Once upon a time, in the dark ages of not-that-long-ago, foreign television was a mysterious land beyond our reach. Aside from the occasional British import, the wonders of international series were limited to those equipped with multiregion DVD players. Scandinavian gloom mostly stayed in Scandinavia.
Thanks to streaming, it’s now possible to binge on subtitles — or on English that may still require subtitles, as fans of some Australian and Scottish shows can attest. Sure, there are already dozens of worthy American series (when will I ever have the time to watch Rectify?), but it’s also rewarding to immerse yourself in storylines framed by different cultures’ relationships to authority, sex, family, power and love — and to discover battalions of great new actors.
Here are some discoveries:
Since the French worship movies, it took them a while to catch up with Peak TV, but France now produces greatly affecting shows. Exhibit A is The Churchmen (Netflix and Hulu), which follows a handful of young seminarians as they prepare to take their vows. Sizzling! Its three seasons look thoughtfully at what it means to completely change your life for, literally, the love of God. As they prepare for priesthood, these young men still engage with the secular world, dealing with families and sexuality, politics and theology. Of course, preparing for a drastically different future doesn’t mean cutting off the past: José (Samuel Jouy), for instance, found God when he was in prison for murder, while confident Raphaël (Clément Roussier) comes from a privileged background and Guillaume (Clément Manuel) used to be a lefty activist.
And since this is Catholicism we’re talking about, an overbearing hierarchy is never far away, with its squad of viperine schemers.
Less sui generis but just as compelling is Call My Agent! (Netflix). Subtitled comedies tend to struggle at the border, but this lighthearted, less toxic version of Entourage deserves to find an American audience. It takes place in a Parisian talent agency (the French title translates as 10 Percent, after the agents’ commission), and each episode mixes fictional characters with actual stars playing slightly warped versions of themselves, à la Curb Your Enthusiasm. Some of the jokes gain an extra layer of funny if you’re familiar with said stars, but the show’s comic machinery is so well oiled that it functions just fine even if you don't know the cameos — especially when served by breakout Camille Cottin, as hotheaded womanizer Andréa.
Indeed, what makes the series click beyond its film-industry satire is the chemistry among the agency’s employees. Defying expectations, they are not out to sabotage one another, and some of them even make decisions based on art rather than money — which is when you know for sure you’re watching French television.
While Call My Agent! is the rare hourlong comedy, Fauda (Netflix) is the rare half-hour thriller. With 12 episodes averaging 34 minutes each, this Israeli series carries no fat as it toggles between an elite Israeli undercover commando and its prey, a Hamas terrorist. Sure, some of the set pieces are conventional: A wedding goes wrong, a high-security patient is whisked away from a hospital, overhead drone shots track fleeing vehicles — whether in London, New York or Ramallah, we’ve seen those scenes a dozen times. But the series is so efficiently directed that you likely won’t care, and its engaging realism raises thought-provoking issues about terrorism and abuses of power.
Fauda's sympathies lie slightly more with its Israeli bad boys, though the creators do show them cutting ethical and moral corners; they also draw a parallel between Jewish lone wolf Doron (co-creator Lior Raz) and his Palestinian foe, Abu Ahmed (Hisham Suliman) — two men whose quest for vengeance drives them to antagonize friends, lovers and relatives.
It's no surprise that thrillers and procedurals travel best, relying as they do on plotting. But a pair of cop shows that banks on atmosphere rather than tight storytelling are worth investigating. Produced in Spain and set in Cuba, Four Seasons in Havana (Netflix) is based on Leonardo Padura’s cult novels about Mario Conde, a detective who fancies himself a writer of “squalid and touching stories” and keeps falling for the wrong women. Jorge Perrugorría, from the Cuban movie Strawberry and Chocolate, portrays Conde as a teddy bear of a man.
Adapted by Padura and his wife, Lucia Lopez Coll, the four feature-length episodes stand on their own like mini movies. Solving each mystery is less interesting than watching Conde wend his way through the decrepit Havana of the late 1990s — this is a crumbling city torn by poverty and irrational political decisions yet still hanging on to a faded romanticism. If you only have time for a couple of episodes, check out the first (about sex and drugs in a high school) and the third (a fascinating dive into Havana’s gay underground).
The beach setting of Deep Water (Acorn) is considerably slicker, as the action takes place around the touristy Bondi waterfront in Sydney. This Australian procedural is strictly by-the-numbers, which is also why it’s such satisfying comfort food — and its central case is wrapped up in just four TV hours, making it downright zippy by binge standards.
The detective here is one Tori Lustigman (Yael Stone, aka Morello on Orange Is the New Black), thrown into an investigation that turns out to be tied to her own past. Didn’t see that one coming, did you? Oh, you did because you’ve watched dozens of shows about grisly murders and troubled cops? Fine.
Tori does not actually rank all that high on the TV antihero scale. She doesn’t go psycho-rogue or pull off major illegal stunts — which by current standards makes her Miss Marple, albeit in impossibly tight pants. But the camera loves Stone’s interestingly taut face, so often frozen in perpetual tension, and the plot picks up extra poignancy from its inspiration in real-life homophobic murders in 1970s and ’80s Sydney. This may have taken place on the other side of the globe, but the emotion is universal.