1. Borgen (Denmark, 2010-present)
With a handful of exceptions—mostly anime and miniseries made by acclaimed foreign directors—it’s been extraordinarily hard for Americans to get their hands on even the most highly acclaimed foreign-language TV. The idea of TV as art worth being challenged by is a relatively new one, even though there’s been good TV in all languages since the medium’s inception. That’s all changing with the recent flood of cable channels and streaming services devoted to outside-the-box material in recent years, however. Take, for instance, Borgen, a hugely acclaimed Danish drama about the fictional first female prime minister of the country, forced to walk a narrow path between sticking to her ideals and actually getting things done. Roundly praised as one of the best series ever made about politics by those who saw it in Denmark and elsewhere in Europe (including on the BBC, where it was hugely successful), Borgen likely wouldn’t have made it to American shores if not for streaming sites hungry for content. Now, however, it’s intermittently available on LinkTV, an independent, non-profit network. And more power to it: Borgen is exactly the kind of involving TV drama that makes getting through the summer more tolerable.
2. Dae-Jang Geum (South Korea, 2003-2004)
Upon its original broadcast, this historical epic miniseries averaged an astonishing 50 percent ratings share. That becomes all the more impressive when considering this tale of palace intrigue in 15th-century Korea consists of 54 (!) one-hour episodes, chronicling the life of Seo Jang Geum (the title translates as “The Great Jang Geum”), orphaned by political treachery, who works her way up from kitchen slave to become the first female physician to the king. Shot on digital video, the meager budget ($15 million, spread over 54 episodes) is actually an asset, as the series’ overall look reinforces the often brutal earthiness of the characters’ lives. From the judiciously chosen, often striking, external locations to the meticulously re-created costumes and sets, Dae-Jang Geum’s world convincingly evokes the conflict of a culture attempting to impose a ritualized aesthetic amid 15th-century living conditions. When preparing a lavish court banquet, there is no Downton Abbey remove to the images—every sumptuous dish is a real, physical object on the screen. This visual immediacy, and the enduringly engaging lead performance of Lee Young-ae provide ample enticement for marathon viewing. The complete run is available on DVD.
3. Braquo (France, 2009, 2011)
Olivier Marchal, the director of the thriller movies 36 Quai Des Orfèvres and Tell No One, created this hyper-violent crime drama, which has gone through two seasons of eight episodes apiece. The show, which is invariably compared to The Shield, stars Jean-Hughes Anglade (Betty Blue, Killing Zoe) as the head of a four-man unit inside the police force who appear to have special dispensation to bend the rules of standard legal procedure and basic human decency; the ruthless gangsters they target are happy to respond in kind. The first season is available for streaming on Hulu; those who sample it and become addicted may want to track down season two on Region 2 DVD.
4. The Kingdom (Denmark, 1994, 1997)
When executives at Denmark’s national television network DR approached Lars Von Trier about doing a television series in the early 1990s, they probably should have braced themselves for something that made Twin Peaks look like Mayberry R.F.D. Von Trier was inspired not only by the seminal weirdo soap created by David Lynch and Mark Frost but also by the handheld camera and anything-goes editing of Homicide: Life On The Street. The result was a freewheeling four-part series co-written by Niels Vørsel set in a real Copenhagen hospital called Rigshospitalet, or Riget (Kingdom) for short. Von Trier and Vørsel populated their haunted medical center with wackos of every stripe, from the clueless hospital administrator Moesgaard (Holger Juul Hansen) to ghost whisperer Mrs. Druse (Kirsten Rolffes) to dyspeptic Swedish consultant Stig Helmer (Ernst-Hugo Järegård), who closed out every episode with profane rants about “Danish scum.” When the first series ended with the birth of a deformed baby with the head of Udo Kier, it would have been natural to assume The Kingdom couldn’t possibly get stranger, but the second series of four episodes only escalated the lunacy. A third and concluding series was never made, mainly because several members of the cast died after filming the second. In 2004, Stephen King adapted the series for ABC as Kingdom Hospital, but adding a giant talking anteater to the mix did not appreciably improve upon the original, which is available on Hulu Plus and DVD.
5. City Of Men (Brazil, 2002-2005)
A spin-off from Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund’s 2002 crime drama City Of God, this 19-episode series focuses on two teenagers living in one of Rio De Janeiro’s poor neighborhoods known as favelas. The best American equivalent is the fourth season of The Wire, as both shows feature resourceful kids trying to survive an inadequate school system and the constant drug wars in their neighborhood. City Of Men is not quite as bleak, in part because crowded Rio is so much more vibrant than the drab emptiness of inner city Baltimore. The first episode has tragicomic touches like a student understanding the Napoleonic Wars by comparing them to the gang wars in his neighborhood. There’s also a plot about delivering medicine to one of the kids’ grandmothers, who lives at the top of a public staircase that’s part of a turf war between drug gangs; the attempt to circumvent the armed “guards” and reach Grandma’s feels like a perversion of a bank-heist movie. Quite popular in Brazil, the series was followed by another film, also called City Of Men (2007) that goes back to the darker tone of the film that started it all. The series is available on DVD.
6. Fanny And Alexander (Sweden, 1982)
As mentioned, much of the foreign-language TV that has made it to U.S. shores has been miniseries from great European directors, who worked in television far more frequently than their American counterparts. Perhaps no director was fonder of working in TV than Ingmar Bergman, who created several TV movies and miniseries. The most unusual of these is Fanny And Alexander, available on DVD from Criterion. Originally intended as Bergman’s final film, the miniseries is often intensely personal, offering up what seem like Bergman’s thoughts on his childhood and film career, yet said miniseries was not the first version of the material to be seen. The 312-minute version eventually surfaced, but a 188-minute version was released to theaters first (and was hugely successful at the Oscars). Both versions are worth seeing, but it’s the made-for-television version that preserves all of Bergman’s rich detail and humane attitude toward his characters. At its full length, Fanny And Alexander captures the immense breadth of human experience and emotion.
7. Scenes From A Marriage and Saraband (Sweden, 1973 and 2003)
The six-episode version of Ingmar Bergman’s masterwork Scenes From A Marriage, cut from 281 to 167 minutes for theatrical release in the United States (Criterion’s DVD release features both versions), is a good test of where one falls in the debate over “binge-watching.” Does a viewer watch Marianne and Johan break up (but continue to torture each other) in a single sitting? Or do they piece out the heartbreak so that they, too, can know what it’s like to lie awake in bed and keep kicking around that evening’s most uncomfortable moments? Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson are the lawyer and professor whose marriage can’t survive their articulate descriptions of each other’s flaws—or Bergman’s unforgiving close-ups. In the watch-it-slowly camp, Boston Globe columnist Joan Wickersham has a good piece on revisiting the series with her husband and noticing details like how Ullmann’s braided hair comes undone each time her character’s marriage hits another low point. Bergman used the same characters a couple of years later in the two-hour sequel Saraband, also made for Swedish TV and then released theatrically. Then there’s the American prime-time soap Knots Landing, which creator David Jacobs says was based on Scenes (though with different couples depicting various stages of marriage). Knots fans debate whether there’s any real similarity here.
8. The Decalogue (Poland, 1989)
In the dying days of communist Poland, acclaimed director Krzysztof Kieślowski and his collaborator, anti-government civil-rights lawyer turned screenwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz, created 10 hourlong films about the Ten Commandments. This was no sweeping biblical epic, but, instead, an achingly human examination of the commandments’ moral and ethical implications in contemporary Poland. Set in a bleak, grimy Warsaw housing estate—although Kieślowski later insisted he actually chose the city’s most beautiful apartment complex, “so you can imagine what the others are like”—the series presents 10 self-contained stories, meditative personal dramas as a different resident’s life is shaped by a different commandment in each film. Kieślowski and Piesiewicz find just as much emotional impact in seemingly abstract topics like bearing false witness and keeping the Sabbath holy as they do in more primal, immediately accessible topics like murder and adultery. An agnostic, Kieślowski created The Decalogue to work through the philosophical emptiness and moral disillusionment he perceived in a Poland that had long since lost its way. Its Eastern Bloc origins and its unwieldy format, caught somewhere between a TV miniseries and a collection of short films, meant the series only gradually gained the recognition it deserved in the West, but it’s often touted as one of the best dramatic works in television history, and no less than Stanley Kubrick considered it the only true masterpiece made in his lifetime. It’s available on DVD.
9. Das Boot (Germany, 1984, 1988)
A few select foreign TV films and miniseries have been released to American movie theaters; things get murkier in the case of Wolfgang Petersen’s World War II submarine epic Das Boot, which was released to theaters as a two-and-a-half-hour feature film in 1981, years before the wealth of footage Petersen shot was re-edited into a five-hour miniseries that was broadcast in three parts in 1984, and in six parts in 1988. Both the theatrical and “original, uncut” TV versions are available on DVD, as is a three-and-a-half-hour “director’s cut” released in 1997.
10. Berlin Alexanderplatz (West Germany, 1980)
“It’s easier to get out now than it was in the past,” a guard tells Franz Biberkopf (Günter Lamprecht) upon releasing him from a four-year manslaughter stint into a loud, hectic post-war (the first one) Berlin in the opening scene of Berlin Alexanderplatz. Based on the novel by Alfred Döblin, the series is broken into 13 chapters and an epilogue with delightful titles like “Part 1: The Punishment Begins,” which pretty much sums it up. Franz, who looks and acts something like the love child of Peter Lorre and Tony Soprano, vows to clean up his act but naturally sinks back into the underworld, cycling through pretty women and bonding with unscrupulous men. But Berlin Alexanderplatz is no misery parade. With its humanistic writing, sensitive performances, and lively filmmaking, it’s unfailingly hopeful. The music tinkles, the lights sparkle, and the glass glistens. Originally airing weekly in the final months of 1980 to a nation of predominantly black-and-white TV sets, the muddy palette and careless broadcast led to a disappointing debut that kept the landmark largely out of commission. A 2006 restoration, including a blown-up transfer to 35mm and color correction, is now available on DVD in the Criterion Collection.
11. The Stationmaster’s Wife (Germany, 1977)
Three years before Rainer Werner Fassbinder directed Berlin Alexanderplatz, he made this tragicomic miniseries about a man (Kurt Raab) who is destroyed by his inability to come to terms with his wife’s philandering. At a little over three hours, it’s a more modest project than the better-known Alexanderplatz, but in some ways is a more haunting accomplishment. A 112-minute version that Fassbinder had prepared for theatrical release arrived in the U.S. in 1983, a year after the director’s death. It’s available on DVD.
12. World On A Wire (Germany, 1973)
Another fascinating Fassbinder oddity rescued from obscurity by the Criterion Collection, this three-and-a-half hour TV miniseries was adapted from Daniel F. Galouye’s 1964 novel, Simulacron-3 (also the basis for 1999’s The Thirteenth Floor). It follows junior programmer Klaus Löwitsch as he takes over a top-secret computer simulation program after his mentor dies under mysterious circumstances. Designed to create a virtual-reality world where live people can be inserted into the simulated existence of one of 9,000 “identity units” via electrode-studded helmets, the program’s troublesome glitchiness begins to affect Löwitsch’s real life after he zaps himself inside in order to talk to “Einstein,” the one virtual person whose awareness of his own artificiality is integral to the program’s operation. Thematically wedding the sci-fi premise to the “consequences of power” theme ever looming in Fassbinder’s oeuvre (and designed with the director’s signature visual style—at one point there are musclemen doing Olympic rings exercises in a pool while a Marlene Dietrich lookalike croons to partygoers), World On A Wire is a statically intellectual Matrix, suffused with Alphaville’s philosophical slant on the genre.
13. Carlos (France, 2010)
Over the five-and-a-half hours of Olivier Assayas’ geopolitical epic, Édgar Ramírez’s magnetic Carlos transforms from a fit, young militant to a bloated narcissist. Carlos is certainly an apex of Assayas’ side-eye look at globalization, flitting through chyrons like James Bond on fast-forward and focusing on procedural pathways. As the story of two interconnected bureaucracies—governments and terrorists, er, freedom fighters—it’s no wonder Assayas follows the paperwork. Carlos even reaches out to Vietnam, Romania, and Chile, annexing several 20th-century struggles for freedom as part of his cushy life bouncing around European capitals. But the miniseries is also, as the scene where Carlos signs autographs attests, the rise and fall of a rock star, shot cleanly in three episodes—the climb up, the claim to fame, and the gassy decline—all set to a self-mythologizing New Wave soundtrack. That second-episode exploit is as intense as movies get, and the decline is endless agony, but Carlos is so full—of excitement, of ideas, of life—that it stands as one of the great works of 21st-century cinema, on television or off. The miniseries is currently available streaming on Hulu Plus and on DVD and Blu-ray by Criterion.
14. Roberto Rossellini’s histories (Italy, 1964-77)
While not strictly speaking a series, the final phase of Roberto Rossellini’s career is consumed by television movies about knowledge. To condense, the auteur held a press conference declaring cinema dead, fell for the populist possibilities of television, and devoted himself to a project of education wherein he would dramatize, or at least depict, great moments in Western thought. Financed by French and Italian studios and primarily debuting on Italian television, Rossellini’s histories revolve around scientists searching not only for truth but for expression, be they Renaissance artists or early Christian philosophers. The Taking Of Power By Louis XIV, a look at daily life at Versailles out on DVD by Criterion, is likely the most famous entry from this period. But the later films make a fascinating finale for the godfather of neo-realism. His long, wide shots soak up conversation, and his probing zooms indulge his curiosity as characters discuss physics, economics, politics, and more. Augustine Of Hippo is unavailable in Region 1, but Criterion has collected The Age Of The Medici, Blaise Pascal, and Cartesius in an Eclipse DVD set and streams them, along with Socrates, on its Hulu Plus channel.
15. Zatôichi (Japan, 1974-1979)
Outside of the United States, it’s a pretty big achievement for a non-soap drama to attain an episode count in the triple digits. Zatôichi made it to exactly 100 episodes with a premise that would be dismissed as camp if an American network tried it today: Shintarô Katsu stars as a traveling masseur in mid-19th-century Japan who’s both an expert with a cane sword and completely blind. His compulsion to fight for justice in whatever little town he visits in each episode brings to mind such American shows as The Lone Ranger, the more modern Route 66 and The Fugitive, and, of course, Kung Fu. Katsu played the character in 25 films, beginning in 1962, before transitioning to the small screen. Variants of the Zatôichi character have popped up in the West, such as in the 1971 spaghetti western Blindman and unsuccessful attempts at blind detectives on American TV (Longstreet, Blind Justice). Somehow the complete earnestness of Zatôichi—and perhaps its setting, which must seem so otherworldly to modern Japan as well to American audiences—makes it work on its own terms. The TV series as well as the films are available on English-subtitled DVDs.
16. Spiral (France, 2006-2012)
The French have gained a reputation for great cop dramas in recent years, and while some of that stems from Braquo, even more of it stems from Spiral, which plays like a sort of European spin on The Wire or Law & Order, following a variety of characters in the French criminal justice system, three on the side of the police and three in the courts. The series’ crimes are perhaps more blatantly sensationalistic than The Wire, but the depiction of all levels of society is reminiscent of that show. As a bonus, the female characters here are better than those on the American show, particularly the hard-edged personal disaster who is Laure Berthard, played by the great Caroline Proust. Three seasons of the series—with the fourth hopefully to follow—are available for streaming on Netflix, while the first is available on Hulu Plus.
17. Paranoia Agent (Japan, 2004)
The late Japanese animation director Satoshi Kon (Millennium Actress, Paprika) made this mold-breaking, 13-episode anime series, which uses a near-anthology show format, with a vast array of characters who take turns at center stage, linked by a mysterious, bat-wielding street assailant called Li’l Slugger. It adds up to a dense, somewhat metaphysical investigation into the nature of mass hysteria in the multimedia age. The series was first shown in the U.S. in a dubbed-into-English version broadcast on Adult Swim, but has since been issued on DVD with an optional Japanese vocal track.
18. Wallander (Sweden, 2005-present)
The BBC adaptation (starring Kenneth Branagh) of this mystery series based on the works of Swedish author Henning Mankell may have gotten the Masterpiece Theatre treatment, but fans of the titular detective, whose dogged deductive brilliance is matched only by his weltschmerz, will tell you that this series, starring Krister Henriksson and available on DVD, is the real deal. While the Branagh series does a creditable job in conveying Wallander’s bleakly beautiful, relentlessly brutal Ystad beat, Henriksson’s Wallander simply lives there, the protagonist’s weary countenance as natural an outgrowth of his milieu as the all-too-scant sunshine, windswept fields, obscuring forests, and ever-crashing sea. The unimposing Henriksson, at first glance, seems too burdened by a shattered marriage, ill health, troubled daughter, ailing father, and internal strife to pose much of a threat to the criminals of Ystad, but in each episode, they, and the viewers, are surprised at his mettle when confronted with disturbing misdeeds only he seems willing to follow to their (inevitably less-than-obvious) perpetrators. Henriksson’s Wallander rouses himself time and again to put things right, even if his tired eyes express the suspicion that it’s all for naught.
19. My Lovely Sam-Soon (South Korea, 2005)
Seeking an introduction to the “Haven’t slept in two days and don’t know why it’s impossible to stop watching” world of K-drama? Consider this 16-episode love letter to Kim Sam-Soon (Kim Suna), pastry chef and semi-pro interpersonal fuck-up, a series so engrossing, half of South Korea tuned in for the finale. Hyun Jin-Heon (Hyun Bin), insufferable bad-boy restaurateur, bribes her into a love contract (sure) to prevent Mom’s questions about his vanished ex (yup), but as Sam-Soon bonds with the love-starved daughter of her fake boyfriend’s dead brother (gotcha), Jin-Heon’s ex shows up with a smoking-hot American doctor pining behind her, and Sam-Soon begins hallucinating her dead dad. After that, things get complicated. Though the addictive charm wears thin as subplots get more tangled and reactions more outlandish, Sam-Soon’s a bedrock: Her TV-dowdiness and unabashed observations became a mold-breaking celebration of bluntness in a TV landscape not known for it, and Suna stays watchable long after viewers have lost track of how many times a dude’s done something he should probably be arrested for. Come for the pastries and slapping; stay for Sam-Soon’s bullshit detector and Already Saw That One points for future cinema beefcake Daniel Henney. It’s available on DVD and Hulu Plus.
20. Sherlock Holmes And Dr. Watson (Russia, 1979-1986)
The debate over the definitive Sherlock Holmes is one of the greatest old-school nerdfights, and with 75 candidates and counting, it still rages. Though slow to come to public attention outside the then-USSR, Vasily Livanov’s reserved but deeply human Holmes was so iconic it singlehandedly earned him an honorary MBE. Watching the series, it isn’t hard to see why. Sure, it helps that the scripts were not only painstakingly true to the stories, but the movie-length episodes also usually combined two thematically, highlighting Holmes’ repressed emotional upheaval with Irene Adler in contrast to Watson’s romance with Mary Morstan while investigating the treasures of Agra. But it was Livanov’s relationship with Vitaly Solomin—a polished, intelligent Watson straight from canon—that sealed the deal. Their rapport is so natural you often wonder if their barely repressed laughter is scripted or real, and their Holmes and Watson are that couple who finish each other’s sentences and have long silent arguments. It makes for electric crime solving and some of the most entertaining moments 221b has ever offered. It’s available on DVD.
21. Fabio Montale (France, 2001)
Alain Delon was one of the biggest stars of French cinema in the 1960s, frequently compared to James Dean. He was the first actor to play “talented” murderer Tom Ripley (in 1960’s Purple Noon) and starred in such arthouse classics as The Leopard, Rocco And His Brothers, and Le Samouraï. By 1979, still handsome but no longer able to play dangerously sexy young men, he starred in the flop The Concorde… Airport ’79, and his Internet biographies generally trail off after that. But any of his fans should jump ahead to his three made-for-TV movies as ex-cop Fabio Montale, a lone wolf who battles mobsters and corrupt police in the port city of Marseilles. The trilogy (available on DVD) may be sniffed at by cineastes, but it’s not a case of a former film star giving some cred to an embarrassment like, say, The Following? Based on crime novels by Jean-Claude Izzo (which have been translated into English), Fabio Montale is violent, cynical, and beautiful—a perfect introduction to Mediterranean Noir—and Delon is as coolly charismatic as ever.
22. Vampire Prosecutor (South Korea, 2011-present)
Jeong-Hun Yeon plays androgynous, ass-kicking undead attorney Min Tae-Yeon in this South Korean procedural-action-comedy hybrid, and it’s not surprising that this two-season import, which can be found on Hulu Plus, was popular in its home country, given how cannily it crams in the appeal of virtually all contemporary serial archetypes. Titular Prosecutor Tae-Yon was turned by a vampire several years ago while lying in the wreckage of a car accident. He mostly keeps his duality a secret from colleagues, but his bloodlust empowers him with Dead Zone-like extra-sensory abilities around a crime scene. He’s also burdened with the Dexter Morgan-worthy dilemma of operating within a moral code despite his own homicidal urges. Naturally, there’s a creepy dude who traffics illegally obtained hemoglobin to starved nightwalkers like Tae-Yon, not all that different from the V peddlers preying on Bon Temps in True Blood. What distinguishes Prosecutor from its overseas contemporaries is an unapologetic nuttiness. Tae-Yon’s colleagues, particularly Detective Hwang Soon-Bum and intern Choi Dong-Man (Joo-Young Kim), are more Harpo and Zeppo to Tae-Yon’s reluctant Groucho than competent case-solvers. As a whole, Vampire Prosecutor owes a knowing debt to the last decade of Western dramas, managing to both send them up and serve them notice all at once. And, most importantly, its title does not mislead.
23. Anno 1790 (Sweden, 2011)
Anno 1790 is about a man trapped in the middle. Army surgeon Johan Gustav Dåådh (Peter Eggers) takes a position as Stockholm’s police commissioner, contrary to his own revolutionary leanings. He has to negotiate a work environment with the conniving Nordin (Richard Turpin), who wants him dead. He works for a gentleman (Johan Kjellgren) he partially respects, and whose secretly liberal wife Magdalena (Linda Zilliacus) he pines for. The cases to which he applies his forensic skills are equally thorny; rising revolutionary sentiment means that he’s often dealing with highly political and strikingly resonant crimes—radical pamphlet-writers, religiously-motivated bombings, and child exploitation all rear their heads, and are handled with suitably murky ambiguity. Shot like a Vermeer painting and expertly acted, particularly by the magnetic Eggers, the show was acclaimed but lasted only one season, a de facto miniseries that hinted at further depths viewers never got. This period piece is as absorbing as it is because of its use of every muddy period detail imaginable to obliquely illuminate the universal. It’s available on DVD.
24. Prisoners Of War (Israel, 2009-2012)
Since the dawn of the television, the way most Americans have gotten to know foreign-language series—and even series from other English-speaking countries—is via the remake, a show that takes the basic premise and concept of a foreign show and broadens it for an American audience. There’s nothing wrong with this. Indeed, it’s led to some of the greatest shows ever made, including All In The Family. But there’s something about being able to see the original series as well, something that Hulu Plus has made possible with the Israeli series Hatufim, presented here as Prisoners Of War. Created by Gideon Raff, the series is about two Israeli POWs who return home after years in captivity. (A third returns in a body bag.) While there are thriller aspects, the show is much more notable for its quiet moments, its ability to dig deep into the characters’ lives before and after captivity. When this was remade for American TV, it became the acclaimed series Homeland, but whatever you think of that series—and its divisive second season—Prisoners Of War’s approach is different enough to feel like something else entirely, the very best kind of familiarity.