British television is a notoriously singular beast, leaving mass appeal and the ability to translate with foreign audiences to the Americans, British shows tend to go for the quirky and the specific. This often means they end up being absolutely brilliant, if slightly bewildering to non-UK audiences.
British television also tends to be less bound by decade-long deals, and in the case of BBC shows completely unbound from the need for commercial success. This translates into shows that can have very limited runs. Quality over quantity is the rule. That’s how something as wildly successful and game changing as the Office can have a two-season run. Only 12 episodes of Fawlty Towers exist in the universe. Shows like Black Mirror or Sherlock have three episode seasons.
This list is by no means exhaustive. Think of it as a primer. A toe dipped in the proverbial pool.
The Thick of It
I recently met someone who worked for a UK government minister at a wedding. We were having a few drinks and I asked him if his work was anything like the Thick of It. He burst out laughing and said “Pretty much exactly. I feel it’s a documentary sometimes”. Armando Iannucci’s biting comedy about the often ludicrous and incompetent inner workings of UK politics is one of the best pieces of culture to ever be produced. The writing is sharp enough to give you a nasty cut, and foul-mouthed spin-doctor Malcom Tucker has gone down in history as one of the best bad guys in fiction.
“Self-facilitating media node” and utter wanker Nathan Barley predicted the Shoreditch hipster 10 years before he became a ubiquitous reality. The show is odd, bleak and strangely colorless, and was created by the brilliant cultural critic and writer Charlie Brooker and Chris Moris (who made the fantastic Four Lions). The cast features stalwarts of a specific generation of British comedians and actors: Richard Ayoade (The IT Crowrd), Noel Fielding and Julian Barratt (The Mighty Boosh), Ben Wishaw (Spectre) and even Benedict Cumberbatch. It won't be to everybody's taste, but if you connect with the show, you'll appreciate it as prophecy.
Set in the eponymous bookshop and featuring two of my favourite stand-up comedians, Bill Bailey and Dylan Moran. Moran plays Bernard Black, the unusually sour and spiteful shopkeeper who appears to hate everyone who dares bring him any business. He is essentially a misanthrope (in the great tradition of Basil Fawlty) who despises everyone he has to interact with, except Fran (Tamsin Greig) and to a lesser degree Manny, who both haplessly trying to turn him into someone slightly more agreeable.
The show has been on the air since 2003, and has cemented Stephen Fry's position as a British pop culture National Treasure. If you're unfamiliar with him, think of Fry as the avuncular erudite uncle everyone wishes they had. In terms of format, it is essentially a panel comedy show, of which there are so many on UK television it feels like they are powering the country's economy. But it differs in that its subject matter stays away from current affairs and celebrity, preferring to traffic in quite interesting — hence the name — general knowledge (with a predilection for debunking commonly held myths). Every episode is 30 minutes of pure joy, where you'll laugh and come away with a few facts to impress your friends with over dinner.
The Graham Norton Show
You've probably already come across YouTube clips of the show featuring some of the world's biggest stars on Norton's red couch, but I'll recommend it nonetheless. Norton has been a presence in UK television for as long as I can remember, and is such an effortless interviewer. I think the main element that gives his show a considerably different dynamic to other UK and US talk shows is that all the stars come out at once and sit on the same couch. This means that these people who are essentially professional attention-seekers are all competing for attention simultaneously. This leads to really very entertaining situations. Of course the free-flowing booze helps too.
Never Mind The Buzzcocks
From its inauspicious start in 1996 to its demise last year, Never Mind The Buzzcocks was one of the funniest panel shows in Britain. Hosted by Mark Lamar, then Simon Amstel, then dozens of guest hosts until Rhod Gilbert came in to see it all fall apart, the show was relentlessly irreverent. Ostensibly a pop quiz about the pop music, it was consistently unhinged and featured many drunk, non-sensical appearances by some of the world's biggest stars. It is uniquely British in its approach to a revered industry, and reveled in taking everyone down a peg or two, much to the dismay of the occasional American guest who regularly had no clue what was going on. Pretty much all episodes are available on YouTube. I recommend that beautiful period of time when Simon Amstel hosted and Noel Fielding took over from Bill Bailey as one of the team captains.
Things I’ve already recommended: Black Mirror, Luther, The Office (or basically the British version of anything that was turned into an invariably US Show) and many others.