The BBC isn’t just for news and sports. Since the turn of the century, we’ve seen countless high-quality dramas and comedies air on BBC One as well as BBC Two and BBC Four. These BBC shows are so good they easily rival what you’d find on AMC and HBO.
And with increasing regularity, the best BBC shows are being made available to watch on Netflix U.S. Providing Americans with more reasons to subscribe to Netflix. Be warned that British programming has a different feel to what you may be used to, but if you’re willing to cross that bridge, you’ll love what these shows have to offer.
1. Sherlock (2010)
Sherlock is a modernized take on the renowned detective story series by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman are perfectly cast as Holmes and Watson, and the entire show is so stylish and entertaining that one can’t help but be drawn in and enthralled.
Each season only has three episodes, but that’s OK because each episode is basically a 90-minute feature film that covers the material in one or two Doyle stories. There’s a lot to love about this show, including the surprising-but-inevitable twists and turns that made Sherlock Holmes such a hit in the first place.
2. Peaky Blinders (2013)
Peaky Blinders stars Cillian Murphy, also known as “that guy from the Christopher Nolan films,” who plays leader of the Peaky Blinders gang in post-WWI Birmingham (England) and attempts to avoid the investigations of a ruthless detective played by Sam Neill.
But that premise doesn’t do the show justice. It presents a richly interwoven narrative with lived-in characters who span multiple storylines. If you’re looking for a gritty and grounded period drama, it doesn’t get better than Peaky Blinders.
3. North & South (2004)
North & South is a four-part miniseries (more like a mega-movie, if you ask me) that tells the story of a woman who moves from southern England to a factory town in northern England during the 1850s and falls in love, but struggles to assimilate.
While there’s nothing particularly original about an “outsider meets hostility and resistance” story, North & South is a winner due to how much attention it pays to production design, atmosphere, and most importantly, its characters. Execution is everything with TV shows, and North & South nails it.
4. The Office (2001)
The US and UK versions of The Office are, on the surface at least, twins: the characters fulfill the same roles, the set designs share similarities, and entire conversations exist in both versions verbatim. Despite this, the UK version is a completely different beast — mundane, dry, and even a bit mean — but hilarious in its own special way.
This one was “the original” and paved the way for the golden age of mockumentary sitcoms, including Arrested Development, Parks and Recreation, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (which are all on Netflix too). For more like it, you may want to check out the funniest British comedies on Netflix.
5. Happy Valley (2014)
Happy Valley is anything but happy. This small-town crime drama centers on a police sergeant who’s depressed and grieving the suicide of her teenage daughter. When the man responsible for it is let out of prison, she grows obsessed with tracking him down and demanding justice.
This is drama in the truest sense, and it’s elevated by the intricate web of characters and relationships that drive the central conflict in Happy Valley. A wonderfully written show, though a bit hard to get into if you aren’t in the right frame of mind.
6. Luther (2010)
If you were to imagine a kind of Sherlock Holmes who’s driven by anger and violence and not always able to solve his cases, you’d likely arrive at John Luther. Here’s a detective who cares more about justice and revenge than civility and law, which may sound noble at first but is actually quite frightening.
The show begins with “case of the week” episodes as it establishes characters, but eventually shifts into longer arcs that span multiple episodes. Gritty cop shows are a dime a dozen these days, but Luther easily stands out as one of the best crime dramas on Netflix, British or not.
7. Call the Midwife (2012)
Call the Midwife follows a group of midwives in poverty-stricken London during the 1950s and uses the setting to explore various hard-hitting social and economic issues like miscarriages, abortions, prostitution, birth defects and disabilities, prejudice, and more.
Despite the weight of its themes, Call the Midwife has enough levity to avoid being a depressing watch. In fact, it’s surprisingly hopeful and optimistic on the whole, which just makes it that much more of a must-watch.
8. The Last Kingdom (2015)
The Last Kingdom is an historical fantasy show like you’ve never seen. It’s like Game of Thrones with its political intrigue in a medieval setting, but grounded in reality and not as stylized or embellished as other historical fantasy shows like Rome or The Tudors.
This show takes place in the 800s, when England wasn’t yet England and when the Saxons were at war with the Danes. The story follows Uhtred, a Saxon by birth but raised by Danes, who only wants to reclaim his homeland but is often caught between conflicts on both sides and is never quite sure who he truly is.
9. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (2015)
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell takes place in an alternate 1800s England where magic has been dead for hundreds of years and only two magicians — the titular characters — are able to tap into that power. It’s an entertaining miniseries that builds to a satisfying conclusion, and makes you wonder why we don’t have more miniseries.
If nothing else, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is a fun journey to a not-so-long-ago England propped up by strong performances. Definitely worth a watch.
10. The Fall (2013)
Tired of murder mystery shows where criminals are dumb, cops are dumber, and impossible cases are solved and tied off with a neat bow in one episode? Then this is the show for you. The Fall is a slow and methodical crime drama, showing what might actually happen if a smart detective pursued a clever serial killer.
Gillian Anderson delivers one of her best performances as Stella Gibson opposite Jamie Dornan’s murderous Paul Spector. This is a must-watch if you prefer your television shows to be more than just mindless entertainment.
11. The Honorable Woman (2014)
The Honorable Woman is the thrilling story of a businesswoman who gets caught up in a political conspiracy out in the Middle East where her company was meant to roll out optical cabling. As she investigates, secrets are uncovered and mysteries are brought to light, entangling her further than she ever imagined.
There are only eight hour-long episodes in this miniseries, but the tension is thick and the twists are plentiful. This is a conspiracy thriller done right.
12. Wallander (2008)
Wallander is a slow and thoughtful crime drama centered on police inspector Kurt Wallander and the various homicide cases that come his way. Like Sherlock, this show is more like a series of films with each episode being a self-contained 90 minutes.
One interesting aspect is that Wallander is an adaptation of a Swedish novel series, and much of the Swedish flavor is preserved in the show even though the actors are predominantly British. That alone sets Wallander apart from other crime dramas.
Other Brilliant Shows to Watch on Netflix
If you’re looking for the best BBC shows because you’ve grown bored with American TV and want to experience something new, we’d also point you to these nordic dramas to watch on Netflix and these foreign language films on Netflix.
You may feel out of your element at first, but once you get used to watching non-American movies and TV programming, you’ll find there’s a lot of content to enjoy out there.
What are your favorite British shows on Netflix? How do you feel British shows compare to American shows? Please let us know in the comments below!