The Brits figured out what makes a great binge before binge-watching even existed. For decades they’ve been producing terrific shows with limited lifespans. Faulty Towers produced just 12 glorious half-hour episodes with a 6-year gap between its two seasons. Prime Suspect, the source of so many Hellen Mirren crushes, limited itself to about 3 hours of material every year or so.
The Brits know how to keep it relatively short, keep it interesting, and shut it down before it gets stale. That’s perfect for binging. One lazy Saturday, one nasty night of insomnia, and you can get through an entire series.
Right now Netflix has a number of short-form British series to choose from. But many BBC shows could be disappearing from Netflix at the end of the month, so it’s a good time to check out at least a few of the five series I’m recommending. You won’t be disappointed.
Pick up your phone. Turn off the screen. Now look into it. That’s the black mirror we’re talking about here.
There are currently two three-episode seasons of Black Mirror on Netflix. Each hour-long episode plays like a Twilight Zone-esque parable about the dehumanizing nature of modern technology. It’s entertaining stuff and very well made, if a little obvious at times. It’s not the best of what I’m recommending here, but it’s worth a watch.
You can almost taste the soot in the post-World War I depiction of England in Peaky Blinders. The Shelby brothers, many veterans of the French trenches, run an underground bookmaking operation in Birmingham. They battle other families for power, fall in love with duplicitous women, and contend with a ruthlessly violent police commander played by Sam Neill. It’s satisfying in the same way that The Sopranos was at its height.
The accents are thick, so turn on captions for this one. And be prepared for a sharp dip in quality from Season 1 to Season 2
The Honourable Woman
This co-production between the BBC and the Sundance Channel is thoroughly gripping. If you enjoy international intrigue, you’re not going to find anything better. It’s set in modern day Israel and does for the region what John LeCarre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold did for eastern Europe in the cold war: It gives you a look at the well-meaning people who have managed to make a bad situation much, much worse.
Maggie Gyllenhaal is the lead and she carries the show nicely.
Last year, Fox adapted Broadchurch for American audiences, renaming it Gracepoint. By all accounts it was a disaster. I didn’t care to watch it; I was way too fond of the original, a brooding procedural set in a remote costal town. Broadchurch didn’t cover any new ground. There’s a death of an innocent, and cop with a checkered past comes to lead the investigation. We’ve seen this setup before. But what makes Broadchurch worthwhile is the care and patience taken in developing the characters. It never panders, and the performances, led by David Tennant, are excellent.
The plot of Happy Valley, another police procedural, would sound convoluted and cheesy if I attempted to describe it. But the show never feels trite. Sarah Lancashire plays the lead, a police sergeant with a difficult home life, who investigates a kidnapping. There’s graphic, intimate violence in Happy Valley and it’s sometimes hard to watch. But there’s a reason for it. The show gets into some meaty themes and delivers an emotional wallopup.
If you’re going to binge only one show from across the pond, make it Happy Valley. You won’t feel happy after watching it, but it’s a hell of a show.