The best British TV shows, featuring (clockwise from top left): 'Black Mirror,' 'Red Dwarf,' 'Doctor Who,' and 'Call the Midwife'

The Best British TV Shows, Ranked

You would be forgiven for thinking Britain doesn’t have an awful lot going for it at the moment, but it does have a lot of very good television. Here’s 15 of the best British TV shows to check out. They may not have as many episodes in a season as you’re used to in the U.S., but that just makes it easier to argue that they’re worth your time.

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15. The Crown

The Crown Season 5 Imelda Staunton

Like the British royal family? No? Like hearing about the endless trouble and drama they’ve caused over the years? Then this is the show for you! We start with a young Queen Elizabeth who’s only just taken the throne and follow her as she grows into her role and Britain changes beyond her recognition. The show is controversial in Britain for its portrayal of the royals but that hasn’t stopped anyone. Season six is out very soon and will cover the death of Princess Diana.

14. The Repair Shop

The crew of The Repair Shop (BBC)

The Repair Shop operates on a simple premise. People bring in old and half-ruined items, usually heirlooms passed down from a passed on loved one, and the talented crew at the shop restore them. We get to see people’s most treasured things be turned from battered to beautiful, all to the sounds of relaxing music and whispered instructions. Tears are often shed at the end when the fixed-up object is unveiled to the owner. And guess what, the restorers don’t even charge the show participants for their incredible work.

13. Thunderbirds

The puppets of Thunderbirds (ITV)

A Supermarionation show from the wonderful mind of Gerry Anderson. Thunderbirds tells the story of astronaut Jeff Tracy, his five strapping sons, and their fantastic Thunderbirds which help save civilians from natural disasters. It aired in the 60s, so it’s extremely dated now — check out the 2015 remake Thunderbirds are Go if you want to introduce the Tracys to today’s kids – but it’s an important part of British TV history and referenced in other shows constantly.

12. I May Destroy You

Michaela Coel in I May Destroy You (BBC)

A harrowing drama from Black Panther: Wakanda Forever star Michaela Coel. Her character, Arabella, is raped while on a night out, and she understandably spirals afterwards. Coel drew from her own experiences for the show, telling Esquire, “When they closed my case, I learned that I would have to find my own closure … This became my objective with Arabella. I wanted to explore the different ways that a person can engage with a very traumatic situation. Ultimately no one scenario is really the answer.” I May Destroy You is an extremely hard watch at times, but it was a big hit and put Coel on the map as a thrilling talent.

11. The Goes Wrong Show

The cast of The Goes Wrong Show doing a Shakespeare-themed play (BBC)

The best British comedy show you’ve never heard of. The Goes Wrong Show is about a troupe of actors (the real-life Mischief Theater group) who are comically bad and incompetent, but that doesn’t stop them from trying to perform every kind of play, from horror to period drama, in front of the BBC cameras every week. It’s an absolute masterclass in physical comedy. I’m desperate for a third season but I don’t think one is coming, so I just watch seasons one and two and the Christmas specials whenever I need cheering up.

10. Black Mirror

Daniel Kaluuya in Black Mirror (Channel 4)

Some of your favorite British stars got started in Black Mirror before going on to mega-fame, including Daniel Kaluuya and Letitia Wright. As well as star power, the series—which examines society’s relationship with technology through a dystopian lens—truly has something for everyone. There’s touching love stories, horrific tales of monsters, and an episode in which Charlie Brooker uncannily predicted the future by having the Prime Minister do something unpleasant with a pig.

9. Broadchurch

Olivia Colman and David Tennant in Broadchurch (ITV)

Broadchurch is a drama so twisty that it kept a whole nation occupied for weeks. The whole of British Twitter (Britter?) was trying to work out who killed Danny and why after this show premiered its first season back in 2013. Maybe the answer will be satisfactory to you and maybe it won’t, but whatever you think of the resolution (and the fallout, which pushed Broadchurch into two extra seasons) there’s no denying that the cast do an incredible job here. Olivia Colman’s performance helped cement her as one of the best British actors of her generation.

8. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Simon Jones in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (BBC)

I absolutely wore out my VHS of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as a kid. It’s based, of course, on the radio show and book by Douglas Adams, and brings it all to life in an immensely charming way. By which I mean, “the special effects are hilarious by modern standards and the show is all the better for it.” Not bad for something the BBC at first considered to be completely unfilmable! Definitely the best live-action adaption of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy so far, sorry-not-sorry to the 2005 movie starring Martin Freeman.

7. Good Omens

Michael Sheen and David Tennant in Good Omens
(Prime Video)

I had doubts at first that a live-action adaptation of Good Omens—a truly wonderful book by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman—could ever work. But I’m very glad to report that I was wrong! The Prime Video series does justice to the original novel and even expands on it in some wonderful ways. It’s so good I can even forgive them for casting Jack Whitehall of all people in a major role.

6. This Is Going to Hurt

Ben Whishaw and Ambika Mod in This Is Going To Hurt (BBC)

Yes. Yes, it is going to hurt. A lot. This Is Going to Hurt, based on the book by Adam Kay, is a devastating look at what life is like when you’re a junior doctor floundering without support. Oh, there are funny moments in this limited series, and thank god for that, but all in all it’s a pretty hard watch. Definitely worth it, though. The performances from Ben Whishaw and Ambika Mod are absolutely fantastic, and were rightly raved about by critics.

5. Noughts + Crosses

Masali Baduza and Jack Rowan in Noughts and Crosses (BBC)

In 2020, the BBC premiered the TV adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s iconic British book, Noughts & Crosses. The premise is simple: What if Africa colonized Europe instead of the other way around? From there, Blackman deconstructs British racism and her own experiences. The TV show modernizes a few things, but mostly stays very close to the original story, including its tragic ending.

I’m slightly biased about this one because Noughts & Crosses was one of my very favorite books growing up and I’m so glad the TV show adapted it faithfully.

4. Call the Midwife

Leonie Elliot, Helen George and Linda Bassett in Call the Midwife (BBC)

Call the Midwife is an incredible period drama that lures people in with its wholesome nuns and midwives and then makes two things very, very clear: the NHS is vitally important to Britain, and so is the right to an abortion. With a smile through gritted teeth, the series also tackles: poverty, racism, homophobia, sexism, religion, and so much more. And all of it, somehow, without being patronizing. (Though some people might find Vanessa Redgrave’s syrupy voice overs at the beginning and end of each episode a little much.) There’s nothing quite like it on TV.

3. Blackadder

Rowan Atkinson and Tony Robinson in Blackadder (BBC)

Blackadder is a dry-witted, hysterically funny romp through British history with Rowan Atkinson’s scheming Edmund Blackadder and his unfortunate sidekick, Baldrick. The show is endlessly quotable, but its greatest-ever moment is one with no dialogue at all and occurs during the final seconds of the World War I-set fourth season. Appropriately, it also went down in history as one of the most iconic and saddening things that British television has ever produced.

The last Blackadder show was a one-off special for the new millennium, and now it rests in peace. Occasionally there’s talk of doing a fifth season, but I think I speak for a lot of people when I say: dear god, no.

2. Red Dwarf

Robert Llewellyn, Danny John-Jules, Craig Charles, and Chris Barrie in Red Dwarf (BBC)

Sci-fi sitcom Red Dwarf took risks many other British comedies of the 1980s were afraid to take. It cast two Black men as leading characters, for a start. Then it took audiences on an endlessly funny adventure through space (and occasionally time, not to mention alternate universes) while throwing ridiculous, genius ideas at them from every angle.

Red Dwarf is also a found-family show as good as any you’ve ever seen. The last (and so far final) outing for our beloved Smegheads, TV movie The Promised Land, nearly had me crying at a couple of points.

1. Doctor Who

David Tennant in Doctor Who (BBC)

Having Doctor Who take first place on this list almost feels like cheating because it’s not just one show: it’s 100 shows in one. Every season gives you something distinctive and there’s always a different main character to follow as well, albeit usually in a wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey way. Do you like science fiction? Fantasy? Romance? Social commentary? Comedy? Doctor Who does all that and more. It’s lasted over 60 years at this point and I bet it can stick around for another 60, no problem—and no TARDIS needed.

(featured image: Netflix / BBC)

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Sarah Barrett
Sarah Barrett (she/her) is a freelance writer with The Mary Sue who has been working in journalism since 2014. She loves to write about movies, even the bad ones. (Especially the bad ones.) The Raimi Spider-Man trilogy and the Star Wars prequels changed her life in many interesting ways. She lives in one of the very, very few good parts of England.