The best British TV comedies you can watch online right now
If you aren’t familiar with British comedy series, they can catch you off guard. On the surface, they appear just like American comedies – at least to American audiences – but there is something inherently different about the best British TV comedies.
There are still plenty of British shows that are identical to American comedies. They stick to a formula, for better and worse, they never dip too low or fly too high – just like many American sitcoms. When they break that mold though, it can be spectacular. From The Thick of It’s Malcolm Tucker berating a member of Parliament to Edmund Blackadder scheming to marry the queen, there’s nothing else quite like it.
The best British TV comedies are similar to their American counterparts, but also a bit different in key ways. Little cultural differences stand out. Themes and tones are just bit to the side of where we expect them. In may ways that makes them all the more enjoyable, because it feels fresh.
The list below is colored by personal opinion, and anyone that writes a “best of “ list and doesn’t admit that upfront is selling you something. So please enjoy our choices for the best British TV comedies that you can find streaming online right now. Due to the ever changing nature of contractual issues we can’t guarantee that a show will be on a particular platform – take Red Dwarf, for example, which was on Netflix for years until this last round of contract negotiations took it away. Some you can find online for a fee, but before you go that route, check out YouTube. You may be surprised at what you can find.
If your only exposure to Rowan Atkinson is the farce happy Mr. Bean, or one of his similarly self-defacing characters, then you may be shocked to find that he also has a dark, witty streak. That is on display in his earlier TV work, especially Black Adder.
Throughout the four seasons and various specials, Atkinson introduces us to the line of Blackadder, a British family that has been dipping in and out of history for around a thousand years. It begins with Blackadder as a sniveling prince, but then morphs into a show about a scheming survivor, trying to carve out a niche in the world. It is also crammed with guests that would go on to become famous in their own right, including Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. There are few shows that better exemplify the full spectrum of British humor, from the goofy to the witty.
Coupling may have been a thinly veiled attempt to cash in on the popularity of Friends, but it managed to find its own niche by taking those ideas from Friends and adding bumping it from PG to PG-13. The show was even cloned into an American remake on primetime, where it died a sad and lonely death on NBC. There’s something poetic and bizarre about an American show (unofficially) spawning a British show, which in turn spawned an American show.
Regardless of its weird trajectory, Coupling launched creator Steven Moffat into a new league, paving the way for his eventual rise toward showrunner of Sherlock and Doctor Who. The show itself was meant to be an edgy, and like all edgy comedies there are moments that don’t age all that well, and border on the offensive. Then again, it is British humor at its height. Offensive is almost a given.
Although it only ran for two seasons, John Cleese’s argument that he was more than just the silly walk guy for Monty Python continues to resonate as strongly today as it did when it first aired. It contains the wit and unpredictability of the best of British comedies, along with a dark and slightly brutal approach to satirizing the traditional British man stuck, raging against the unknown future.
Countless imitators have tried to recreate Fawlty Towers, but none have even come close to matching the impact of the original. Some of the jokes and references are dated, of course, but it holds up surprisingly well 40 years later.
Gavin and Stacey
There was a failed American remake of Gavin and Stacey on Fox, called Us & Them. It featured a guy from New York in love with a girl from Pennsylvania. It was horrible, and missed what it was about Gavin and Stacey that makes the show work. Gavin and Stacey is about two people that are deeply connected, but continue to run into walls thrown up by their differences many of which can often be described as cultural.
And yet there is an undeniable charm to it that the American version could not recreate. The Welsh come off a little worse for it, but there is an optimism buried at the heart of the show. Unfortunately for fans hoping for a fourth season of Gavin and Stacey, the show was too good. The people behind it, especially co-creator and co-writer James Corden, have no trouble finding work. Corden is the new host of The Late Late Show, taking over for Craig Ferguson. Still, the three seasons stand on their own.
The IT Crowd
The IT Crowd is one of the most traditional sitcoms on this list, with a cast of three primary stars and a handful of supporting characters. It is a workplace comedy steeped in technology-based humor, but with an undercurrent that would work in any environment. Where it really excelled was in casting.
Chris O’Dowd was already well known in Britain, but he is fast approaching international fame after roles in films like Bridesmaids. The lynchpin though, is arguably Richard Ayode, whose bizarre performance offered a sweetness that helped to define the show and act as a balance to some of its darker moments – of which there were plenty.
Often when you try watching comedies that are decades old, they generally feel dated. Sensibilities change, and with them so to do tastes. This is especially obvious with humor, which tends to be rooted in the events of the day. Monty Python is a rare exception.
Sure, there are some skits that haven’t aged as gracefully as others, but the original sketch show that launched the Python troop is still clever, sharp, witty, and even subversive all these years later. You may have to dig around online to find these episodes streaming (there are several clips on YouTube right now), but where there’s a will, there’s a dead parrot. Monty Python is not just one of the best British TV comedies, it’s one of the best comedies anywhere, period.
Peep Show is a very, very British show. Its humor is somewhat culturally specific, covered in the British love of seeing people horribly embarrassed. That’s not a unique quality, of course, but the British do it very well, and very often. The show also uses a first person perspective that is meant to put the viewer in the head of the characters, something that is equal parts intriguing and disturbing.
Series creators Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong are currently working on their current show, Fresh Meat, which almost made this list as well, but it can be difficult to find streaming without plenty of work. Peep Show, however, will return for a ninth season at some point this year, bringing back the characters that think themselves incredible on their way to a crushing realization that they are not.
Few comedies have changed as much over their lives as Red Dwarf. If you watch the 1988 pilot, then jump right to the last episode that aired in 2012, you may wonder if you are watching a completely different show that just happens to have the same cast. The sci-fi based Red Dwarf began as a typical sitcom with a unique premise that focused on the last survivor of a giant mining ship trying to keep it together as he searched for Earth. Over the years, it shifted that focus more on the sci-fi angle as much as the comedy, thanks in part to series co-creator Rob Grant leaving in 1995
That has led some fans to abandon the show, but it continues on. Two more seasons are on the way, beginning in 2016. The cast is set to return, and filming is set to begin later this year.
Spaced is the Helen of Troy of TV series: it is the show that launched a thousand careers. Pretty much everyone involved in Spaced either went on to carve out a solid career, become a star, or an international star. Simon Pegg may be Scotty in Star Trek nowadays, but it wasn’t long ago that he was a geek in a flat with a woman he had to pretend was his girlfriend to keep the lease. It also feels very much like an Edgar Wright product.
Like his films, Wright exerted a specific control over the TV show that launched his career in film. It’s unique, original, and crammed with pop culture references that still hold up 15 years later. There’s even a moment where you can see the heartbreak caused when a diehard Star Wars fan saw the The Phantom Menace for the first time. It’s like innocence lost.
The Thick of It
For those that aren’t used to the limits of British TV, The Thick of It can be absolutely shocking. If it were an American film, it would receive a hard R rating thanks to the language alone. The inner workings of the British government are framed through a lens of vulgarity so deep and profound that you’ll want to take notes for the next time you play Call of Duty online.
The cast is memorable throughout, but the breakout star is Peter Capaldi, in a role that made him a major star throughout Great Britain and helped him to earn the role of the Doctor in Doctor Who. Definitely not one to watch with the kids – unless you want them to begin hurling insults at school that will make Child Services investigate you – but it is one of the best British TV comedies around.
What British TV comedies did we miss?
We will soon follow this list up with one covering the best British action/dramas, and another covering sci-fi.
Let us know what we got wrong, and what we forgot in the comments below!