Culture

VICE's 50 Best British TV Shows of the Century So Far: 20-11

You're hitting the top 20 of the greatest television ranking ever.

by VICE Staff
23 July 2019, 12:30pm

You know how I said in the post preceding this one that things were getting serious in TV ranking land? That was a lie. This top 20 is the real deal. "Put it on your CV and tell your mates if you were a runner on the show" real. This is where the icons are sorted from the chaff; the champions from the try-hards.

This is going to be a journey. We're going from teen lesbian drama to deranged reality TV to working class comedy to deranged animated comedy, and all the way back again, in infinite combinations.

Read our editor's letter here to find out how we decided what ranked where, and click here to read all of the articles from this series.

50-41: Here we go...

40-31: Enjoying the ride?

30-21: Things are heating up.

Sugar Rush VICE 50 Best British TV Shows
Photo via Channel 4

20. 'Sugar Rush' (2005 – 2006, Channel 4)

Before Killing Eve, before Transparent, before Orange Is the New Black, there was Sugar Rush, the Channel 4 lesbian TV drama based on the Julie Burchill novel of the same name. It only ran for two seasons, but in that time became a staple for young queer girls across the country, many of whom had never seen narratives like ours played out on screen (depressing Eastenders subplots don’t count).

It wasn't just the queer storyline that had young people watching. The show was also about drinking, drugs, complicated family dynamics and growing up in a British city like Brighton while sexually confused and bored out of your mind. The show arrived a year before Skins, which normalised many of these subjects – so, in that way, it was a primer for what people clearly wanted, all set to a mid-2000s soundtrack of Goldfrapp, Basement Jaxx and Bloc Party.

But mainly, of course, it was about the queer stuff. — Daisy Jones

Read how 'Sugar Rush' impacted the lives of young queer women here.

Wife Swap VICE 50 Best British TV Shows
Photo: Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo

19. 'Wife Swap' (2003 – 2009; one-off in 2017, Channel 4)

As an idea, it's perfection – ludicrous, too. In the early-2000s' glut of reality TV programming, Wife Swap barrelled out in typical Channel 4 style: an "as it says on the tin" title, class and social issues neatly wrapped into an hour of programming and a premise you could rattle off in 30 seconds.

Two wives (or, sometimes, husbands) with vastly different lifestyles swap homes for two weeks, spending the first week living according to that home's habits, then the second implementing changes more suited to what they're familiar with. Chaos/hilarity/maybe racism ensues, depending on who you’re watching. It’s one of those shows you can lose hours to, and store favourites of. No wonder it later splintered into American, Australian and Celebrity versions.

We won't soon forget women like season one's mum-of-eight Lizzy Bardsley (swapped with self-professed "not the mothering type" Emma Spry), who cut the swap short after three days, fretting about Emma trying to steal her man. At this point, we don't speak of the 2017 Brexit Special that revived the show for a one-off: too soon. — Tshepo Mokoena

Phoenix Nights VICE 50 Best British TV Shows
Photo: Channel 4

18. 'Peter Kay's Phoenix Nights' (2001 – 2002, Channel 4)

Everybody I know knows about garlic bread. Not the food, the joke. It's easy: first, you incredulously say the word "garlic", and next "bread", as if it's a question. Garlic bread!? The point is to take something completely quotidian and act like it's the most new-fangled concept you’ve ever heard of.

It sounds like the simplest thing in the world, but it made Peter Kay famous.

Broadcast between 2001 and 2002, Phoenix Nights centres on the fictional Phoenix Club, a working men’s club in Bolton. It features an ensemble cast, including Kay as the wheeler-dealer club owner Brian Potter, Dave Spikey as his right-hand man and emcee Jerry "The Saint" St. Clair, plus guest appearances from game show hosts Jim Bowen and Roy Walker. At its peak, the show was a relatable and hilarious parody of social club culture – just without any of the schmaltz that might slow the jokes down. — Lauren O'Neill

Read our round-table chat about the genius of 'Phoenix Nights' here.

Footballers Wives VICE 50 Best British TV Shows
Photo: Allstar Picture Library / Alamy Stock Photo

17. 'Footballers' Wives' (2002 – 2006, ITV)

Where were you when Tanya Turner shagged Frank Laslett to death?

Some TV shows are timeless, others blow up because they perfectly capture the cultural zeitgeist. ITV’s Footballers' Wives – which took advantage of the early-2000s' admittedly problematic national obsession with WAGs – is firmly in the latter camp, and also probably takes the award for Most Patently Ridiculous Programme On This List.

Footballers' Wives storylines included: a woman faking her own kidnapping, a baby being smothered by a dog, multiple murders (despite the action taking place within one fictional Premiership football team), as well as a crossover with fellow ITV drama Bad Girls, in which breakout character Tanya also appeared. It was deeply tacky, knowingly trashy and actually bizarrely predicted the entire TOWIE aesthetic. There has – perhaps for good reason – been nothing like it since. — Lauren O'Neill

Monkey Dust VICE 50 Best British TV Shows
Photo: Andrew Rae

16. 'Monkey Dust' (2003 – 2005, BBC Three)

Monkey Dust was more at home on Newgrounds than the schedule of a national broadcaster, and in fairness its cult status is probably recognised less by the general public and more by people who liberally quoted Salad Fingers at school. Still, this short-lived animated satire used its graveyard slot on BBC Three to lampoon "Broken Britain" in a way no other show has been able to manage.

Pairing the provocation of an Adult Swim show with the irreverence of Brass Eye, the world of Monkey Dust was described in The Guardian at the time as: "a creepy place where the public are hoodwinked by arrogant politicians and celebrities". Through its cast of deviants, including "Geoff the first-time cottager", "chat room pervert" and "mail-order bride man", Monkey Dust picked at the British psyche like a scab, exposing the nightmarish realities beneath the banal surface of the Blair years.

The fact that Monkey Dust was animated unmoored it from reality enough to be able to satirise touchy subjects like immigration, suicide and paedophillia without drawing much criticism. It also had the benefit of timing: as well as being commissioned during the early years of BBC Three, whose creative freedom gave rise to some of the most experimental comedy of the decade, Brass Eye had overturned many of its topical stones in advance. Monkey Dust’s "The Paedofinder General" sketch didn’t receive anywhere near the same heat as Brass Eye’s "Paedogeddon" special, which sparked the most complaints in British TV history in 2001.

But humour is often contextual, and as much as Monkey Dust was guilty of taking pre-existing satire too far, it also took it to places we weren’t ready for. Six years after its spin-off series about the three rubbish terrorists from Birmingham was pulled because of the 7/7 bombings, Chris Morris won a BAFTA for Four Lions. — Emma Garland

Green Wing VICE 50 Best British TV Shows
Photo: Graham Wiltshire / Shutterstock

15. 'Green Wing' (2004 – 2007, Channel 4)

Despite being set in a hospital, Green Wing was never really about medicine. Doctor Caroline Todd (Tamsin Greig at her exasperated finest), Stephen Mangan's sleazy anaesthetist Guy Secretan and surgeon Mac (Julian Rhind-Tutt) performed basically no doctoral duties. Unless you count Guy playing "puppets" with bodies on the operating table.

What Green Wing did show was all the weird ways that human beings interact with one another, which is to be expected from the writing team behind similarly bizarre sketch-show-meets-soap-opera Smack the Pony. Over the two seasons it ran on Channel 4, this included ambulance theft, unusual sex, love triangles, mismatched pregnancy tests and Botox injections wielded as weaponry.

For all Green Wing’s weirdness, it never strayed far from the mundane – perhaps best symbolised in the show's filming location, which was a real hospital in Basingstoke. At its heart, the show is about fighting the chaos of life to sustain some shred of civility, whether that’s dealing with a coworker crush or a consultant radiologist playing recorder in his pants. In 2016, Greig and other cast members joined the junior doctors strike against the Department of Health.

"In the background of Green Wing was the idea that the NHS belongs to all of us," she said afterwards. "We have a responsibility to make sure it doesn’t die on its knees." — Phoebe Hurst

Read our interview with 'Green Wing' creator Victoria Pile here.

Skins VICE 50 Best British TV Shows
The cast of Skins on the red carpet. Photo: WENN Rights Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

14. 'Skins' (2007 – 2003, E4)

The 2006 trailer for series one of Skins was a miasma of sex, sweat and sick: a "Smells Like Teen Spirit" for a late-2000s generation of sixth formers obsessed with oversized sunglasses, the Klaxons, ecstasy, fingering and all things "safe". It dropped in a liminal period – pre-cigarette ban, pre-iPhone and pre-coalition government, but post the advent of the internet as we know it, when you could extend party invites to every other person in the county with a social media account.

But the TV show's depiction of what went on in-and-around the partying is where it truly broke ground. For many, it was their first time witnessing an openly gay teenage character on terrestrial TV, or watching that diverse a cast battle their issues – eating disorders, psychosis, depression, divorce, death. Skins frequently pushed beyond a "gurning, sexed-up teens" cliche to be both prescient and evocative. Sure, bits might have been exaggerated, but that’s TV for you. It’s a wild world. — Ryan Bassil

Read our history of "Skins parties" here.

The Inbetweeners VICE 50 Best British TV Shows
Photo: E4

13. 'The Inbetweeners' (2008 – 2010, E4)

There is no greater study of British teenage masculinity than The Inbetweeners. It has everything: embarrassed rage outbursts ("FUCK OFF!!!"), hair gel, in-jokes so authentic they rippled out across the country, ensuring no one would ever stand at a bus stop again without some little prick sticking his head out the window of a Citroën Saxo to shout: "Bus wanker!!!"

Created by Iain Morris and Damon Beesley, former flatmates who met while working on Channel 4’s 11 O’Clock Show, The Inbetweeners aired on E4 in 2008 – a year after the lawless behemoth that was Skins. On paper it ran the risk of being viewed as competition, but while Skins gave us the cinematic view of adolescence we tend to have when we’re going through it – when our problems feel so unique and significant as to be deserving of a TV show in their own right – The Inbetweeners gave us adolescence as it actually is: crap.

Centred around a fantastically average friendship group – Will (Simon Bird), Simon (Joe Thomas), Jay (James Buckley) and Neil (Blake Harrison) – The Inbetweeners strikes a tone few other teen comedies have managed. Despite being written by men in their thirties and starring actors in their twenties, the show nailed down four eternal stereotypes of the British classroom: the spoff, the guy who would be cool if he wasn’t so desperate, the idiot who isn’t really an idiot and the idiot who really is an idiot. So recognisable are these characters that, even when the show veers into risky territory, we intuitively know where to laugh at them and where to be sympathetic.

From convoluted operations to be served at an off-licence, to Jay’s insecure bragging about all the fictional girls he’s fingered, The Inbetweeners is the Sistine Chapel of ordinary puberty. It’s a stunning portrait of the bog standard sixth form experience, when most events can be summed up with a sarcastic "brilliant" and the romantic lead of your life probably isn’t some mysterious Tony who toys with your emotions before getting tragically hit by a bus, but an unremarkable lad with a zip-up cardigan and a fringe that looks like The Fife Tiara made of lard. — Emma Garland

Read our oral history of 'The Inbetweeners' here.

Gogglebox VICE 50 Best British TV Shows
Photo: Jude Edginton

12. 'Gogglebox' (2013 – present, Channel 4)

There's nothing like Gogglebox. No other TV show – no other cultural artefact, in fact – reflects British contemporary life in quite the same way.

The simplicity of the format is what makes it so irresistible: families from across the country, each selected for their rapid, idiosyncratic wit, are filmed at home giving their opinions on the week’s TV, whether that’s current affairs on the news, a much talked-about drama or The X Factor final. First broadcast in 2013, the show is now in its 14th season and probably the most meta show on British TV. — Lauren O'Neill

Read the secrets of how 'Gogglebox' is made here.

The Office VICE 50 Best British TV Shows
Photo: Allstar Picture Library / Alamy Stock Photo

11. 'The Office' (2001–2003, BBC Two)

No show better captures the strange stasis of Britain in the early-2000s than The Office (the UK version, obviously). The fireworks of the millennium had fizzled out and the nation’s white-collar workers were looking forward to a future with all the reliable monotony of an endlessly shuffling printer in-tray.

Inspired by mundane, late-90s fly-on-the-wall documentary series like Airport, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's workplace mockumentary paved the way for a new comedic language that traded punchlines for pathos. The end result was a comedy series so painfully authentic that many of its first late-night BBC Two viewers apparently assumed David Brent was the real manager of a real paper merchant.

Forget the dance, forget "Michael Scott", forget everything its chief architect and star has been responsible for since: this slim two series and its specials remain about as quietly perfect as comedy gets. — Angus Harrison

10-1: The Champions League.

Click here to read all of the articles from this series.