What makes those British TV dramas so good?


If you need more evidence of the triumph of television as a premiere form of entertainment, just check out the continually growing list of quality dramas from across the pond, usually via PBS or BBC America.

Downton Abbey is the obvious pick right now, but it’s one on a long list. I’m especially drawn to British crime dramas.  Helen Mirren’s brilliant Prime Suspect is one of my favorites, but what about more recent additions such as Broadchurch and Whitechapel? And let’s not forget old standbys such as Foyle’s War, or the Oxford pair of Inspector Morse and Inspector Lewis.

The good stuff from Britain can pop up unexpectedly. For example, I was searching around Amazon’s streaming video a few months ago and discovered London Hospital (a/k/a Casualty 1900s in the U.K.), a short-lived drama about the Royal London Hospital set during the turn of the last century. It’s got a touch of ER and a load of Victorian atmospherics and understated Brit acting (wholly unlike ER). It also serves as a bit of a history lesson about health care 100 years ago.

British TV dramas typically mix great use of locations with astonishingly good acting. And whereas even the best American TV dramas usually feature young, very attractive lead actors and actresses, the Brits aren’t as obsessed with youth and looks. As a result, the characters tend to grow on you in more nuanced ways, like real people do.

Furthermore, the storylines are more compelling than so many American counterparts. The crime dramas tend toward the gritty and authentic. You’ll never confuse an episode of Prime Suspect with, say, one of TNT’s The Closer or its successor, Major Crimes.

However, it’s also fair to say that America is catching up, thanks largely to a cluster of superb dramas on cable, such as The Wire, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad (so I’m told — binge view to come soon).

Here in Boston, we’re looking at a pretty cold winter. What better time than to access the treats awaiting us on the small screen?

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