The biggest night in television took place over the weekend, handing out hardware to the shows that have come to define the year. There were the usual suspects – Game of Thrones, Veep, True Detective – and quite a few of them were predicted to win big. Game of Thrones scored the most nominations of any show, ever, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus was all but locked in to take home her own history-making ninth win in the Best Actress in a Comedy category. And then, Fleabag happened. Or, more accurately, Phoebe Waller-Bridge happened.
The British showrunner might as well have moved her chair on stage during the awards, all the easier to pick up the four statues she ended up winning. Waller-Bridge was representing her hit Amazon comedy series, a show about a messy, complicated anti-heroine trying to connect with the world around her. The show earned good reviews for its premiere season, but it was the sophomore follow-up that swept the Emmys this year, and quietly signaled a changing of the guard in terms of what we consider quality TV here in the states.
That’s because, along with Fleabag’s many wins, the Brits ran away with 13 awards this year, half of the 27 handed out. So many thickly-accented creatives popped up on stage that, when Jesse Armstrong nabbed a win for Succession in the dramatic writing category, he cracked a joke about it, asking the audience to question why there were so many winners from across the pond and what that has to say about America’s current immigration policy. The phrase “shithole countries” was used.
The thing is, British television has never been shit. In fact, some of the better dramas and comedies to enter the TV landscape in the past decade have hailed from the UK. The change now – one we see with Fleabag and Killing Eve, with Succession and A Very English Scandal – comes because streaming is finally closing that Atlantic gap.
Amazon earned seven Emmys this year, beating out both Netflix and Hulu, though all three platforms dominated the night. Fleabag and A Very English Scandal notched some of the first wins, surprising critics who hinged their ballots on HBO properties like Barry and Veep. HBO still came out on top, but most of the network’s wins could still be considered victories for the Brits. Chernobyl and the previously mentioned Succession feel like quintessentially British shows, led by talent and creatives who call the UK home.
That’s not the only thing that separates these programs from their American peers, though. If the Emmys taught us anything, it’s that accessibility, quality, and word-of-mouth are key to producing a hit TV series.
With Fleabag, a show that premiered in May, social appeal was able to keep it in the zeitgeist long enough – despite final seasons of GoT and Veep (a show that also boasts a British showrunner) clouding the conversation – to earn it Emmy praise. Most of that is because of Waller-Bridge’s writing. The show sports the wit and sarcasm that’s come to define British comedies, using camera-pans and fast-paced dialogue to dig into character arcs. It’s why the series was able to deliver a fully realized season with just six half-hour episodes. It’s also why a story about a 30-something woman trying to bang a priest felt like a bigger deal than the mother of dragons taking back the seven kingdoms.
So many of the British shows nominated this year follow that same formula – condensed seasons, shorter episodes, and character-driven plotlines. They tell twice as much story in half the time, choosing to focus less on action and over-the-top comedy, and more on quiet, human moments. They sport tighter storytelling, wield dark comedy to great effect, and give American audiences a much-needed escape. Where our shows tend to go big and run long – we like to give stories the space to breathe and hook viewers with memorable, viral moments via cliffhangers and crockpots – our English cousins rely on sharp dialogue, eccentric humor, and more realistic settings to entice people to watch.
Those are the fundamental differences between shows like Fleabag and The Good Place, Bodyguard, and Barry, but the Brits’ success at the Emmys might be more than just our collective love of posh accents and pub-culture. This year’s show signaled real change for the Academy, an acceptance of streaming in a way that feels quietly revolutionary. The Oscars might still be turning their noses up at Netflix and the like, but the Emmys seem to be welcoming streaming originals with open arms – and plenty of statues.
And that’s a good thing because streaming is quickly changing the TV landscape, connecting viewers to genres and stories that would’ve been closed off just a decade ago. Streaming has given us a chance to watch series like A Very English Scandal or Bodyguard whenever, and however, we like. Game of Thrones might’ve signaled the end of the communal viewing era, but these shows, shows like Fleabag, have remained relevant because fans were able to watch and re-watch months after the initial hype of a new season ended. With shorter seasons, and that kind of availability, there came a better chance that more people would catch on, more fans would return, and the show would enjoy a longer shelf-life on social media. And if people are talking about a show, as they were with Succession or Chernobyl, Bodyguard or Fleabag, then it’s a good bet the Academy voters are going to take notice.
So sure, maybe we just love an English accent and a good spot of tea, but maybe viewers and voters are gravitating towards this international fare because it’s accessible and appealing in a way that homegrown TV just isn’t right now. Maybe, if TV really is the ultimate escape, we’d rather be transported to guinea pig cafes and Parliament than see settings that more closely resemble our own. Maybe, a new British wave is coming – and that’s only good news for TV fans.