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An American’s guide to British television on Netflix

Think you can't become more culturally aware while watching television with a pizza box on your stomach? Think again.


Joey Keeton


Posted on Aug 15, 2015   Updated on May 28, 2021, 3:57 am CDT

Trying to keep up with all the quality television being produced in America is downright Sisyphean. But there’s another whole country producing amazing shows across the pond, and—sorry to say it—you’re going to need to watch all of those, too.

The following are the best British shows currently streaming on Netflix, along with your ticket to having something to say whenever somebody brings them up.

1) Top Gear (1977–present)

The Top Gear you see on Netflix may be officially dead now, but its ghost still lives on in the company’s servers. The downside: It’s only five seasons of the famous Clarkson/May/Hammond run of the show. The upside: That’s still about 33 hours of material, and it’s all fantastic.

Top Gear is one of the most highly viewed programs on the planet, and it’s not because of the cars. That may be hard for a newcomer to believe, but you really don’t need to know anything about cars to enjoy it. It’s the chemistry between the hosts—and the hijinks they get into—that makes the show accessible to everybody from the most diehard car enthusiasts to somebody who’s never even driven one. In the spirit of irreverent British humor, some of these hijinks went too far—and were partly responsible for the BBC’s hands being tied when it came down to firing host Jeremy Clarkson. (This is one of those such moments, which, lucky for you, can be seen on the currently streaming India special.)

Hijinks aside (and I promise that’s the last time I’ll use that word), Top Gear is about much more than its shenanigans: The program itself, like many of the cars featured on it, is absolutely beautiful. The production value on it is through the roof; they could film my 2012 Kia Soul going through a Wendy’s drive-thru and make it look a vision that Moses himself would have while atop a mountain. During their famous specials, which usually involved the hosts being given a relatively small sum to each purchase a car and attempt to drive across a country, historic and cultural details are seamlessly interwoven into the commentary. Yes, some of Top Gear’s trips outside of the U.K. may have caused international friction, but damn were they fantastic.

Although you needn’t be a gearhead (or, as the hosts would say, “petrolhead”) to enjoy Top Gear, you’ll be hard-pressed to come away from a series (that’s British for “season”) without a greater appreciation for cars than you had going in. Add in some global culture from international specials, and you have a twofer for expanding your precious mind—all while eating pretzels on your bum.

2) The IT Crowd (2006–2013)

The best way to describe The IT Crowd is that it’s a lot like The Big Bang Theory, except it’s funny. You see, in the U.K., they have a knack for producing programs with about six episodes per series, which gives the shows a much better chance of not having to do-over sitcom plots that have existed since the 1950s in order to fill a contractual obligation for 24 episodes. This also means you can binge watch a lot of shows very, very quickly. If the stars align and you can go off the radar for a bit, this particular one can be conquered in a mere two or three days.  

This the only show on the list that includes a laugh track, but the thing is: I’m pretty sure it’s a real track of an audience laughing. Remember when Louis CK had a brief run on HBO with show Lucky Louie, which took place on a set in front of a live audience, and had real people laughing? This show’s like that: dignified.

The show’s about a woman who joins a giant, Orwellian sort of company, and—as her job doesn’t include many real duties—her office is located in the basement, where the IT department resides. That department is made up of Chris O’Dowd, that bloke who played a romantic copper (that’s British for “cop”) in Bridesmaids, and Richard Ayoade, who’s directed music videos for Vampire Weekend and the Arctic Monkeys, and also directed the very good coming-of-age film Submarine.

Much of the humor derives around the female Relations Manager being a fish-out-of-water in the midst of the nerdy IT guys, which is, as I explained earlier, much like the comedic dynamic of the Big Bang Theory. That basic premise may sound a bit inherently sexist, but I assure you it’s not, because every single character has an accent. Accents make everything OK, right?

3) Peep Show (2003–2015)

Just because a show is British and filled to the brim with ingenious humour, that doesn’t mean it’s safe from the axe, and somehow Peep Show’s poor ratings had it permanently positioned on the chopping block from the moment it hit the airwaves. Somehow, though, it still managed to get a whopping eight series of six episodes apiece.

Peep Show is shown entirely through the perspective of the characters interacting onscreen, so every shot is through somebody’s eyes, although we only hear the internal monologues of the two main characters, Jez and Mark (played by Robert Webb and David Mitchell). That may sound like a gimmick, and one that would get old fast, but the format is unbelievably smooth in execution.

Peep Show’s cancellation was, despite hanging over its head throughout its entire run, an abrupt one; I suppose that once you think you’ll be cancelled seven times, and then you aren’t, you just get comfortable with being renewed at the last moment. But fans will get some closure this September when the ninth series airs after a three-year hiatus. Shockingly enough, this is happening without Netflix having to purchase the show: The original network is actually behind the show’s resurrection from the dead!

Like The IT Crowd, it only takes one extremely brief bout of depression to get through the entire run of Peep Show, so there’s really no excuse to not watch it. With the program coming back in September, you’ll even have a ray of hope when you finish binge-watching it: Yes, you’re out of episodes to watch now, but you can look forward to when the ninth series wraps up, and to when the show comes to DVD in the United States after the obligatory several years of copyright law red-tape.

4) Black Mirror (2011–present)

You may know Black Mirror from stories that you’ve seen shared on your Facebook feed that were titled something like GET OFF YOUR ASS AND WATCH BLACK MIRROR BECAUSE IT’S THE BEST SHOW, HOLY SHIT. Personally, I feel threatened by online writers telling me what to do, so those stories just made me hide from Black Mirror and pretend that it didn’t exist. This was a terrible mistake.

After watching the entire series, when I’d only planned on watching one episode, I only have one thing to say:


It’s a tough show to describe, which may have led to my hesitation to watching it in the first place (and God knows how they pitched it to Channel 4), but I’ll do my best. It’s a sharp-witted, satirical look at our society’s relationship with technology; it’s also an anthology series, with each episode following entirely self-contained plots with no recurring characters. But after watching the first episode, you’ll say to yourself “That was brilliant,” (that’s British for “very good”) and find yourself game for whatever the other episodes have to offer. It’s like going to a restaurant, ordering an appetizer, and absolutely loving it: You know the next course won’t be related to what you just ate, but the chef’s already won over your confidence, and you’re absolutely positive that whatever comes next will be absolutely smashing (that’s also British for “very good”).

5) Peaky Blinders (2013–present)

Basically, Peaky Blinders is the universe’s way of saying:

“Hey! I’m sorry that Deadwood got cancelled prematurely, so—and I know that nothing could ever take that pain away, I really do!—here’s another show where everybody has really, really weird accents, gangs are on par with the law, people drink tons of whisky in places that are made from wood, and it takes wits and long cons to survive.”

Peaky Blinders might actually be better than Deadwood by the time its run has finished. You might not agree with that prediction when you finish the two series currently out (both of which are streaming, with a third series in the works), but I guarantee you one thing: If you’re a fan of Deadwood, you might not like this show more, but you will definitely not be disappointed. 

Try this on: Tom Hardy casually pops up in the second season, like it’s no big deal at all that fucking Bane is acting on television. Do you think Tom Hardy does television work because he’s having a hard time staying busy? 

No. There is only one reason that Tom Hardy appears in the second series of a show on the BBC: He sees the first one and falls completely in love with it. (It also stars Cillian Murphy as the lead character, so maybe he wanted to join his fellow Batman villain on the small screen.)

Anyway: This show is fucking brilliant. Sam Neill plays a villain, for shit’s sake. It’s simply fantastic. Hopefully, its status as a “Netflix Original” means we won’t have a long wait between the third season airing on the BBC, and us yankees being able to stream it.

6) Happy Valley (2014–present)

If you loved the first season of Fargo, and you’re going mad waiting for the second to premiere in October, have no fear: Happy Valley is here. Like Peaky Blinders, it’s presented as a Netflix Original, but don’t be fooled—it originally aired on the BBC.

It’s six episodes long, with each one running an hour, and I’m warning you, very seriously, to wait on watching the first episode until you have six hours to spare. If you watch one episode and then head to work, your body might be at a desk, but your brain will be back at home, thinking about what will happen next on Happy Valley.

Like Fargo, the story takes place in a small town, in which a few people make very dumb decisions that completely ruin their (and others’) lives. I’d even say it’s more layered than Fargo: Side characters that would usually be there to simply serve the plot have deep and detailed backstories. 

Also like Fargo, I’d expect the second series to have so many A-list actors that it’ll make your head explode. With writing this good, even Sir Ian McKellen would champing at the bit to play a small role.

I can’t say much more without giving things away, so I’ll just say this: There’s kidnappings, ordinary people getting in over their heads by mixing with criminals, criminals getting in over their heads by being too greedy and stupid, and one person who’s just pure evil. And that person who’s just pure evil? You’ll end up feeling, if only fleetingly, sympathetic toward them, because that’s just how good this show is.

Did I mention this is a good show? Because this a good show.

7) Sherlock (2010–present)

Like the other series Steven Moffat’s currently helming, Doctor Who (which is also streaming on Netflix, but I’m not writing it up, because if Doctor Who’s for you, you already know about it), I have a theory that most people spend a lot of their time watching Sherlock completely lost but unwilling to admit it. Even if I’m not distracting myself by eating or Googling an actor I swear I’ve seen in another show, I still find myself wondering, at least twice an episode, what the fuck is going on.

But in the end, that doesn’t really matter. The show has so much propulsive energy, the acting so remarkable, and every frame so gorgeous, that you’ll get over the fact that it’s occasionally confusing. Plus, by the end of each episode (which, in miniseries form, are about 90 minutes a piece), you’ll usually be comprehending the plot enough to fully appreciate the incredibly awesome part where the mystery is solved. 

The fourth series is currently scheduled to film in 2016 , a full two years after the series 3 broadcast (likely because Moffat, Cumberbatch, and Freeman are insanely busy these days), and the last series ended in a way that makes it absolute torturous for fans to wait that long for the next piece of the story. Since half the fun of watching television is the part where you torturously wait for more episodes, it’s probably best to start binge watching the currently available episodes ASAP. 

Bonus: A non-canon episode that takes place in the Victorian period is set to air this Christmas, so at least there’s some sort of new material to look forward to (even if it’s unrelated to the show’s plot, it’s still going to be fantastic).

8) The Inbetweeners (2008–2010)

The Inbetweeners is a bit like if American Pie and Skins had a baby, and it came out looking much more like the former. It beings with the main protagonist, Will, starting his first day at a new public school, after his parents’ divorce has resulted in his departure from his private school.

Will has a terrible first day, and he’s made fun of a lot by three schoolmates who, by the end of episode 1, you can safely assume will keep their distance from him in the future. By episode 2, it’s clear they’ll be his closest friends throughout the series. Will isn’t popular, and neither are they, and this is presumably why their friendship continues through three series and two movies, even though they’re constantly screwing each other over, and generally being complete dicks to one another.

Each episode is different, but also more or less the same: The four friends (by the second episode, Will is only our protagonist by way of being our narrator) think of something to do, they set out to do it, and the end result is at least one of them being mortally embarrassed, with things very rarely working out well for any of them at all. But despite being very formulaic, the dynamic between the four leads makes the show endlessly watchable.

The show struck gold with these four characters and the actors portraying them; an American version of the show never made it past an evidently terrible pilot episode. The perfect balance between the friends makes for something sweet, laugh-out-loud funny, and extremely addicting.

Screengrab via imal360/YouTube

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*First Published: Aug 15, 2015, 10:22 am CDT