With American TV on pause, here are 5 British series to watch
By Mike Hale
Among the things the COVID-19 pandemic has taken away from us, at least temporarily, new American-made television series are not the most important. But for those who keep track of these things, the paucity of domestic scripted shows premiering is striking.
And yet there are plenty of fresh comedies and dramas arriving during that time, more than 20 of them, scoured from countries around the globe where they were made before the virus struck. The majority are British, continuing a trend that began as a small stream with the launch lineups of HBO Max and Peacock and is turning into a cross-Atlantic tsunami as summer progresses. Here are some highlights of this latest batch of British imports.
— ‘In My Skin’
Bethan (Gabrielle Creevy), the Welsh teenager at the center of this gently barbed coming-of-age story, is a full-time fabulist. She feeds her friends and teachers a steady diet of haute-bourgeois lies — one of her more inspired ad-libs when a friend wants to come over is, “I can’t, we’re having a conservatory built” — because she’s mortified by the sad, even dangerous reality of life with her bipolar mom and drunk, deadbeat dad.
It’s part of her larger artistic impulse: While she’s spinning her vision of a stable, prosperous home environment as a smoke screen for those around her, she’s writing derivative proletarian verses for her high school literary anthology. (The show frequently cuts away from the action to show us flashes of what’s going on inside Bethan’s head; her poetry is accompanied by heroic black-and-white images of Welsh coal miners.)
The lies begin to catch up with her, of course, partly because she’s powerfully distracted by a popular female classmate (Zadeiah Campbell-Davies). But across the five episodes of the initial season — written by Kayleigh Llewellyn and directed by Lucy Forbes, who directed half of the second season of “The End of the ____ World,” and shown on BBC Three in March — happily smutty dark humor and light melancholy mostly win out over maudlin life lessons. The distinctively British mix of winsome-glum kitchen-sink drama and sitcom beats works in this case, helped by the loose, run-and-gun style of Forbes and her cinematographer, Benedict Spence, and Creevy’s alert, understated performance.
Imagine Laverne and Shirley as a pair of working-class contract killers and you’ve pretty much got the idea of this comedy, whose six-episode first season ran in March on Sky. Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins, best known as the original hosts of “The Great British Bake Off,” play Jamie and Fran, who approach their violent occupation with the enthusiasm and professionalism of shelf-stockers at a big-box store. (Joe Markham and Joe Parham, the show’s creators, previously worked together on the nutty animated series “The Amazing World of Gumball.”)
The broad humor, largely of the restless-middle-age variety, often takes place while the hit women sit in their van with a trussed-up victim, waiting for instructions from their unseen employer, Mr. K. Much of the fun comes from the actors playing the testy, garrulous targets, including Jason Watkins of “The Crown” as a crooked lawyer and Sian Clifford of “Fleabag” as a disloyal accountant.
This prequel series, a fixture of PBS’ “Masterpiece,” is creeping closer in time to “Inspector Morse,” the popular British mystery from which it was spun off: The seventh season of “Endeavour” is set in 1970, within hailing distance of the 1987 advent of “Morse.” And as the shows converge, the notion that the stern young detective Endeavour Morse played by Shaun Evans in the current series is going to age into the paunchy, sardonic, thoroughly modern misanthrope played by John Thaw in the original is becoming increasingly hard to entertain.
Evans’ formal, diffident, awkward Morse is fine in its own right, though, and ITV’s “Endeavour” shares the original’s pensive, almost mournful atmosphere. The new three-episode season (it premiered in February) carries on storylines from Season 6 that find Morse increasingly at odds with his boss and mentor, Fred Thursday (Roger Allam), as the case of the killer haunting the towpaths of Oxford’s canals refuses to stay solved. The racism and sexism of the time figure into other homicides, and the indignities of aging and Morse’s latest disastrous love affair contribute to the generally downbeat tone. As always, the dolorous goings-on are exquisitely enacted by Evans, Allam and, as their superintendent, Anton Lesser.
— ‘We Hunt Together’
At the far end of the British mystery spectrum from “Endeavour,” this rare original series from Alibi — a channel that exists primarily to show reruns of other channel’s crime shows — is firmly within the camp of lurid melodrama. Everyone is damaged, from the former child soldier to the brainy phone-sex worker to the frighteningly rigid cop.
Eve Myles (“Torchwood”) and Babou Ceesay (“Into the Badlands”) play the latest variation on mismatched partners — her the all-business sergeant, him the jolly, empathetic, higher-ranking detective just brought in from internal affairs. Myles and Ceesay make the familiar byplay fairly engaging, but they’re only half the story: Equal time, and nearly equal sympathy, is given across the six episodes (which debuted in Britain in May) to the Bonnie-and-Clyde killers played by Hermione Corfield and Dipo Ola. The murder-for-love plotline may not hold water, but everyone involved is fun to watch.
— ‘The Other One’
This series about two half sisters who discover each other when their father dies belongs to a genre, the life-force comedy, that isn’t my favorite. (It often involves weddings, as in “Muriel’s” and “My Big Fat Greek.”) But the show’s creator, Holly Walsh (“Motherland”), deftly undercuts the inherent sentimentalities of her story, even as the supremely uptight Cathy (Ellie White) and the raucous, free-spirited Cat (Lauren Socha) predictably overcome their differences and form a new family blended from emotional openness and cheap white wine run through a SodaStream.
White, who plays the dire Princess Beatrice in “The Windsors,” is entirely convincing as the anxious and controlling but big-hearted Cathy, and she’s ably supported in the first season’s seven episodes (shown on BBC beginning in June) by Socha and a pair of scene-stealing veterans, Rebecca Front and Siobhan Finneran, as the dead man’s furious wife and his dizzy, agoraphobic mistress. Perhaps most important in setting the show’s tone is a classic-pop soundtrack centered in the missing father’s late-’70s sweet spot: Supertramp, Orleans, Hall and Oates, “The Piña Colada Song.”
More recent and coming British, Australian and Canadian series premieres: “Maxxx,” Hulu; “Ladhood,” Hulu; “Frayed,” HBO Max; “Brassic,” Hulu; “Get Even,” Netflix; “Wild Bill,” BritBox; “Coroner,” the CW; “Upright,” Sundance Now; “Being Reuben,” the CW; “Five Bedrooms,” Peacock.