Best TV to learn UK/US English

Once upon a time…

there was a Canadian boy living in China. While he was there, he met the love of his life; a beautiful and smart and caring Italian girl who later became his wife. During the first months together, there were countless evenings watching cheap DVDs that they’d pick up from some street vendor for next to nothing; everything from America’s Next Top Model to the Simpsons to How I Met Your Mother.

The girl’s English was already amazingly good, but this time together was just another step in the “full immersion” of a language that happens in an international relationship, although much of that story is probably best for another post.

TV vs. Movies

Personally, I’ve always appreciated TV shows more than movies. There’s something about the small screen that lets me get to know the characters and dive deeper into the plot while waiting in suspense week after week for the next episode while Instead, movies can feel like such a commitment.

For English language learners, there’s actually a lot to consider when choosing a series or the best way to watch TV for the purpose of improving your skills. Short or long series? Which accent? Which topic or genre? With or without subtitles? The list goes on…

From Premier to Finale

Popular TV shows typically range from between 5-8 seasons, with anywhere from 8 to more than 20 episodes in a season. This story arc gives viewers to really connect with the characters and the story, and it’s common to hear this kind of water cooler talk around many offices. “Did you see what happened on Big Bang Theory last night?!?!” or “Can you believe that twist in Lost!?!?”. Whatever you do though, make sure you avoid giving away any spoilers!

With the amount of new TV available, in particular with steaming services like Netflix or Hulu, it’s easy to get overwhelmed, but it’s also easy to try out new stories. If possible, I always prefer to start from the very beginning; s01e01 (season 1 episode 1). In my view, it’s the only way to truly understand what’s happening to who and why.

Across the pond

The range of accents in English is broad to say the least. As a Canadian, it’s sometimes weird for me to watch a series from the UK or Australia because the expressions and pronunciation can be so different from my own. That said, there’s an abundance of choices for leaners who want to focus on one accent over the other.

For example, Australia has some amazing television – anything with Chris Lilley; Summer Heights High, Jonah from Tonga is hilarious. There are some solid dramas like Wentworth, a story about a women’s prison, or the tear-jerker Love My Way, or even the reality cooking show, My Kitchen Rules.


The UK has some wonderful comedies like The Office (which then became an amazing US series as well) or Catastrophe, to sci-fi shows such as Doctor Who (20+ seasons!) or Black Mirror, to mysteries including Broadchurch, or period pieces like The Crown.


Tinsel Town

It’s probably safe to say that US shows are more well-known globally, though that’s not to say that they’re always “better”. There are bigger budgets and more famous stars, and for better or worse, it’s a huge part of America’s global influence.

Friends, Sex & the City, Grey’s Anatomy, CSI, House of Cards, just to name a few. I always like to have a bit of a mix between different genres and lengths but it really depends on the mood. Sometimes it’s nice to watch a shorter 30-minute comedies like Master of None or Modern Family, while shows like Parts Unknown or Iron Chef are for while we’re eating dinner.

In other situations, we prefer 1-hour dramas on our list include Handmaid’s Tale (dystopian future) and Trust (new and amazing), but we still like classics such as Dexter (which also happens to be my cat’s name), The Wire, and Breaking Bad, or Game of Thrones.

Subtitles or not?

This is a brilliant question. My answer is “yes” if you need them and before you ask, “yes” you should keep them in English – it’s our target language after all. You can pause and rewind if you need to listen again, and you probably have your mobile phone beside you to help you translate words or expressions that you didn’t catch the first time.

There are some caveats of course. For example, when we watch Gomorra, which is in a heavy Napolitano dialect, we watch with English subtitles. The reason being, even though my level of Italian comprehension is strong, I can only understand about 5% of the dialogue. That said, I don’t watch it to learn Italian, I watch it because in my opinion, it’s one of the best programs on TV, full stop.


… and they lived happily ever after

The increased availability and selection of quality (and trashy) TV shows has made it a great option for improving one’s understanding of a language. Vocabulary, grammar, expressions, and even culture can be improved, and even though it’s a passive approach, it’s a probably something you’d be doing anyway.

My advice, choose something you’re already interested in, whether it’s medical shows (House), action (Daredevil or Jessica Jones), law or crime (Suits or Power), comedy (Nobodies or Episodes), talk shows (James Corden or Stephen Colbert), or even some silly cartoons (Bojack Horseman or Family Guy). Choose a night or two each week for “English night” with your loved one or your pet, and enjoy!