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British Invasion: U.K.-born TV shows we love

The wild success of Downton Abbey, a show produced and aired in the U.K. before being imported to U.S. airwaves on PBS, has Vulture asking this week whether the show is the TV equivalent of the Beatles — “the biggest thing ever to hit our shores from the United Kingdom?”. And while Vulture parses the numbers to figure out whether that’s true (spoiler alert: it’s tough to say, but probably not), the question itself suggests that TV-watching Anglophiles are having an impact on current pop culture.


Me, posing with a TARDIS replica in November at the New Orleans screening of Doctor Who’s “The Day of the Doctor” 50th anniversary special.

Look no further than Tumblr to see the impact of two other big across-the-pond hits — Doctor Who and Sherlock. Both shows have had a particularly good year among American audiences. Doctor Who, which celebrated the 50th anniversary of its debut in November, has long had a small but devoted fanbase among the Yanks. It wasn’t until 2009, when BBC America began airing the 5th season of the rebooted series at the same time it aired in the U.K., that the American following of the show truly took off (helped, of course, by the rise of Netflix and the availability of the previous seasons for streaming.) When the show aired its 50th anniversary special in November — bringing back previous stars David Tennant and Billie Piper — it smashed BBC America ratings records, pulling 3.6 million viewers for the show and its encore. Even more amazingly, a single day screening of the special in 660 U.S. movie theaters earned $4.8 million. I attended one of those screenings at a theater in the New Orleans area. Our local AMC had planned to show it on only one screen, and that sold out within the first 30 minutes. It later opened up a second screen, which also sold out. The event drew an impressive crowd of passionate fans, sporting TARDIS dresses and Tom Baker scarves and Dalek pins. It was quite the fandom event.

And then there’s Sherlock, which aired its third season on BBC in early January, and then aired on PBS a few weeks later. The U.S. debut averaged 4 million viewers, up 25 percent from its previous season two years ago. But neither Doctor Who or Sherlock can touch Downton Abbey in the ratings, which has averaged about 8.4 million viewers this season.

Do you have a favorite British import show? Do you think we’ll start seeing more across-the-pond success stories? Let me know in the comments!

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Snowed in? 5 TV shows to stream right now

Everyone from Denver to Boston seems to be snowed in right now, and cabin fever will soon set in. If you’re all caught up on your DVR and your street still hasn’t been plowed, perhaps now is the time to try out one of those shows your friends have always been telling you to watch. Here are my top picks.

Veronica Mars: Don’t let this show’s high school setting and spunky blonde heroine fool you. This show is classic noir, covering dark topics including murder and rape. But it’s also wickedly clever and features one of the best father-daughter relationships ever to hit the screen. This beloved series ran for just three seasons, so picking it up now won’t feel like a lifetime commitment. Plus, the Kickstarter-funded Veronica Mars movie comes out next month, so this is the perfect time to join the fun. All three seasons are available to stream for free for Prime users on Amazon Instant Video.

Orphan Black: A woman runs into her doppleganger in a train station, only to watch her lookalike commit suicide. This kicks off what has become one of the most thrilling sci-fi series in recent history, starring Tatiana Maslany as the protagonist — and as the cloned versions of herself. The second season comes to BBC America in April, and the first season is available on BBC America On Demand, as well as for purchase on Amazon and iTunes. I was able to watch the first episode for free with my Prime membership, and I was so instantly hooked that I didn’t hesitate to pay the $9 to watch the rest.

Sherlock: If you’ve been on the internet lately (or, ever), you may have noticed that people are uncontrollably giddy about how much they love the BBC’s Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the eponymous detective, and Martin Freeman as his Dr. Watson. There’s good reason for all the chatter. This series is, like Holmes himself, about as clever as it is smug, but the two lead characters have such excellent rapport and chemistry that it’s a delight to watch. Each episode is 90 minutes long, and there are 6 episodes (2 seasons) available to stream for free on Netflix. The third and most recent season just finished airing on BBC America, so if you missed them, you can buy them on iTunes.

Misfits: I stumbled on this lesser-known show via a recommendation from Hulu Plus, which knows my affinity for British dramas. And it has been my favorite “new” show in the past year, even though the first season aired in 2009. It is the story of five juvenile delinquents in the U.K. who are suddenly gifted with special powers after a freak hailstorm. The concept is straight out of comic books, but the execution is sublime. These teenage characters both hilarious and endearing, and the greatest moments come not when they are using their powers, but when they are getting to know each other and themselves. Five seasons (each 6-7 episodes long) are available to stream on Hulu Plus.

House of Cards: This critically acclaimed political thriller makes my list because it seems to have grown on me over time. Kevin Spacey’s performance as a power-hungry Senator from South Carolina is campy, but in the best possible way. Despite Spacey’s energetic performance, the show feels as though it moves a bit slowly, which is why this is a series made for binge-watching. No single episode will stick out in your mind, except perhaps Chapter 8, making the whole first season feel like a very long (but very good) movie. The trailers for Season 2, which will be released on Valentine’s Day, hint at some serious political and personal upheavals, so if you’ve been putting off this show, now is the time to give it a shot. The first season is free on Netflix.

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