During the Super Bowl’s lighting debacle (#beyoncestoletheirpower), I noticed a lot of my friends on Facebook and Twitter turning the channel to watch Downton Abbey, and many quipped that it was the perfect opportunity to tune into “their” Super Bowl. It was then that I realized how big Downton Abbey is here: It’s the Super Bowl of British period pieces.
While Downton Abbey continues to evolve into a TV phenomenon and pop culture juggernaut, I thought I’d use this as an opportunity to shine some light on other huge cult favorites from the U.K. (Doctor Who, Sherlock) and others who are still finding their audience here (Peep Show, Luther). Do you have personal favorites I didn’t plug? Are you an Inbetweeners fan? Do you worship Prime Suspect? Have you somehow managed to watch every episode of Eastenders? Sound off on your Anglophilia in the comment section.
1. Doctor Who
Doctor Who has found itself a steady cult following in the U.S., but like Tom Waits, Doctor Who doesn’t nearly get the amount of attention it deserves. For fans of shows like Buffy, Angel and The X-Files, the long-running British sci-fi show is a perfect addition to your roster, a show that combines action, drama, humor and a lot of heart. The original series ran from 1963 to 1989 and was revived in 2005 by Russell T Davies, the wundergay also behind Torchwood and Queer as Folk. Davies took the low-budget kitschiness of the original and blended it with some becoming soap opera sheen. He’s kind of a genius.
There are a million reasons to tune into Doctor Who, one of the main ones being that you can understand why “chicks dig time lords” and argue about which doctor is your favorite. I know I’m bandwagoning here, but I’m way into all things David Tennant. I even watched the remake of Fright Night because I knew he was in it. This is what love is.
Torchwood is a lot like Robyn, in that it seems like only gays know what it is. (Vocab lesson for the straights: this is known as gay famous.) Torchwood gets major points from the gays for having a pansexual lead character (the so-hot-he’s-practically-edible Jack Harkness) and multiple male-on-male relationships at the center of the show. They even get to — gasp! — kiss on screen! And they show it on television.
Story: When I lived in France last year, I went to stay at a friend’s house in Meaux after I initially arrived. Suitcases in tow, I walk inside to his mother watching Brokeback Mountain, which they were airing on network TV. Not even cable. Europe is a very different place.
But to Torchwood’s credit, they tried to bring their giant queer parties to the states with their ill-fated fourth season — that was a joint U.S.-U.K. production. It aired on Starz for two seconds and was kind of a hot mess. This is why you should just go forth and seek out the original.
3. Fawlty Towers
For anyone who knows what Fawlty Towers is, the show is something of a canonical text in comedy, singlehandedly proving that John Cleese is a god of physical humor. Fawlty Towers was recently named by the British Film Institute as the best British show of all time, not exactly faint praise for Cleese and his compatriots. You simply cannot heap enough superlatives upon it.
Like many shows on this list, Fawlty Towers is a British workplace comedy about unusual people put in surreal situations. They say that the difference between American and British comedy is that American comedy is premised on “Isn’t it funny that?” and British shows ask “Wouldn’t it be funny if?” Fawlty Towers proved that a hotel run by a rude manager, his overbearing wife and their hapless staff would be the greatest thing in existence.
There are only twelve episodes of the show, and you can find them all online. No excuses.
4. Absolutely Fabulous
Like Torchwood, this is another show that’s hugely gay famous. During a recent trip to my favorite bar in Chicago — the misleadingly named Big Chicks, which has few chicks — I noticed they were playing Absolutely Fabulous on their TV screens. I actually stopped what I was doing, sat down and watched it. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t hear what they were saying. I’ve seen it so many times I can just fill it in.
Known as “Ab Fab” by its fans, Absolutely Fabulous is the Arrested Development of British TV shows, about two faux-fashionable British women who are desperate for good times, great drinks and even better clothes. Joanna Lumley and Jennifer Saunders are over-the-top perfection as women behaving very badly, and one of the refreshing things about the show is that they’re rarely punished for their sins. By being so disreputable and unlikeable, they become weird outlets for our ID. As the tagline says, “Sin is in, sweetie.”
5. The Vicar of Dibley
I’ve only started watching The Vicar of Dibley, even though I’m kind of obsessed with Dawn French. I held off for two reasons: 1) I was being lazy. It’s the same reason I haven’t gotten around to Venture Bros. or Battlestar Galactica. I know I’m going to like them, but I can’t watch everything. I’m still getting caught up on Scandal, y’all. 2) I couldn’t imagine Dawn French without Jennifer Saunders. I got used to it with Ab Fab, as Lumley is the perfect French surrogate, but without someone to fill Saunders’ shiny shoes, I wasn’t as interested as I should have been.
But with no disrespect to Ab Fab, I don’t think I’ve laughed harder in my life than at The Vicar of Dibley. As expected, Dawn French tears the house down as the titular vicar, who may be the horniest religious figure in history. I’ve never seen French quite this good before, and the go-for-broke energy she shows off here reminds me of the best of French and Saunders and of her American counterpart, Melissa McCarthy.
Also, for fans of Bridget Jones’ Diary and Love Actually, the show is brought to you by the same people — which explains the presence of Notting Hill’s Emma Chambers, who quietly steals every scene she’s in as the church’s dim-witted verger.
Fox was planning on an American remake, starring Kirstie Alley, as a “former wild child who returned to her hometown as the first female minister,” but it never got picked up.
6. Peep Show
Peep Show, while brilliant, actually creeps me out like no other. Something to me about the mise en scene and filming from the characters’ is like Todd Solondz on crack, and being inside these characters’ fucked-up heads makes me deeply uncomfortable. Peep Show is like something out of R. Crumb’s wet dreams, and like the equally weird Little Britain (which I have a mixed opinion of), I’m not sure how they get away with it on TV. It helps that, despite its low ratings, the show is ludicrously acclaimed, winning The Guardian’s honor of best sitcom of the decade. With that kind of praise, you can do anything you want.
Peep Show is cynical, strange and dark, and if they ever got an American version off the ground, I’d love to see what Terry Zwigoff (director of Ghost World and Bad Santa) would do with it. I don’t know if I could sit through the cringe-worthiness of that endeavor, but I’d love to try.
7. Are You Being Served?
Over the years, Are You Being Served? has become a PBS mainstay in the U.S., even though most people I know aren’t even aware it’s on. I grew up on AYBS?, as my mother is obsessed with all things British and all things Mrs. Slocumb. (I think she’s going to become her one day.) For a teenager obsessed with Monty Python, the barely controlled absurdity of Mrs. Slocumb and her crew appealed to my sensibilities. It was the perfect mix of the highbrow and the very, very low.
8-10: Black Books, Friday Night Dinner and Green Wing
I grouped these together for two reasons: 1) I haven’t seen Green Wing yet and I wanted to look cool 2) Everything Tamsin Grieg is in is spectacular. The Meryl Streep of British sitcoms, Grieg seems to be in every other show these days (including the underrated Showtime comedy, Episodes), and there’s a reason for it. Not only is she an incredibly versatile comedienne, she also has terrific taste in projects — from the offbeat humor of Friday Night Dinner (which has a touch of Curb Your Enthusiasm in it) to the wonderfully dry Black Books. I’m convinced Grieg can do anything, maybe even play Bob Dylan in a movie. I’d watch that.
Although Black Books is no longer with us, you can find Green Wing and Friday Night Dinners online. Green Wing is even conveniently available on Hulu, so I’m not sure why I haven’t watched it yet. I have some life evaluating to do. I need to get my priorities straight.
11. The Office
Sure, you’ve seen the American remake — which turned out to be a surprisingly fresh take on the original and outshined it in a couple ways — but fans of the U.S. version must check out the source material. That jello + stapler joke will make a whole lot more sense in context.
Extra Credit: If you haven’t seen Ricky Gervais’ HBO show Extras yet, the Kate Winslet episode is one of my favorite episodes of anything ever. In it, Winslet (who plays herself) spills her theory that if you play in a Holocaust movie, you will win an Oscar. This was before she won an Oscar for playing a sexy Nazi cougar in The Reader. Clearly the Academy has a sense of humor — or didn’t renew their HBO subscriptions.
12-15: The Hour, Call the Midwife, Sherlock and Luther
Because a lot of these programs aren’t on anymore, I thought I’d plug some of the things you could actually watch on BBC America, especially heavily underrated dramas like Call the Midwife — whose theme song Carly Rae Jepsen needs to sing. Call the Midwife should please fans of Mad Men and Life on Mars, as it mixes high drama with a stylish period aesthetic, and The Wire devotees should check out Luther and The Hour to see McNulty and Stringer Bell speak in their actual accents. Forewarning: For anyone who hasn’t heard Idris Elba’s British accent, it’s kind of jarring. And incredibly panty-dropping.
And if you haven’t seen Sherlock yet — despite Tumblr’s insistence that you check it out — you need to get there before Star Trek: Into Darkness. The handsomely named Benedict Cumberbatch is about to become a huge star in the U.S., and you’re going to want to say you got there first.