did you really, truly, gasp out loud at a TV show twist? You will with The End of the F***ing World. Jessica Barden’s bewitching performance as Alyssa and the stunning cinematography of windswept British seaside make it worth the watch alone. It was recently announced this is coming back for a second season and I am SO EXCITED.
Black Earth Rising
Michaela Coel strikes again, but this time in much different material than Chewing Gum–this gripping drama explores the lingering trauma of her character Kate, a Rwandan Tutsi who was adopted and raised in Britain after surviving the 1994 genocide. Her mother, an international prosecutor, takes up a case against a Rwandan leader responsible for crimes in the Democratic Republic of Congo–but he also helped to end the genocide that almost took Kate’s life as a child, and this brings up complicated feelings for all involved. It’s obviously not for light watching considering its subject matter, but Coel’s performance is engrossing and it explores aspects of this horrific event that, I will admit, I knew almost nothing about before watching this show. Out of all the shows on this list I think this is the most important, by far. Also, yeah, guess this was what John Goodman was up to during all the Roseanne drama. Time well spent.
Okay, look. Love Island gets ALL the attention in the US, but this is secretly the better British dating show. I’ll fight you on this. The premise is very simple, and cute rather than scandalous: two people have been set up by the show to go on a date at a restaurant in London (this one, if you’re wondering). The cameras film them and see what happens. At the end of the night, they decide if they want to see each other again. That’s it. It’s shockingly simple, but it’s easy to get sucked in (the restaurant staff, occasionally featured reacting to the dates around them, help with the charm). Some dates go very well. Some dates go horribly. But the stakes being so much lower than US dating shows–it’s just a first date!–makes it all the more endearing. And it’s very inclusive–you’ll see people of all backgrounds, old people, young people, LGBTQ people, all on the same episode, just looking for love. Also, in terms of relationship success, this show has a much better track record than any iteration of The Bachelor.
Hate Thy Neighbour
I love a good documentary, and most British TV aficionados are familiar with Louis Theroux, the landmark BBC documentarian best known for his interviews with the Westboro Baptist Church. Well, meet Jamali Maddix, who sets himself up as an anti-Theroux, or at least a funnier one. He travels around the US, UK, and Europe, interviewing members of extremist groups, to get a sense of their platform and motivations–why they think what they think and why they do what they do. It doesn’t have a problematic ‘let’s humanise these Nazis’ tone, and interludes of Maddix’s standup act as a palate cleanser. He doesn’t set out with an explicit goal in mind, but just seeks to learn what he can about these groups and how they interact with their surroundings. What results is an interesting and important dialogue about the state of our world today. Jamali Maddix is also just an all-around great comedian and this is a great, unique way for him to display his chops.
So those are my current favourites! What British shows do you hope will make the jump across the pond next?