Stiff upper lips? Hardly. The best of British TV is anything but stuffy. From the guilty pleasure of the trashy Footballers' Wives
(returning for a third season in February) to hauntingly dark mysteries and wacky comedies, BBC America has become one of my top cable destinations for the range of its bold and unpredictable programming. But the fun doesn't stop there. PBS still turns to England for classy drama, HBO has developed a crush on shows with an accent (Rome
) and A&E will air a fourth season of gritty spy drama MI-5
in 2006. Here's a roundup of some recent arrivals.
Tuesdays at 9 pm/ET, BBC America
Think: "Oz with Estrogen"
The Lowdown: It's lurid, violent and grotesque, but how disappointed would we be if a soap set in a women's prison were anything but? Sometimes it's hard to know who's worse: the scheming, catfighting inmates (led by Debra Stephenson as the flamboyantly devious Shell) or the lazy and lecherous guards. For anyone who thinks Prison Break is too realistic.
Score (0–10): 6
The Virgin Queen
Sunday, Nov. 13 and 20, PBS
Think: "Real-Life Dynasty"
The Lowdown: Masterpiece Theatre revisits the legendary monarch, with Anne-Marie Duff giving an unusually earthy portrayal of the formidable Tudor queen, rocked by reckless passions during an age of religious and political turmoil. Emmy winner Glenda Jackson (1971's Elizabeth R) still owns the role — at least until HBO's miniseries, starring Helen Mirren, arrives in 2006.
Returns in 2006, BBC America
Think: "ER: The Dark Side"
The Lowdown: This fall's most riveting and disturbing drama (next to Nip/Tuck) is set in a grim OB-GYN ward where deadly mistakes are covered up while whistle-blowers face professional and personal ruin. The heroes are also heels, but they're battling monsters. The six-episode premiere season wrapped November 3. I'm on pins and needles until the show returns next year.
Mondays at 10 pm/ET, BBC America
Think: "Cop Rock in Vegas"
The Lowdown: An intoxicating six-part hybrid of mystery, love triangle and surreal musical (shades of Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective), with characters thrust into wild production numbers as they sing to a pop-rock soundtrack, from the Elvis to Elvis Costello. The setting: a seedy resort town where a shady casino owner is suspected of murder.
Sundays at 10:30 pm/ET, HBO
Think: "The Office Goes to the Movies"
The Lowdown: HBO is replaying this bitterly funny series about a frustrated actor (The Office's Ricky Gervais), desperate to get a line to read, who whiles away long days on movie sets. The celeb cameos, including a potty-mouthed Kate Winslet this week, are priceless. The first season ended with a glimmer of career hope. How will he blow it in Season 2?