Thanks to BBC America, DVD box sets, and torrents, more and more of us Yanks have the opportunity to see what folks on the other side of the pond are watching. And there’s some good stuff to be had. The short run afforded British series’ allows for a creative compactness that is often lacking in American shows. Dramas can move the plot along at breakneck speed when the story calls for it, or take a step back and let the characters simply do their thing, all without needing to resort to filler episodes while the writers bide their time to a season climax. Similarly, comedies can punch up the jokes-per-minute without worrying about running out of steam eight hours in, and the more farcical comedy need not come up with dozens of wacky scenarios to throw their characters in, eventually stretching the credibility of even the most lenient sitcom viewer. A lot of British TV, just like shows over here, is crap. But if you can get past the accents and generally lower budgets, there are some outstanding shows to be had, equal to or better than a lot of the stuff that’s shoved down our willing, American throats. These five shows are prime examples.
And for the record, “Torchwood” and “The Thick of It” just missed the cut. The overrated “Gavin & Stacey,” “Black Books,” and “Being Human” did not. Considering how overly pleased many of you were with our Ten Best Television Shows of the Aughts, I’m sure there will be plenty of complaints about this list. It’s horses for courses, but if you can’t help yourself, get cheesed off and have at us. — Seth Freilich
5. State of Play (2003): This series is a slick political thriller involving some journalists digging into two seemingly unrelated deaths which may have some connection to Parliament (the Big Ben Britishy one, not the Funkadelic one). Of course, with six hours to burn, the series obviously breaks things out rather slowly. The first episode, for example, devotes a substantial amount of time just to showing us some of the major character relationships. The primary relationship living in the dark underbelly of the whole series is between Cal McCaffrey (Simm), a journalist for The Herald, and Stephen Collins (Morrissey), a Member of Parliament. Former friends and co-workers (Cal worked on Stephen’s campaign) who have fallen a bit out of touch, the two wind up reuniting and the viewer quickly becomes mired in the complications that arise from a friendship between a politician and a newsie. Their relationship goes through some complicated ups and down as the series progresses, and while the show is about a lot of things well and beyond the relationship between these two, it really is the central emotional thread that holds everything together. And much like “The Wire” (though this is not as dense or rich), part of the pleasure of this show is watching things unfold. That being said, the weakest part about the series actually is the plot itself. While there are a few unexpected turns here and there, it doesn’t stray too far from the now generally rote “political conspiracy that may reach higher than anyone thought and, oh by the way, may involve an evil corporation.” It’s not entirely formulaic and there are a few things you might not see coming, or which might veer off in a slightly different direction. But at the end of the day, none of that really matters because the style, the pacing and, most importantly, the acting is really what carries this show. — Seth Freilich
4. Coupling (2000-2004): When I first stumbled upon an episode of “Coupling” on BBC America, I just assumed it was the British version of “Friends.” After all, it’s basically a show about a circle of friends made up of three gals and three blokes who largely just hang out, either at their flats or at a nearby bar. But unlike “Friends,” which was largely sentimental claptrap trying to come off as biting and snarky, “Coupling” was a genuinely funny and sharp show which mined its humor equally from farcical nonsense and somewhat grounded observations on sex, relationships, and the differences between the sexes. Written by Steven Moffat (now the “Doctor Who” showrunner), and based on his courtship of his second wife, “Coupling” was, at its core, about the progressing relationship of Susan and Steve. But it was equally about Steve and his two pals, and Susan and her two pals, and how men and women simply perceive things differently. And this was when it was at its sharpest and most hilarious. Take, for example, the following rant, where Steve (Jack Davenport) explains to the women how he can like watching the wonderfully named porn Lesbian Spank Inferno:
Oh, because it’s got naked women in it! Look, I like naked women! I’m a bloke! I’m supposed to like them! We’re born like that. We like naked women as soon as we’re pulled out of one. Halfway down the birth canal, we’re already enjoying the view. Look, it’s the four pillars of the male heterosexual psyche. We like: naked women, stockings, lesbians, and Sean Connery best as James Bond. Because that is what being a bloke is. And if you don’t like it, darling, join the film collective. Look: I want to spend the rest of my life with the woman at the end of the table here. But that does not stop me wanting to see several thousand more naked bottoms before I die. Because that’s what being a boy is. When Man invented fire, he didn’t say “Hey, let’s cook!” He said: “Great! Now we can see naked bottoms in the dark!” As soon as Caxton invented the printing press we were using it to make pictures of — hey! — naked bottoms. We’ve turned the Internet into an enormous international database of … naked bottoms. So, you see, the story of male achievement through the ages, feeble though it may have been, has been the story of our struggle to get a better look at your bottoms. Frankly, girls, I’m not so sure how insulted you really ought to be.
As fun as that is to read, it’s so much better to watch, thanks to Davenport’s excellent delivery (the whole cast, particularly Richard Coyle, is solid). Funnier than most of the comedies currently on TV, you’d be doing yourself a good deed to go watch the first three series (you can skip the Jeff-less forth). Just beware the Melty Man. — Seth Freilich
3. Spooks (2002-present): “Spooks” (which is retitled “MI5” for United States broadcasts) will grab your junk, throw you through a wall, and kick you in the face while you’re unconscious. Meant to be the British version of “24,” “Spooks” makes Jack Bauer look like a ninny screaming for his mommy. The densely plotted action drama essentially follows the work of a group of MI5 officers who are tasked with saving both Britain and the larger world from terrorist attacks. Week in and week out, the stakes are higher than any other show on television, and it always seems to come down to the lesser of two evils: Allow terrorists to kill thousands of faceless Brits or the more personalized murder of a handful of people you’ve become familiar with. What’s doubly remarkable about “Spooks” is that, unlike “24,” where Jack Bauer stops the bomb at the last second and avoids his own death, any one of the members of “MI5” can die at any time, usually violently and after you’ve gotten immensely attached to him or her. In fact, over the first three seasons, nearly the entire cast was replaced, and turnover is not uncommon even in its eighth series. Though it’s not quite the show it was when it began its run in 2002, nothing outside of “The Wire” can really compete with the first three seasons of “Spooks” in terms of gut-punching gritty realism — stories aren’t ripped from headlines, they’re seemingly based upon current threats (and there’s quite a few shots taken at the US, which is something of an enemy in “Spooks”). It’s an engaging and brutal show and, at times, hard to watch, but all the more rewarding for it. — Dustin Rowles
2. The Office (2001-2003): It’s the polar opposite of every sitcom ever made, all the movie star beauty, giant cheap apartments, meaningful careers, slick fashion and witty rejoinders stripped out. The characters are the people we see everyday, the annoying, smelly, ugly, petty, small people who tell horribly uncomfortable jokes, dance badly, go home with the wrong man, wage war over desk space and show up day after day to a dead-end job because it’s the only way the rent will get paid. If you read a script of “The Office” without any context, you’d probably swear that it was an absurdist tragedy. But it’s got that Andy Kaufmanesque humor going, the kind where the characters have no idea that what’s happening is funny for the most part, where the humor is all in the tragedy. It’s not snide voyeurism though, not when it holds up its characters with such love instead of the judgmental contempt that stains the subtext of most anything else on television purported to showcase the common man. What victories they win are small — a “go fuck yourself” and a kiss from the receptionist — but they are heart-wrenchingly joyous all the same. There’s a sort of cliche that American stories are happy and Russian stories are sad. “The Office” is eminently British in the way that it is neither and both at once, in the way that the characters neither die alone nor ride off into the sunset. They simply endure. — Steven Lloyd Wilson
1. Doctor Who (2005-present): The simple celebration and appreciation of what it means to be human, to be normal, is the heart of “Doctor Who,” an almost oxymoronic theme for a show that explores just how unimaginably vast the universe truly is. Time and again, it is the small things that matter. The series is interspersed with small tragedies and triumphs, grounding the stories in a more human context than the grandiose tales of the end of the world that it also features. In Season One, for example, Captain Jack tells desperate volunteers to aim for the Daleks’ eyes to give them hope, though he knows full well that nothing they do will have any effect. A Dalek opens its murderous steel body so that it feels the sun on its withered body before dying. The Doctor tweaks Rose’s cell phone so that she can call her mother, no matter where or when she happens to be. Rose saves the life of her father, killed by a car when she was very young, sees him for the man he was, not the hero but the small schemer, the cheater, sees him redeemed by dying to prevent the paradox from ripping apart the world. That focus on the minuscule, even in the midst of the enormous, gives the lives of the characters a wrenching urgency. Common people caught up in a great storm. — Steven Lloyd Wilson