Forget every preconception you have of what British television means. It is more than Downton Abbey, Doctor Who, and Monty Python. It is more than cookie cutter cop dramas. There are so many things you could never have imagined–some of it crap and some of it beautiful.
There is no such thing as “British humor.” Some British comedies are over-the-top ridiculous, like David Walliams and Matt Lucas, while others are quiet and subtle, like The Office or 15 Storeys High. Eddie Izzard is a big champion of the idea that there are many different kinds of humor, and you will find people in most cultures who like different kinds, so a particular kind of humor does not directly align with a particular culture. There is the idea that in British sitcoms, there is one gag per page, whereas in American sitcoms, it’s much more gag-heavy. But if you look at the sitcoms of Graham Linehan, Robert Popper, or Lee Mack, you’ll find it much more of that “American” style of constant jokes, whereas The Office is not driven by quick-fire gags and a laugh track, even though Ricky Gervais says his style is inspired by American comedy. Therefore, if you do not find one particular television show, genre, or writing team to your liking, do no take it out on all of British television, for it spans the breadth of all audiences. You just have to find the right one for you. Anglonerd is here to help.
Get a region-free DVD player. I know, I know, DVD player, what’s that? I stream all my TV online because I’m one of the hip kids. But if you want to watch quality British comedy living in the States, you’ve got to either (1) get a region-free DVD player or (2) set your DVD player to region zero. If you have a normal DVD player, google the model number and find out how to switch the region. (Region 1 is the US and Canada, region 2 is the UK, region 0 is everything.) You can also use a computer DVD-ROM, but not all computers have region zero as an option, and you can only toggle between regions so many times (on both players and computers) before it locks into one region. What about Blu-Rays? Some of them are still region-specific, and not all Blu-Ray players play region zero DVDs, which means you’re missing out on all kinds of quality indie DVDs like Fist of Fun (though that is a bad example because the rights just reversed to the BBC) and various standup shows.
Having a region zero DVD vs. having a region zero DVD player: To be clear, if the DVD itself is region free, it will play on any DVD player regardless of what the region is set to. If you have a region 1 or region 2 DVD, you can play either of them on your DVD player if you’ve set the player to region zero.
While there are a lot of great British TV shows streaming on services like Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon, and while many of the more popular TV shows have been released on region 1/NTSC here in America, there are so many that just are not available anywhere but in region 2 DVD format. Don’t miss out on The League of Gentlemen and the like because you don’t own a DVD player (or heaven forbid, a TV).
Sign up for online streaming services. Hulu (free) and Hulu Plus (monthly fee) have a page of British television shows to stream, including Miranda, Red Dwarf, The IT Crowd, QI, Black Books, Peep Show, all the favorites. Netflix (monthly fee) has a bunch, too, but they are so constantly adding to and purging their offerings that listing them here would just look dated. I have discovered shows like Death in Paradise and Scrotal Recall (aka Lovesick) on Netflix, for example. On Amazon Video (pay per episode or sign up for Prime), you can get all sorts of things like Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell or season 1 of Friday Night Dinner. There’s also Google Play, Vudu, and a number of others.
I don’t condone pirating content, so you won’t find bit torrent info on Anglonerd.com. I will give you the sites where you can pay for content or watch it for free legally. Occasionally, I may link to something on YouTube if it is not commercially available anywhere and doesn’t look like it ever will be, such as This Morning with Richard Not Judy, but this is still not totally on the up and up behavior.
Likewise, there are some great streaming services like Channel 4 On Demand which are only available in the U.K. There are ways around this by using a geo-blocker, like Tunnel Bear or Zen Mate, but I can not endorse the legality of using these services in this way, either. (And some sites, like BBC and Amazon.co.uk, are wise to this anyway.) There are good reasons not everything is available globally. For example, if a movie, say Dave McKean’s Luna for example, gets a UK distribution deal, they don’t want people in the U.S. watching it yet because should they land a U.S. distribution deal later, the people who have already pirated the UK version are not necessarily going to spend money to buy the U.S. version, so the U.S. distributor gets screwed, or worse yet, the U.S. distributor finds out that it was made available to people in the U.S. and decides not to distribute it, leaving good little non-pirate Americans out of luck. It is up to you whether you want to use geo-blocking to gain access to additional shows, but make sure you’ve read up on the legalities before you decide for or against it.
Closed captioning. Let’s be honest, some Americans, not all but some, need subtitles on British TV shows, at least while starting out. It also may depend on the show, as accents that are more Hugh Granty are familiar to American ears because of Hollywood, where something Mancunian like Life on Mars might be a little more difficult. Probably the easiest accents to understand are the Midlands or Bristol, simply because they are the closest to the American accent due to the pronunciation of the letter “R”.
Get recommendations from trusted sources. That’s where Anglonerd.com comes in! As I said, there’s no one type of British TV or comedy, so not knowing you, I can’t possibly give you a blanket recommendation that’s sure to be a hit, so read some reviews and recommendations on the site. I try to explain who the shows are good for (for example, if you like dirty humor, you might like Nighty Night; if you like clean humor, you might like Tim Vine) to give you some direction. But if I were forced to give a blind recommendation, why not start with Dylan Moran? His standup crosses cultural gaps and Black Books season 1 is a mighty fine transition into British sitcoms.