British TV blessed with great clergy

  • Article by: JUNE THOMAS , Slate
  • Updated: June 29, 2012 - 7:28 PM

Video streaming can connect viewers with religious-themed series from across the pond.

Last week, Troy Patterson dubbed TV Land's new original sitcom "The Soul Man," about an R&B crooner who leaves the secular world behind (more or less) to become a preacher in St. Louis, "warm and cheesy." If you ever saw "Amen," "The Soul Man" will seem pleasingly familiar.

While the black church is a fairly standard U.S. sitcom setting, no one reveres reverends more than the Brits. And this has resulted in some pretty good TV. So this summer I suggest you aim your browser to Hulu, Netflix or Amazon, and puzzle over the odd role of vicars and priests in British and Irish life by streaming some great sitcoms and dramas about the clergy.

Starting with "Rev.," a BBC comedy that's available in the United States exclusively on Hulu. Don't, as I once did, assume that if a British show was any good, a U.S. channel would have snapped it up for broadcast. "Rev." -- about a lovable, bumbling Church of England vicar struggling to help his inner-city London congregation, please his superiors in the church and serve God -- is both too gentle and too swear-y for U.S. television. The Rev. Adam Smallbone, played by Tom Hollander, is the ultimate straight man: He displays extraordinary patience when dealing with heckling construction workers, bullying archdeacons, undermining assistants and challenging worshippers, but he always seems to find a way to stand up for himself and do the right thing. "Rev." is both a rare TV presentation of a sincere man of faith, and a fabulous example of a sly, understated brand of British humor. Hulu rolls out a new episode of "Rev." every Sunday.

If "Rev." looks at the church's place in urban modern Britain, "The Vicar of Dibley" asks what would happen if a traditional rural parish found itself with a woman in the vicarage. The Rev. Boadicea Geraldine Granger, "a babe with a bob cut and a magnificent bosom" played fabulously by Dawn French, finds herself in a village full of quirky characters and hilarity ensues. Given how stereotyped those characters are -- the dumb blonde verger, the intelligent but cold-hearted chairman of the parish council, the village bore, the village lecher, the village idiot, etc. -- it's miraculous that the show works, but it somehow does. The episodes from the show's three seasons aren't currently streaming, but Amazon has five "specials" available, and they're free for Amazon Prime members.

Of course, the Church of England isn't the only faith suitable for sitcoms. "Father Ted," which first aired 1995-98, tells the story of three Catholic priests exiled to fictional Craggy Island. These men of the cloth fall into the "crazy guys acting out" comedy category, rather than priestly sitcoms' usual "sane person copes with crazy guys" class. All three seasons of the Irish-British co-production are streaming on Netflix.

If your tastes run more to drama, Netflix is streaming "Father Brown." Set in the 1920s and made in the 1970s, the TV version of G.K. Chesterton's stories feature a Miss Marple-style unassuming sleuth with a priestly passion for justice. Like Adam on "Rev.," Father Brown defends the defenseless against bullies, but unlike Adam he speaks like a man capable of writing stirring sermons. "Ballykissangel" offered a far soapier treatment of religious life, especially in the first three seasons, when Stephen Tompkinson played a British priest assigned to a rural Irish community. The penultimate episode of Season 3 is one of the most frustrating hours of TV drama, and it's streaming on Amazon, along with all six seasons of the show. Colin Farrell played a villager in Seasons 4 and 5.

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