America’s longtime portal into British TV, PBS’s venerable Masterpiece, vaulted into water cooler-worthy television again with the Downton Abbey phenomenon (the obsession with it even took down a goofy U.S. congressman!).
But how has Masterpiece fared since the departure of Lord Grantham and his clan? Pretty well, in fact. Maybe even well enough to momentarily put off the question of, “Since we have BBC America, why do we need PBS?” (Though it shouldn’t.)
This fall, Masterpiece brought its audience no three broadly entertaining, but still high-class, dramas to take the place of Downton. Not shabby at all.
But what about the other Brit offerings on the American telly? Here is a rundown of five fabulous British TV shows American viewers will love. To be included, the shows must be in current production or have future shows planned. Come back soon for a list of five more shows you’ll enjoy.
Also, shows like The Fall or Broadchurch, which had devastatingly good early seasons, but whose return engagements were muddled exercises in trying to repeat past glory, have been left off this list.
First up, one of the more prestigious shows in Masterpiece’s Sunday lineup
5. The Durrells in Corfu (Masterpiece, PBS)
Let’s start with Masterpiece’s opening act for one of the more prestigious shows in its super Sunday lineup.
Far more deft than its clumsy title, The Durrells in Corfu tells the story of an English widow, circa 1936, who moves her rambunctious four children to the beautiful, but off-the-grid, Greek island of Corfu because her widow’s pension will go farther.
But despite the year, Hitler has yet to cast a shadow on this rustic paradise; the Durrells’ problems are related to survival and assimilation.
The mother, after ten years of widowhood, is stirred by her ruggedly handsome neighbor, a mysteriously introspective Swedish farmer who works a lot with his shirt off. The family also includes an eldest son who fancies himself the next great English writer (which doesn’t contribute much to the larder), a daughter whose only skill seems to be flirting, another son who, with no male influence, seems to be searching for manhood by shooting everything in sight, and a youngest boy who makes their home into a virtual zoo with his passion for nature.
Brisk, funny, and utterly charming (but not cloyingly whimsical), this is a family drama you haven’t seen before and is worth checking out.
Next: Six seasons of Royals
4. The Crown (Netflix)
I had my doubts about this one. A six-season look at the life of a peacetime British monarch? No beheadings or burnings at the stake?
But Peter Morgan, who also produced The Queen with Helen Mirren, has his Elizabeth II narrative down pat; and so far, so (mostly) good.
Beginning with the last days of her father, the stuttering George VI, who led Britain through WWII, and coinciding with the return of Winston Churchill as prime minister, The Crown gets off to a great start.
The story of a young woman unexpectedly thrust into the position of dealing with perhaps the greatest leader of the 20th century as her subject is, well, an intriguing subject. As are the ruminations on monarchy in the modern age, and the sudden demotion of her husband, Prince Philip (Dr. Who’s Matt Smith), to the position of sidekick.
This is all fodder for good drama in the skillful hands of Morgan and company. But there are warning signs. By Episode 4, Morgan is inventing characters, and probably overdoing the political intrigue in his depiction of The Great Smog, a catastrophic weather/environmental event in which freak conditions created a killer fog that resulted in the deaths of around 4,000 Londoners.
I also seriously doubt that Philip was so consumed with the emasculating nature of his role that he would lobby the queen to make him coronation chair while the bishop was literally giving her grandmother’s eulogy.
And there is the occasional anachronism, as in Episode 8, when Elizabeth hires a tutor (not a Tudor) to fill in the gaps of her education, which was largely about her duties under the Constitution and etiquette. In 1953, this genius of a man she hired already knew about Eisenhower’s 1961 farewell address that mentioned the “military-industrial complex.”
But for the most part, this drama is magnificently staged and well imagined—and so well cast that the actors may replace the real life characters’ images in the minds of viewers, despite John Lithgow being about eight inches taller than Churchill. And the episode dealing with Churchill’s retirement is superb.
Next page: A full-blooded passionate period romance…
3. Poldark (Masterpiece, PBS)
The third BBC imagining of Winston Graham’s popular novels was the charm for me. This full-blooded, great-looking and passionate period romance is wildly entertaining, even in its less logical moments.
Ross Poldark is a soldier who returns from fighting for England in the American Revolution after being reported dead. He finds his family home a shambles, the family business at a standstill, and the love of his life about to marry his cousin.
One of the more unique things about Poldark is that much of the conflict comes between business competitors and pays attention to the actual business practices of the time, like capital markets and the like. Also, having a hero who is landed gentry (even if impoverished and a rebel against the class system) and a villain who is from a family of entrepreneurs (even if a bit crooked) is still a twist on the theme.
Ross Poldark is no perfect white knight, either. He is arrogant, impetuous, and likes to lecture on principles—but in a dark moment, violates the one that should be the most precious to him.
And if the “scullery maid” he marries isn’t the grown-up version of the girl in Pixar’s underrated Brave…
Don’t miss the realistic drama about marriage on the next page
2. Catastrophe (Amazon Prime)
The setup sounds simple enough: a handsome yank meets an attractive Irish lass working in London, and pregnancy ensues, leading to all sorts of amusing life adjustments.
But the real joy in this raunchy sitcom is the complete believability of the two leads as a couple. They aren’t just sexy, they are intimate. There is a difference. And it shows through good times and bad—in times when they can’t get enough of each other, and interludes when they can’t stand the sight of each other. Like real people.
The supporting characters, however, are more stock comedy troupe fodder—but they are funny. In a time with no The Office or Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Catastrophe is the funniest British comedy going right now.
Next? A crime drama that will remind you of Fargo
1. Happy Valley (Netflix)
The chief instigator of the central crime in the first season of the British crime drama Happy Valley really should have watched Fargo. Then he would have known that kidnapping the boss’ daughter because you’re piqued over money really never goes as antiseptically as planned.
But the plot is not the main thing in Happy Valley, whose setting is a small Yorkshire town in northern England. (It would have to be small indeed because of the way all the cases tie together—though Blue Bloods fans certainly won’t complain.)
In Happy Valley, character is the thing, and these are great characters, both good and bad, oozing humanity from every line.
While the bad guys may hearken to Fargo, in both the plot and foibles, the female cop pursuing them is no Marge Gunderson. Sergeant Catherine Cawood (the magnificent Sarah Lancashire) is a crime victim herself, and on the edge when a man who raped her daughter turns out to be the biological father of the grandchild she is raising alone after her daughter’s suicide.
And every so often, American audiences will be reminded just how dangerous it is to be an unarmed cop—particularly for a woman.
That sounds grim—and it sometimes is—but Happy Valley doesn’t wallow in misery. It is a thoroughly binge-able and gripping crime thriller in which every character rings true, making every situation all the more suspenseful.