Which sounds more exciting to you:
(1) The life of a high school science teacher who grades homework at night and likes to play soccer on the weekends.
(2) The life of a high school chemistry teacher who makes an illegal drug to pay for his cancer treatment. Oh yeah, and his brother-in-law works for the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration), a federal law enforcement agency that finds and arrests drug smugglers.
The second situation just sounds so much more interesting, right?
Most people are drawn to drama—exciting, unexpected events.
People especially like drama when it is happening to someone else on TV, not in their real lives.
As an English learner, you can use the appeal (attractiveness) of dramatic situations to learn new words, improve your listening skills, get to know American culture and become closer to reaching fluency.
How? With English TV shows!
There are many types of shows, no matter what you are in the mood for.
TV shows can be classified as “dramas,” for example, when they have a lot of characters and conflicts. Instead of focusing on being funny, dramas often have serious themes. Dramas can take place in any time period and can be realistic or fantasy-based.
Don’t like dramas? No problem!
There are also documentaries (shows about real people, things or events) and mockumentaries (shows that pretend to be about real people, things or events). If you are a fan of outer space, you might enjoy science fiction shows, better known as sci-fi. There are funny shows, sad shows, shows that are slow-paced and shows that are full of action.
With the 25 captivating English TV shows we have below, you can start soaking up English from TV dramas, comedies, documentaries and everything in between! Plus, you will find shows on our list that are from all over the world, including British shows, American series and even shows from Ireland, South Africa and other countries that speak English!
Why Learn English with TV Shows?
They are addicting. TV shows are very popular because they can get so intense. Many people will even say they are addicted to a show because they can’t stop watching. Some people will binge-watch a show, which is when you watch several episodes of a show in a row, sometimes for many hours at a time. When TV shows are interesting to you, you will watch them more often.
Lots of people watch them. Smaller-budget TV shows that have many fans who know every detail about the show are called cult TV shows. That is because they have a small but very dedicated fanbase (a name for the group of people who are fans of a show, film or book). When you watch shows that many people like, you can talk about the show with more people.
They use specialized vocabulary. Since many of these shows take place in different time periods or situations, the vocabulary for each show is unique. That means you can learn words and phrases from each show depending on your interest. This includes Old English, science terms as well as police/crime terms.
You can later use these words in real-life situations, such as reading an older English novel, discussing the newest scientific discoveries and understanding news and political reports.
In fact, you can see an example of how to use TV shows and movies to grow your vocabulary on the FluentU YouTube channel.
The video below uses a movie trailer from a film featuring actor Benedict Cumberbatch, and the video’s instructor leads us through all of FluentU’s tools to learn English with real videos.
One of the tools featured is FluentU’s built-in dictionary that can be used to learn new English words and phrases from all over the English-speaking world. Each entry in the dictionary includes helpful images, an audio recording and example sentences to help you understand how to use the word or phrase on your own.
How to Learn English with TV Shows
Simply watching the show is always a basic way to learn some English, but there are other ways that you can get even more out of these dramas. Here are three ideas to get you started:
Make a family tree
One way to learn English from TV shows, especially dramas, is to make a “family tree” of your show. A family tree is a diagram that shows the relationships between people. For example, here is a simple family tree from “The Simpsons.” If someone is married to another person, you can draw a horizontal line connecting the two characters, with a heart. To separate generations, children should appear below their parents.
In this case, though, we want to show the relationships between characters in the show. But not all of these TV shows involve full families. So you could also draw out work relationships (boss, coworkers, departments, etc.), show who are friends and enemies, or any other connections that you think are important.
In “Game of Thrones,” for example, there are a ton of characters and family connections to keep track of. Writing these down in a clear chart/diagram will make the show easier to understand and also helps you pay more attention to details.
As you watch more episodes, you can even add character details to your diagram. These could be visual traits (i.e. glasses, blue eyes), personality traits (i.e. shy, powerful) or any other details about the character.
Look up fan theories
The second way that you can learn from TV shows is by looking up fan theories online. Fan theories are predictions (guesses) about what will happen next in the series or discussions about things that have already happened. These ideas are written by fans (people who love the show) on online communities. They look at small clues in the show to try to predict what will happen or find the true meaning behind some scenes.
Reading fan theories is a great way to learn more about not only the show, but other fans as well. You can find these theories by searching Google for “[TV show name] fan theory,” or by searching Tumblr or Reddit under the name of your show or a character. The more complex and popular the show is, the more theories there will be for you to read.
After catching up to the newest episodes, challenge yourself to create a fan theory of your own!
You can watch behind-the-scenes videos and interviews with the cast members to learn more about the show and the actors. Many talk shows have actors on as guests, and you can simply use a search engine to look for “[Actor/show name] interview” and enjoy.
Many of these interviews go into details about the characters’ personalities, or small things that the director hid on the set. You can use this information in your family tree or charts, to write down any fun facts or secrets about the show to look out for as well.
Using these new ideas, as well as writing down and looking up new words and phrases that you hear, can help you get the most out of your dramas.
Watch on FluentU
Want to watch English-language TV without ever worrying about missing a word?
That’s exactly what FluentU was designed for.
FluentU gives you real-world English videos, including TV clips and commercials as well as movie trailers, music videos, inspiring speeches, and more.
But it is not just a video player. Every video has been transformed into a personalized language lesson.
For example, there are interactive subtitles. Click or tap any unfamiliar word and the video will automatically pause to show you an in-context definition, grammar info and memorable picture. After you are done watching, FluentU will give you flashcards and fun quizzes to make sure you remember the vocabulary that you just learned.
The videos are organized by genre and level—just select “Shows” to watch all the TV clips. FluentU will even suggest new videos based on what you have already watched.
It is an entertaining but effective way to learn real English language and culture, and you can take it anywhere on the mobile app for iOS or Android.
25 Addictive English TV Shows from Around the World for English Learners
Below are 25 excellent TV shows from Britain, America and other English-speaking countries that you can watch right now to start practicing.
There are many genres (types of shows) available, so choose one that you think you will like best. If you choose a drama show, just remember that most dramas are for more mature viewers because of the serious themes that they have, but some are rated higher or lower than others.
Must-watch British TV Series
“Doctor Who” (1963-present)
“Doctor Who” is probably the most famous British TV science-fiction series. It has been running since 1963 when it was first produced by the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) and has gone through 13 different Doctors (played by different actors). Here is a fun game to play: Ask two “Doctor Who” fans who their favorite Doctor is and watch them discuss it passionately for the rest of the day.
Seriously, though, “Doctor Who” has a very strong following and dedicated fanbase (group of followers) who are sometimes known by the informal noun “Whovians.”
The main character is an alien known only as The Doctor (never “Doctor Who” and definitely never “Doc”). The Doctor travels around the universe and goes on many adventures with a lovely assistant in his spaceship, which is shaped like a British police box (no, that is not a phone booth!).
Catch a couple of episodes (from any season) and you can join the debate over which actor played him best!
“Black Mirror” (2011-present)
“Black Mirror” is a creative and often unsettling (disturbing or making one uneasy) anthology series, meaning every episode is a separate and different story focusing on unique characters and ideas. All the stories are connected by their themes: a focus on a dystopian future, which is a society that is unpleasant and has suffering and injustice.
Although the show does not take place in our current society, every episode will make you think about the current state of humanity (people). How will technology affect our lives in the future? How far should people go to become famous or defend your beliefs? You will come away from each episode with many new things to think about, and often feeling a little uncomfortable from it.
In this series, you will learn many different words, but you will especially find technology words like microchip (a tiny electronic implant or device) and AI (artificial intelligence—basically, robots).
Inspired by the books by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “Sherlock” follows the life and mystery-solving adventures of the world-famous British detective, Sherlock Holmes in modern-day Britain. He is joined by his friend, the army doctor veteran Dr. John Watson.
As the series moves on, you learn that Sherlock Holmes is going up against his arch-nemesis (main enemy), James Moriarty, in a battle of the mind and intelligence.
In this series, you will learn lots of investigation vocabulary, such as what it means to trust your intuition (to believe in your natural instinct or feeling). Sherlock also uses advanced vocabulary words when he speaks, so this is a good show to pick up some more difficult vocab if you’re an advanced English learner.
“Downtown Abbey” (2010-2015)
“Downtown Abbey” is a hugely popular, award-winning British historical drama. The story follows aristocratic (important and wealthy) families in the early 1900s, and the drama that happens behind closed doors. It is a very entertaining series that is focused on the characters and their development throughout the show.
By watching this series, you can hear the difference in accents between the different types of people—for instance, do servants speak differently from the people who employ them? Pay attention to details like that to learn about speaking the Queen’s English—that is, British English.
Although this is a drama, it is appropriate for most audiences: The show is rated PG, which in the UK means it is only unsuitable for very young children.
“Peaky Blinders” (2013-present)
Thomas Shelby, played by Irish actor Cillian Murphy, is the head of the Birmingham crime family, the Peaky Blinders. The Peaky Blinders are known for wearing typical working-class flat caps (a style of hat) and hiding razor blades under them—providing a quick weapon to use in a street brawl (fight).
The show follows the rise and fall (ups and downs) of gangster families in post-WWI Birmingham, providing the added benefit of training your ear for a sometimes difficult and strong Birmingham accent.
In addition to giving you a look into older English and plenty of slang, you will also hear lots of crime and war vocabulary such as “artillery” (large munition/weapons) and “strategic intelligence” (information required in the planning of military operations).
You can catch “Peaky Blinders” on Netflix.
“The Fall” (2013-2016)
“The Fall” follows the journey of policewoman and detective Stella Gibson (played by Gillian Anderson of “X-Files” fame) as she struggles to catch the terrible killer Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan) who targets young professional women in the Belfast city area.
The series is a British-Irish drama so in addition to the drama thriller aspect of the show, there is also a political subplot (secondary storyline to the main plot) focused on the relationship between the police and government.
Watching this series is a great way to learn vocabulary related to psychology and criminology (the study of criminal behavior). Be ready for some thick accents that require even some native English speakers to turn on those subtitles!
The show is rated 17+ due to the dark themes and confronting content.
“The Crown” (2016-present)
“The Crown” is a beloved historical drama that has won three Golden Globe awards. It follows the early years and reign (royal leadership) of Queen Elizabeth II and is packed full of political drama.
Although the drama follows plenty of historical events featuring important people like Winston Churchill, it is not 100% factually or historically accurate. In this way, the writers and producers have taken what we call artistic license (moving away from the facts for the sake of the art or enjoyment). This makes the show a good place to see some history but also enjoy a lot of great moments of drama!
Watch “The Crown” on Netflix.
“The Office” (UK Version) (2001-2003)
“The Office” is a British comedy in the style of a mockumentary (a fake documentary that mocks or ridicules a particular subject). The boss of the office is played by famous comedian Ricky Gervais.
The TV show examines the life of a company boss who believes he is well-liked and entertaining in the office environment—but not everyone in the office shares his opinions. In this show, you will hear some everyday vocabulary but you will also get to know “management speak,” which is meaningless words and phrases that are used to sound impressive or important.
You will also become familiar with typical British comedy, which involves many themes of embarrassment and ineptitude (inability to complete a task or lack of skills). There are many moments that will make you feel embarrassed for the characters on screen—a feeling we call “cringey.”
It is worth noting that there is an American version of “The Office,” where the boss is played by Steve Carell. It might be a great exercise to watch both series and compare the comedy styles between the US and the UK.
You can watch “The Office” (UK Version) on Amazon Prime.
“Gavin and Stacey” (2007-2019)
Many know comedian James Corden as the host of “The Late Late Show” and his viral carpool karaoke videos, but to many Brits (British citizens) he was the loveable character “Smithy” and writer of widely popular romance drama “Gavin and Stacey.”
“Gavin and Stacey” follows the romantic story of a young man from Essex named Gavin and his girlfriend from Wales, Stacey. The TV series incorporates lots of typical British cultural practices such as grabbing an Indian (ordering takeaway Indian food) and a stag do (a party between a man about to be married and his friends close to the wedding day).
The conversations throughout the show are also typically British and the series includes several British accents, giving you a chance to practice your listening skills.
You can watch “Gavin and Stacey” on Amazon Prime.
“The Inbetweeners” (2008-2010)
The inbetweeners are a group of four high school friends struggling with all the difficulties of teenage life. They are known as the inbetweeners because they sit in-between the different groups of “cool” and “uncool” groups of students.
This is an irreverent (disrespectful and perhaps offensive) comedy-drama, and it deals with themes of sex and alcohol. In the series, you follow four “coming-of-age” stories, so you get to watch the development of the characters in their personal lives through their teenage years.
It is a great series to learn typical British English slang and vocabulary like what it means to grass (to inform or to snitch), how much a ton is (a hundred) and the ever-useful wellies (wellington gumboots).
“The Inbetweeners” is rated 15+ because it deals with mature themes.
Amazing American TV Shows
“Firefly” is a short science-fiction series that is considered a cult classic because, although it is a short series, there are many fans. Because the show was canceled before they finished filming, you can watch the end of the series with the film “Serenity.” This series combines classic western and sci-fi influences and follows the adventures of a crew on a transport ship.
You can learn many scientific terms while watching this show, including genetic words. For example, you will hear the term “artificial incubators,” which is where people can keep and grow animals and humans using technology.
“Game of Thrones” (2011-2019)
“Game of Thrones” is an incredibly popular fantasy show based on books written by George R. R. Martin. It takes place in the fantasy world of Westeros and Essos. It follows the drama of different people trying to become the ruler of the land by fighting wars with swords and magic.
The series is made for adults, so it is rated R and aired on HBO. Because it is in a fantasy world similar to the Dark Ages (500 – 1500 AD), it sometimes uses old-fashioned English. You will also hear many fantasy terms, such as “valyrian steel,” which is the strongest material for swords in that world.
“Game of Thrones” is available to watch online with HBO Go.
“Nikita” is a show about a woman spy and assassin who tries to get revenge on the people that she used to work for. This series is packed full of action and different love interests, making it a thrill to watch.
It is made for a more mature audience but is rated for ages 13+. The show has words and phrases related to the government and spies, such as “espionage,” which is the use of spies by governments.
You can watch “Nikita” online with Amazon Prime.
“Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations” (2007-2012)
World-famous chef, writer and traveler Anthony Bourdain shares his passion for life and food in this travel series, originally produced by the Travel channel. Each episode focuses on a different country or city that is known for its cuisine (a style or type of food that is specific to a region).
On his travels, Bourdain tries lots of local delicacies (an expensive, very delicious or unique food) and meets local people who expose him to the culture and way of life in the area that he visits.
In this series, you will learn lots of food and travel vocabulary such as what a layover is (a stop on a long journey, usually by plane) and what rustic food is (simple, local and common food).
Why not check out “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations” and see if your city or country has been featured?
“Tiger King” (2020)
What starts as a documentary exploring the exotic animal trade quickly turns to a story of deception, murder and possibly the most unique characters you will ever meet.
There is an expression in English that says “truth is stranger than fiction” and this documentary is something that you really need to see to believe!
The vocabulary is an interesting mix of crime vocabulary, animals and pop culture. You will learn phrases relating to the black market (the illegal trade of goods and services), activists (people who promote a particular cause) and conservationism (a movement to conserve the environment or natural world).
The documentary has become a favorite topic for people to talk about, has led to the creation of many memes (funny images meant to be shared and reused) and has even led to many famous people to comment on the show and what they think about it.
The series is recommended for viewers 16+.
You can watch “Tiger King” on Netflix as it is a Netflix original series.
Dexter is a brilliant man who both solves and commits crimes. Even though the show is about catching killers, the main character is secretly a killer himself, which brings even more intensity to the drama.
There is a lot of violence in this thriller series, because it is about police work and crimes. This show can teach you terms about the justice system, medical terms and police terms. For example, you will hear “crime scene,” the area where the crime happened, and “dismember,” to take something apart.
“House of Cards” (2013-2018)
“House of Cards” is a revenge story of a politician who was denied a job that he was promised in the past. While this drama was still running, it was one of the most popular shows in the US.
It is rated for mature audiences and has a complex plot about politics. You can learn phrases and words about the government from this show, such as “Secretary of State,” which is the term for the person in charge of relationships with other countries.
“Suits” follows the lives of Harvey Specter and Mike Ross, who work as corporate lawyers—even though Ross is not a lawyer himself. The show is about their work (legal cases), relationships and personal lives.
You will hear different legal terms while watching this show, such as “witness,” someone who saw (witnessed) a crime, and “will and testament,” which is a document where you write what should happen with your possessions and money when you die. Because the legal cases (problems between two sides, which are resolved by lawyers in court) can be serious or violent, this show is also rated as mature.
You can watch “Suits” on USA Network.
“Breaking Bad” (2008-2013)
“Breaking Bad” is about Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher who finds out he has cancer. He decides to make drugs with a past student and sell them to pay for his cancer treatment.
The show involves drug rings (people involved in making, selling and buying drugs), crime and the struggles of illness. The show has won over 20 TV awards. It is rated for mature audiences, and you can learn science terms and modern English slang.
“Revenge” is a show that follows a woman named Emily Thorne who moves to the Hamptons to find the people who hurt her family when she was a child—to get revenge on them. She investigates (researches/studies) families to get information, and meets new friends and enemies while she does.
This show is rated for ages 15+ and has formal or elite (people who are wealthy or very successful) level English used—with brand names like “Couture”—as well as casual modern English.
Other: From Australia to South Africa and Beyond
“McLeod’s Daughters” (2001-2009) (Australia)
“Mcleod’s Daughters” is an Australian drama series that follows the lives of two sisters who live on and run a cattle station (a large cow farm). They face lots of personal problems in the management of the farm.
Their life in the wilderness of Australia—better known as the “outback”—is not always easy, but the characters are tough!
You will learn some typical Australian English such as G’day (a contraction of “good day”) and a drover (a person who moves cows over long distances of land).
You can watch Mcleod’s daughters on Amazon Prime.
“Trailer Park Boys” (2001-present) (Canada)
A trailer park is a large area where mobile homes or smaller fixed homes are located and it is generally a lower cost. In this series, the main characters are an odd group of misfits (people who do not fit in to society) who all live in a trailer park together. They get up to lots of adventures, and the series has a huge cult following as well as mainstream success.
Just like “The Office,” “Trailer Park Boys” is also a mockumentary, meaning there are lots of awkward and funny situations.
“Queen Sono” (2020) (South Africa)
Not only is “Queen Sono” an incredibly exciting and action-packed series, it is also the very first original African series to hit Netflix—making it a must-watch! It is considered a breakthrough(significant and pioneering) work and will hopefully lead to more African-produced series making their way onto the streaming service.
Queen Sono is a spy who is tasked with secret missions across the African continent. Because of this, you’ll be exposed to lots of spy language such as intel (a common abbreviation for intelligence) and asset (a person or something used by a spy to complete their mission). You’ll also learn heaps of great South African slang.
You can watch “Queen Sono” on Netflix.
“Top of the Lake” (2013-2017) (New Zealand)
The award-winning series “Top of the Lake” was written by Jane Campion, who is a very successful and highly respected writer from New Zealand. The story centers around the mysterious disappearance of a local girl who is also pregnant, and the police investigation that follows.
The series is set in the stunning (beautiful or breathtaking) South Island of New Zealand. The landscape is incredible and the mystery is intense.
If you love plot twists (unexpected events in the storyline), you will enjoy this one!
“Father Ted” (1995-1998) (Ireland)
“Father Ted” is a series that is quintessentially Irish—which is just a big way of saying that it is a really, really Irish. It is a beloved series in Ireland and across the UK, as well.
The show follows the lives of three priests who have lots of mishaps (unlucky experiences) and find themselves in very funny situations.
The series is packed full of vocabulary related to the church such as the afterlife(the life after death) and typical Irish expressions such as “it suits me down to the ground” (it is perfect, or sounds perfect to me!).
Now that you have several English TV shows to get you started, you can make some popcorn begin binge-watching. Pick one of the shows from above and don’t forget your pen and paper!
And One More Thing…If you enjoy learning English with fun, authentic media, you'll love FluentU. FluentU uses a natural teaching method that helps you ease into the English language and culture over time. You’ll learn English as it's actually spoken by real people.
Learn all the vocabulary in any video with games and quizzes. FluentU helps you learn fast with useful questions and multiple examples.
Christine McGahhey is an American writer currently living in South Korea who has volunteered for several years to teach students and adults English.
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