The conventional wisdom used to be that Americans wouldn’t watch British television. The jokes weren’t relatable, the drama was too stiff and formal and none of the actors looked like runway models. Then, The Office premiered in 2001 and America awarded the UK with one of our highest cultural honors — the remake.
In the years since, our friends across the pond have been enjoying a golden era of television, with shows like Misfits and Downton Abbey drawing international acclaim and fan bases. So, in this midseason television drought, I bring to you an oasis of phenomenal storytelling: seven British television shows currently streaming on Netflix that will keep you glued to the couch for days.
1. Doctor Who: 53 hours
This series follows the exploits of The Doctor, a 900-year-old Time Lord who flies through time and space in a blue police box, saving creatures across the Universe from monsters and tyrants. If you look past the occasionally cheesy special effects and the constant use of Deus ex Machina, you’ll find a show that draws you in with its fascinating storylines and courageous characters.
And don’t worry about going back to the original series’ 1963 debut to catch up — the 2005 reboot is a perfect place to start your life as a “Whovian.”
2. Downton Abbey: 5.5 hours
Who could have guessed that the breakout BBC hit of 2011 would be a period drama about an English household before the First World War? Downton Abbey manages to establish and develop a large cast of distinct and interesting characters without sacrificing the flow or quality of the story, keeping you invested in so many different relationships.
The first time someone tried to screen it for me I pretended to be asleep, so they’d get the hint that Masterpiece Theatre was too stale and boring for my time — within 20 minutes, I was yelling at the screen and mooning over the costumes and set design. Season Two isn’t airing in America yet, but I’ve seen it and it is breathtaking.
3. Black Books: 7 hours
A few weeks ago, I trapped three friends in my apartment for hours simply by starting the pilot to Black Books. They had plans for the day, errands to run, places to be, but all that evaporated once they got an eyeful of Dylan Moran’s hilarious misanthrope, Bernard Black. Moran is a brilliant stand-up comic aided by two great supporting characters; you find yourself watching some episodes over and over again, laughing at the same jokes and catching new ones. If you like this clip of Dylan Moran’s stand-up, you’ll adore Black Books.
4. Shameless: 39 hours
Frank Gallagher is an unemployed lush raising six children on government assistance, and it would be charitable to say he does his best. The Gallaghers don’t have a lot of money or resources and, left to their own devices, they get up to some hijinx that might shock and scandalize certain viewers. But when they are working together to get one of their own out of a jam (or throwing a fake wedding for their neighbors) it truly is heartwarming, and makes you see how little they have to be ashamed of.
5. The IT Crowd: 9 hours
Moss and Roy are two computer geeks who find themselves with a new boss, Jen, who doesn’t know anything about computers. As they teach her about technology, she teaches them how to interact with the world. The high point is of the series is definitely Richard Ayoade’s deadpan delivery and stoic demeanor.
In the second episode, a small fire starts in the office; after the fire extinguisher catches on fire, he sets it down, saying: “I’ll just put this over here with the rest of the fire,” and sits down to write an e-mail to the fire department. You can watch the scene online and find out how quickly nine hours can fly by.
6. Sherlock: 4.5 hours
Just returned from service in Afghanistan, Doctor John Watson agrees to room with Sherlock Holmes of 221-B Baker Street. It isn’t an easy partnership: Sherlock keeps body parts in the fridge to test decomposition rates, shoots at the wall when he’s bore, and alienates everyone around him with his arrogance and cruelty.
There is no shortage of shows on these days about eccentric, anti-social geniuses who solve mysteries and don’t bother being polite about it, but this is best of them all. The only drawback? Each episode is an hour and a half, there are only three episodes per season and the new season isn’t airing in America yet.
7. Peep Show: 17 hours
Each episode of Peep Show is a long, slow trainwreck brought about because the main characters, Mark and Jeremy, make terrible decisions and have very little self awareness. Fans of It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia will love their reprehensible behavior and their non-existent crisis management skills, with the added bonus of being able to hear the characters' internal monologues. Watch Peep Show is with a friend or a group of friends; mortified embarassment and uncontrollable laughter is best shared with those you love.