Across cooking shows and talent competitions, murder mysteries and political satire, British television has earned a reputation for quality. With streaming sites competing for viewers, and many of us at home with more time on our hands, it’s never been easier to find and watch the best of it.
If you’ve made it this far without watching “Fleabag,” which won four Emmy Awards last year, I’m not even mad — I’m impressed. But it’s time to dive in. The show’s creator, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, stars as a young woman grieving the deaths of her mother and her best friend. She masks her melancholy with a reckless joie de vivre, narrating her exploits to the camera as she goes. The viewer is her closest confidant — until she meets an unlikely match in the second season. “Fleabag” is quite simply a perfect show, a stunningly effective character study that’s as funny as it is devastating.
The only drawback to this fever dream of a satire from 2004 is that it’s only six episodes long. Written by and starring Matthew Holness and Richard Ayoade, “Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace” is a show-within-a-show presented from the perspective of the title character, a horror author who unveils an extremely low-budget television show he produced in the 1980s but that never made it to air. I won’t spoil the hilariously nutty details, but if you dig the offbeat sensibility of Adult Swim, give it a try.
Where to stream: YouTube
The central shtick of “Peep Show” was a harbinger of things to come. With a stream-of-consciousness voice-over narration, the show toggles between the points of view of freeloader Jeremy (Robert Webb) and strait-laced Mark (David Mitchell), two sad sacks who live in London. It’s almost like watching someone go live on Instagram, only this show is reliably entertaining. “Peep Show” ran for nine seasons, beginning in 2003, a rarity for British television. If the cringe comedy of “The Office” or “Curb Your Enthusiasm” suits you, this is your next binge.
Where to stream: Hulu and Amazon.
The anchor of this neat, two-season crime thriller is Catherine Cawood, a tough-as-nails police sergeant in West Yorkshire, played by the wonderful Sarah Lancashire. When the series begins, Catherine is still grieving her daughter, who died by suicide years earlier after being raped. When she discovers that her daughter’s rapist has been released from prison, she becomes obsessed with finding him. Created by Sally Wainwright, “Happy Valley” approaches its stories and characters from a deeply humane perspective.
Before Armando Iannucci made “Veep,” he created “The Thick Of It,” a savage political satire set among the bumbling employees of the fictional Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship in the British government. “Veep” fans will recognize the show’s mockumentary style and never-ending stream of florid insults, which flow with particular vigor from Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), the director of communications. The show’s vision of organizational incompetence can feel quaint, but its wicked humor is as sharp as ever.
Where to stream: Amazon.
This epic, lavishly produced show spans many of the decades of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign. The creator Peter Morgan has five seasons planned, and the three that have so far been released provide a juicy peek under the hood of the monarchy, from the queen’s marital problems to her sister’s alcohol abuse. “The Crown” is beautifully acted (Claire Foy plays Elizabeth in the first two seasons, with Olivia Colman taking over in the third) and smartly plotted, as each episode juxtaposes a national crisis with the characters’ personal struggles. The upcoming season will have Gillian Anderson playing Margaret Thatcher and introduce Princess Diana.
Where to stream: Netflix.
“Ab Fab” has been revived a couple of times in the 21st century, but its original mid-90s run is a crown jewel of British comedy. The show centers on two middle-aged fall-down drunks, the publicist Edina (Jennifer Saunders) and her best friend the magazine editor Patsy (Joanna Lumley), who use their income and shaky society status to score drugs, attend parties and generally attempt to relive their swinging-sixties youth. Their foil is Eddy’s long-suffering daughter, Saffron (Julia Sawalha), who rebels by being as conventional as possible. Both Saunders and Lumley are experts in physical comedy, and you might just find yourself echoing their refrain of “darling, darling!”
Created by Chris Morris and Armando Iannucci, “The Day Today” is a satirical news program that continues the great British tradition of skewering the country’s own pretensions. Like “Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace,” the show ran for just one, six-episode season, which is available in its entirety on YouTube. It dates back to 1994, so American audiences might find some of the references a tad obscure, but most of it lands anyway, thanks to the contrast between the familiar rhythms of a nightly news broadcast and the delirious absurdity of the news items in question. Fans of “Mr. Show” will find plenty to appreciate in a program that takes silliness so seriously.
Where to stream: YouTube.
“Downton Abbey” feels incredibly “pre-2016,” an escapist fantasy whose major continued tension is whether a wealthy English family will lose their favorite house. The show follows both the fictional Crawley family and the household staff they employ to maintain their enormous country estate. Although “Downton Abbey” ran for six seasons between 2010 and 2015 (a movie was released in 2019), the first three are the show’s prime. You might even find the second season, which partly takes place during the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, oddly comforting.
Where to stream: Amazon.
This BBC series from the ’80s and early ’90s, based on a character who appears in several Agatha Christie novels, is gentle and slow, with just enough humor and intrigue to keep your attention. It’s hard to find a contemporary series that has the patience of a show like “Miss Marple.” Joan Hickson plays the title character, an older woman who lives alone in a fictional English village and works as an amateur detective, assisted in the art of forensic investigation by a lifetime of small-town living. There’s something particularly comforting about watching a hyper-competent, unassuming woman quietly figure things out while life bustles on around her.
Where to stream: BritBox.
A contemporary version of the classic murder mystery, “Broadchurch” was part of a wave of mid-2010s British thrillers that juxtaposed small-town life with gruesome violence (I’m also partial to “The Fall,” on Amazon.) “Broadchurch” centers on two mismatched detectives (David Tennant and Olivia Colman) who team up to solve the murder of a local 11-year-old-boy. “Broadchurch” may not reinvent the wheel, but its tight plotting, witty dialogue and deeply felt performances — particularly from Jodie Whittaker as the victim’s mother — make for an emotionally wrenching watch.
Where to stream: Netflix.
If you’re looking for a fulfilling and uplifting show to binge in a day, grab a “Banana.” Created by Russell T Davies, the brain behind “Queer as Folk,” “Banana” is an eight-part anthology series that follows a loosely connected group of queer youth living in Manchester. Their circumstances are generally precarious, but the show has a joyful tone and a sly sense of humor. (“Do I look like a vegan?” one character asks. “You do have very sad eyes,” another answers.) Like “High Maintenance,” “Banana” has an economical, and often surprising, mode of storytelling, and you learn everything you need to know about these characters in just a few minutes.
Where to stream: Amazon.