Over the past few years, British TV shows have started making it big in America. While once our best TV was remade for U.S. audiences, now (largely, thanks to coproductions and global streaming services) programs like Fleabag, Catastrophe, Broadchurch, and Downton Abbey have won Emmys and huge ratings in the states. Plus, as Brit TV actors like Olivia Colman and Jodie Comer have crossed over in megahits like The Crown and Killing Eve, the early shows they made have gained cult status across the pond, too. (Watch Peep Show if you haven’t already.)
But that’s just a taste of what we’ve got. There’s so much more very good British stuff to explore—in fact, there are loads of U.K. TV deep cuts that have made it to the U.S. And what better time to delve into them than right now, while many of us have to stay in 24/7? Here we’ve rounded up some gems that you can watch in the U.S.—spanning from critically acclaimed programs to shows that are so bad they’re good. There are warm-hearted campy reality series; a period drama that’s more like Desperate Housewives than an Austen adaptation; a spy show that launched the careers of David Oyelowo, Keeley Hawes, and Matthew Macfadyen; and sitcoms, thrillers, and quite a few mockumentaries. The Office was originally ours, after all.
Don’t Tell the Bride (2007-present)
Available to stream on Tubi
A bride stands scowling on a pig farm, heels sinking into the mud. Her groom looks confused. “You love pigs, though!” he exclaims. She shakes her head. Their wedding’s made official. Then he tries (and fails) to attempt the Guinness World Record for the largest parade of pigs.
This is the climax of one of the best episodes of Don’t Tell the Bride, a British reality show where couples are given around $13,000 toward their wedding, the only catch being that the groom has to plan it all in secret. It’s aired on U.K. TV for 13 years—first on BBC Three, then BBC One and then E4—and is British formatted TV at its best: chaotic, but joyfully so.
There’s an episode where a groom decides to hold the wedding underwater (despite the bride spending four hours in hair and makeup). There’s a Men in Black–themed wedding, a Neighbours one. … The very best though? An infamous episode where the groom decides to have the wedding in Vegas and tells the bride—via DVD—that she can have only six guests. If you’re looking for escapist TV (and who isn’t right now?) this is Grade A stuff. Just make sure you avoid the ill-advised U.S. season released in 2011.
Available to stream on BritBox
Apparently the original concept for MI-5 (called Spooks in the U.K.) was something like “big-budget American-style drama but about British spies.” In reality, that brief plays out as a glimpse inside the secret service, without the clipped accents, stuffy lines, or glamorous trips to casinos presented in classics like Bond.
Instead it follows a bunch of young, hot agents fighting to keep the U.K. (and the world) safe from harm—no matter the moral cost for them. It’s “MI-5—not 9 to 5,” as the show’s tagline goes, and that means high-octane action sequences, a lot of ill-advised shagging and double-crossing, and references to real-world events.
Ex-spies fed the show story lines, and scripts were often reworked at the last minute to keep them news-relevant. The vibe: unnervingly real but also … sexy.
Spooks’ major strength, though? Its casting. It was headed up by Matthew Macfadyen, who went on to play Mr. Darcy in the Keira Knightley–led Pride and Prejudice and, more recently, Tom Wambsgans in Succession. He was joined by Bodyguard’s Keeley Hawes, Selma’s David Oyelowo, Code Black star Raza Jaffrey, and BBC stalwarts Peter Firth and Nicola Walker.
Fresh Meat (2011-16)
Seasons 2 through 4 available to stream on Amazon Prime
There are vast numbers of movies and TV shows about American colleges. But U.K. higher education? Not so much. Our universities only ever really seem to make it on screen in scenes where posh/smart people do posh/smart-people things at Oxford/Cambridge. Meanwhile, the Jägerbombing, misjudged-vintage-dressing, Super Noodle–packed reality of the U.K. university experience goes largely untouched.
The sitcom Fresh Meat changed that. Made by Succession’s Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, the show follows a bunch of freshers at a fictional uni who, after applying late, are forced into a grotty shared house off campus. The group—which includes comedian Jack Whitehall as a port-chugging posho, Kimberley Nixon (Cranford) and Joe Thomas (The Inbetweeners) as a star-crossed couple, Charlotte Ritchie (Call the Midwife) as a naive student who’s seeing her tutor, and playwright Zawe Ashton as the scene-stealing free spirit Vod—become unlikely friends, and loads of gross-out comedy ensues. If jokes about “munching old-man knob,” dodgy pills, and the “Apocolash” are your thing, this will be too.
The Only Way Is Essex (2010-present)
Available to stream on Amazon Prime
Imagine The Hills. Now imagine that instead of starring serious, beachy-haired Californians, the series focuses on a group of friends who’d all make the Love Island finale. Then imagine that, instead of it being set in a big city like L.A., it’s shot in a British suburb, and that producers are as likely to focus on a new couple getting a pet micro-pig as they are to follow bust-ups in the town’s (seemingly only) club. Well done: You’ve imagined The Only Way Is Essex, the campiest, funniest, fluffiest scripted reality show on British TV.
Made by the company behind long-running youth soap Hollyoaks, the show first aired in 2010 and has since screened for a massive 25 seasons. It’s pumped out catchphrases—see: “well jeal” and “reem”—made vajazzling mainstream, and birthed many, many tanned and hair-sprayed stars, including former footballer Mark Wright (who now presents Extra in the U.S.) and his sausage-plait-baking grandma Nanny Pat (RIP), although your faves will be Gemma “The GC” Collins, who now has a spinoff show called Diva Forever, and Ken doll–looking Joey Essex. Yes, his surname really is Essex.
Line of Duty (2012-present)
Ever heard a Brit exclaim, “There’s only one thing I’m interested in, and that’s catching bent coppers” apropos of nothing? You’ve unknowingly been in the presence of a Line of Duty fan. Made by the team behind The Bodyguard (before they produced the smash-hit thriller), it’s a BBC police drama that follows anticorruption unit AC-12 as it tackles crimes committed within the force.
It’s a fever-dream, fast-paced show. Each episode might feature several deaths, a car chase, an inappropriate affair, someone getting their finger cut off, someone getting their head flushed down the toilet, and then some more deaths just for fun. And yet, it’s actually cozy viewing. That might be because it stars British TV faves like Neil Morrissey (Men Behaving Badly) and Vicky McClure (This Is England). It might also be because the whole thing’s just adorably wonky. Huge plot holes, wild camera angles (at one point we see a bird’s-eye view of a trip to the pub), and joyfully bad dialogue—everyone’s constantly shouting “ya bent bastard” and “God give me strength”—add to the fun of the series. In fact, the show’s built such a following that there’s even a drinking game. It’s a show for spending Saturday nights shrieking at the screen with a glass of wine and your friends.
People Just Do Nothing (2014-18)
Available to stream on Netflix
When it comes to comedy, there are two things Brits do very well: (1) mockumentaries and (2) dopey, delusional male characters. See: David Brent, Del Boy, and Partridge. If they’re your jam, then it’s highly likely you’ll fall in love with People Just Do Nothing. The show was created by a bunch of schoolmates who used to meet up to smoke weed, watch The Office, and take the piss out of people in the London pirate radio scene they were part of. They started posting improv videos on YouTube, pretending to be the team behind a fake station called Kurupt FM—loveable doofuses MC Grindah, DJ Beats, DJ Steves, and their manager, Chabuddy G (whom you should follow on Instagram).
In a moment that almost feels like a TV story line itself, those videos were spotted by Ash Atalla, a former producer of their beloved Office, and the lads bagged a pilot on BBC Three. It was the most shared show on the BBC’s streaming service in July of 2012.
Since then, the Kurupt lads have done five series, shot in Peckham and South Acton, and won the BAFTA for best scripted comedy show. Plus, the fake radio station now has real cultural impact: The lads have released compilation albums, played Glastonbury, and arguably had a large part to play in Craig David’s comeback. There’s even a movie on its way.
This Country (2017-20)
Available to stream on Hulu
As if to really hammer home the “Brits excel at making good mockumentaries” agenda, This Country is also a good mockumentary. Like People Just Do Nothing, it’s made by actors/writers who were discovered on YouTube. This time, it’s siblings Daisy May and Charlie Cooper, who started writing the show after quitting university and heading home to the Cotswolds.
It follows a pair of oddball cousins (played by May and Cooper) as they go about their lives in an isolated village. They enter the town scarecrow-making competition, get embroiled in pyramid schemes, and parade around celebrating the death of a woodworking teacher they hated. There’s even a joke about Daisy May’s dad playing pool with real-life serial killer Fred West. Basically, it’s a banal, strange, silly, and heartfelt comedy that’s authentic to the weird eccentricities and loneliness of being a young working-class person in the British countryside.
It was originally picked up as a coproduction by ITV and NBC, but apparently the pilot was “horrendous.” Now it has a home on BBC Three.
Available to stream on Hulu
This kooky sitcom had a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it run on Channel 4 between 1999 and 2001, but it’s impact was expansive. In fact, if you’re into nerdy British stuff, this is the origin story for many of your faves. It follows strangers Tim, a brokenhearted comic book artist, and Daisy, an aspiring writer, who decide to pretend to be a professional couple to bag a good deal on a London flat. The result is, rather surprisingly, a series full of references to horror and sci-fi movies, Robot Wars, and chaos theory.
Yes, it might sound like a script you’d find on a particularly geeky Reddit forum, but it’s actually very good, and that’s largely due to the team behind it. First, it was directed by Edgar Wright, who went on to do Baby Driver and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Second, it had Jessica Hynes (Edith Lyons from smash hit show Years and Years) in it. And third, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost—the pair behind zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead and cop spoof Hot Fuzz—were on the writing team as well as in the cast. In fact one episode sees Tim (Pegg) hallucinate a zombie attack after playing Resident Evil while high on cheap speed. It ended up being the inspiration for Shaun of the Dead.
Desperate Romantics (2009)
If you like your period dramas horny and not totally historically accurate, try Desperate Romantics. A BBC Two six-parter from 2009, it follows the Pre–Raphaelite Brotherhood (the Victorian artist collective that painted all the ginger women) as they navigate complicated love lives and rising fame. Most important to know, though: It stars a floppy-haired Aidan Turner, before he was Poldark. He plays cocky, flirty Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the Mick Jagger of the Brotherhood, alongside Rafe Spall (The Big Short) as an often topless William Holman Hunt and Samuel Barnett as John Millais.
We see them strut around Victorian London, breaking hearts and seeking muses, in what can be described only as a certified romp. The whole thing’s based on a factual book—Desperate Romantics: The Private Lives of the Pre-Raphaelites by Franny Moyle—although reviewers of the show were quick to point out that it plays fast and loose with the truth. But who cares? Facts are irrelevant when you’re serving up a heady mix of big-budget period costumes, British heartthrobs, and a vibe that was described at the time as “Entourage with easels.” Spicy.
Man Like Mobeen (2017)
Available to stream on Netflix
The very first episode of Man Like Mobeen opens with Eight (Tez Ilyas) telling his friends Mobeen and Nate that he bought a bin bag off a man in the street that supposedly contains a laptop. What’s actually in it is a dead cat. “I didn’t get a receipt!” he sighs, as his mates rinse him. “So I can’t take it back. I don’t know how to get rid of it.”
The comedy series, about inner-city life in Birmingham, was created by former teacher Guz Khan. Khan also plays the titular role of Mobeen, a Muslim character who’s attempting to live a good life, look after his little sister, Aks (Dúaa Karim), and move on from his criminal past. The first season is only four episodes long, but it’s very, very funny, with a smart-silly tone that can swing from buying a “dead cat in a bin bag” to spearing police prejudice within minutes.
The show’s cowritten by Andy Milligan, the full-time writer of British presenting duo Ant and Dec, but it’s Khan who’s the star. The actor/writer’s only been out of teaching five years (in fact, he’s spoken about having to dash out of class to do press interviews in the past), but Mobeen won him so many fans that he starred in Netflix’s Turn Up Charlie, alongside Idris Elba, and Mindy Kaling’s TV take on Four Weddings and a Funeral last year.
Available to stream on BritBox (although just watch Season 1)
Liar came out during a time when the U.K. was pumping out new social-issue-infused crime thrillers like the country needed weekly cliffhangers to survive. It’s arguably the soapiest of the bunch (a compliment—especially during this particular brain-melting period of history) and was talking-point TV when it first aired on ITV in 2017.
The setup is that a heartbroken schoolteacher goes on a date with a charming surgeon, and when she wakes up the next day she’s convinced she’s been raped. He denies it. Her history’s dragged into it. The audience is left to figure out who’s telling the truth.
The six-episode series (don’t bother with Season 2) was made by Harry and Jack Williams, the executive producers of Fleabag and the writers of another good thriller, The Missing, which explores child abduction.
Expect dramatic shots of bleak marshes, melodramatic plot twists, and a script that asks topical questions about the way society functions—plus Joanne Froggatt, who plays Anna Bates on Downton Abbey, in gut-wrenching form.
Feel Good (2020)
Available to stream on Netflix
Brits like our TV romances like we like our sex: funny, painfully sad, and broken up into 30-minute chunks. It’s a vibe that worked for Fleabag and Catastrophe, and it’s now working for Feel Good. The Channel 4 show came out in March and was written by Canadian stand-up comic Mae Martin. It follows two women: Mae (played by Martin), a comedian who’s trying to deal with addiction problems, and George (played by Fresh Meat’s Charlotte Ritchie), who’s never been on a date with a girl before and feels very awkward about it.
The semiautobiographical series is streaming on Netflix in the U.S. and falls pretty neatly into the network’s glossy rom-com bracket—imagine it nestled between Master of None and Love in the archives.
Mae and George’s story starts with instant chemistry and loved-up one-liners like Mae describing George as the “dangerous Mary Poppins” to her “Bart Simpson.” Then it veers off into darker, sharper territory.
We watch as George tries to keep the relationship from her friends, at one point hiding Mae in a cupboard. We see Mae struggle with addiction and committing to Narcotics Anonymous. And we delve into the impact of the toxic relationship Mae has with her mum (Lisa Kudrow). It’s a raw, personal, and heart-wrenching look at love between two flawed characters. And it delves into some of the biggest talking points of modern life while it’s at it. Why just laugh when you can laugh and cry, eh?