Need a new TV show to get into? Start with these 9 great British and Aussie imports
You may recall that a little show called “Fleabag” killed at the Emmys last year, and you may further know that it was a British show carried to America by Amazon Prime. And you may have noticed another talked-about British series, “I May Destroy You,” which plays on HBO, and which would seem likely to be similarly recognized when it becomes eligible next year.
The relationship of American viewers to British television is a cultural conversation running back at least to the 1960s, when “The Avengers” and “Secret Agent” and its quasi-sequel “The Prisoner” made it onto broadcast television, and “Elizabeth R,” “The Six Wives of Henry VIII,” “Brideshead Revisited,” “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” and “Upstairs Downstairs” made it onto PBS.
Many are drawn to this content. The United Kingdom is a foreign land, exotic yet familiar, whose language we for the most part speak. England! Land of Robin Hood and Mary Poppins, of the kings and queens and Crowleys, whose aristocratic folderol we left behind and yet cannot quite give up. “The Crown,” “Victoria” — we sign on with almost unbecoming ardor.
We are seeing a lot more such imports now, across all platforms, not just from the U.K. but from its stepchildren, rough and tumble Australia and mild-mannered Canada. (That’s not even counting subscription services like AcornTV and BritBox, whose main business it is to bring those shows over.) It’s easier, after all, to acquire a series than to make one; for a new streamer, like HBO Max or NBCUniversal’s Peacock, it’s a way to come out of the gate with exclusive content. And for all American networks, their assembly lines stilled by the pandemic, it’s a way to fill holes with almost new, locally unseen foreign product.
The nine shows reviewed below, six from the U.K., three from Australia, are all new to American television this month. What they have in common is that they don’t let style stand in for content — they share a certain tradition of naturalism, in writing, acting and production. The last of these may have had as much to do historically with limited budgets as with aesthetic decisions, but in any event it’s produced work that looks less like Television and more like Life. It’s not even a mixed bag: All are recommended.
For three seasons, Netflix’s “The Crown” has inspired viewers to research the royal family and British history. Wikipedia and Google data bear that out.
Fans of Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins, erstwhile comperes on “The Great British Baking Show” and a team for nearly three decades, will find them put to surprising good use as the stars of Peacock’s “Hitmen,” in which they play lifelong friends who work as hired killers. How they arrived at this profession, which they approach with something short of relish, is never discussed nor is it much the point. They are just there, like Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon, and like them, one (Perkins) is a tortured thinker and the other (Giedroyc) a sweet idiot. Unlike Bill Hader’s “Barry,” on HBO, it is not really a character study — it is more “Carry On Killing,” a jokey romp — which is not to say it is without psychology or character development. There is a bit of an arc through the episodic variations on a theme, and a surprising lot of tense action for a sitcom and a pair better known for ambling about a tent full of amateur bakers, stealing tastes of cakes and biscuits.
In “Frayed,” airing on HBO Max, fabulously wealthy Samantha Cooper (creator Sarah Kendall) learns that her late husband, deceased under unsavory circumstances, has left her destitute. Dragging two confused teenagers, from whom she has concealed her actual past, she returns reluctantly to the industrial harbor town north of Sydney she left in a hurry 20 years earlier, moving in again with her properly wary mother (a terrific Kerry Armstrong) and angry brother (Ben Mingay) and encountering various old friends not unhappy to see her laid low. Set in the late 1980s — allowing for amusing hair and fashion and recurring “Dynasty” references — it’s a different sort of series than the similarly premised “Schitt’s Creek,” less whimsical or warm; the comedy rides on a bed of sorrow. (Each family member gets a substantial storyline.) Still, as in “Schitt’s Creek,” the viewer suspects that this is the best thing that could have happened to them, and is in no rush to see their fortunes, as measured by money, restored.
Premiering Tuesday on the CW is “Dead Pixels,” a sharp comedy about gamers that will recall to any who know it Felicia Day’s pioneering web series “The Guild,” which ran on various platforms from 2007 to 2013, though it is more acerbic and expensive-looking. (It’s the youth entry among these shows, I suppose.) Here, as there, a group of players (Alexa Davies, Will Merrick, Sargon Yelda) have thrown in together to gain advantage in a multiplayer online role-playing game, stealing time from work and families to live in a virtual world ironically as laborious as the real one; David Mumeni is the good-looking lummox who wanders into Davies’ office and into their group and who doesn’t understand that the point is not to have fun but to gain imaginary status in an imaginary world. The casting of Vince Vaughn in the film version of the game they play is a cause for despair. (“First they came for the remake of ‘Ghost in the Shell,’ and I said nothing; then they came for the remake of ‘Fantastic Four,’ again, and I said nothing.”) It has been much bleeped to satisfy American broadcast standards and practices.
The series’ creator and star shares how he got Christopher Meloni and Backstreet Boys’ Kevin Richardson involved in the satire, now streaming on Hulu.
Set in AD 43 during the first successful Roman invasion of Britain (Julius Caesar had been a century before, but didn’t stick around), Epix’s “Britannia” premiered in the U.K. in 2017. It’s a big, noisy, bloody, little-bit sexy drama of antiquity, with an underplaying David Morrissey every inch an ancient Roman general, Zoe Wanamaker a fierce Celtic queen and an unrecognizable Mackenzie Crook as a Druid priest doing what Druids do. But with real results. Although it briefly seems we’re in for a well-integrated history lesson, it quickly becomes clear that, to quote the poet, we are in “days of old when magic ruled the air.” (Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” is the series’ theme song, to give you some idea of the creative ballpark.) “Game of Thrones” will come to mind, and there are some similar plot points, but “Game of Thrones” hit so many plot points it would be work to avoid them. Award-winning playwright Jez Butterworth — he also co-wrote “Ford v Ferrari” — co-created the series, with vivid characters, scenes that play well and the dialogue, which has a modern tang, pleasant on the ear and often funny (“My burning need for vengeance keeps me toasty”).
The premise of Peacock’s Australian import “Five Bedrooms” — five people, not all of whom know one another, buy a house together — is the sort of thing multi-camera sitcoms are built on; it’s “Friends” without the intervening hallway. It’s fundamentally a comedy, but as a story of people who need people it’s more in tune with, if not as nakedly sentimental as, NBC’s “This Is Us.” Each character gets a turn at narrating; each seems superficially cut to type — posh lawyer lady; semi-closeted gay doctor; hunky construction worker; slightly creepy guy separated, but not emotionally, from his wife; lovelorn girl on whose shoulder he cries — but will prove more dimensional. Each is keeping a secret, and all are running from or toward the wrong thing, or running from the right thing, which gives them room for growth, and room to stumble. This is not quite my cup of tea, but I quickly became invested in their several fates. (It helps perhaps that, the actors being unfamiliar, the characters felt that much more actual.)
From slapstick comedy to snooty stoicism, British television is a soothing escape from troubled times. Plus all those great accents.
Written by, starring and partially directed by O-T Fagbenle (“The Handmaid’s Tale”), “Maxxx,” now streaming on Hulu, energetically traces the falls and rises of a former boy band singer looking to get back on top; he’s in the dog-paddling stage of his career, just staying afloat, although his self-image has not adjusted to his circumstances. “I thought you were dead,” says his old label head Don Wild (Christopher Meloni, happy to look awful). “I saw them dragging you out of the bottom of my swimming pool.” I’ve been working on the DL,” Maxxx replies, “because real Gs work in silence, like lasagna — think about it.” Maxxx’s profile having risen slightly after interrupting a funeral oration Kanye West-style, Wild assigns nerdy music industry hopeful Tamzin (Pippa Bennett-Warner) to manage him; she is as reasonable as he is not. The series hurtles down some well-worn paths through show-business stories — art versus commerce and all — but originally framed by Maxxx’s now pathetic, now something-almost-like-charming character; the series holds out the possibility of change, even as it acknowledges the limits. It’s a carrot and stick approach that “Maxxx” manages quite well, though sometimes they just hit you with the stick. (Come to think of it, there is hitting with sticks in a few of these series.) Also in the house: a whimsically adopted, now-teenage son, Amit (Alan Asaad), and Maxxx’s cousin and assistant Rose (Helen Monks), against whom he took out a restraining order.
In “We Hunt Together,” brought over from the Alibi channel by Showtime, Eve Myles (“Torchwood”) brings her trademark Welsh melancholy to the role of a homicide detective on the trail of a pair of killers, while she breaks in a new partner who is also her new boss (Babou Ceesay). He’s a people person with a habit of oversharing, whose aggressive happiness makes her suspicious, just as her unhappiness does him. (In what might be a nod to “Columbo,” Ceesay turns back to a woman they have been interviewing and, saying “One more thing,” offers her a cure for heartburn: “baking soda and licorice … works a treat.”) There are parallels, as the title pretty obviously refers to both the police and the killers: the man in each couple is African, and each pair is getting to know one another but slow to give up their secrets. As serial-killer shows go, it is mostly and refreshingly free of kill-for-the-thrill pathology, and the series has been constructed to make you like the murderers, who are also victims — victims of being human, Ceesay’s philosophical character, would say — finding some novel relief in one another’s company. Everybody’s broken, and some bad things happen, but the thrust of the show is oddly positive if not exactly uplifting.
The marvelous “Upright,” on Sundance Now, also features a musician who has never managed to grow up, though it is less grotesque and satirical and more warm and human. Created and directed in part by and starring Tim Minchin — a sort of show- business Jack of All Trades, Master of All, whose credits include the score for the Tony-nominated “Matilda: The Musical” — it is a road movie, and in most respects a comedy in that Minchin’s character, the ironically nicknamed “Lucky” Flynn, manages to climb out of the bad situations into which he steers or falls only to steer or fall into another, as he makes his way across the continent, hauling an old upright piano, to visit family he has not seen in years. His accidental companion on the trip, Meg (Milly Alcock, vulnerable beneath the bravado and thoroughly exceptional), is a teenage runaway with whose truck he collides minutes into the opening episode. (The last episode destroyed me, in a good way, but I am a sucker for a weathered piano metaphor.) The camera takes advantage of the wide expanses and arboreal silhouettes of the Australian outback without making it into a statement.
One of my favorite television shows of 2018 is the 2015 French dramedy “Call My Agent!”
Just as affecting is Kayleigh Llewellyn’s “In My Skin,” a 2018 Cardiff-set coming-of-age story in five episodes, streaming on Hulu. The combination of its quietly luminous lead (Gabrielle Creevy, astonishingly good), the complexion of her best friends (James Wilbraham, gay; Poppy Lee Friar, wild), its high-school setting and a lower-middle-class milieu, naturalistically represented, suggest “My So-Called Life” as rebooted by Mike Leigh. Bethan (Creevy) has an alcoholic father (Rhodri Meilir) who is no use at all, and a bipolar mother (a brilliant Jo Hartley) whose care often falls to her; her grandmother (Di Botcher) and a teacher (Alexandria Riley) are the two stable adults in her life, though only her grandmother knows what goes on in it. Some of those things are dire, but nothing feels exaggerated for effect; Llewellyn and director Lucy Forbes ( “The End of the F***ing World”) know just how much tragedy these situations can bear. Like Meg in “Upright,” Bethan tells lies in every direction in order to draw a protective circle around her and her home. There are some attempts to raise her station, for which she is mocked by friend and foe alike, which lead to betrayals and triumphs. Each episode lasts only half an hour, though each is as rich and full of incident and energy as something twice as long. Creevy plays no false notes.
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