Some of the best international TV shows on the planet premiered in the US and UK last year, and the ones I thought were fabulous are numerous.
Over the course of 2016 and 2017, there was a major increase in offerings for Euro TV fans across the globe. This was due in large part to the launch of Walter Presents, which debuted in the UK on Channel 4’s linear channel and its All 4 video-on-demand service in January 2016, launched in the US as a subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) platform in March 2017, and started in Australia in partnership with Foxtel in November 2017.
During this same two-year period, MHz Choice continued to bring new titles and new seasons of longtime and recent favorites to stateside Euro TV fans, then launched in Canada in September 2017 to give Canuck viewers dozens of Euro TV shows to indulge in.
These two SVOD streaming services, along with Acorn TV, Amazon Prime and Instant Video, Netflix, Shudder, and Sundance Now, combined to bring viewers in the US thousands of hours of English-subtitled international TV programming over the past 24 months.
Given the sheer volume of Euro TV shows available, I admit I didn’t watch every single one because I simply couldn’t. There just weren’t, and still aren’t, enough hours in a day. (Not to mention the fact that I also had shows from across the pond, north of the border, and south of the Equator to watch for The British TV Place and The Down Under TV Place, too.)
Nonetheless, I watched plenty (of the ones that came to the US), and it was really tough to cull them down to my 20 favorite brand new shows. (Meaning there are no Season 2+ titles on this list.)
Dark and gritty, with twists and turns and red herrings (oh my!), this mystery-crime drama series follows the police hunt for a serial criminal whose violent assaults are based on the Ten Commandments. It’s deftly written and acted, leaving at least this viewer genuinely surprised at the identity of the culprit. For further details, read this article.
El Barco: Season 1 (The Boat) (Spain)
Part sci-fi thriller, part mystery, part telenovela, this intriguing series finds the crew and passengers aboard a training ship on a journey to nowhere (at least initially) after a CERN particle accelerator accident triggers a storm that brings on a global apocalypse, one in which the world’s land masses end up underwater. (Or are they?) With a mutiny, dwindling food supplies, and an event that some interpret to be a new biblical plague, folks still hook up, bringing new meaning to “if you were the last person on Earth”…
US & UK: Netflix
Strong and resourceful with equal parts brains and beauty, Carmen van Walraven (Monic Hendrickx, Hotel Beau Séjour, see below) would be my shero if she weren’t in organized crime, despite her reluctance to take her late husband’s place in his drugs business. One can’t help but cheer for her and fear for her as she takes care of her three children while dealing with violent rivals and one of the skeeviest cops in Euro TV. As gripping as The Sopranos but with a badass female lead, this crime thriller is perfect binge-fest material.
This humorous and delightful dramedy series is quite the cozy mystery, despite being set in Rome instead of a quaint village in the countryside. The sleuth here is Bruno Palmieri (Gigi Proietti, Il maresciallo Rocca), a veteran journalist who, with a bullet lodged near his heart, foregoes retirement to investigate old cases and new crimes with a bit of help from his single-mum daughter, a columnist who doesn’t know he’s her dad. It’s good, clean fun, this.
La Casa de Papel (Money Heist) (Spain)
The premise, acting, and production of this heist thriller are brilliant. Narrated by the character code-named Tokyo (Úrsula Corberó, Isabel), the first half of the drama concerns the takeover of the National Mint of Spain by a gang of criminals that, under the direction of the scheme’s mysterious mastermind, holds dozens of people hostage while printing €2.4 billion in unmarked notes. But there’s more to the story than money… Bring on the second half, Netflix!
US & UK: Netflix
This drama series is as hard-hitting as the (fictional) news stories it features, and reveals the darker side of life in one corner of the Emerald Isle. It stars Diarmuid de Faoite (Pilgrimage), who gives a riveting performance as Cathal Mac Iarnáin, the crime reporter for a TV news station in Galway and a real consequences-be-damned schmuck off camera. For more details, read this article.
The feature-length stories in this very dark crime thriller scream sinister from the get-go and are as gripping as they are disturbing. Thierry Godard (Spiral) stars as Martin, a flawed detective with a harem of sorts (ex-wife, daughter, lover, cop coworker, criminal psychologist colleague, the list goes on) who heads up a police crime squad in Paris. Their cases involve murders, some more twisted than others, against (mostly) women, and Martin does not go unscathed in the investigations, either. Binge-worthy, for sure.
Hotel Beau Séjour (Beau Séjour) (Belgium)
Murder mystery meets supernatural drama in this dark and engrossing Flemish noir series. The story follows Kato (Lynn Van Royen, The Team), a teen-aged girl who, after discovering that she has miraculously returned from the dead, sets out to find the person who murdered her — a goal made more difficult by her being invisible to most people. Binge? Yes.
US & UK: Netflix
This quirky, high-concept fantasy-comedy series offers up some biting satire while being a fun watch for laugh-out-loud escapism. Once the backstory is established (the main characters are “nixes,” a race of people that can breathe underwater), the story follows the police search for a white-collar criminal who inadvertently discovers that he, too, possesses that ability, while the nixes aim to get rid of him to maintain their secret. Read this article for more details.
A dark, intricate thriller that grips you from the off, the narrative of this women’s prison drama revolves around Macarena Ferreiro (Maggie Civantos, Cable Girls), a naive young woman who was framed and is imprisoned for fraud. Despite similar themes, this series is not a knock-off of Orange Is the New Black but closer in tone to the Australian series Wentworth and as binge-watchable as both of them.
La Mante (The Mantis) (France)
I can’t remember the last time I saw an actor portray a stone-faced serial killer as well as Carole Bouquet (Spin) does in this gripping crime thriller. And her character, nicknamed the Mantis, isn’t even the multiple murderer that the police, including her estranged son, are after. No, they’re on the hunt for a copycat killer and need the Mantis’ help to catch the perp. She agrees conditionally, but what the cops don’t realize is that she’s planning something of her own in the process.
US & UK: Netflix
The opening “what the what?!?” scene sets the tone for this crime thriller that pairs a troubled French detective with a milquetoast half Swedish-half Sami prosecutor in the investigation of a murdered French national in Kiruna. The story and characters are compelling, and the scenery in this northernmost part of Sweden is strikingly beautiful — a stark contrast to the ugliness of the racism against the indigenous Sami people.
This good old-fashioned, binge-worthy Nordic Noir mystery miniseries stars Helena Bergström (Annika Bengtzon) as Maja Silver, a senior-level detective who returns to her hometown to reconnect with her estranged daughter. Next thing you know, Maya ends up leading an investigation that gets more complex as the series progresses. For further details, read this article.
There is something about eccentric, socially maladroit characters that makes them appealing (on telly, anyway), and such is the case with the titular character in this mystery series. The outward symptoms of Jasper Teerlinck’s (Koen De Bouw, Salamander) neurological issues are the kind that would get him punched if the cops he consults for didn’t appreciate what he brings to the table: a knack for providing proper insights so they can solve criminal cases. Read this article for additional details.
Angelo Bison (Resistance) gives a positively chilling (and award-winning) performance as a convicted serial killer of children in this noir crime thriller that revolves around the investigation into the disappearance and then murder of a young girl. Compounding the dread in this tension-filled drama are the dreary mountain atmosphere and the remote setting of the Belgian Ardennes. For more info, read this article.
This Scandi-noir mystery series stars Ida Engvoll (Bonus Family) as the eponymous tax attorney-turned-amateur sleuth, who puts her legal career in Stockholm on hold to work with the police in her hometown of Kiruna to solve murder cases. The stories are well-plotted, the acting is spot on, and the northern Sweden setting is stunning. Read this article for more details.
Silver Spoon: Season 1 (Mazhor) (Russia)
If Friends were a fun, funny, and light police procedural, and Joey Tribbiani were Russian, he’d be Igor (Pavel Priluchnyy, Freud’s Method), aka “Silver Spoon.” Cops resent him for numerous reasons, not the least of which is how his rich and powerful father got him, an irresponsible and irrepressible playboy, a job on their squad. Surprisingly, Igor does grow up (some) and actually has the makings of a good detective, skills he uses to find out how his mother really died. The show is well worth a watch.
US & UK: Netflix
Suburra: Blood on Rome (Suburra – la serie) (Italy)
Wow. The movie Suburra is really good, but this prequel series blows it away. It’s a crime drama with a complex narrative, but what’s engrossing is the relationship between the trio of young men at the heart of the story. Sons of a wealthy mob boss, a gypsy criminal gang, and an honest cop, who become the unlikeliest of friends, these characters are utterly magnetic, even when they’re at their most violent. Especially Aureliano (Alessandro Borghi, Thou Shalt Not Kill, who makes me think of Justin Timberlake whenever he, Borghi, is on screen).
US & UK: Netflix
Nordic noir is at the top of its game in this taut, moody, and addictive crime thriller. Set in a frozen remote coastal town that’s as bleak and dreary as they come, it stars Ólafur Darri Ólafsson (The Missing) as the flawed and sullen (but still giant teddy bear!) police chief who investigates the probable murder of a man after fishermen find a mutilated torso. The atmosphere gets even more claustrophobic when a blizzard sets in and forces folks to stay put while a killer is on the loose. For more info, read this article.
This thriller is dark, tension-filled, and binge-worthy. Set mostly in the confines of a disused subway station-Cold War bunker in Oslo, it centers on a surgeon (Sven Nordin, Blue Eyes) desperately trying to save the life of his dying wife and a paranoid civil defense technician (Pål Sverre Hagen, Department Q: A Conspiracy of Faith) blogging about and prepping for an imminent disaster. “How far would you go” is a question that comes up implicitly throughout the season, whether the writers intended this or not.
And because life happened, I couldn’t watch about half of the Euro TV shows that premiered in the US in 2016. Now that I’ve caught up, here’s the list of my favorites from that year.
This is one of the best drama series ever. Season 1 follows Swedish nationals — a mum and her two daughters, a single man, and an older married woman — who travel to Thailand to start a new life, to marry, and to have a holiday, respectively. Only their plans don’t go the way they envisioned, nor do they include the tsunami. For more info, read this article; just know that the series is no longer on Netflix (or anywhere else) in the US.
This is not your run-of-the-mill haunted house story. Firstly, the house in this supernatural-horror-mystery miniseries is like the TARDIS in Doctor Who — bigger on the inside than the outside. Secondly, the impressive cinematography and visuals remind me of the ones in Golden Globe winner Guillermo del Toro’s (The Shape of Water) films. Thirdly, the story is and isn’t what you think it’s about, and the brilliant ending is as satisfying as it is surprising. (I was in tears.) Read this article for more details, but seriously, just go watch the show.
The Break (La trêve) (Belgium)
Set in the Belgian Ardennes, this intricate, intense, and suspenseful crime thriller series alternates between the present day and the events leading up to it. Yoann Blanc (Station Horizon, see below) stars as Yoann Peeters, a detective who, three weeks earlier, began investigating the so-called suicide of a footballer as a possible murder. The deeper he went, the more troubling things became, with the ultimate mystery being the details of why Peeters is being held in a psychiatric facility.
US & UK: Netflix
This taut, intense, and riveting spy thriller will elevate your heart rate, so maybe binge-watch just a couple episodes at a time. Season 1 follows two parallel storylines — one centering on a senior intelligence officer who keeps his double identity after returning home from his latest assignment, the other following the trials of a new undercover agent. For more info, read this article, but note that Sundance Now is no longer streaming the first two seasons for free.
Call My Agent!: Season 1 (Dix pour cent) (France)
This hilarious comedy series is like a mashup of Ugly Betty and The Thick of It, but set in the hectic world of a talent agency. From internal politics and bad-mouthing, to reps maneuvering on behalf of and pleading with the company’s celeb clients, the show’s a rip-roaring look at this behind-the-scenes business in the entertainment industry. Oh, and the episode with Audrey Fleurot (Spial) is priceless.
US & UK: Netflix
As gritty and intense as Spiral but focused on the criminals instead of the cops, this double-wow organized crime drama series centers on the on-the-street, behind-closed-doors, and behind-bars activities, allegiances, betrayals, and reprisals of the Savastano clan in Season 1. Starring Marco D’Amore (Gourmet Wars) as Ciro, the right-hand man to mob boss Don Pietro (Fortunato Cerlino, Medici: Masters of Florence), Gomorrah is addictive, so don’t be surprised if you watch five episodes in a row without leaving your seat. (Ahem.)
The setting is dreary, many characters are unsympathetic, and the pace can be slow. But don’t let that stop you from watching this finely-acted and absorbing story about the intertwined lives of a cop and a criminal who used to be sweethearts in Helsinki. For more info, read this article, but know that Acorn TV, which premiered this drama series in the US, is no longer streaming it.
This Sex and the City-ish telenovela dramedy features Ally McBeal-like scenes and is a juicy fun watch. It follows five female friends in Barcelona as they deal with the good, the bad, and the ugly of their lives — from a cheating husband and a new lover, to pregnancy and an incurable tumor. Read this article for further details. (Hey Amazon and Hulu, bring us Season 2 already!)
If The Godfather were a TV series and the head of the clan were a young, attractive woman, it would be this crime drama series. Violent, bloody, and oh so compelling, it stars Hélène Fillières (Collection Fred Vargas) as Sandra Paoli, the niece of a mafia don who takes over the family business in Corsica after he’s gunned down. The men of the clan do her bidding, but those of rival families refuse to acknowledge a female being in charge. Meanwhile, Sandra has more to learn than she realizes about being the head mafiosa.
Merlí: Season 1 (Spain)
Creative in its content, humourous in its storytelling, and genuine in its character development, this drama series is also one of the most intelligent shows on telly — and not just because it uses the concepts and teachings of various philosophers as the themes for storylines. For more info, read this article, while fans of the series continue to wait for Netflix to bring Seasons 2 and 3 to the US and UK.
US & UK: Netflix
This political thriller rocked my world when it arrived stateside two years ago this month. A taut and tension-filled nail-biter, the storyline follows the machinations involved in Russia’s takeover of Norway and the futile attempts by the Norwegian prime minister to get the occupiers out of his country. Meanwhile, segments of the population plan rebellions while others take advantage of the situation. Read this article for more details. (Season 2, please, Netflix!)
Station Horizon (Switzerland)
This unassuming drama series is an absolute gem. It revolves around the country-music-listening, cowboy-boot-wearing, line-dancing denizens of Horizonville, an Americana-obsessed community in the Valais. We meet them when prodigal son and new parolee Joris Fragnière (Bernard Yerlès, Bright-eyed Revenge) returns here, only to find the ghosts of his past are alive and well in his hometown. (I watched the entire series in one sitting, if that tells you anything.)
As a social commentary on the haves and have-nots in Norway, this drama series is by turns warm, humorous, and scathing. The main thread follows a young, unemployed Polish man who travels to Oslo to find the father he never knew in order to get some money. Meanwhile, the middle-class people he encounters moan about things he could only wish to have as problems. For more info, read this article, but ignore the link to Dailymotion.
Klaus Borowski reminds me of Martin Ellingham, the lead character in the British comedy-drama series Doc Martin. Interestingly enough, Axel Milberg, who plays Borowski, starred as the GP in the German version of the UK series. The detective and the doctor are pretty similar: at times boorish and insensitive, at others good-natured and, dare I say, charming — all while being pretty darned good at solving crimes (not to mention insulting people).
In this disturbing, heart-wrenching, and gripping miniseries that debuted in the US on Eurochannel, Alba Gaïa Bellugi (The Bureau) gives an incredible performance as 15-year-old Manon, a deeply-troubled delinquent who is court-ordered to spend six months in a reform school. It’s her last chance at redemption, and if she fails to turn herself around, prison is a certainty. This is a sometimes hard-to-watch but unmissable drama.
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