One of the very best things about British TV (in my opinion) is the fact that so many of its series are composed of a tiny amount of total episodes. At first glance this seems like a challenge; when you find a show you love, of course you want it to go on forever. And in the U.S., where we’re used to our best-loved programs running for many seasons, and many many episodes per season, it can be a bit of a shock to get used to the truncated nature of British TV series.
Why is there such a difference? I asked our British Secret Weapon Jackie this once, and she answered that a lot of British programs are the brainchildren of one or two people who create them and write all their episodes. This is part of the reason why the shows are so great–their creators have a clear vision for what they want the show to be and where they need the characters to go, without constantly worrying about getting enough viewers every season to keep the show going forever. It’s refreshing. So what you get is a whole bunch of great series that are perfect little jewels of writing and performance–many of which can be watched in their totality in 6 to 12 hours or so–that is, in one day, if you apply yourself.
So what to watch?
Fawlty Towers. Well, you almost always have to start with an oldie but a goodie, don’t you? This classic was created and written by John Cleese and Connie Booth, and only ran for 12 half-hour episodes, making your total viewing time 6 hours. In that time you will cringe, laugh, cringe again, then nearly die laughing even though you might try to fight it. The series has recently come under fire for its ridiculously stereotyped portrayal of Manuel, the Spanish hotel porter; broad Nazi jokes, and numerous other issues, but there was also something deeply satisfying (for women, anyway) about watching Basil Fawlty’s sharp-tongued wife Sybil cut him down about three sizes in one second with scorn when his schemes landed him in hot water. Watch, laugh, and enjoy one of the most influential British shows ever.
The Office. The British version of The Office (not to be confused with the American The Office, which was a great show in its own right, but was much more American in its 201-episode run) was a perfect example of the shorter British series run making a perfect little jewel. Consisting of only two seasons of six half-hour episodes each, with two hour-long specials, you can get this one watched in 8 hours. Although you might need to spread it out over a weekend–Ricky Gervais’s turn as cringe-inducing office boss David Brent was so convincing that watching it was about as painful as actually going to your own terrible job. But the love story between Dawn and Tim? Oh…perfect. And so satisfying to watch from beginning to the end (which is just a new beginning) in a third of a day. (Oh! And don’t forget…Gareth!)
Moone Boy. Yes, you’ve found me out, every list I write is just an excuse to list Moone Boy, the Irish comedy written by Chris O’Dowd (who also stars) and Nick Vincent Murphy. Over the course of eighteen half-hour episodes (in 3 seasons), you’ll feel like you know exactly what it’s like to be the “imaginary friend of an idiot boy in the west of Ireland.” Genius. This is one of the few British series that I actually wish had gone against type and had just been longer, damn it. Sadly, I’ll just have to keep re-watching it.
Happy Valley. So of course most of the series on this list are comedies, because comedies are often 30-minute programs. Happy Valley is an hour-long drama, but is still only 12 episodes (2 series) long, so if you’re willing to halve your day, you could get through this one in a tense, horrified twelve hours. Because this is one of the most harrowing dramas/police procedurals I’ve ever seen. Set in Yorkshire and featuring the fantastic Sarah Lancashire as a cop raising the grade-school-aged son of her daughter (who killed herself in the aftermath of the rape during which her son was conceived) and living with her ex-heroin-addict sister. James Norton co-stars as the absolutely chilling villain of the piece.
London Spy. Okay, London Spy was not so much a series as it was what Wikipedia terms a “five-part drama television serial.” Whatever. At only five hours long, this could fit nicely between two of the other sitcom binge-watches provided on this list (just for a bit of variety). Critical reception was mixed, but many viewers found this story about two men who meet and fall in love in London–until one of them turns up dead, and it transpires that he also worked for the British Secret Intelligence Service.
The Thin Blue Line. You know, you just don’t hear a lot about this sitcom set in a police station (and starring Mr. Bean himself, Rowan Atkinson), and that’s a shame. In parts it’s quite deliciously hilarious, in that British way that just absolutely drips with innuendo. And, at 14 episodes (half an hour each), it only takes you seven hours to laugh through the season’s entire run.
ON the other hand…if you’re looking for a program that will keep you home watching TV for a much longer time? Do consider the comedy Last of the Summer Wine. It ran for a total of nearly 300 episodes…from 1973 to 2010. WOW!
are a lot more programs we could cover, but we’ll save those for another post. What are your suggestions for “Watchable in a Day” British programs?