Crime is universal. However, crime drama, specifically its attitude and tone, differs depending on where you live. Don’t believe me? Try comparing the American Elementary to the British Sherlock. Both are excellent, but very different from each other.
While an American audience is well-versed in The Blacklist, Hawaii Five-O, and NCIS, Netflix offers you the chance to explore the best of British crime dramas.
With that in mind here are 10 British crime dramas all Americans (and everyone else reading this) should watch on Netflix.
Sherlock stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman as Dr. John Watson, the iconic figures created by Arthur Conan Doyle. Those original books are essential reading, and this show is similarly addictive, even if it takes differing approaches to the characters.
This is the Great Detective in contemporary London, with cases riffing off famous (and not so legendary) stories. It’s incredibly smart, admittedly sometimes to its detriment, but you can’t question the amount of love and attention that’s gone into every episode.
Written by a collection of Doctor Who scribes — Steven Moffat, Mark Gatiss, and Steve Thompson — Sherlock immediately gained a huge following when it debuted in 2010. It’s most notable for its stunning direction, however: initially spearheaded by Paul McGuigan (Luke Cage), its ideas are heady, immersive, and incredibly distinctive.
Dark. Brooding. Thrilling. Luther is an absolute tour de force, and one of the most pulse-pounding series of recent times.
The idea behind DCI John Luther is a well-worn one: a man with as many terrible demons as the people he’s trying to catch. Fortunately, there’s a lot more to it than that, most notably very affecting narratives, and Idris Elba (The Wire) giving it his all in the lead role.
Created by Neil Cross (Mama), it’s a shocking, psychological thriller that pushes limits and delivers genuine scares. It’s not a typical “Whodunnit” by any means — for starters, you know who the killers are. You then get to see their adrenalin-fuelled crimes, following what they do while Luther tries to get into their mindsets.
Its first episode, aired in 2010, also introduces Alice, played by Ruth Wilson (The Affair), a captivating and oddly-charming sparring partner for Luther. It’s a dynamic you simply have to see.
3. The Fall
A similar relationship comes to the fore across three seasons of The Fall, charting Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson’s (Gillian Anderson) hunt for serial killer, Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan). The man is stalking the streets of Belfast, Northern Ireland, and attacking young professionals — Gibson is brought in when the case drags on for too long. It’s the hunter becoming the hunted, but which is which?
Things get even more interesting when Spector’s obsession with Gibson grows, and his secrets threaten his home life, specifically when his daughter starts having nightmares about the murderer.
The gritty drama soon developed a dedicated following when it debuted in 2013, and won numerous accolades including: Best Television Drama at the 2014 Irish Film and Television Awards, Best Television Episode Teleplay at the same year’s Edgar Allan Poe Awards, and Best British Crime Writing at the 2015 British Screenwriters’ Awards.
David Suchet played Hercule Poirot between 1989 and 2013. Few actors can claim such longevity in a single role. You can instantly see what makes the character so appealing: after all, the iconic status of the sleuth, created by the wonderful Agatha Christie, is paralleled only by Sherlock Holmes.
Poirot is, of course, a Belgian detective, but this ITV production feels quintessentially British. In amidst the stiff upper lips, however, Christie was very character-driven. She understood people: their silly little quirks, their passions, and what could ultimately drive them to do the unthinkable.
In these 13 seasons, adaptations of the original novels and short stories, you’ll witness the ingenious, the chilling, and the definitive Poirot. In 2009, Agatha’s grandson, Mathew Prichard said:
“Personally, I regret very much that she never saw David Suchet. I think that visually he is much the most convincing and perhaps he manages to convey to the viewer just enough of the irritation that we always associate with the perfectionist, to be convincing!”
If you want to understand why Agatha’s stories are a British institution, this is a great place to start.
In March and April 2013, the U.K. was hooked.
11-year-old Daniel Latimer is found dead on the beach of the sleepy seaside town of Broadchurch. It quickly becomes obvious that he didn’t jump from the clifftop above. He was murdered. And this blows the close-knit community apart.
It’s fair to call Broadchurch a televisual sensation. It grabbed the headlines and captured the nation as suspicions flew left, right, and centre. Who would kill a young boy? Why?
Writer, Chris Chibnall kept the questions coming, but his true genius was in focussing on the emotion at the heart of this drama. It’s a genuinely affecting piece, driven forward by a stunning cast that includes David Tennant, Olivia Colman, and Arthur Darvill. Season 1, Episode 5 is arguably the most moving, beautifully played by David Bradley (the Harry Potter films).
You might have seen the U.S. adaptation, Gracepoint. Broadchurch is vastly superior.
Very few TV series can survive the change of a lead character. Doctor Who immediately comes to mind. 24, too. And then there’s Death in Paradise. The first two seasons starred Ben Miller (The Armstrong and Miller Show) as DI Richard Poole. Then Kris Marshall (Love Actually) took over as DI Humphrey Goodman. More recently, Ardal O’Hanlon (Father Ted) replaced him, so keep an eye out for that on Netflix in the near future.
All the characters are immensely likeable, but the main star of the show is its format. A British detective gets transferred to the Caribbean island of Saint Marie, and has to adapt to this new life, while solving brilliant crimes. Stunning vistas frame a hugely enjoyable fish-out-of-water tale with an extra helping of humor.
Writer Robert Thorogood carried Agatha Christie’s Peril at End House in his back pocket when he was younger, and her influence on him shines through in these imaginative mysteries.
Jack the Ripper had a profound effect on London, especially its police force. This gritty, thought-provoking drama takes place shortly after the serial killer’s last murder, where we find Whitechapel’s H Division fighting to maintain peace. DI Edmund Reid (Matthew Macfadyen) heads the team alongside DS Bennett Drake (Jerome Flynn), and surgeon, Captain Homer Jackson (Adam Rothenberg).
The show changed considerably across its five seasons, but kept the same contemplative tone. Never shying away from the shocking truths of society in the 1800s, the series frequently commented on historical events, and the dark truths lurking beneath the propaganda.
And the darkness within ourselves. It may be dark and bloody, but it’s also a surprising tearjerker. Watch Am I Not Monstrous? as a prime example of this.
The BBC actually axed Ripper Street, but its considerable fanbase convinced Amazon Prime Video to revive it as a co-production. Phew!
If you want a crime drama that’s really unusual, try River.
You’ll know Stellan Skarsgård from Thor and Avengers Assemble; here, he plays John River, a detective inspector plagued by the ghosts of victims of cases he has to solve. Then there’s DS Jackie “Stevie” Stevenson (Nicola Walker) — a recently-murdered colleague whose “manifest” follows River around. The pair seem to have been more than just friends, and the sadness of their situation is underlined by their warmth.
The problem River faces isn’t solely solving her murder. It’s whether he really wants to — knowing that, once he does, she’ll disappear from his life forever. At what price justice?
There are only six episodes, but it was critically acclaimed, holding a rare 100 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes.
9. Happy Valley
A staged kidnapping spirals out of control when convicted rapist, Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton) proves too much of a wildcard. Royce’s original victim was Becky, who committed suicide as a result of his crime. She’s the daughter of DS Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire), who’s now investigating this new kidnapping.
It’s an intriguing premise, and obviously not for the faint of heart. It’s brutal and shocking, but nonetheless wonderful. There’s a lovely humanity at the heart of this show, highlighted by Sally Wainwright’s realistic (and witty) dialogue, and stellar acting from the whole cast.
Happy Valley has rightly won numerous accolades, including the BAFTA for Best Drama Series, Best TV Drama at the Crime Thriller Awards, and Best TV Drama – Long Form at The Writers’ Guild of Great Britain Awards. When it debuted in 2014, it became an immediate hit, and a second season was soon commissioned, though took until 2016 to materialize. You can enjoy both seasons on Netflix now, and they are perfect for binge-watching.
10. Foyle’s War
World War II was fought on many fronts, and Chief Superintendent Foyle (Michael Kitchen) has his own battles to win, closer to home. The war has created chaos, and crime breeds on the streets of Hastings, Sussex. Aided by his driver, Sam Stewart (Honeysuckle Weeks), this is where the unassuming Foyle makes his stand.
The vast majority of the 28 episodes are written by Anthony Horowitz, best known as a novelist (Trigger Mortis; the Alex Rider books), who brings a great sensitivity and understanding of the period to the drama. The show wasn’t stuck in 1940, however. Its progression meant that, in its final two seasons set in 1946–47, Foyle worked for MI5 against the pressures of the Cold War.
Foyle’s War eventually became victim of its own success: its historical accuracy meant high production costs, leading to its cancellation. Still, it remains an enjoyable and respectful piece.
With so much awesome content on Netflix, it’s difficult to narrow down what to watch during a quiet evening in. But missing these shows would surely be a criminal act in its own right.
Which British crime shows have I missed off the list? Which British crime dramas do you love? Is this a genre you’re particularly interested in? Or do the Brits do another genre even better? Please let us know in the comments below!