If you limit yourself to American television, you’re missing out on some of the best and bleakest drama available. There are several British series that have deservedly received a fair amount of play stateside — Ricky Gervais’ “The Office,” “Doctor Who,” and Stephen Moffat’s brilliant “Sherlock Holmes” series, to name a few — but there are several other series that haven’t been spoken about much in the United States. In part, that’s because America is only now acquiring a taste for the bleak. “Breaking Bad” has demonstrated that we don’t always need happy endings and likable anti-heroes, and “Game of Thrones” has illustrated that we don’t mind seeing major protagonists killed off. British drama, in part because it’s government subsidized, is allowed to take risks without fear of alienating its audience or upsetting sponsors and, as several of the shows on this list attest, neither are they afraid to piss off the very institution providing the funds. No one hates big government as much as British television writers, and they have no reservations about intensely developing characters and then jerking them away from us.
I would not go so far as to suggest that British drama is better than the best American drama, and that’s in part because British drama lacks a sense of humor. I don’t think they’ve ever heard of comic relief. But overall, it often is more intense, more harrowing, and almost always more unpleasant. But if you like to squirm, if you like television ultra-violence, and if you don’t mind having your soul broken in two, here are five British shows you might just appreciate.
MI:5 — Americans who have seen the first four seasons of the British series, “MI:5” (known as “Spooks,” in Britain) often liken it to a smarter, more intense version of “24,” the kind of show that, if Jack Bauer were in it, you’d probably find him curled up in a broom closet in a pair of piss-stained jeans bawling, “Take me back to American TV where they don’t melt people’s faces off in frying oil. Not even during sweeps!”
“MI:5” was actually created in response to “24,” to give the Brits their own high-intensity international terrorist drama, but it’s a completely different beast. In “24,” Jack Bauer might be faced with saving a family’s life or saving a city from exploding and he’d figure out a way to do both, but in “MI:5,”the spies will save London from a terrorist attack, but you’ll also have to watch the agonizing, painful and personalized death of the family they sacrificed to do so. It is brutal, and, unlike “24,” there are no indestructible heroes. In the second episode of the series, a very well known actress in British television — who many considered to be the star of the series — had her head dunked into frying oil, which basically set the stage for the kind of series “MI:5” would be. In 10 seasons of “MI:5,” the cast has turned over innumerable times, so you never know if an agent will live or die on a particular mission. They don’t even wait for season finales to kill off major characters: A character could be developed over three seasons, and then suddenly be killed at any time, on any mission, and often in an agonizingly violent manner. The episode-to-episode missions are gripping, and the season-long story lines are harrowing. It’s great television, but I would bail after series six. It’s at that point — after the show has taken the stakes as high as they can go — that the wheels begin to come off. (All 10 Series, up through 2011, are available on Netflix Instant).
Luther — As far as intensity goes, the Idris Elba cop series, “Luther” — which stands at two series, ten episodes in all —- is to “MI:5” what “MI:5” was to “24,” which is to say: 3x “24.” In a head-to-head between showdown between Jack Bauer and Luther, forget about it. Bauer would’ve screamed for half a bloody hour, and Luther would’ve returned a cold gaze that woud’ve broken poor Jack Bauer’s soul wide open. Then Luther would casually walk off in his blazer and jeans in search of a real nemesis. There’s a reason “Luther” isn’t big in the United States yet, and that’s because given all the problems this country has with heart disease, “Luther” could probably put 20 percent of the country into hospital beds. The show doesn’t even give you time to change your underwear before you sh*t your pants again. Elba stars an obsessive copper who works for the Serious and Serial Crime Unit. It’s not a procedural exactly, and it’s not about the investigations precisely, either. It’s more of an exercise in seeing how much intensity its viewers can withstand. It’s also quality goddamn television. (Both series are available on Netflix Instant)
Torchwood — I won’t lie to you: The first series of “Torchwood,” a loose spin-off of “Doctor Who” aimed at adult audiences, is not very good. Like a lot of Showtime series in America, it tries too hard to grab an audience with its sex appeal (it is, however, one of the few sci-fi series that includes a lot of sex). The series from Russell T. Davies is about a team of alien hunters — think “The X-Files” crossed with “Mission Impossible” — and it coasts by, at first, on the bisexual charm of its lead character, Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman). However, the show picks up momentum by the end of the first season, and comes into its own in the second, exploring a lot of the sci-fi themes you’d expect from “Doctor Who,” only in a darker, more bleak manner. But the true payoff is the third series — a four-part miniseries called “Children of the Earth” — which is maybe the darkest, most depressing five hours of television I’ve ever watched, and one of the best sci-fi stories ever told. But it will absolutely gut you.
WARNING: DO NOT watch the American spin-off of “Torchwood” released on the SyFy channel last year. It’s terrible, a pale comparison to the British series. (All three original British series are available on Netflix Instant)
Shadow Line — “Shadow Line” is a damn good crime serial, complicated and bleak, engrossing as it is dark. It basically stars everyone in Britain who’s good at acting (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Christopher Eccleston, Lesley Sharp, Rafe Spall, Anthony Sher), and it’s like a psychological Mexican stand-off movie: You get the sense very early on that almost everyone will die on both sides of the “line”; it’s just a matter of when. It’s a bit on the dry side, but as far as character development, and as far as the lengths the writers will go to shock your senses, “Shadow Line” has giant balls of steel. Like a lot of UK shows, “Shadow Line” also implicates its own government is massive, dark, and horrifying conspiracies, which is all the more ironic since most British television is government funded. “Shadow Line” is kind of like The Departed, in that there really are no good guys on either side of the line; the characters exist in the shadows. The show, which preceded the phone hacking scandal in England, in its own way, also kind of predicted it (“Shadow Line” played on DirectTV last month, and is available on DVD).
The Hour — “The Hour,” which played on BBC America last summer, has been frequently compared to “Mad Men,” but aside from the period setting (it’s set in the 1950s), the fashion, the alcohol abuse, the smoking, the vice, and the promiscuity, it’s completely different! Dominic West (“The Wire”) leads the ensemble as an television news anchor at a point in history when television news in Britain was just beginning to break away from reporting in a way that was favorable to the government. “The Hour” investigates the back-room dealings between politicians and journalists, and it takes a paranoid and distrustful look at its own institutions of authority. In the midst of the relationship drama similar to what you might see on “Mad Men,” there’s also a gripping murder mystery, more akin to “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy.”
(Available on DVD, and possibly re-airings on BBC America, which is co-producing a second series with BBC for this summer).