There are many things us British people struggle with — Brexit; the weather; saying anything other than “great” when the barber shows us our finished haircut — but making good TV shows is not one of them.
Over the past decade, Britain has produced some truly glorious television — from the dark dystopia of Black Mirror to the gleeful euphemisms of The Great British Bake Off.
In the list below, we’ve attempted to whittle down our 10 favourites of the 2010s, in no ranked order. Documentary, drama, comedy and reality TV have all been considered, providing they originated on a British network.
Here we go…
1. Black Mirror
You might not think a TV show that begins with a world leader being blackmailed into having sex with a pig could ever make for compulsive viewing – but oddly enough, you’d be wrong.
Set in various twisted versions of the near future, Black Mirror is an anthology series that focuses on advancing technology in our digital world. Basically it makes you question everything: what lies ahead for dating and social media; how advancing AI could impact grief… even seemingly innocent things like the humble bee don’t get away unscathed.
As you can probably imagine, the show can get quite bleak at times. But it’s also brilliant. Creator Charlie Brooker worked as a TV critic throughout the noughties, and the process clearly taught him a thing or two about what makes a memorable viewing experience. -Sam Haysom, Deputy UK Editor
A few years before Olivia Colman was scooping up a (very well-deserved) golden statue for The Favourite, she was busy putting David Tennant in his place in Broadchurch. Colman plays a detective sergeant in a seaside town on Britain’s south coast in the show, and her constant squabbling with Tennant’s character is just one part of what makes it great.
Fair warning, though: Broadchurch isn’t exactly a light watch. It’s a dark whodunnit about a child’s body being discovered on the beach at the base of a cliff, and how the ensuing investigation tears a small town completely apart. And that’s only the first season.
Broadchurch is one of those shows where everybody’s a suspect, and everyone’s got something to hide. But it makes for incredibly addictive viewing that’s made even more perfect by the ridiculously good acting and steady drip-feed of clues. -S.H.
You can’t have a good TV show without good characters. Luckily this is an area where Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan’s bittersweet comedy-drama Catastrophe absolutely excels. Despite their faults, Sharon and Rob – the fictional couple whose lives we follow from their first meeting all the way through to parenthood – are the type of people you just really wish you could hang out with IRL.
That’s probably down to the way the show’s written – although we often laugh at the situations Rob and Sharon get into, plenty of the time we’re also laughing with them. Their characters are funny and relatable, which makes us all the more invested in their lives.
What really pushes this show from the “great” to the “favourite” tier, though, is how poignant it can be. Think BoJack Horseman, or that episode of Futurama where Fry’s dog dies (no, we’re still not over it). Catastrophe reels you in with its light-hearted social awkwardness, then gut-punches you in the feels with sudden explorations of deeper themes like grief and loss. -S.H.
4. Chewing Gum
One of the best comedies of this decade was a two-season wonder based on a one-woman stage show about a sex obsessed female protagonist with a difficult older sister and no respect for the proverbial fourth wall. No, not that one, though that one is also very good. The other one.
Chewing Gum (which did precede Fleabag by a year) had lighting-fast jokes, visual gags for days, and uncomfortably relatable sex hijinks, all strung together by the excellent writing and starring performance by Michaela Coel. Equal parts raunchy and joyful, the show never looked down on its cast of characters, even when they were as objectively weird as an incest-obsessed cousin, a mother catfishing her daughter’s dates, or a wildly misinformed adult virgin who prayed daily to Beyoncé to grant her some action.
Michaela Coel has since moved on from Chewing Gum, but the show’s perfect two seasons are on Netflix, where they should over the next decade become standard comedy viewing for anything who wants to see what funny really looked like in the 2010s. -Alexis Nedd, Senior Entertainment Reporter
5. Downton Abbey
Ever since Kemal Pamuk tragically popped his clogs mid-coitus with Lady Mary, there hasn’t been a dull moment at Downton. Created and written by Julian Fellowes, the Downton story begins in April 1912, with Season One ending in summer 1914 as Lord Grantham receives a telegram saying the United Kingdom is at war with Germany. We follow the Grantham family’s dramatic lives for 14 years, right up until Jan. 1, 1926.
Those 14 years are, uuuuh, DRAMATIC, shall we say. There are multiple shock deaths. As you watch Downton Abbey, you’ll notice yourself being lulled into a false sense of security. “Isn’t this lovely?” you’ll say to yourself. And then quick as a flash, the character you’ve been gushing over gets brutally killed in gruesome circumstances. You’ll find yourself hastily wiping away tears from your ashen face. It’s a rollercoaster ride of emotions — one that requires an abundance of tissues. Oh and the Dowager Countess (played by the legendary Maggie Smith) and her acerbic one-liners deserve their own spinoff show. -Rachel Thompson, Senior Culture Reporter
Never will a word on television cause such a ruckus again. “Kneel.” If you’re not in need of a dramatically cold compress after hearing that, you clearly haven’t watched Fleabag. Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s lauded, follows the tumultuous exploits of a smart, witty, and undeniably troubled protagonist, who regularly breaks the fourth wall and chats to the audience while ricocheting through sex, family drama, silent retreats, and grief in London.
Adapted for television from Waller-Bridge’s one-woman play first performed at Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2013, this modern masterpiece earns its stripes as the talk of the town. Wondering why the hell your friends are obsessed with a Hot Priest? Want to see the unforgettably venomous role literally written for Olivia Colman? Smash through all 12 bite-sized episodes quicker than you can buy The Jumpsuit online. -Shannon Connellan, UK Editor
7. The Great British Bake Off
This show — or “programme” as we say in Great Britain — is the equivalent of a pair of non-creepy arms reaching out of the television and enveloping you in an enormously comforting hug. I find myself crying inexplicably when characters drop their custard tarts on the floor (they worked so hard!!!!) or even just at the faintest whiff of team spirit (they all help each other!!!!!). Bake Off is a show about amateur bakers — people who love to make cakes on the weekend, but who also happen to be pretty talented (some more than others).
There’s none of the cut-throat hostility that you’d see on the likes of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares. Instead, it’s just a bunch of friendly humans doing something they love in a tent in the British countryside. I love it so much that I can literally feel my eyes welling up inexplicably as I write this. So yeah, basically this is the most delightful programme ever invented. You’ll find yourself cheering with delight when Paul Hollywood reaches out his arm to proffer a highly coveted “Hollywood handshake” when someone bakes something really well. You’ll cry tears of joy when someone succeeds in the technical challenge after weeks of technical failures. And you’ll coo audibly into the TV set when you see the bakers helping each other out in a pinch. Team work makes the dream work! -R.T.
8. Killing Eve
There are plenty of genuinely unnerving TV characters out there, but few come close to Jodie Comer’s Villanelle. Killing Eve would honestly be worth watching for her alone.
The cat-and-mouse spy thriller – which was also created by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who can do no wrong on this list – revolves around MI5 officer Eve Polastri (played brilliantly by Sandra Oh), and her attempts to track the unhinged assassin down.
Needless to say, it’s not an easy job. Villanelle butchers her way through various adversaries with such an impressive mixture of skill, dead-eyed determination and – yep – humour that you actually end up rooting for her in some scenes.
If a show can make you cheer for a terrifying assassin, it has to be doing something right. Right? -S.H.
9. Planet Earth II
There are few things in this world more soothing than the sound of David Attenborough’s gentle, earthy voice. And when you combine that voice with itchy bears, romantic birds and the greatest iguana/snake chase this world has ever seen, television magic happens.
Planet Earth II was filmed in 40 countries over a whopping 2000+ shooting days, and the level of effort that went into the six-episode documentary clearly shows in the finished product. The visuals are ridiculous, Hans Zimmer’s score is predictably perfect, and Attenborough’s rumbling narration picks out stories and characters that make each episode feel like its own movie. -S.H.
The game is truly afoot in this modern adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s beloved detective series created by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the infuriatingly brilliant Holmes and Martin Freeman as his long-suffering sidekick Dr. John Watson, Sherlock was an unbridled success for the BBC — tuned in to “The Six Thatchers” episode on New Year’s Day 2017 alone.
Freeman plays Watson with charming befuddlement — something the audience can really cling to when Sherlock really digs into his “mind palace” — while Andrew Scott truly embraces the organised chaos of a machiavellian criminal mind as Sherlock’s unhinged nemesis Jim Moriarty. But it’s Cumberbatch, solving every crime with a crazed twinkle in the eye (and often a literal skip in his step), who really dances through the role many British actors before him have taken on. Can you remember any of them after this version? -S.C.