Now that Downton Abbey is over, here are five British TV shows to help you to get your Anglophilia on—shows that are even better than Downton.
Note: This is not an all-time best British shows list, it is a list of current shows. For the five shows that nearly made this cut, check out our previous lineup here:
5. Outlander (Starz)
If it weren’t for Outlander, Poldark would probably occupy this high spot on the list as the top bosom-busting romance on television.
But Outlander is equal parts Rob Roy and Harlequin Romance. Its plot concerns a “modern” nurse, Claire (circa 1946), mysteriously transported back in time to the kilt-wearing days of the Jacobite rising in Scotland. On her arrival, she is assaulted by Black Jack Randall, a Redcoat who is a dead ringer for her 1946 husband, and rescued by Jamie, an impossibly hunky young Scot, who in short order becomes her 1700s husband.
Outlander is a big budget, spectacularly filmed romantic adventure, but don’t make the mistake of thinking this is would have any place on the Hallmark Channel. Outlander has a dark, dark, dark side.
Good examples of the swings in tone are the two most talked about episodes. One is Claire’s wedding night with Jamie, which, besides its pay cable-level of explicitness, manages to be a sweet and revealing revelation of the souls of the two characters. The other is a memorable, excruciating night-long interrogation of Jamie by the sadistic Black Jack that will have even the most jaded viewer wincing.
4. Dr. Who (BBC America)
Quite possibly the most pro-life adventure show in the history of television, this updating of the cult classic BBC television show was catapulted from geek turf to mainstream entertainment by the ingenious writing team of Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat (who were also responsible for our next classic update for BBC).
The adventures of the time-traveling humanoid alien with two hearts (extra heart being a proper symbol for this show) who runs around averting global disaster in an old-fashioned English police call box, is best describe as the personification of joie de vivre.
The Doctor, who stays timeless by regenerating bodies periodically, has been played by Christopher Eccleston (28 Days Later), David Tennant (Broadchurch), Matt Smith (The Crown), and is currently played by veteran British TV actor Peter Capaldi in a slightly older, crankier Scottish incarnation. His charming female sidekicks have been Billie Piper (Penny Dreadful), Freema Agyeman (Law and Order UK), Karen Gillan (Guardians of the Galaxy), and Jenna Coleman (Victoria).
I’ll leave it to the geeks to argue who was the best and the best pairing. I love ‘em all.
3. Sherlock (Masterpiece, PBS)
With the announcement of a planned Season 4, this supremely clever update of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, which brought Benedict Cumberbatch to American fame, and continued Martin Freeman’s march to iconoclasm (Dr. Watson, The Hobbit, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Fargo, the original The Office), takes a place near the top of this list.
Few other Holmes adaptations, even those which are straight up adaptations of Conan Doyle have been as successful at capturing the spirit and ingenuity of the original stories; and no attempt at an update comes anywhere near matching this show (the American show Elementary started well and has a great cast, but now has Holmes and Watson doing rudimentary police work catching rather ordinary criminals).
A bonus reason that Season 4 is welcome news is that it means we may be able to wash from our minds the completely awful Christmas Special, The Abominable Bride, and that it will not be the last time we see these great actors in these iconic roles.
2. Indian Summers (Masterpiece, PBS)
If you binged on Downton Abbey, you simply must watch Indian Summers, which is quite possibly the most gorgeously filmed series in the history of television—and whose characters have much more at stake than the mostly self-inflicted troubles of the Granthams.
Set in the 1930s turbulent twilight of the British Raj, Indian Summers is set in the city of Shimla in the foothills of the Himalayas where the Brits moved their government in the summers to escape the heat. The story centers around the character of Ralph Whelan, who is the chief assistant to the aging Viceroy of India, (which makes him the head bureaucrat who really runs things) and who hopes to succeed his boss.
Much of the drama comes from his top Indian aide, Aafrin Dalal, a brilliant young man who is starting to chafe at the class system imposed by both the British and his own people. He also loves Ralph’s sister, Alice, who is hiding out in India to escape her abusive husband back home. But they are hardly the only ones to provide cross-cultural drama in this series, which is populated by intrigue and intriguing characters.
Holding it all together is the great Julie Walters, who plays the constantly scheming owner of the ex-pat club that is the social center of the summer capital.
Indian Summers is completely captivating, fast moving, and quite brilliant.
Back to the look of Indian Summers. You can literally pause the show at nearly any moment and decide that what you are looking at would be a great still shot for show promotional purposes. This is nearly perfect television.
1. The Last Kingdom (Netflix)
If Vikings is just too gruesome for you (and it was a downer for me to find out the ancestors my grandmother bragged about were basically ISIS with different gods) then check out The Last Kingdom.
Based on the Saxon novels by the great Bernard Cornwell (most famous for the Sharpe novels about the Napoleonic Wars) this series also covers the Viking incursion into Britain—but gives you someone to root for, even if at times he is so bullheaded and impetuous that he makes Poldark seem compliant.
The Last Kingdom could be considered a sequel to Vikings, as the sons of the legendary (possibly mythical) Viking warrior Ragnar Lothbrok (the main character in Vikings) factor in the battles for northern England.
The protagonist of The Last Kingdom is Uhtred, the orphaned son of a Saxon king, who was captured and raised as a Viking by the invaders who settled and farmed the land. When his adoptive father is killed by a rival Viking clan, Uhtred becomes as torn between the two worlds as the land of his birth is.
It can be a bit confusing to watch both Vikings and The Last Kingdom—as historical British characters make appearances in both, as do the power struggles among those Saxons—because the shows have different points of view on each of them.
But because its main character cares about more than pillage, The Last Kingdom gets the nod over Vikings. This is a handsomely mounted, and thrilling coming of age story. And you might even learn something.
Now that writer/producer Stephen Butchard has proven he can bring Bernard Cornwell novels to life, it would be great to see the Richard Sharpe series done with the budget it deserves—but replacing Sean Bean? That would be a feat.