We’ve said farewell to a fabulous year of European television programs, so let’s take a look at the titles whose debuts in 2014 made a lasting impression on us, before diving into what we hope will be another year of thrilling Euro TV.
More than 30 Euro TV shows debuted or returned with new episodes in the US and/or UK in 2014, and of the titles that have completed their first or new seasons, we call the ten below our favorites. (The awesome new drama The Legacy, or Arvingerne in Danish, is still in the midst of its first season in the UK, so it will be on our 2015 favorites list.)
Blood of the Vine
J’adore cette série. This medium-bodied French mystery series is as tasty as a fine wine (which I don’t drink, because I’m allergic to alcohol, but still). Its stories, set amid châteaux and vineyards from Bordeaux to Champagne, have satisfying finishes, and Pierre Arditi is simply velvety as Benjamin Lebel, the enologist-cum-sleuth who advises wine-making clients while sniffing out clues and culprits when murders take place amongst the grapes.
Adapted from the “Winemaker Detective Series“ by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen, Blood of the Vine (Le Sang de la Vigne) delivers stories with complexities that intrigue the mind, lessons in wine-making and -tasting that tempt the taste buds (even mine), and gorgeous locations in France that are an escapist’s paradise. Accompanied by a baguette and brie, it makes for a lovely night in, and I look forward to the Season 4 vintage.
This is one of the best series ever. From start to finish, each 10-episode serial is riveting, with intricate plots, fascinating lead characters, and slow-boiled action so taut and gripping, it could make a binge-watcher out of anyone.
One of the greatest character pairings in recent memory is that of Saga Norén (Sofia Helin) and Martin Rohde (Kim Bodnia). She, a Swedish detective with Asperger Syndrome, essays to understand the nuances of interpersonal dealings, while he, her Danish partner, is a man whose compassion for, and unlikely friendship with, Saga is so touching, it melts the heart. The juxtaposition of their relationship with the brutality of the crimes they investigate seems contrary, but it works brilliantly.
That Bodnia won’t be in Season 3 of The Bridge (Bron/Broen) is a disappointment, but I’m hopeful that the next season will be as much a must-see as the first two are.
Crime Scene Cleaner
After just three episodes, I can say unequivocally that this German comedy is smart and downright hilarious. Bjarne Mädel stars as Heiko “Schotty” Schotte, the titular cleaner-upper, and the actor plays the character straight, which makes the show all the funnier. The comedy lies in Schotty’s interactions with the individuals he meets (his comic foils, as it were) while cleaning crime scene detritus, as well as in the characters’ quirks. (The crossover with the German crime drama, Bukow and König, in one episode was very cool, too.)
Crime Scene Cleaner (Der Tatortreiniger) is a fun watch, and I hope MHz screens the entire four seasons worth of episodes and releases all of them on DVD soon, because they are keepers. For folks who haven’t seen the series yet, the third episode is online for a few more hours, and the fourth airs tonight on MHz Worldview. Check it out.
One of the things I appreciate most about this series is its clever incorporation of tales of mythological figures, which are referenced in episode titles such as “Codename: Agamemnon.” As regards the title, it refers to the nickname of the central character, Hallgrim Hallgrimsson (Jens Albinus), due to his keen insight. But there’s more to it than that.
It’s been an age since I read Homer’s Odyssey, but a little research reminded me of the eagle’s symbolism in the epic poem. There it symbolized Odysseus in a dream, while in the Danish TV series, Hallgrim/The Eagle is the Odyssean character whose journey “home” (to himself) is as long and arduous as the Greek hero’s is to Troy. (See what I mean?)
It’s this layered, symbolic storytelling that makes The Eagle: A Crime Odyssey (Ørnen: En Krimi-Odyssé) as compelling a watch as The Odyssey is a read. That said, though, it isn’t requisite to know anything about the myths woven through the series, because it stands on its own as a thrilling crime drama.
Johan Falk: Season One
I became a fan of the Johan Falk film series with the Trilogy. It was really good, but then came Season One, and I was blown away. Joel Kinnaman’s portrayal of the damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t gangster turned police informant, Frank Wagner, was incredible, truly a not-to-be-missed performance.
Wagner is central to four stories in Season One, and they are suspense- and tension-filled nail-biters. He features for mere minutes in two other stories, which are engrossing, too, albeit at a slightly lesser depth; however, Kinnaman’s talent is (hate to say it) wasted in them. Still, his being in them at all carries through the arc of the complicated relationship between Wagner and Falk, played by Jakob Eklund as intensely as in the trilogy. Of the seven films released after Season One, Wagner features in five, and I cannot wait for these to be screened on telly and available on DVD.
Nicolas le Floch
Oh là là! If only all mystery series featured a lead character as delicious as this guy. The titular marquis, played by the charismatic and handsome Jérôme Robart, is smart, suave, and sexy, a skilled police inspector and swordsman who is equally adept at unmasking criminals as he is at seducing the ladies. What’s not to like about him?
Story-wise, episodes are adapted from the historical novels by Jean-François Parot, and replete with high- and lowbrow characters, intrigues, and les liaisons dangereuses amongst 18th-century aristocrats and courtiers that make Nicolas Le Floch a series to savor. Stories can be quite dark at times, so the humor injected by the pretentious, powdered-wig and flamboyant costume-wearing character of Le Floch’s boss, Sartine (played with comic flair by François Caron) lightens things up. Overall, it’s a fabulous series, and one that came to an end last year after twelve episodes. MHz Worldview has aired ten of them, so fingers crossed that they screen the last two and release a DVD of the last six soon, because the show is worth repeat viewing.
I had never binge-watched any show for eight hours straight until I Neftlixed The Returned. It grabbed me from the get-go and had me gripped until the final terrifying moments, and I have been waiting for the second season of this supernatural thriller ever since. (It’s going to be a long wait, though, as filming is still going on and Canal+ is expected to debut Season 2 late this year, which means it won’t get to Channel 4, the Sundance Channel, and/or Netflix until even later.)
In a nutshell, The Returned (Les Revenants) is about zombies who return (or try to return) to the lives they had while not realizing they’ve been dead for years. (The creepiest amongst them is the little boy, Victor, whose huge eyes and long, silent gazes are enough to freak anyone out.) Eventually they find out about their now-undone deaths, as their loved ones try to adjust to their being alive again. Unlike zombie-themed horror scream-fests, The Returned is a supernatural spook-’em with a mystery series’ twists, except here the question isn’t whodunit but whydunit: Why have the dead have come back? Yet even after some questions are answered, more remain, which is where Season 2 comes in. Season 1 is a must-watch, and if Season 2 is anywhere near as good, it will be, too.
The Time In Between
This miniseries, adapted from The New York Times bestseller The Time in Between by María Dueñas, is billed as “the Spanish Downton Abbey,” so, being a fan of the Brit mega-hit, I checked it out. In many respects, the moniker is apt, but rather than being a saga of an aristocratic family, this period drama follows the life of one woman as she transforms from a seamstress in pre-Franco-era Spain into a World War II spy for the British intelligence service.
And it is fabulous. While I didn’t binge-watch all 17 episodes of The Time in Between (El Tiempo Entre Costuras) in one sitting, I did it in three, as the story of Sira Quiroga (Adriana Ugarte) is filled with romance, exotic settings in Morocco (as well as Spain and Portugal), colorful characters (some based on real persons), beautiful period costumes, and dangerous derrings-do. It’s quite thrilling, and well worth a watch.
The crime stories in this detective drama are good, often very good. But the characters — members of the mobile police team in Denmark known as Unit One — are the real draw. They are accessible and likable. It’s that simple. (Okay, Mads Mikkelsen is a big plus, too.)
Unit One (Rejseholdet) devotes almost as much time to the characters’ personal stories (e.g. falling in and out of love, having money problems, etc.) as it does to the crime plots. This allows viewers to relate to, and bond with, the characters, something that doesn’t always happen with crime dramas. The series finale, while a hit, didn’t go over well with fans in Denmark, because it left them hanging about who would do what after Unit One disbanded. Thankfully, one last two-parter was produced to give viewers some closure. I actually miss seeing this group in new situations each week, but I’m glad I can reconnect with them, so to speak, in the series’ 32 episodes.
Wallander: Season 3
Rolf Lassgård and Kenneth Branagh are terrific as the veteran Swedish detective, Kurt Wallander, but Krister Henriksson is the actor that I and many fans of the “Wallander” novels by Henning Mankell associate most with the role, so when the TV series starring Henriksson ended, it was sad indeed.
The six episodes that close out Wallander are as tightly written, produced, and acted as the previous 26 crime stories. But it is Henriksson — whose superb performance as the aging and increasingly ill cop, father, and grandfather in the final pieces to the arc of Wallander’s own story — that makes these final episodes heartbreakingly captivating. No Wallander viewing experience is complete without the last season, and that is true in more ways than the obvious.
To find out where you can stream any of these titles (as available), click here.