While television in the U.S. continues to broaden in variety (thank you, cable networks), British networks like BBC, iTV and SkyTV have been pushing boundaries and surprising audiences for years. They consistently manage to attract the most talented actors and creators, and thanks to their shorter seasons -- anywhere from three episodes to 13 -- they're perfect for binge watching.
Where better to start than with the British show that has outlasted all other British shows ever. If you're not watching Doctor Who, you don't know what amazing escapist entertainment you're missing. Forget what you think you know and put all your preconceptions aside. Today's Doctor -- a 2,000-year-old alien who travels time and space, defending mankind and the entire universe -- is smart, hilarious, exciting and endlessly surprising. Netflix offers a feast for Whovians, with the entire modern run of the show and many seasons of the classic show, too.
It sounds like a terrible idea: relocate Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson into the here-and-now and recycle Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's classic storylines with modern twists. The result is something that has no right to be this unbelievably good. Sherlock boasts a brilliant cast in Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman and it's smartly written. But Sherlock works because it knows exactly what we expect it to be -- and it delightfully turns those expectations on their heads in ways that are both subversive and respectful.
One of the longest running British shows on modern TV, Foyle's War is sort of like Sherlock if it happened during World War II. This detective mystery starring Michael Kitchen is returning for its ninth season in 2015, so now's the perfect time to indulge in its charms.
This highly acclaimed Idris Elba vehicle ended its television run after three acclaimed seasons. But the exceptionally dark police drama about a genius detective is soon getting a big-screen prequel. So catch up now on Luther to see what you've been missing.
Sarah Lancashire stars in this Broadchurch-like police tale that mixes a police chief's complicated personal life with a kidnapping case that hits unexpectedly close to home. It was a massive hit in the UK when it first aired, and Netflix quickly snatched up the exclusive U.S. rights to it. A second season is coming sometime in 2015.
Gillian Anderson (man, I miss The X-Files) stars in this cat-and-mouse psychological thriller about a gifted police detective pursuing a wily serial killer in Ireland. Anderson is the detective; 50 Shades of Grey's Jamie Dornan is the killer. However, Anderson is the only reason you need to watch The Fall. She knows her way around a law enforcement role, and it's always fun to watch her nail a British accent. Season 2 debuts soon on BBC Two.
Somehow, Kenneth Brannagh occasionally finds time to star in this despite his busy schedule on stage and film. He's the title character of Wallander, a Swedish policeman who investigates ultra-violent crimes. Somewhat similar to Sherlock, each season consists of three movie-length episodes, and they're based on the novels of Henning Mankell. A fourth and final season is coming in 2015.
Call the Midwife
One of the greatest beneficiaries of Downton Abbey making period dramas cool again is this emotional, engrossing look at nurse midwives tending to women entering childbirth. Call the Midwife is set in London's poverty-stricken East End in the wake of World War II, and Brits found it so compelling that it pulled in even higher ratings than Downton, one of the UK's biggest ratings winners in years. A Christmas special is on the way this December, while a fourth season is coming in 2015.
This Doctor Who spinoff took on a life of its own, becoming a major cult hit in the UK after its first year. Torchwood is about a team of specialists operating out of Cardiff, who deal with (usually alien) threats that mankind is not ready to handle. Its five-episode miniseries of a third season was utterly brilliant, while Season 4, co-produced with the U.S.'s Starz, was bigger and more epic in scope, if less focused. The show's future is up in the air, based entirely on creator Russell T. Davies' busy schedule, but the cast is hopeful for more.