British Invasion

While my feelings about the Olympics haven’t changed – if anything they have intensified once I realized that they bumped my beloved Jimmy Fallon off the air – I do have a tiny twinge of regret that I’m missing all the beautiful shots of London. I’ve never actually been to England, unless you want to count a brief layover at Heathrow on my way to Prague, but it is high on my list of places that I want to visit in the near future. I’m a bit of a closet Anglophile; I’m a total sucker for most things British. I woke up early to watch the Royal Wedding last year after a late night of watching the NFL draft (I’d like to see the Venn diagram of the people who watched both of those things – I’m guessing there wasn’t much overlap in audiences). I watched the rainy Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. I used to know quite a bit about British pop music and I read a lot of historical fiction about England (especially the Tudors – I find that time period especially fascinating). Introduce me to a man with a British accent and I’m swooning a bit on the inside. I like the slang. I like the tea. I like their beer and pubs. I like the history. Though most people know that I am Polish, I’m proud that I can also lay claim to a British heritage. I’m not saying I would have been Tory during the American Revolutionary War, but slap an English flag on something and I’m probably going to give it more than a second look.

Of course, this extends to my television viewing habits as well. Thanks to BBC America, I’m able to enjoy many of the same programs that they enjoy across the pond. I didn’t realize just how many British shows I actually watch until I sat down and thought about it; it’s not a staggering number, but it’s probably way more than the average person who claims U.S. citizenship. Beyond the fact that they are well done and enjoyable, there are two main elements that contribute to my enjoyment of British imports. The first is their length; while the average season for an American show is around 22 episodes on the networks and 13 episodes for cable, the seasons are much shorter in England. It is not unusual for a season to be only six episodes. While this seems very short, it eliminates a lot of the fluff and filler that goes into stretching out a show and makes it much easier to take a chance on a new program as your time commitment is going to be pretty minimal.

The other aspect that I like is that the people on British shows tend to look like actual people, rather than having a cast that more closely resembles supermodels. This is not to say that the people on the programs are unattractive (though some are), but they look more natural and there is much more diversity in the appearances and nationalities of the actors. Everyone doesn’t look like the just walked off the runway before coming to work and I appreciate the authenticity. It’s nice to be reminded that the majority of the world is pretty average looking. I’m sure that there are exceptions to this, but in my viewing experience it holds true.

While there are many British programs to choose from, these are the ones that I would most recommend and that are/were a part of my regular viewing rotation. I’m not the only one who thinks that they are great; many of these shows have been or will be remade for American audiences.

  • The Office – Purists will argue that it is vastly superior to the U.S. version, but I think that they both have their virtues. Michael Scott wound up being a very different character than David Brent (Ricky Gervais) was. If you like the uncomfortable moments on the U.S. The Office, definitely check out the original. One point in the British version’s favor – they knew when to end the show. That’s something their U.S. counterparts have failed at miserably.
  • Being Human – What happens when a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost cohabitate? This is the central premise of Being Human and while it is more in the sci-fi/drama category, there are definitely moments or humor (or should I say humour) in the program. I will admit that I bailed out on this show during the 4th season as I didn’t like the new direction or how weighed down it became in the mythology, but the first three seasons of the show are very solid. I haven’t seen the U.S. version of the show on the SyFy network, so I’m not sure how similar they are. The British actors are a really great, however.
  • The Inbetweeners – This comedy, following four high school friends in the suburbs, is absolutely hilarious and fantastically dirty. The show chronicles their misadventures in trying to meet girls, deal with their families and survive school, where they aren’t exactly the most popular kids. It took me a while to get their slang down, but once I did the show was laugh out loud funny. MTV is planning a version of this show that will debut later this month. I have serious reservations about it, but will give it a try even though I am far too old to be watching anything on MTV.
  • Friday Night Dinner – This is another comedy, featuring one of the actors from The Inbetweeners, that centers around a family’s weekly gathering for dinner on Friday nights, none of which seem to go very smoothly. The parents, especially the father, are absolute loons and the two adult sons are both horrified and amused by them. If you’ve ever had to endure an uncomfortable family gathering (and who hasn’t) there is much to identify with in this show. Only the first season has aired on Channel 4, but NBC attempted to adapt the show for the U.S., featuring Allison Janey and Tony Shalhoub as the parents. Despite that comedic pedigree, the show was not picked up, though the network did green light a comedy featuring a monkey. And they wonder why they are in last place.
  • Luther – I have been an Idris Elba fan since his turn as Stringer Bell on The Wire (say it with me people – “the greatest show of all time.”) I’ve watched a lot of questionable films because of him (Prom Night, The Losers), so there was no doubt that when he was starring in a drama in his native country that I would tune in. Luther is a psychological drama that follows the deeply damaged John Luther (Elba) as he tries to solve murders and keep his demons at bay. The first season is the best, but Elba is really quite compelling as Luther, once you get used to him speaking with an English accent. There is one more season planned, with the hopes of bringing Luther to the big screen after that.
  • Whitechapel – I’ll admit that I have a weird interest (if that is the right word) in serial killers; at one point I thought that I might want to be a criminal profiler. I’m curious about the psychology that makes a person become this kind of monster. Jack the Ripper has always been of particular interest, mostly because of the mystery surrounding his identity. So the British program Whitechapel, in which police investigate a series of murders that recreate those committed by the Ripper, immediately appealed to me. The second and third seasons followed different copycat crimes, but the characters made those cases interesting as well despite my lack of familiarity with the original acts.
  • Downton Abbey – I am among the people who caught Downton Abbey fever over the last two years. Who knew that the story of an affluent family and their servants could so deliciously riveting? I don’t think that season two was as big of a step down in quality as some people, though I admit that it wasn’t quite as much fun. But anything that brings Maggie Smith into my living room as the Dowager Countess on a weekly basis has already paid its worth in gold.
  • The IT Crowd – While everyone else is watching the Olympics, I’m spending my time catching up on this British comedy about the dorky guys that work in the IT department of a large company. It stars Chris O’Dowd, who had gotten more exposure in the states from his roles in Bridesmaids, Friends with Kids and Girls. I have one season left to go, but the show is really funny. It reminds me a little bit of The Big Bang Theory, right down to its use of an annoying laugh track.

Honorable mention goes to Dr. Who, a show that I know many people love but that I just couldn’t get into when I tried it. I just don’t understand why this program generates the level of obsession that I’ve seen (I know, I know – pot meet kettle). I have vague memories of the earlier Doctors, especially the one who wore the scarf, as my uncles were fans of the show, but I just didn’t enjoy it very much when I tuned in as an adult. Perhaps I jumped in at the wrong point – there is a lot of history with the show that I just found way too overwhelming.

So if your thirst for all things British is increased after watching the Olympic Games, I’d recommend checking out any of these programs. There is more to British programming than Benny Hill and Mr. Bean.

Got any suggestions for other British programming to check out? Leave it in the comments.