11 TV Shows That Explain American Culture (for a British Expat)

Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen from 'Portlandia' (Photo: IFC)

Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen from ‘Portlandia’ (Photo: IFC)

Want to learn everything there is to know about U.S. society without actually leaving the house? Turn on your telly…

Despite being conceived and penned by an elite panel of funny Brits (including The Thick Of It‘s Armando Iannucci), this D.C. satire about a shambolic Vice President (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) will school you in U.S. politics better than The West Wing ever could. You’ll leave each episode with a belly full of laughs and an understanding of how things really get done in Washington. Or don’t get done. Because engineering even the slightest policy shift in the U.S. is virtually impossible, even when you’re the top dog’s number two.

The Simpsons
This never-aging, perpetually jaundiced animated clan have been parodying small-town America and explaining what it is to be middle class in the U.S. of A since 1987. It’s an entirely different set of specifications from being a middle class in the U.K. – something you’ll need to wrap your head around if you’re an expat Brit trying to decode American politics and reporting.


Brits may not be aware that Oregon has a reputation for housing what Americans call “crunchies.” These are the kind of people who buy their kids recycled, organic, papier-mâché, gender-neutral bikes and demand a full background check on an animal before ordering part of it in a restaurant. The headquarters for this kind of carry on is Portland, and so the comedy sketch show Portlandia was born. Best skits include the one about the guy who checks into rehab for a pasta addiction.

If you thought the term “hipster” referred merely to a type of low-rise trouser popular in the 1960s, watch an episode of Girls and update your dictionary. The show, created by and starring Lena Dunham, is an excruciatingly funny voyage into now-fashionable Brooklyn, with its self-absorbed, under-employed twenty-something population. Ironic thick-rimmed glasses, vintage hot pants and aspiring writers abound. FYI: British hipster equivalents scuttle between speakeasies in previously perilous parts of east London.


The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report
Late night Monday to Thursday on Comedy Central, anchormen Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert can be found throwing gag grenades at the American right wing, albeit from different foxholes. While Stewart is a straight-up liberal and delivers his reports as such, Colbert plays the part of a cartoonish conservative loudmouth, dripping with satire and peddling “truthiness,” justice, and the American way. Both offer hilarious perspectives American politics and the (often absurd) way it’s reported. (In a deliciously ironic development, that most American of institutions, The Daily Show, is now hosted, albeit temporarily, by wry, tea-swilling Brit John Oliver.)

The O’Reilly Factor
A politically moderate Brit might mistake this Fox News Channel talk show for a Colbert-style right-wing spoof, but host Bill O’Reilly is deadly serious (even if he has become chummy over the years with his arch-critic, Jon Stewart). And so are his millions of loyal American viewers. This is the most watched cable news program in America — and it’s one you should dip into if you want to understand staunch conservatism in the U.S.

The ultimate American high school drama rakes together all the characters you’d expect — jocks, nerds, fatties and cheerleaders — and adds new ones: LGBT kids, disabled kids, poor kids, kids with eating disorders. Deliberately, no one is unaccounted for and Glee simultaneously embraces, spoofs and rejects them all. Mostly in song. Only America could produce a show that swings so effortlessly from cloying sentimentality to viciously funny dialogue.


Duck Dynasty
So, arguably a bunch of Louisiana “rednecks” who made a fortune inventing duck hunting paraphernalia aren’t archetypal Americans. But their rags-to-riches story is a variation of the fairytale that anyone raised in the U.S. grows up hearing about: that if you work hard enough you can make a stinking pile cash no matter where you start out in life. It’s heart-warming stuff, but personally I watch for the beards and banter, which are every bit as impressive as the Robertson family’s bank account.

The 2012 primetime soap opera starring Hayden Panettiere and Connie Britton as rival country music stars reveals just how relevant the genre still is in modern-day America. Brits might dismiss country music as a tacky joke, but here it’s a billion dollar business. And “Music City,” as Nashville is also known, is the command center and the backdrop for this drama’s epic live performances and scandalous tales of romantic betrayal.

The View
Big-haired, overly-composed and featuring Barbara Walters and Whoopi Goldberg on opposite ends of the table, the diverse, all-female panel of this Loose Women equivalent crunch the issues most relevant to adult American women — or so they would probably claim. You’ll cringe at most of the content and gag on the rest, but this daytime show is a massively popular so it must do a good job of reflecting America back at itself.


TV fans, join us on Twitter Friday at 1 pm ET for our #MindTheChat for a discussion of what to watch on American TV (and where to watch it). Click here to tweet your hidden TV gems using #MindTheChat.

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Ruth Margolis

Ruth Margolis

Ruth is a British freelance journalist who recently swapped east London for Brooklyn. She writes about TV for Radio Times and is working on her first novel.
View all posts by Ruth Margolis.
  • Erica

    If being middle class in America is “an entirely different set of specifications from being a middle class in the U.K.” — can we get some details on that? Curious Americans want to know.

    • fiveseven15

      looks like we’ll have to tune in to a british tv show to find out

      • mambobananapatch

        Coronation Street will tell you all about that.

    • T. de Haan

      It seems in America every working person is considered middle class. In the United Kingdom, only those who are very well educated and live in leafy suburbs are considered middle-class. Those in the managerial professions, lawyers, doctors etc.

      • Nicola Dhane

        By your description, middle class in England is the same type here; everyone else working below middle class is considered the ‘working class’ which includes moderate middle management to the working poor.

  • Tostig

    I am an American and watch O’Reilly regularly. I consider myself a “classical liberal” with views that were pretty run of the mill average before the Age of Aquarius culture took over the Western world, and O’Reilly a slightly-right-of-center moderate. That Brits see him as an arch conservative might say something more about the UK than the US.

    • never_wore_zubaz

      Not sure if part of elaborate joke or serious.

    • http://twitter.com/saintstryfe Saint Stryfe

      No. See, o’Riley hounds people, calling them Baby Killer until some unhinged jackass does his dirty work for him. He’s a profoundly right-wing schmuck. Just look at his “History” books – they’re half fiction, real historians laugh him out of the room.

    • JMC

      Bill O’Reilly a “slightly” right moderate?? Hahahahahahahahahaha!! XD XD Oh wow, that’s a good one!

      • Rorkazak

        JMC, you’re too funny. Obviously you’re a superannuated hippie who needs to get in touch with reality.

    • mambobananapatch

      > That Brits see him as an arch conservative might say something more about the UK than the US.

      Yes, it says that they are more sane and balanced in the UK than in the US.

      • david zaduk

        The Brits are socialists and have been since Thatcher got the boot. O’Riley is a Fascist warmonger. American T.V. doesn’t tell you anything about actual Americans as none of those people are real, they are chosen because they are all outrageous, Americans love to watch idiots being idiots. Makes us feel better about ourselves. In the “well at least we’re not fame whores like the Kardashians” kind of way.

    • Benjamin James Titus

      I am also an American who watches the O’ Reilly factor and considers myself center left. O’Reilly is definitely not a moderate. He may not be the lunatic that Glen Beck or Shaun Hannity is, but he is certainly far right of center. He is part of the reason that moderates in America are made out to be whacky “leftists”.

  • deanayer

    ALL thats listed here are the most politically left-leaning shows in the US. To call O’reilly a staunch conservative is a joke to an actual conservative. I would recommend venturing a bit farther from the comfort zone of this list because it reflects not even half of american culture.

    • mambobananapatch

      This is all you need to know about America. Go watch Bill O’Reilly, and then remember that there is no small population in America that considers him *too far left*.

  • TJ

    Yes, watch these shows if you’re an insecure d-bag with an inferiority complex who wants to laugh at “Americans”. I get the list is supposed to be “ironic” (people really don’t know what that word means).

    I’m a bit sick of the insincere lists I’ve seen on BBC America. Sure, watch our satire. Watch our “reality” shows, and be entertained in the same way any sane person would be, but don’t think for a second this list is anything but snark.

    It might seem obvious to some, or even most, but I’ve noticed a trend in the comment section of these lists. First, you’ll find the apologist anglophiles seeking approval of Brits by validating these lists. Second, you’ll find Brits who see these lists as affirmation that folks in the U.K are superior. In essence, the biggest fans of these lists seem to miss the intended humor anyway.

    Having said that, most of these shows aren’t even funny anyway. South Park’s omission is a crime and nobody even watches “Girls” despite it being a critical darling.

    • GoldenGirl

      Well said and the reasons you stated in your comment is exactly why I have stopped reading this blog. I only read this article today so I could comment on a blog post that mentions it. I’m really tired of the insults disguised as legitimate cultural discussion.

  • squidgod

    List fails without South Park.

  • Crud Bonemeal

    “Crunchies?” That’s a new one on this native Oregonian and long-time Portlander.

    • Benjamin James Titus

      never heard that word in my life…

    • GoldenGirl

      Don’t you love it when people who have never been to your city profess to know something about you that you don’t? Would love to know where they get their information.

    • Krepta

      Actually, you’re more likely to find ‘crunchies’, or ‘earthy-crunches’, which is the term I’m more used to, on the upper east coast, particularly parts of New England.
      They tend to be more subtle about it most of the time– at least in conversation, but boy, when some of these people go ‘off the grid’, they REALLY go off the grid.
      Most of them aren’t so bad once you get used to them, though. You do, however, start to get a little sick of all the granola and tofu after a while.

  • M Wayne

    As a yank, I would hope the British people judge us by ‘The Simpsons’ and ‘The Daily Show.’
    Because those “comedy” shows tell you what you really need to know about us, and speak far more truth than any news or opinion show.
    Strange world, isn’t it?

  • me d

    Duck Dynasty – boy, the network finally found what they were looking for there, didn’t they? Those people love to play it up.

  • Binky Hucklebuck

    It seems some folks don’t get that this is a humorous article. Most of us know that TV exaggerates for comic effect. For me, ‘Family Guy’ is missing from the list.

    • GoldenGirl

      Ah yes, insults disguised as humour. Makes it all okay.

  • roberts707

    10 shows I have never watched or intend to watch. If you want to know about the religious right in the US these are your shows. Where is Bill Mauher or reruns of All in the Family

  • jaydeebee

    Once again, someone tries to explain “America” with the stroke of a broad brush. Does “The View” explain America? Sure–if you live in the northeast and espouse liberal political views? Does “Duck Dynasty explain America? Sure–if you live in the rural south. Those guys are spitting images of my husband’s uncles. The point is that this is a large, diverse nation. Just because you can’t identify with O’Reilly or Homer Simpson doesn’t mean there isn’t validity to the show. It just means that you don’t happen to live in or be a native of that culture. Believe it or not, there are a lot of different accents, cultures, and ideas beyond Hollywood, DC, and New York.

    • GoldenGirl

      I think it makes it more manageable for them jaydeebee otherwise they can’t wrap their heads around it.

  • coute

    …This is a joke right?! Do I have to be British to get this? WTF is a crunchie?!

  • MAgirl

    I’m a fan of Glee, but in no way is it like any American high school I’ve ever been to. I WISH everyone went around bursting into song and choreographed dance routines like HSM, but I am consistently disappointed. They also have an excessive amount of heartfelt conversations involving many tears and deep secrets and confessions, which most teenagers I know avoid like the plague. Not the perfect representation of American culture, but I get that the list is supposed to be funny. Also, WTF is a crunchie??