Forgive me for sounding like your junior-year roommate who went abroad to London and came back with an enduring fake British accent and a love of beans on toast, but all of my favorite shows this year were ones that originally aired across the pond.
Before you call me Madonna circa 2003, consider all the shows that have popped up on our American networks and streaming services this year: The Night Manager, Chewing Gum, The Great British Baking Show, Catastrophe Season 2. I’m not saying that any of these shows were necessarily better than any of our American-made television offerings (well, maybe Chewing Gum is better than anything), but their availability only helped enhance, fill in, and contribute to what was already an embarrassingly fantastic year of television.
That should not go unrewarded. So in the spirit of international diplomacy and general respect for a job well done, we now present the Best in British TV Imports. Cheers, pip pip, etc.
The Most Comforting Food-Related Hour on TV: ‘The Great British Baking Show’
Somewhere we Americans got it wrong with our cooking competitions; the stakes are too high. From Top Chef to Throwdown! With Bobby Flay, it’s all screaming and swearing and food bursting into flames and egos and too much salt — especially with those little chef jerks on MasterChef Junior. I know: the bigger the drama, the higher the ratings. But it’s my belief that anything related to food and feeding should be as soothing as watching your grandmother prepare your favorite pie just for you.
That’s why The Great British Baking Show is such a gem. It’s still a competition, sure, but it’s a British competition, which means it’s reserved and charming, with a nice dose of soothing countryside. Mary Berry roams around and purrs at people, and most of the drama is centered around “Will my jelly roll set?” or “Oh, will my meringue stiffen in time?” No one ever seems to sweat. It’s perfect.
The Best Miniseries You Can Brag About Having Watched: ‘The Night Manager’
This moody, slow-burning series — like its brethren The Night Of or the second season of Serial — took some perseverance to finish. But if you stuck through all six episodes of BBC One’s (as shown on AMC) Tom Hiddleston spy show, you had several bragging points to whip out again and again throughout the second half of 2016: (1) You saw Tom Hiddleston’s butt. (2) You are intimately acquainted with a John le Carré work. (3) You watched a show with Hugh Laurie on it. Add those three things together and you have demonstrably highbrow tastes, which you are allowed to rub in everyone’s face. Did The Night Of give you that? No, you just had to participate in extended discussions about severe eczema.
The Best Unlikable Heroine You Still Like: ‘Fleabag’
If Carrie Bradshaw’s Sex and the City columns had been as interesting as Fleabag’s inner monologues, we never would have had to switch to Team Miranda. Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s character Fleabag is the romantic heroine I’ve always wanted: foul, kinky, uncompromising, free. She is a woman who enjoys sex and is willing to talk about butt stuff, but who also takes the time to honestly engage with the shame and uncertainty she feels being as sexually enlightened and in charge of her own destiny as she is. The beauty of Fleabag is that by the time you realize the character has actually been a pretty wretched, selfish (but it’s complicated!) human, you still can’t help but root for her. Try telling that to Season 5 Carrie B.
The Best “I’m Going to Get Mine No Matter What” Inspiration: ‘Chewing Gum’
Michaela Coel wrote and stars in this totally weird but absolutely delightful comedy about Tracey, a black, Christian shopgirl who one day decides it’s time to invoke Beyoncé and get hers. What follows is an awkward, messy, heartwarming romp through all the mishaps involved with latent sexual awakening: a breakup with a sexually repressed devout boyfriend, an accidental dose of MDMA, an attempted threesome, and oh-so-many conversations about what a penis actually looks like. Chewing Gum is Fleabag’s lighter, perkier counterpart, but it’s got a similar heart — a woman refusing to be ashamed of her desire to have sex, no matter the cost. (And apparently, the cost involves Googling “dirty girl” for instructions.) Let Tracy be an inspiration to you all this cuffing season.
The Best Show That Proves Brits Are Better at Love Than We Are, Pt. 1: ‘Catastrophe’
Forget the Jennings and the Dunphys and the Simpsons: the only truly good marriage on television right now is that of Sharon Morris and Rob Norris. “Good” is a simplistic term — their marriage is alternately funny, messy, tense, conflicted, supportive, and entirely dysfunctional, all in the span of 20-some-minute episodes. But still, you envy it because you want the couple to succeed even if you’re not totally sure they should have ever gotten together. I’m certainly glad they did.
The Best Show That Proves That Brits Are Better at Love Than We Are, Pt. 2: ‘Lovesick’
On paper, the central relationship of Lovesick — the will-they-won’t-they chemistry between Dylan and Evie — seems like just another boring Friends spinoff. Yes, an ensemble show following 20-somethings in London as they try to find their soulmates is a traditional setup, but the show formerly known as Scrotal Recall steeps that premise in modern-day anxieties without abusing online dating references — a major feat. More importantly, in a TV landscape devoid of any star-crossed lovers who aren’t Olivia Pope and Fitz (barf), Lovesick has stepped in to give us a couple to really stan for: Dylan and Evie, an interracial couple with the most timelessly and addictively frustrating pacing since Jim and Pam (also an invention of the Brits, FWIW).
The Best Show That Really Feels Like It’s British, but It’s Technically American, but That Feels Wrong So I’m Considering It British Because It’s the Most British Show: ‘The Crown’
Yes, The Crown was made by Netflix, an American company — but truly, Netflix needs no passport, it knows no boundaries or country lines. As such, a show like The Crown, which very easily could have been the best thing the BBC put out this year, is included on our “Imports” list. It’s the most British show here — the rain, the fog, the accents, the preoccupation with royalty, the stately drama, the Churchill, the Haydn, the Mackintoshes and the O-levels. At the very least, grant this show dual citizenship.
Thank you England, for all that you have done. I sorely apologize for the day Divorce is exported to you.
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly referred to the star of Chewing Gum as Michaela Cole; the correct spelling is Coel.