The 20 Best BBC TV Shows on Netflix

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The 20 Best BBC TV Shows on Netflix

The best BBC TV shows streaming on Netflix run the gamut from the classic (Fawlty Towers) to the contemporary (Sherlock), the sunny (The Great British Baking Show) to the shattering (Broadchurch), but all the titles on Paste’s list share the broadcaster’s deft touch. Now, thanks to Netflix, these British imports are at your fingertips.

Here are the 20 best BBC TV shows on Netflix:

20. River

The premise sounds daft, to be honest: The brilliant Detective Inspector John River (Stellan Skarsgård) spends his days solving cases alongside the “ghost” of his deceased partner, Detective Sergeant Jackie Stevenson (Nicola Walker). But creator Abi Morgan, of the gone-too-soon BBC series The Hour, invests this under-the-radar crime drama with potent insights about the nature of memory, trauma, loss and grief. The one and only season (so far) is only six episodes, perfect for an autumn afternoon binge. Matt Brennan

19. The Great British Baking Show

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Known across the pond as The Great British Bake-Off, the appeal of the wildly popular reality TV series—three seasons of which are available on Netflix—is its refusal to go in for dramatic contrivances. Against Fox’s Gordon Ramsay-hosted properties, Chopped, even Top Chef, with their constant backbiting and broken dreams, the contestants on GBBS are sunny, mutually supportive amateurs (albeit extraordinarily skilled ones); in any given episode, the worst crisis is Mary Berry pressing a finger into a scone and pronouncing it “underbaked.” It’s so refreshing, in fact, that it might make a baker out me yet. Matt Brennan

18. The IT Crowd

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Chris O’Dowd (St. Vincent, Bridesmaids, the adorable Hulu series Moone Boy) stars in this silly sitcom that focuses on a daft trio of tech-support staffers at a large corporation. Dowd’s schlubby slacker and Richard Ayoade’s buttoned-up computer genius are a droll odd couple whose typically uneventful business hours (“Have you tried turning it off and on again?” is a common troubleshoot) are upended by their new coworker (Katherine Parkinson). Marked by decidedly British pacing (you could drive a Mack truck through some of the comic beats here) the essentially one-note joke lasts a lot longer than it should, thanks to its game cast and all-in approach to utter absurdity. The IT Crowd is a much broader, less refined version of The Office. Amanda Schurr

17. Foyle’s War

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A poignant look at the various effects of war on the home front, this WWII-set drama is elevated by Michael Kitchen’s (GoldenEye, Out of Africa) quiet, nuanced performance as a wary lawman on the southern coast of England. As the series opens, Detective Chief Superintendent Foyle wants a transfer—the crime rate is half the standard, and he’s tired of pencil pushing and traffic policing. Surely he can make himself of more service at a military post. Foyle’s superior is quick to note, however, there will be consequences for training half the country to kill. Way to bring it home, boss. The murders stack up, and so Foyle does his investigative duty while anti-German—not just anti-Nazi—sentiments mount locally. Over the course of the series, creator-writer Anthony Horowitz (Poirot, Midsomer Murders) excels in the moral grey areas of the battlefields abroad and at home and the mysteries therein that cannot be solved. Amanda Schurr

16. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

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The BBC’s adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s 2004 novel, set in the era of the Napoleonic Wars, mixes fantasy and history with aplomb: Its version of the British Empire may be shaped by the forces of magic, but its treatment of the nation’s ruthless rise to global preeminence is scalpel-sharp all the same. Along the way, the series’ truest pleasure is the court and spark between its two sorcerers. Norrell (the terrific Eddie Marsan is prim and bookish, Strange (the mesmerizing Bertie Carvel) rakish and debonair, and the contrast between them sets the series alight. Matt Brennan

15. House of Cards

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If you think Kevin Spacey’s machinating Frank Underwood is a smooth-as-molasses son of a bitch, the late Ian Richardson’s Francis Urquhart is a Machiavellian monster on a whole other level. Not that the stateside adaptation of this lauded 1990 series veers all that much from its British blueprint, and Andrew Davies screenplays. But without Spacey’s snake-oil southern drawl and signature physicality, the U.K. original gets real dark, real fast. As the jilted Conservative Party whip in spiteful pursuit of the prime minister post, Anderson minces neither words nor pleasantries, his glassy stare refusing to register the slightest of scruples. He’s Macbeth in an After-Thatcher political realm—emotionless, depraved and on occasion delighted in his cunning superiority. Different but every bit as outstanding (some would argue more so than its American successor), House of Cards is calculating satire in the best possible way. Amanda Schurr

14. Wallander

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Kenneth Branagh is marvelous in this moody procedural based on the novels of Henning Mankell, and the original Swedish film adaptations. A police officer on southern Sweden’s picturesque coast, Branagh’s Kurt Wallander must solve a run of freakish crimes. He’s also up to his grizzled scruff in the throes of an existential tailspin, which makes, say, the image of a 15-year-old girl seeing him, panicking and setting herself on fire an even tougher trauma to process. Branagh gives an aptly measured, introspective performance, a man who observes everything, but can’t make sense of anything anymore, the very least of which is himself. Wallander is a study in visual contrasts: saturated color schemes, dramatic plays of shadows and light, extreme changes in focus. It’s an artful complement to the detective’s largely internal struggle, which also includes issues with his adult daughter and Alzheimer’s-afflicted dad (David Warner, exceptional as ever). Amanda Schurr

13. Broadchurch

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The former Doctor Who stars in this riveting crime drama that focuses on the murder of a young boy. David Tennant is detective Alec Hardy, who with his partner Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman) must infiltrate a close-knit community on Britain’s Jurassic Coast. Of course, everybody in town has a secret, and no one takes kindly to the mounting media attention. As Hardy and Miller continue their investigation, the mystery unfolds in a slow, deceptively languid fashion, lingering on the effects of the child’s death upon the town’s residents. Creator-writer Chris Chibnall (another Doctor Who vet) is a master of atmosphere (a haunting, piano-driven score, the glistening seaside vistas) by taking his time with the details, he keeps the whodunit at a slow boil that rewards patient viewers. Amanda Schurr

12. Planet Earth

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Since the subject of a magisterial sequel, a dispatch from a disappearing world, the original Planet Earth, which debuted in 2006, is perhaps the finest introduction to nature’s innumerable variations ever recorded. In 11 episodes, one focused on the effects of climate change and each of the other 10 devoted to a particular biome, the BBC Natural History Unit’s docuseries captures mouse lemurs and blue whales, oceanic depths and mountain peaks, all in what was, for its time, cutting-edge HD. The result is a portrait of the planet’s epic scope held in perfect balance by David Attenborough’s lively, intimate narration. If you haven’t seen it yet, turn off the lights, turn on the biggest screen you own, and prepare to be dazzled. Matt Brennan

11. London Spy

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Writer Tom Rob Smith and director Jakob Verbruggen’s unsung miniseries begins as a scintillating come on: Danny (Ben Whishaw), a slip-thin, strung out club kid, meets the hunky, mysterious Alex (Edward Holcroft, who wears a towel better than Zsa Zsa Gabor wore mink), and the two embark on a brief, lip-bitingly seductive affair. Were London Spy no more than this, kinky and conspiratorial, it might merely suggest the genre’s queerness; instead, the series pursues this thread to its logical conclusion, and rather brilliantly redefines espionage as an analogue to life in the closet. With Charlotte Rampling as Alex’s impossibly icy mother and the magnificent Jim Broadbent as an old queen who knows the score, London Spy not only re-imagines the “secret” in “secret agent”—it also pays homage to the longue durée of queer culture from the Lavender Scare to the AIDS crisis, a history in which sex and politics are as inextricable as Danny and Alex’s spent and sweaty limbs. Matt Brennan

10. Call the Midwife

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“Midwifery is the very stuff of life” proves this incredibly moving, often provocative series, based on the memoirs of British nurse Jennifer Worth. Set in 1950s London—read: pre-choice, not pro-choice—Call the Midwife focuses on the nurses and nuns who work at a convent in the East End. Vanessa Redgrave narrates the experiences of Jenny Lee (Jessica Raine), a privileged young woman who must quickly adapt to life in an impoverished district, where medical resources are precious and newborns are plentiful. Predictably meticulous in period detail, the ensemble drama brims with joy and compassion while maintaining a bracingly unromantic grip on pregnancy and parenthood. Disease, labor complications and tragedies like miscarriage, stillbirth and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome are common—along with domestic violence, rape and unwanted pregnancy—yet the show warms as many hearts as it breaks. Call it feminist, call it what you will, Call the Midwife is brave television. Amanda Schurr

9. Torchwood

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A spin-off of long-running BBC series Doctor Who, Torchwood retained some of its predecessor’s campy fun, but also seemed to be reaching for the gritty realism that had understandably escaped most sci-fi shows until Ronald D. Moore’s Battlestar Galactica remake redefined what sci-fi could be. By the second season, creator Russell T. Davies seemed to conclude that Torchwood would be better suited to leave the frivolity for the good Doctor, and let Harkness go to darker places. The five-episode story-arc “Children of the Earth,” is a nail-biting, epic story that never lets up and finishes with its biggest punch to the gut. Like Moore’s Battlestar Galactica, Davies has not only reimagined a classic series, he’s used his new extraterrestrial platform to explore human nature. Josh Jackson

8. Happy Valley

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We’re first introduced to the kind-hearted, but strong-willed Yorkshire police sergeant Cawood (Sarah Lancashire) when a love-sick loon decides to set himself on fire on the playground. While grandmas and neighbors panic, and drunken youth egg the desperate pyromaniac on, Cawood adopts a pretty lax approach. She decides to prepare for the worst case scenario by going to a supermarket first, to equip herself with chords to hold her sunglasses: “He can send himself to paradise—that’s his choice—but he’s not taking my eyebrows with him.” Cawood becomes consumed with the need to put Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton), the man she believes drove her daughter to suicide—who also happens to be the father of her grandchild— behind bars. Although we’re quite sure she’d much prefer to kill him. It’d be an understatement to say that she’s having a rough time of it at home, at work and even in her own mind, but this character’s brilliance and sheer perseverance makes the series an absolute must watch. Roxanne Sancto

7. Peaky Blinders

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Cillian Murphy and Sam Neill star in this rock ‘n roll gangster drama—music from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, PJ Harvey and the White Stripes adds a modern touch to the period proceedings—set in 1919 in the West Midlands industrial city of Birmingham. Murphy is a soldier-turned-ambitious kingpin of the Shelby crime family. Neill is the equally ruthless inspector out to dismantle his organization, who enlists a lovely mole (Annabelle Wallis, also of Fleming) to aid his campaign. (Tom Hardy joins the cast in the second season.) As the steely, azure-eyed Tommy Shelby, Murphy brings his trademark quiet intensity to a multidimensional antihero, one of several thoughtful characterizations in the Shelby clan. As for the gang’s/ show’s namesake, picture razor blades sewn into the brim of its wearers’ caps and you’ll get the head-butting, eye-gouging extent of Peaky Blinders’ viciousness. Amanda Schurr

6. The Honourable Woman

Led by Golden Globe winner Maggie Gyllenhaal’s sharp-edged, vulnerable, thrilling performance as Nessa Stein, a businesswoman and philanthropist suddenly embroiled in a mess of family secrets and Middle Eastern intrigue, The Honourable Woman is the perfect (if bleak) binge. Its eight episodes set the lure early and reel one in by increments, until the truth bursts forth with stunning force. Strong turns from Stephen Rea and Janet McTeer don’t hurt, either. Matt Brennan

5. Luther

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Idris Elba as a sad, violent and genius detective, tracking down the weird serial killers of London? It’s a formula that should work, and does. “You care about the dead more than the living,” John Luther’s estranged wife accuses him. She’s right. The detective chief inspector is consumed by his cases, and a months-long suspension seems to have done little good for his mental health. Luther is nothing short of mesmerizing, slicing through suspects with the angry efficiency of a man on the brink. His already tenuous grasp on civility and basic sanity is tested further by the mind games of a woman (The Affair’s Ruth Wilson, seductive and threatening) he knows to have killed her own parents. Psychological sparring aside, this is Elba’s show, so white-hot is Luther in his rage and determination to overcome it. “Do you not worry you’re on the devil’s side without even knowing it?” wonders the tormented cop. Luther’s dread is palpable and contagious. Shane Ryan and Amanda Schurr

4. The Fall

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Let it be known that before he was Christian Grey, Jamie Dornan proved his acting chops and charisma as a disturbingly undisturbable murderer in this superb psychological thriller. Dornan’s mild-mannered husband, father and grief counselor (!) is among the most terrifying onscreen serial killers in recent memory. Paul Spector is a stalker, as exacting and methodical as his eventual pursuer. Enter Gillian Anderson’s Stella Gibson, a British detective superintendent called to Belfast to look into a spate of gruesome murders. As the cat-and-mouse game intensifies, Anderson’s characterization is its own triumph: analytical, uncompromising, reserved, but brazenly sexual on her own terms, entirely unfazed by the politicking and dick-swinging of her male colleagues. That we know the identity of the killer from the show’s first frames, and yet can’t take our eyes off the screen is a testament to the stealth creep with which The Fall operates. Dornan’s performance will make your blood run cold. Amanda Schurr

3. Sherlock

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary sleuth gets a modern makeover in the series that launched a thousand memes. Benedict Cumberbatch, in his breakout role, solves crimes alongside his trusted sidekick, Dr. Watson (Martin Freeman). Not unlike CBS’ present-day Holmes-Watson drama Elementary, the Sherlock team wisely play it straight—no winks, no questions, no classic literature context. They’re a duo from the pages of history who just so happen to exist in the 21st century. Whip-smart writing and pacing to match, coupled with a crafty, inventive visual approach—clues are revealed with onscreen text—cast Sherlock as an Information Age rock star. When the audience wasn’t trying to piece together the mystery of the week, they were finding fleeting clues to the guarded humanity of London’s finest “Consulting Detective.” Sean Edgar and Amanda Schurr

2. The Office

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Another title that begs comparison, The Office has a very loyal, very vocal camp who swear by the Ricky Gervais-Stephen Merchant original. And while some feel the opposite, still others chalk it up to a “potato-potahto” situation, there’s no denying the brilliance of the initial sitcom, which ran just two seasons. Influential in its single-camera, mockumentary staging, The Office was deeply awkward, slyly self-aware and stultifyingly mordant in its petty day-to-day operations. American The Office writer-star B.J. Novak revealed that they deliberately made Steve Carrell’s boss more likable than Gervais’ unfailingly inappropriate dipshit, David Brent. That’s the unique appeal of its British predecessor; David and his staff of paper peddlers are far sadder, more humdrum and much drier. If that’s your tepid cup of tea, the U.K. program is funnier, too. Amanda Schurr

1. Fawlty Towers

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Though its run lasted only 12 episodes—over the course of two seasons, four years apart—the BBC’s uproarious sitcom about life at an English seaside hotel in the 1970s needed no more than that to establish its place in the pantheon of TV comedies. Starring the peerless John Cleese as rude hotelier and frustrated social climber Basil Fawlty and Prunella Scales as his acid-tongued wife, Sybil, Fawlty Towers memorably skewered marriage, manners and the British class system, but one needn’t speak the language—see Andrews Sachs’ befuddled Spanish waiter, Manuel—to see the humor. Its incomparable slapstick and farcical situations are so brilliantly executed they’re never lost in translation. Matt Brennan

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