Fantastic Shows And Where To Find Them: Our Guide To British TV

Already crushed every episode of every American television show out there? Here’s the British TV you should be watching.

There’s never any shortage of TV to watch, but quality can be harder to find this time of the year. Instead of rotting your brain with Real Housewives reruns, try taking a quick and cheap vacation to the U.K. by getting to know British television better. With short seasons and limited episodes, U.K. programming makes it easy to dive into a new world and then actually go outside to enjoy summer.

Here are 10 excellent shows to get you started, in roughly reverse-chronological order.

Sherlock

If there’s one show on this list you’ve already seen, it’s probably this hyper-stylized contemporary update of Arthur Conan Doyle’s mystery series. Essentially a movie franchise, with each episode clocking in at 90 minutes, there’s a lot to nitpick about Sherlock, in particular its mediocre-at-best whodunits and its indulgent, wink-heavy fan service. And yet it remains the gold standard for fresh page-to-screen adaptations that make England’s long literary history relevant today. And it’s no mystery why Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman have become international movie stars after playing Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson, respectively — their fully inhabited performances and velvety oratory make each installment an unexpected delight for the senses.

Available to stream on Netflix and Amazon.

The Great British Baking Show

If there’s one thing we want to believe about the British, it’s that they’re adorable. Sure, the British Empire once ruled over a fifth of the world’s population, and the recent Brexit vote demonstrated that Americans don’t have a monopoly on racism and xenophobia, but sometimes we just want the illusion that the U.K. is mostly made up of wool-wearing grandparents and grandparents-to-be who’ve just baked the most scrumptious crumpets to serve with afternoon tea. Enter The Great British Baking Show, a soothing reality competition for amateur bakers whose prevailing tone — in stark contrast to American cooking tournaments — is niceness. Set to classical music, the cult series is a showcase for talent where the judges are (mostly) kind, the contestants strive for greatness while helping each other out, and dessert does exactly what it should: soothe, tempt, and enchant.

Available to stream on Netflix and pbs.org.

Happy Valley

Crime in the U.K. is at the lowest rate it’s been since the Home Office started keeping records 35 years ago. And yet there seems to be endless demand for crime shows, especially murder mysteries. Few are darker, more suspenseful, more wrenching, or simply better than Happy Valley, about a small-town police sergeant (Sarah Lancashire) who, in the first season, searches for her daughter’s rapist while raising her grandson, who was born of that sexual assault. Set in the post-industrial north, it’s a singular portrait of a lone woman valiantly waging a probably losing battle for law and order against the slow chaos wrought by addiction, greed, and opportunistic evil.

Available to stream on Netflix.

Black Mirror

Other than Sherlock, the sci-fi anthology Black Mirror — which imagines various dystopias our current technological trends could lead us to — is probably the most inconsistent show on this list. But the better installments of Black Mirror are so sharp, insightful, and fucking terrifying that they more than make up for the weaker stories. Virtual reality and our voyeuristic impulses are the show’s great villains, but the ways technology facilitate our worst instincts toward nostalgia, vengeance, and transforming everything into entertainment also come under precise scrutiny — and come alive through twisty storytelling. If you’re new to the show — and there are only seven episodes so far — start with “Fifteen Million Merits,” “The Entire History of You,” and the fantastically unsettling “White Bear.”

Available to stream on Netflix and Amazon.

Catastrophe

The British (and Irish) accents, the dry humor, the chic coats and woolly sweaters, all the “mates” and “lifts” and “bollocks” — we’ve all been brainwashed by the movies into believing the pasty, alcoholic, emotionally constipated men of the British Isles are who we should think of as the height of romantic seduction. But it’s harsh reality that makes the trans-Atlantic love story in Catastrophe so sexy, vital, and passionate. After the death of the romantic comedy at the multiplex, TV resuscitated the genre and then gave it dimension, jagged edges, and consequences. There’s no better example of that new life than Catastrophe, which follows a hilarious London couple’s (Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney) devotion to each other following a post-fling pregnancy as they navigate cultural differences, family dysfunction, sheer exhaustion, and postpartum depression.

Available to stream on Amazon.

My Mad Fat Diary

Few protagonists are as instantly relatable as 16-year-old Rae (Sharon Rooney), the depressive and overweight but also smart, fun-loving, and horny-as-hell teen at the center of My Mad Fat Diary. Wishing she could be invisible while desperate for someone to truly see her, Rae is every teen, while also giving a pained but clear voice to the millions of girls who look like her and are rarely portrayed onscreen. We’ve all heard My Mad Fat Diary’s main insight before: Everyone struggles in their own way, and projecting your insecurities onto other people makes you blind to their layers and contradictions. And yet the way the series portrays Rae’s struggles to learn that lesson with heart-melting warmth — while never letting her off the hook for her self-pitying blind spots — makes this three-season show a standout among recent British programming.

Available to stream on Hulu.

Gavin & Stacey

Not many Americans had heard of James Corden when he took over The Late Late Show from Craig Ferguson last year. But with “Carpool Karaoke,” he’s made himself a viral star — a feat that would surprise few Britons, who saw Corden cocreate, star in, and be the best part of Gavin & Stacey, a massively popular sitcom about a long-distance, working-class couple who meet online, then struggle to be with each other. Running for three years after its premiere in 2007, the show’s setup now feels simultaneously quaint and as relevant as ever. With a strong emphasis on regional differences between small-town Wales and London, it’s also the rare show, at least stateside, that emphasizes the divisions within the United Kingdom.

Available to stream on Hulu and Amazon.

The IT Crowd

The geeks have inherited the earth, but there’s something that just feels right about seeing the nerds stay in the basement. That’s where schlubby, quietly bitter Roy (Chris O’Dowd) and stiff, 8-bit ’fro’d Moss (Richard Ayoade) mostly want to be anyway, even when they’re pushed into uncomfortably “normal” situations by the striving but sympathetic Jen (Katherine Parkinson) in the marvelously silly The IT Crowd. Broad in just the right way, it’s another star-maker of a series (at least for O’Dowd and Ayoade). Best of all, the four-season show masters the gentle absurdity and the brain-exploding frustration at the heart of every great office sitcom.

Available to stream on Hulu and Amazon.

Peep Show

One of Britain's longest-airing — and most misanthropically twisted — TV comedies, Peep Show recently ended its nine-season run this past December after debuting in 2003. This warped vision of best friendship examines the careers, loves, and unmitigated catastrophes of yuppie prig Mark (the magnificent David Mitchell) and his wannabe-musician scrub of a roommate, Jez (Robert Webb). The episodes are filmed nearly entirely from the visual perspective of its leads, while viewers are privy to their inner thoughts in real-time — but you forget the gimmick right away. No other sitcom has so expertly captured Seinfeld’s legacy of pessimism, neuroticism, and narcissism. If you miss the black comedy of a group of self-centered friends who are absolutely awful to each other, do yourself a favor and check out this hilariously perverse series.

Available to stream on Hulu and Netflix.

Spaced

Nerd heroes Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright made their breakout collaboration with Spaced, an ode in comedy form to the movies they love and the Gen X disaffection of its turn-of-the-millennium era. Created by Pegg and Jessica Hynes (née Stevenson), who wrote every episode (with Wright directing all of them), it follows the lives of two wannabe-creative roommates, comic-book artist Tim (Pegg) and journalist Daisy (Hynes), who are too lazy to make their dreams happen — and have little regard for each other’s craft. You can almost see Pegg and Stevenson reminiscing on their younger years as Tim and Daisy spend their hours wasting time, doing nothing, and lying on the couch, waiting for life to happen to them. It does, of course, through zombie attacks, robot wars, Marxist dogs, and human relationships that seem to take over Tim and Daisy almost in spite of themselves.

Available to stream on Hulu and Amazon.