Pop 5: Reasons to Watch BBC America

bill bodkin has a case of anglophilia …

It was an excruciatingly long, hot and physically taxing August day, and I remember I had one thing on my mind: sitting in my air-conditioned apartment and falling asleep in my favorite chair. Modest hopes, of course, but working out in the heat for 12-plus hours will do that to a man.

When I returned home, my hopes for sleep were dashed as my wife, who was unusually giddy, announced that our cable provider had officially picked up BBC America — a channel her and I had been dying to watch for years. Since that balmy, exhausting night, the channel is rarely not on in our household — and for good reason. BBC America presents some of the best original programming on television outside of AMC and HBO, and quite frankly, that’s some pretty amazing company to be in.

So I’d like to present to you my “Pop 5” reasons why I absolutely adore the channel, and why, if you have the channel already and haven’t checked it out yet, should do so immediately.

5. DRAMAVILLE — Wednesday nights

Hosted by actor Idris Elba, Dramaville is a one hour presentation of well-acted, high tension dramatic miniseries created by the BBC.

Currently, the station is re-running the absolutely fantastic 2003 miniseriesState Of Play. Some of you might remember the 2009 U.S. adaptation starring Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck. “Might” being the key word here, as the film has definitely been filed into a “forgotten” file despite being a quality flick. The U.K. version is far superior — a dynamite whodunit mystery and political thriller. The series stars John Simm, known to some for his role as The Master on Doctor Who, and David Morrissey, who sadly might be remembered for leading roles in The Reaping and Basic Instinct II, as a journalist and politician respectively. However, the real actors to watch here are, at the time, relative newcomer James McAvoy as a hotshot young reporter, Boardwalk Empire;s Kelly MacDonald as the sassy and savvy sidekick to Simm and the always-entertaining Bill Nighy as the editor of the newspaper the central characters work for. The series has so many twists, turns and taut moments, you really need to start watching as soon as possible.

Dramaville has also featured the 2009 crime series Whitechapel about three cops — a hotshot inspector, a hardened homicide detective and cop with a keen knowledge of historical crimes investigate a Jack the Ripper style murder in the Whitechapel section of London. It has also featured Luther, a crime drama starring Dramaville‘s host, Elba as a cop on the brink of self-destruction, who just happens to have a knack for solving insanely tough crimes.

The crown jewel of Dramaville is the absolutely brilliant series, The Hour. From first blush you would think this is just another Mad Men clone set during the Cold War at the BBC. And while star Dominic West has the hair of Don Draper, this series travels beyond the whiskey and casual sex. It’s a cold war spy thriller wrapped in a behind-the-scenes historical drama. It’s utterly fascinating to watch the series unfold. West, who owns in every role and is still a TV darling from his work on The Wire, is excellent as is Ben Whishaw as a chain smoking, conspiracy riddled reporter. Spaced fans will love the appearance of Jessica Stevenson.

4. LAW & ORDER U.K. — Wednesdays

I know, I know — see one Law & Order, you’ve seen them all. As the husband of an attorney who is obsessed with Law & Order marathons, I can easily say I’ve seen countless episodes of all variations of the famed crime and legal drama created by Dick Wolfe. Yet, like every variation, there’s something unique, something different, that sucks you in. On Law & Order U.K., it’s without a doubt the acting. Having watched the U.S. versions so many times, I’ve always noticed there’s been a struggle balancing strong acting on both the police and prosecution side — usually, one is definitely lacking in dramatic power, and outside of Sam Waterson’s Jack McCoy, it’s usually the prosecuting attorneys who are a bit weak, who pale in comparison to the gravity and grit of their police counterparts.

Here, the balance is perfect. On the cop side of things, Bradley Walsh is aces as the recovering alcoholic Ronnie Brooks (pictured). He’s got the same veteran quality Jerry Auerbach brought to the table but with an arsenal of subtle yet telling facial expressions and a lot less one-liners. His partners whether it be Jamie Bamber as Matt Devlin or Paul Nicholls as Sam Casey, are the type of young, tough cop perfected by Benjamin Bratt from the U.S. version in the ’90s, but with a little more five o’ clock shadow and dry Brit humor.

On the “barrister” or prosecution side of things, Dominic Rowan is excellent in the Jack McCoy role as the lead prosecuting attorney. His character, only recently introduced to the series, is still growing, but from what we do know, he’s an attorney who’s at the top of his game. But his newness in the prosecutor’s office makes every case life or death. His cohort is Freema Agyeman, known mainly from her companion role in Doctor Who, is the perfect foil to the cerebral Rowan. She’s feisty and fiery, always out to prove she’s more than just a pretty face — which of course she is.

The acting on the series is far and away better than its U.S. counterparts and the cases, since they are presented in a different country, seem fresh and interesting as opposed to the now tired formula on the U.S. shows.

3. TOP GEAR — Mondays and Thursdays late night

I know absolutely nothing about cars. Outside of knowing how to drive one, I couldn’t tell you the first thing about a gear box or how my engine compares to another. These statements alone prove why Top Gear, a show dedicated to cars, is that good.

Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May

What makes Top Gear so good is the chemistry between the show’s three hosts — Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond. There’s this love/hate brotherly jocularity delivered in that inherently dry yet wanky British style of humor that you can’t help but find yourself laughing throughout the show. Clarkson, the ring leader, is especially good at dishing out the insults and coming off cooler than the rest, despite being well aware he is a car geek. May plays it as the cranky old soul, he just takes a beating verbally from Clarkson, but still gives off this air of superiority, which only amplify Clarkson’s insults. Then there’s Hammond, the seemingly younger, wide-eyed member of the group who will self-deprecate at any moment and is oft Clarkson’s sidekick in practical jokes against May.

Comedy aside, Top Gear also has two concepts I can’t get enough of. The first is ‘The Star in a Reasonably Priced Car.’ This segment features someone of celebrity — ranging from local UK celebs to the likes of Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz, racing a reasonable, economic and not overly fast car around the Top Gear test track. Some of the stuff that comes out of the stars’ mouths, like Diaz’s penchant for swearing, come out in this race and make for great TV. You can tell almost all of these stars genuinely enjoy taking part in this race and that makes this segment just that much fun to watch.

The other Top Gear segment that’s a blast is the challenge that usually arises in the episode. Some of the challenges have been insane like who’ll reach a destination first using 1949 transportation (motorcycle vs. steam engine train vs. car), recreating the three wisemen’s journey through the Middle East to Bethlehem, racing super cars in France. All of these are just incredibly filmed, pure eye candy. Couple that with the hosts non-stop banter and you’ve got TV gold.

2. DOCTOR WHO — Saturdays, returning Fall 2012

By now you know that this site has quite the affinity for The Doctor thanks to our resident Whovian, Jason Stives. So after reading countless reviews of Series 6, I made it a priority to check it out for myself, as the series was returning for its second half the week BBC American became available for me.

Having never watched Who before, I was a little apprehensive — I was jumping in mid-season, I’m not too savvy on all the history of the show and would the show live up to the hype my own site had built up about it?

The answer was simply this: Doctor Who is just plain fun television. It’s funny, imaginative, engaging, scary, heartfelt, sad and thrilling all within the same hour. Even if you aren’t savvy to the season’s River Song story arc, it doesn’t matter. Good television is good television.

And the main reason is The Doctor himself, Matt Smith. The lanky Brit is just so engaging, he’s so likeable, even when he messes everything up, you still like him. And in the half-season, I watched him perform you saw a brilliant performer, completely immersed within the character. In this half-season we were able to see all the sides of The Doctor, including ones that weren’t to pleasant. But in the end, no matter how much heaviness, how much terror filled an episode, Smith’s half-crazed yet always inquisitive smile reassured you that all was well (for now) in the universe and as an audience member you can’t wait for the next episode.

1. TORCHWOOD — late Friday night

This has become one of my favorite shows on TV. Like most Americans, I first heard about Torchwood when Starz brought it to their line-up in 2011. It looked cool, but not having that channel anymore the show quickly faded from my mind. This fall, BBC America has taken to running the show on a late Friday/early Saturday time slot and on a whim one night I decided to check it out. And since then I have been hooked.

American actor John Barrowman portrays Captain Jack Harkness on Torchwood

The show is an R-rated spin-off from Doctor Who, as the show’s lead, the bad-ass Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), has been placed in modern-day Cardiff, Whales, to head a team from the Torchwood Institute to do battle with aliens, monsters and beings that have slipped through a time rift, that just so happens to be in Whales.

The first two seasons of the show are a little low-budget, but for some reason, it just adds something gritty and real to a show — one which certainly doesn’t lack in grit or reality, despite being a sci-fi series. It’s a stark contrast to Who — it’s bloody, it’s violent, it’s highly sexual.

However, it’s not the action, the mystery and the sci-fi that grabs you about the show — it’s the characters. The team, including the immortal Captain Jack, are all so human, they carry their baggage into work, just like everyone else. And a lot of times what causes the most high tension situations on Torchwood is when a character allows their personal issues cloud their judgment. And usually the judgment is: Do I help myself, or save the planet from destruction? And their issues aren’t silly or outlandish. One of my personal favorites is the shattered soul of Dr. Owen Harper (Burn Gorman), who on a number of occasions seems like he’d sacrifice the world in order to reunite the woman he fell in love … who just happened to slip through the time rift from the 1940s.

And here’s a wrench that just gets thrown in for you: Our hero, Captain Jack, is openly gay. I mean, make-out with dudes on camera gay. Now this isn’t something we see often on TV, let alone in a sci-fi action/drama, but after you discover Jack’s sexuality, the ‘shock’ (if there was any) wears off and it’s folded into his character flawlessly. It’s not something done as shock value or something to keep you talking, it’s as vital to the story as our heroin Gwen Cooper’s (Eve Myles) relationship with her fiancee Rhys (Kai Owen). And for a show to be able to do that is quite impressive.

Fans of shows like Lost, Fringe, The X-Files, Doctor Who or Battlestar Galactica can easily get into this show — it’s seriously up your alley. Yet I feel this is a show that anyone who loves good action or drama or sci-fi can not only get into but really fall in love with.

All Photos Credit: BBC America

Bill Bodkin is the gray bearded owner, editor-in-chief and co-founder of Pop Break. Most importantly, he is lucky husband, and proud father to a beautiful daughter named Sophie. He can be seen regularly on the site reviewing The Walking Dead, Doctor Who, and is the host of the site's podcast, The BreakCast. He is a graduate of Rutgers University with a degree in Journalism & English. Follow him on Twitter: @BodkinWrites