I’ve often bashed the current state of American television– I can at the moment boast of only two stateside shows I love unconditionally, HBO’s Game of Thrones and the CW’s Reign. Not coincidentally, both shows are costume dramas featuring a lot of British accents (the Thrones cast is predominantly British, and while Reign‘s cast is a mix of Canadian, Australian and British actors that takes place in France, it has a distinctly UK feel). While I’m sure there are exceptions to the rule, most of them on cable and a few I’ve been a casual viewer of, for me American TV kind of died with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and hasn’t recovered in well over a decade, becoming an increasingly slippery slope of competition shows and reality series that either bore me to tears or make me feel somehow ignorant or, worse, dirty for watching at all. Within the last couple of years, I’ve rediscovered my love of the format through the sheer number of British television productions that still get it right, and of which I don’t feel guilty in the least for binge-watching. I’ve decided to catalog some of my favorites here as I’m sure there are many people as disgusted with the idiot box as I was before and a little England might just give them hope too. (On a side note, isn’t it amusing how we keep making Americanizations of British shows that just don’t work? A few caught on, such as The Office, but for the most part the only ones that have lasted are competition shows like X Factor and American Idol, our version of the UK’s Pop Idol.)
This is, of course, the gateway drug. Doctor Who recently celebrated 50 years on the air, though it took a long sabbatical from the late 80’s up to 2005, when the new series began. I’ve been meaning to catch up with classic Who, but keep getting sidetracked by other shows which, while not as famous, are equally as good. Fortunately, previous knowledge of the Whoniverse isn’t a requirement to enjoy the reboot, though it certainly helps with your geek cred. The modern series begins with the Ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) and will continue this fall with the Twelfth (Peter Capaldi). If you’re not familiar with the concept, the Doctor is a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey who believes he was responsible for the destruction of his home world and has the ability to travel nearly anywhere in space and time with the aid of a ship called the TARDIS, which looks exactly like an old police call box due to a dysfunctional chameleon circuit and is bigger on the inside (which is a running joke throughout). He can also regenerate when his body dies, a convention that has made it possible for a number of different actors to portray him over the years, and thanks to the time-traveling nature of the series, makes for some intriguing viewing when the Doctor encounters other versions of himself. Usually accompanied by earthling companions drawn to the adventure of traveling anywhere and anywhen in the universe, he attempts to right wrongs, stop villains, save worlds, and generally keep the timeline on an even keel. The series is addictive fun in the extreme, and has something for everyone: beautifully-rendered battle scenes, formidable baddies, humor, romantic tension (the companions are often female and really, really into him) and amazing acting all around. The actors who have played the Doctor are all excellent; your mileage may vary, but my favorite is Ten (David Tennant), though Eccleston as Nine tends to be underrated, and Matt Smith’s Eleven is probably the most fun. The jury is still out on Twelve, who only had about a minute and a half of screen time in last season’s finale, but I have seen him in other projects and can attest that Capaldi is a fine actor more than capable of filling the shoes. As for the companions, the first one we meet in the reboot, Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) is by far the one with the meatiest story and the best chemistry with the two actors who portray the Doctor opposite her, though Eleven’s companion Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) and her boyfriend/later husband Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill) come close, and others over the course of the series, such as Freema Agyeman’s Martha Jones and Catherine Tate’s Donna Noble, have great moments as well. Current companion Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) has grown on me, and I hope her character is fleshed out a little more in the seasons to come. All in all, the series is a total treat and I wish the new season would hurry up and get here. I could go on all day about the merits of one Doctor over the other, various plotlines, and whether Daleks or Cybermen are scarier, but since this is a composite post, I must refrain. (Sad face)
Torchwood is a Doctor Who spinoff, focusing on sometime companion Captain Jack Harkness, a popular enough character on the original show to rate his own highly watchable series. Set in Cardiff, Wales, it follows the adventures of Harkness as leader of the Torchwood Institute, a top-secret organization founded by Queen Victoria to deal with the threat of creatures not of this world. In the show, Cardiff happens to be the site of an unstable rift in spacetime (think Buffy’s Hellmouth, with fewer vampires and equal possibilities for disaster), and it is the job of the Torchwood team to monitor the rift and maintain the peace. The show is darker in tone than Doctor Who, with more adult themes (Captain Jack is bisexual and embarks on a long-term relationship with coworker Ianto Jones), more gore, more sex, and more swearing, but it’s great fun nonetheless. John Barrowman as Jack is a formidable presence, and as his character is accidentally immortal due to circumstances at the end of the first season of Doctor Who, damn near indestructible, and can almost always be counted on to save the day. His team consists of complicated people with complex problems of their own; Eve Myles is a standout as Gwen Cooper, a former cop trying to balance her dangerous job with a stable home life, as is Gareth David-Lloyd as Ianto, Jack’s love interest who hid a dark secret of his own in Torchwood’s lower reaches for years. The rest of the cast is excellent as well– Burn Gorman as Owen Harper, the team’s cynical and conflicted doctor, is a particular favorite of mine– though in the final season the show moves to America and while the new cast (the only holdovers are Jack and Gwen) are capable, it fails to recapture the chemistry of the original team. I’m not saying to skip the last season by any means, as it’s still entertaining and the characters still grow, but the earlier seasons are the best. I do, however, suggest skipping companion show Web of Lies, an animated (rotoscoped) piece that offers a different perspective on events that happened in Season Four– while it fills a certain plot hole, it really adds nothing of importance to the proceedings, and the rotoscoping is both poorly done and distracting in the extreme. Unless you’re a completist, don’t bother.
Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson are moved to present-day London in this update of Arthur Conan-Doyle’s classic novel series. Benedict Cumberbatch is a powerhouse Sherlock, whose chilly demeanor is offset by his blunt, quirky humor (and his gorgeous blue eyes, and distinctive, sexy baritone– but I digress). Martin Freeman, no stranger to movie-loving geeks like myself (he’s played both Arthur Dent and Bilbo Baggins), is a perfectly cast foil as Watson, the voice of reason to Holmes’s anything-goes approach. Freeman is a bit tougher than he looks in the role– his Watson is a Gulf veteran, a crack shot, and not afraid of fisticuffs– and Cumberbatch is nothing short of divine. His Sherlock is a self-professed “high-functioning sociopath”, manipulative, capable of using people for his own ends, snarky and unpredictable, yet wholly human and delightfully compelling to watch– and not just because he’s easy on the eyes, but also an imposing, scarily-intelligent force of nature. Each episode of the series is feature-length, but the downside is that there are only three episodes in each season for a total of nine, and there’s typically a two-year wait between seasons while Cumberbatch and Freeman work on other high-profile projects. It’s just not enough, and the usual cliffhanger season finales create an almost physical craving for more. Despite the familiar source material, it’s both fresh and surprising, and too awesome to miss; Freeman has hinted to the press that a one-off episode to air between seasons may be in the works, and if so, I am so there.
This is an incredible show– if you’re not familiar with it already, get watching. A period drama set in the early years of the twentieth century, it follows the lives and loves of an aristocratic family, the Crawleys, and their servants in their ancestral seat, the titular house (more a castle, really) in Yorkshire. It’s a bit soapy, but in the best kind of way; all of the characters are so wonderfully drawn and portrayed that it’s easy to become invested in them. The acting is top-notch, and it’s fascinating to see the social mores of an earlier era play out. Circumstances we take for granted today were taboo in this era: youngest Crawley daughter Sibyl creates a scandal by marrying the family chauffeur, eldest child Lady Mary cannot inherit the estate because she is a woman, and middle daughter Edith… oh, poor Edith was just born in the wrong time period entirely (to say more would be too spoileriffic). The lives of the servants are equally interesting, especially those of valet John Bates and his beloved Anna, Mary’s lady’s maid, who endure a seasons-long struggle to be together as his past comes back to haunt him. And these are only a few of the choice tales herein– the show is a rich tapestry of a time romanticized by many but in reality harsher and more difficult than the modern world we viewers inhabit, especially for those of the working class, though the wealthy were faced with their own problems as well. Best of all is the incomparable Dame Maggie Smith as Dowager Countess Violet Crawley, a sharp-witted, sharp-tongued matriarch with a ready retort for any situation (her performance has caused me to spray Diet Coke out of my nose more than once). Another plus? Absorbing the history of the era, from the sinking of the Titanic to World War I to the Roaring Twenties, will make you feel oh-so-educated while you’re being entertained.
Another Sci-Fi program (what can I say, the Brits do them better than anyone else), Primeval has a fun premise– what if spacetime anomalies allowed long-extinct creatures to enter and wreak havoc on the modern world? When strange creatures are reported in the Forest of Dean, where science professor Nick Cutter’s wife Helen disappeared without a trace eight years ago, he believes there is a connection and he and his lab assistant/best buddy Stephen Hart take to the woods to check it out, with nerdy grad student Connor Temple tagging along. There they meet up with Abby Maitland, a zookeeper attempting to find the origins of an unusual flying lizard that a local child had befriended, and some very large dinosaurs. Things get crazier from there on out– the Home Office gets involved via liason Claudia Brown and her long-suffering boss James Lester, who wants to avert the nationwide panic that would surely ensue if word of the anomalies gets out. Despite the show’s “Creature of the Week” plots, the over-arcing mystery of what happened to Helen is the main concern– it turns out she’s still alive, and has an ugly private agenda. There are some stellar special effects, but once again the real joy is in the characters themselves, particularly Hannah Spearitt as Abby and Andrew Lee Potts as Connor, whose awkward interactions mask deeper and unrequited feelings for one another, and Douglas Henshall as the angst-ridden Cutter. While the premise might sound like a great kids’ show, it gets pretty dark– there are major character deaths, and some of the creatures are pure nightmare fuel. It’s an absorbing, edge-of-the-seat watch (and not just because I’m an Andrew Lee Potts fangirl– seriously, he makes sexy-geek an art form. Amirite, ladies?). And since I haven’t finished watching it yet (I just started Season Four), please don’t spoilerize me if you’ve already seen it!
Pride and Prejudice
While the miniseries seems to have died off stateside, I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that the BBC is the undisputed champion of the format, and there are a great many remarkable ones hiding out there to add to your queue. This one, however, is the creme de la creme— a classic in its own right, far superior to the Keira Knightley film, which I saw before this but can’t watch anymore because of it. I love Jane Austen, and have devoured everything she ever wrote, and this is by far the best adaptation of any of her works that I’ve been privileged to watch. For one thing, it’s difficult to pack all of her characters’ nuances into a two-hour movie, and most of them seem rushed. It takes a miniseries to really do them justice, and this one is note-perfect. Jennifer Ehle’s Elizabeth Bennett captures the role’s keen wit and sense of the ridiculous better than Knightley’s overly earnest take, the cinematography is brighter and more lush, and Colin Firth IS. MR. DARCY. I honestly can’t even remember the name of the actor who played him in the movie version, but there is no comparison to be made anyway. Firth just embodies the character in a way I can’t see anyone else doing. Swoon. This miniseries is so beloved in its native UK that it was a running joke in Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones novels, with the punchline of Firth actually being cast as Bridget’s love interest in the subsequent movies. As I said, there is no comparison between Firth and Matthew Macfadyen (THAT’S his name!), but there IS, however, a comparable performance in a miniseries of another classic British novel…
North and South
This is not a rendering of John Jakes’s American Civil War soaper of the 80’s, but rather of Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1854 novel about the social differences of England’s rural south and industrial north country, sadly little known in the US, but well worth a read as well as a watch. The tale centers on Margaret Hale (a luminous Daniela Denby-Ashe), a southern minister’s daughter who must move to the gritty northern industrial town of Milton when her father resigns his parish in a crisis of faith. At first she is intimidated by the living conditions and the blunt, outspoken ways of the local mill workers, but in time she adapts to her new situation, makes friends, and continually clashes with mill owner John Thornton. The smoking hot Richard Armitage as Mr. Thornton is really the only role on film I find on a level with Colin Firth’s turn as Mr. Darcy, though for different (but equally swoon-worthy) reasons. Both actors ooze with a magnetic charisma, but where Firth becomes charmingly awkward, Armitage has a slight dangerous edge, a man of equal parts pride and temper. And who among us doesn’t love a bad boy? Especially when there’s a good girl right there to redeem him? By the time our reluctant lovebirds overcome all their obstacles and get to their first kiss, we’ve lived through four hours’ worth of romantic tension you could cut with a knife, but the payoff is so worth it. I have to rate it my number one favorite kiss in the history of film, and I’ve seen a lot of films. You can practically feel Armitage’s beard stubble; it’s that good. Forget about 50 Shades of Grey. It has nothing on a 160-year-old novel with no sex in it.
As I said earlier, I’ve read all of Jane Austen’s works, and Mansfield Park is, by a long shot, my least favorite. Compared to Austen heroines like Lizzy Bennett or the Dashwood sisters, Fanny Price is quite a dull girl indeed, and not much really happens throughout the novel. Sadly, it doesn’t film well, either, and this is by far the weakest of the British miniseries I’ve watched of late. The actors are able enough, but they’re not given much to do; Billie Piper (formerly Rose Tyler on Doctor Who) as Fanny seems to be trying very hard to bring some life and vivacity to her character, but as written she doesn’t do much more than scamper up and down staircases and provide an occasional narrative voiceover. That said, it is a pretty production, in spite of the obvious anachronisms in terms of hairstyles and dances (the waltz performed at the end wouldn’t be invented for a good many years, and a young lady of Fanny’s age wouldn’t have fathomed being seen in public with her hair down during the Regency period, even if she was a poor relation). Perhaps I went in expecting not to like it, as it is based on my least favorite Austen novel and the only one I haven’t read multiple times, but the screenplay could have been stronger– it comes across as the sort of thing you’d observe in an exceptionally literate child playing at Austen with her Barbie dolls. At least it looks nice for the most part; I watched it because I like Austen and I like Billie Piper, but the novel, in my humble opinion, is no more a feather in Austen’s cap than the role of Fanny Price is in Piper’s, so I guess it’s exactly what I expected.
Honorable Mention: Orphan Black
This one squeaks in on a couple of technicalities. For one, it’s not a UK series, it’s a Canadian one. However, it does air here on BBC America, so I’m letting it count, because it’s really really good, and Canada still has the Queen on its money, so that should count for something. It’s the story of a grifter named Sarah who discovers she’s one of a number of clones, all played brilliantly by Tatiana Maslany, who is an absolute revelation. She takes on several widely disparate roles and imbues each of them with an entire three-dimensional personality. Even if all the clones wore the same hairstyle, it would be an easy matter to tell which character is which in Maslany’s chameleon-like performance. She even has to play a clone pretending to be a different clone at times, and it’s still easy to tell who’s who. I am seriously in awe of her ability. But don’t get so blown away by Maslany that you don’t pay attention to the plot, because it moves quickly. I’m not caught up on the current season yet– its Season Two premiere was just a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve only finished Season One– but it’s looking to be as awesome as its first, with the introduction of clones we haven’t met yet or have met only briefly, and Sarah growing closer to the truth behind the cloning project. Enjoy– I know I will.
So there we have a number of reasons why the telly doesn’t completely suck. There’s a little something for everyone in my sampling– lots of action and Sci-Fi, plenty of romance, a dollop of mystery and a goodly helping of costume drama. All with lovely accents and none of the trash factor I’ve come to expect out of American TV– the perfect antidote to the Real Housewives of Kardashian Ducky Boo Boo or whatever passes for entertainment here these days. And if you have any other suggestions, please let me know in the comments!