America’s obsession with both Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag and Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You is more than warranted, but from the long lens of female-fronted comedies from overseas, perhaps a bit overdue. Even if Rickie Gervais got most of our attention for a decade or so, Britain in particular has a long history of giving funny women a platform to run wild with their own comedic visions.
While it may take American ears a minute to settle into the various accents and accumulate to each show’s distinctive rhythms, there’s a whole treasure trove of easily-binged English-language series from beyond the border of the United States to enjoy. As the streaming platforms increasingly compete for content, those shows have also never been more accessible.
If you’ve run out of content to watch during this particularly cruel summer but are starting to lose your attention span completely, foreign sitcoms might be the perfect answer. We all know that a beloved long-running British program means it only ran for three seasons of six episodes each with a Christmas special thrown in. None of these shows are particularly huge time commitments. Many can be binged in less time than an entire Martin Scorsese movie.
Available on Hulu, Amazon Prime, Britbox and Hoopla.
Even if you’ve never seen AbFab, you’ve likely felt the influence of the Jennifer Saunders-created sitcom. Without the rule-breaking characters of Saunder’s Edwina Monsoon and Joanna Lumley’s Patsy Stone, we probably wouldn’t have mold-breaking sitcom favorites like Karen Walker from Will & Grace, Cybill and Maryann from Cybill, Samantha from Sex and the City, or Lucille Bluth from Arrested Development. Hell, even Cersei Lanister’s hard drinking and frigid emotions owe some debts to Patsy, and Waller-Bridges says the program was an eye-opener for her. The antics of the two “Stoli-Bolli”-drinking, cigarette-smoking, pill-chugging, endlessly shallow characters still cut a little too close to home for anyone who works in PR or fashion magazine editing (believe us). And while it’s their banter that brings the laughs, it’s Edwina’s relationship with her studious, bespectacled daughter that actually provides the show’s conceit of reversed roles for a mother and daughter. The script is also so disinterested in the subject of men (with the exception of designer Christian Lacroix, sweetie), it’s possible that not a single episode would pass a reverse-Bechdel test.
Available on Netflix
You’re really going to have to take a minute to get used to the show’s particular accents, but once you acclimate, the Lisa McGee-created series is truly a treasure. Set during the early 1990s in Northern Ireland, when British-Irish relations were particularly tense, the show follows the exploits of a group of girls (and one male English cousin) at an all-girls Catholic school. Their typical teenage exploits—failed talent show performances, parent-less parties, and part-time jobs—are juxtaposed against the terrorism and bigotry around them, making for particularly poignant program. The show earns every laugh, and every tear.
Available on HBO Max.
In a different timeline, Sarah Kendall’s Simone Burbeck character might have gone on to be frenemies with the AbFab gals. In the opening scenes of Frayed, she’s an extraordinarily wealthy London housewife in 1988 with no concept of money but a good eye for the particular fashions of the time. By episode two, her husband is dead, her money is gone, her name is revealed to be fake, and she’s been forced to move her family back to her humble Australian birthplace that her children weren’t even fully aware of. Though the show has some sharp satire, it also tugs at the heart strings, with characters experiencing actual emotional growth (far from a requirement in the British sitcom industry).
In My Skin
Available on Hulu
After having swept the Welsh equivalent of the Emmys last year, Kayleigh Llewellyn’s dark comedy arrived on Hulu last week. Gabrielle Creevy plays a 16-year-old student balancing typical teenage concerns while dealing with her mother’s struggles with mental health and her estranged father’s alcoholism. Lest you think the overseas comedy might take the subjects a bit too lightly, the show currently has a perfect 100 percent on Rotten Tomatoes thanks to its sensitive but still sly take.
Hunderby, Sally4Ever, and the Collected Works of Julia Davis
Hunderby available on Hulu, Sally4Ever available on HBOMax.
We’re not entirely sure you can say Julia Davis has any American counterpart, male or female. Maybe Larry David, but only by misanthrope standards. Since the early ‘00s, Davis has created and starred in a string of pitch black comedies. She started with Nighty Night, in which she plays a sociopath looking to use her husband’s cancer diagnosis to her advantage. Then there was Hunderby, a period piece that was called “cartoonishly grotesque.” More recently, she had a hit with Camping, which Lena Dunham adapted for American audiences (quite unsuccessfully, according to most critics). She finally crossed the pond properly, when HBO aired Sally4Ever in 2018. Davis starred as Emma, a woman who gets a sick thrill out of seducing and then ruining the life out of another woman named Sally, whose life was, up until then, completely mundane and unfulfilling. Unfortunately, only Hunderby and Sally are currently available to stream in America.
Kath & Kim
Available on Netflix
This Australian classic will make you nostalgic both for the ridiculously bad fashion trends of the early aughts and the times when the idea of middle class excess was a thing you could actually satirize. Longtime collaborators Jane Turner and Gina Riley play a suburban mother and daughter (despite being just six months apart in age in real life) whose lives revolve around trips to the mall, tabloid magazine reading, and various self improvement schemes. The show fires off jokes on multiple levels involving everything from simple catchphrases and broad physical comedy to a clever sense of wordplay and social commentary. Get through the first season and you’ll not only begin to suspect that the producers of Modern Family certainly took some notes from the show but may have just straight up nicked a prominent joke. Turns out Sophia Vergara wasn’t the first to mix up baby cheeses and baby Jesus. For that matter, It’s also the show that popularized the term “Muffin Top” and clips from the show still continue to go viral worldwide. This bit in particular has resonated deeply during lockdown.
Available on Netflix
Canadian comedian Mae Martin offers both a queer take and a foreign view on the Britcom. Playing a slightly fictionalized version of herself, she falls in love with a shy woman named George in the audience of one of her shows. However, trouble bubbles up with Mae reveals her past struggles with narcotics while George is hesitant about going fully public with their relationship. If you need extra American-comfort encouragement, then know that Lisa Kudrow guest stars as Mae’s mother.
Available on Hulu
It’s been posited that Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag is the evil twin of Miranda Hart’s Miranda character. Both are the blacksheep daughters of respectable families with weird businesses (one a guinea pig cafe, the other a practical joke shop), a poor grasp of social norms, odd relationships with their long term boyfriends in season one, and, most notably, a predilection for breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience directly. It’s just that while Fleabag may start out as a verifiably “bad” person, Miranda is just awkward as hell.
Filmed before a live audience, the show is a bit more traditional to the sitcom format. In fact, so much so that American TV execs couldn’t help but buy up the rights to it. A Mayam Balik-starring adaptation retitled Call Me Kat is set to premiere on Fox later this year. Quarantine content hero Leslie Jordan will co-star.
Available on Hulu
Yes, you are remembering that the decidedly lovely trio of Niecy Nash, Laurie Metcalfe and Alex Bornstein starred in a dark HBO comedy about nurses of this name a few years back. It was actually based on the British original. The equally lovely trio Jo Brand, Joanna Scanlan and Vicki Pepperdine, all veterans of British comedy, decided to get together to create and write a starring vehicle for themselves. One of the main differences between the two versions is while the British staff often finds themselves bogged down by the bureaucracy of the public NHS, the American characters get caught up in a financial corruption scheme.
Available on Netflix
Premiering just a few months before Fleabag, Crashing is the oft-forgotten entry in the Waller-Bridge oeuvre. Which is a shame, as it’s a breezy six-episode binge worth your time. Think of it as a particularly English take on Friends, except the six young friends can’t actually afford pricy apartments, Phoebe is hellbent on seducing Ross, and Chandler and Joey have tense sexual chemistry.
Before Coel’s gripping I May Destroy You, she first won hearts in her full-out cringe comedy Chewing Gum. She plays a sheltered young 20-something who grew up in a religious household who has a Beyoncé-inspired epiphany and decides to open herself up to more of what the world has to offer (including parties, dating, and sex). Netflix was the show’s American home for years, but the rights lapsed right before Destroy You’s premier on HBO Max. We’re sure there’s been plenty of communiques between London and Hollywood over the past few months attempting to nail down a new deal for American rights. Well, we hope so. Because you’ll notice, this list is otherwise devoid of shows by women of color. While Britain and its commonwealth do have notable comedies that feature minorities, most either focus on men or families. Here’s hoping the BBC’s recent commitment to diversity leads to more opportunities.