Critic’s Picks: 10 British TV Comedies to Catch Up on This Summer
As we approach the dog days, use your down time to check out Britain's best streaming comedy exports.
Even though we've only hit mid-July, somehow, it’s already feeling like the waning days of summer: After Fourth of July we’re officially overheated, over-scheduled and underwhelmed. As the big summer tentpole flicks fade from view and the calendar of new TV premieres stagnates, now is the ideal time to catch up on the U.K.’s best streaming comedy exports. Averaging just four to eight episodes per season, these light micro-series are the perfect bingeable palate cleansers to help prepare you for the onslaught of fall debuts.
Derry Girls (Netflix)
Girls get to be dickheads, too, you know! Foul-mouthed teen sitcom Derry Girls — following the misadventures of four raucous Northern Irish lassies and their wimpy English male sidekick — was one of the great surprises of 2018. A huge hit in the U.K., the 1990s-set series tackles everything from Catholic school mischief to the absurdities of burgeoning sexuality. But at its heart, Derry Girls is about growing up in an era of oppressive brutality, proving that normal silliness does go on, even during ethno-nationalist conflict. (If anything, though, watch it for Siobhan McSweeney’s charmingly acidic nun Sister Michael.)
Season one is currently available on Netflix and season two is set to debut Aug. 2.
Travel Man (Hulu)
British comedian Richard Ayoade is the King of Cantankerous Curmudgeons. Best known for nerdy sitcom The IT Crowd, he brings his personal brand of deadpan discomfort to this half-hour travel docuseries, during which he explores a new destination over 48 hours with a different guest companion each episode. Whether he’s touring St. Petersburg in an armored tank, bopping through Stockholm’s interactive ABBA Museum or snacking on fermented Greenland shark in Reykjavik, you can always count on his fearful skepticism to keep the laughs coming. Not only does Travel Man display the best of the world’s weird and wonderful, but straight-faced Ayoade peppers his voiceover narration with sarcastic, fourth wall-demolishing wit. Guest stars have included Chris O’Dowd, Paul Rudd and Jon Hamm.
Seven of nine total seasons are currently available on Hulu.
Plebs is your average sitcom about three blundering bros failing their way through their 20s…in Ancient Rome. Horndog besties Marcus (Tom Rosenthal) and Stylax (Joel Fry) share a flat with their languorous slave Grumio (the marvelous, Brummie-accented Ryan Sampson) and work together at a soul-sucking grain company scriptorium. (Marcus is a literal copier; Stylax is a literal shredder.) A delightfully anachronistic allegory for modern London striving, Plebs depicts these three dinguses competing with buff gladiators, crushing on fierce Gaulish activists and navigating the politics of inviting your prospective girlfriend to an orgy. If you’re a fan of classical history and scatological humor, this is the show for you.
Three of four total seasons are currently available on Hulu.
This Country (Hulu)
One of the funniest (and most heart-wrenching) British sitcoms to debut in years, this BAFTA-winning mockumentary homes in on the eccentricities of contemporary rural English life. Created by real-life siblings Daisy May Cooper and Charlie Cooper, the show features the two as cousins/best friends Kerry and Kurtan Mucklowe, a pair of bored twenty-somethings slow to launch into adulthood due to the socioeconomic realities of their tiny Cotswolds village. Naïve Kerry is a lazy, overgrown tomboy who lives at home and clowns around with the neighborhood middle schoolers. Kurtan is more ambitious but tends to obsess about hobbies/people/etiquette in self-destructive ways. Framed as a slice-of-life BBC documentary, the series makes us privy to Kerry and Kurtan's cockamamie schemes, hysterically trivial arguments and sweet friendship with the avuncular local vicar. The writing and acting are superb.
Seasons one and two (sans the October 2018 one-off special) are currently available on Hulu.
Friday Night Dinner (Hulu)
Every week, adult brothers Adam and Jonny Goodman head back to their North London childhood home for a Shabbat dinner with their secular Jewish parents — and catastrophe inevitably strikes. The boys (Simon Bird and Tom Rosenthal) are chaotic pranksters who increasingly know no bounds with each other. Their hapless parents, Jackie and Martin (Tamsin Greig and Paul Ritter), must constantly field interruptions from their weirdo neighbor (Mark Heap) and his impaired dog. That's basically the gist, except this is one of the few shows where the more times I hear a catchphrase, the funnier I find it. When hot-tempered Martin blows up, he hilariously bellows, "Shit on it!" (And frequently refers to his wife's cooking as "a lovely bit of squirrel.") Meanwhile, Jackie can't help but constantly baby-talk nicknames like "Bubble" at her sons, though with her London lilt it sounds like she's cooing "Bubbewww." There's comfort in repetition.
Four out of five total seasons are currently available on Hulu.
The Windsors (Netflix)
If you ever wanted The Crown to be funnier and barmier, then The Windsors is the answer to your prayers. This satire targeting the contemporary British royal family is the smartest dumb comedy to come along in a while, expertly bulldozing everyone from Prince Charles to Jeremy Corbyn. (But never, ever Queen Elizabeth II, who is only an unseen character.) The series renders the Windsor family a classic soap operatic dynasty, fictionalizing real events and personas from the gossip columns. Here, Camilla Parker Bowles (Haydn Gwynne) is a cartoon villain trying to secure her place as Queen. Pippa Middleton (Morgana Robinson) is a vicious schemer looking to take down her saintly older sister. Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie (Ellie White and Celeste Dring) are classic vapid dingbats, while Princess Harry is amiable but functionally illiterate. The show may be tasteless and crude (Kate Middleton briefly catches Ebola, etc.), but it's also brilliant in execution, drawing snappish jokes from across history and politics that feel like obscure little Easter eggs for a knowing audience. Now this is radical comedy.
Season one and two (sans the 2018 royal wedding special) are currently available on Netflix.
Peep Show (Hulu and Amazon Prime)
What could possibly go wrong when a prudish yuppie and a mooching wannabe share an apartment for over a decade? As it turns out, everything. Peep Show, which originally ran from 2003-2015 in the U.K., is a wicked 21st century comedy classic, a tale of toxic best friendship that is perhaps one of Seinfeld's greatest legacies. The episodes are shot almost entirely from the visual perspectives of Mark (David Mitchell) and Jez (Robert Webb) as their inner monologues narrate the scenes. Not to worry, you fall into their streams of consciousness right away — and what awaits you is a black comedy that excavates the dark heart of neuroses over nine seasons of romances and career moves. Mark and Jez love each other…and simultaneously try to destroy each other at every turn. It's a blast.
Seasons 1-9 are currently available on both Hulu and Amazon Prime.
Inside No. 9 (Britbox)
Did you ever wish Black Mirror could be…a little pithier? Inside No. 9, from the warped duo behind sketch series The League of Gentleman, is a half-hour black comedy anthology that's probably more ironic than laugh-out-loud funny. Still, you'll be grinning all the while chills run down your spine. Created by and starring Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton, Inside No. 9 is one part psychological horror, two parts depraved humor. Each episode is a self-contained story, often set in a single space, with refreshed themes, gimmicks, characters and guest stars per chapter. In season one's "Tom & Gerri," a snippy school teacher is slowly manipulated into switching lives with a vagrant called Migg. In season three's "The Bill," four badminton buddies compete over who should pay their dinner check — and then who should pay for body removal. There's always a venal hustle bubbling underneath the surface of this series.
Seasons 1-4 are currently available on BritBox.
Gavin & Stacey (Hulu and Amazon Prime)
Gavin & Stacey will be returning this winter with a Christmas special — the first episode of this sweet mid-2000s rom-com in a decade. Written by and starring James Corden and Ruth Jones well before the former was a star in America, the series explores the whirlwind long-distance (and sometimes fraught) relationship between an Essex boy and a Welsh girl. Down-to-earth Gavin (Mathew Horne) is a product of his suburban upbringing, while fizzy Stacey (Joanna Page) grew up with more hardship. (Corden and Jones play their warring best friends, who, of course, have their own romantic chemistry throughout the seasons.) Gavin & Stacey is a breezy, heartfelt romp about people from opposite backgrounds coming together against the odds. Jones particularly stands out as Stacey's hard-as-nails best friend, Nessa, a plus-size punk chick whose dry rebuttals (delivered in a thick Glamorgan brogue) will have you howling.
Seasons 1-3 are currently available on Hulu and Amazon Prime.
Horrible Histories (Amazon Prime)
Horrible Histories is a true family comedy. Like a Blackadder or Monty Python for children, the 2009-onward educational sketch series hilariously vivisects real history in all its gory glory, unearthing gruesome facts and shocking details kids and adults alike will gobble up. Hosted by a mouthy rat puppet and relying on irreverent live-action skits, daft animations and clever musical sequences, Horrible Histories strives for historical accuracy, using surreal slapstick to merely amplify the pedagogy. While the show can feel a bit dated in its Eurocentric approach, the sketches are consistently funny and engaging, perfect for a curious viewer of any age with a penchant for the macabre. Baby-faced actor Mathew Baynton (The Wrong Mans) leads a troupe of always-game comedians, and the group went on to create and star in other enchanting sitcoms like Sky 1's Yonderland and BBC One's Ghosts.
Seasons 1-6 (out of 8 total) are currently available on Amazon Prime.