A television program from overseas allows the armchair traveler the chance to better understand a culture from the comfort of the couch. If you recently completed your fifth rewatch of “The Office” and are looking for a new show to obsess over, why not trying something from outside the U.S.? While your travel plans are on hold, acquaint yourself with these six shows to gain a new perspective on the world from the comfort of your own home.
Giri/Haji translates to “duty/shame,” two concepts that are ever-present in this BBC production set in both Tokyo and London. A minor sensation following its across-the-pond broadcast last year, the eight-episode miniseries premiered on Netflix in January and has gained a small-but-devoted following that’s poised to grow as word of mouth gets louder. Takehiro Hira stars as a Japanese detective who travels to England after learning that his presumed-dead, yakuza-linked brother may be alive after all; Kelly Macdonald (Trainspotting, No Country for Old Men, Boardwalk Empire) plays the detective constable who unwittingly becomes embroiled in this cross-country affair.
Those are the two main characters, but each member of the ensemble cast is as compelling and sympathetic as the last. Everyone in Giri/Haji is struggling to reconcile what they want to do with what they must do, a tension that proves deadly at times.
If you've never heard of Borgen (“The Castle”), think of it as Denmark's answer to The West Wing. It follows the ascent of Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen), who becomes Denmark's first female Prime Minister via an unlikely series of events and is then tasked with an even more difficult feat: actually running the country while maintaining the idealism that made her so admirable in the first place.
The Castle in this case is Christiansborg Palace, where Denmark’s three branches of government — the Prime Minister's Office, Parliament, and Supreme Court — can be found. Coalition politics might not sound like the most intriguing subject matter, but Borgen (all three seasons of which can be found on iTunes) proves otherwise.
“Babylon Berlin” (Germany)
With countries all around the world delving into prestige television, it was only a matter of time before Germany threw its hat in the ring. Babylon Berlin certainly has nice hats, given that the neo-noir available on Netflix begins in 1929 and counts two cops (one of whom poses as a flapper) among its main characters, but it also has much more. All the mystery, political intrigue, and interpersonal drama you'd expect of such a setup is on full display here, with Babylon Berlin using its historical backdrop as the jumping-off point for something truly vibrant and unique.
“Li’l Quinquin” (France)
Dating back to at least Fanny and Alexander, foreign miniseries by revered filmmakers have been released in the United States as very long theatrical films. Bruno Dumont’s Li’l Quinquin is both a part of that tradition and a departure for its director, whose oeuvre prior to 2014 consisted of bleak, borderline nihilistic movies like Twentynine Palms and Hors Satan. Its blend of off-kilter, even absurdist humor was absolutely new for Dumont, as are the moments of genuine sweetness sprinkled throughout.
It has its darker shades, however. A murder mystery set in a small French town that features more dead livestock than most viewers are used to, it vacillates masterfully between pitch-black comedy and melancholy drama. Li’l Quinquin can be found on Fandor, Kanopy (which is free with a library card), or via a 30-day free trial of Mubi on Amazon Prime.
You may not have heard of the Korean Wave by name, but you've no doubt encountered some of its most famous exemplars. K-pop groups like BTS have emerged as global phenomena, Parasite recently became the first non-English-language film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, and Korean beauty products are among the most sought-after in the world. K-dramas have become increasingly popular as well, with Kingdom being just the tip of the spear.
Set amid a political conspiracy involving the Crown Prince that unfurled at the end of the 16th century, Netflix's first original Korean series recently aired its second season. A third edition has yet to be officially confirmed, but highly positive reviews and an enthusiastic fan base suggest we haven’t seen the last of Kingdom yet.
Based on Matteo Garrone’s excellent film of the same name, which won the coveted Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival in 2008, Gomorrah takes an unflinching look at Italy’s criminal underworld. Often the stuff of glorified dramas, here la cosa nostra is devoted to gritty realism above all else. Its specific focus is on the Savastano clan, whose war with a rival crime family make for a descent into the world of organized crime.
Gomorrah has earned critical acclaim since first premiering in 2014, airing 48 episodes across its four seasons and showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon. After originally airing on Sky Atlantic (where it's proven to be a ratings hit) in the UK and on SundanceTV in America, the series is now available on Netflix.
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