Some of the very best television series available are in a language other than English. Granted, none of the streaming platforms make these foreign language gems easy to find, but a little perseverance and guidance can overcome all obstacles. Watch these shows in their original language. It’s worth it.
The following is my list of what I consider to be the best foreign language series available now. I came by my list the same way you can–word of mouth, buzz, recommendation of a trusted friend with similar taste, a review in the paper. When surfing for your own interests, there are several platforms that are more easily mined for gold. Among them are Netflix; whose motto is “not afraid of subtitles,” MHz Choice; a platform of hundreds of foreign series, and PBS Passport.
Before compiling what was going to be my “10 best” list, I did some more foraging in the fields of series that had been recommended to me but that I had not yet watched either due to time constraints or a stubborn refusal to subscribe to yet one more platform. I’m glad I climbed over that wall because some of what I found was fantastic and my 10 quickly became almost 20. So I hope you’re ready to do some TV watching because they’re all worth it. I haven’t put them in a specific order, but the synopsis will help guide you further.
It’s not surprising that there are so many recommended series found here because they specialize in non-American fare.
A gritty French language police show that follows one complicated case per eight-episode season. Infinitely more complex than “Law and Order,” we follow the paths of defense attorneys, prosecutors, and judges, all inextricably linked to the police unit led by Captain Laure Berthaud. In each of the seasons, Berthaud’s small, tight group follows leads and tries to solve a multidimensional crime with complex ramifications. It is doubtful that you’ll find better character development anywhere on the screen, big or small, where societal hierarchy, uneven justice and criminal behavior on both sides of the law are explored. The cast is superb with stars Caroline Proust as the Captain; Theirry Godard as her trusted right hand Gilou; Audrey Fleurot, she of the glorious red hair, as a brilliant lawyer who has no political or social connections and uses devious methods to stay in the game; Gregory Fitoussi as a sympathetic prosecutor; and Philippe Duclos as the judge assigned to most of Berthaud’s criminal cases. If I had ranked my choices “Spiral” would have been at the top. The series ended in 2020, its eighth season, so there’s nothing left for me to do but watch it again.
The original Swedish series starring Krister Henriksson, not to be confused with the British remake starring Kenneth Branaugh, is a marvel of character complexity based on a series of novels by Henning Mankell. Kurt Wallander is an alcoholic, provincial detective in Sweden whose moral backbone is incessantly challenged by the human degradation he is constantly exposed to. His relationship with his daughter is challenging, all the more so because she wants to follow in his footsteps. Near the end of his career, he is feeling lost, having seen his life wrapped up into things he can solve but not change. The British series, on Netflix, is good but doesn’t come close to the philosophical underpinnings of this amazing, if rather bleak, three-season series.
Another Swedish crime series, based on a character featured in the books of Maj Sjöwal and Per Wahlöö, starring the stoic Peter Haber as Martin Beck, a by-the-books officer who won’t take shortcuts and won’t play political games. His protegee, Gunvald, played by the incomparable Mikael Persbrandt, is his often off-the-rails, sartorial counterpart who will get things done no matter how. The juxtaposition of the inclusive Beck and the misogynistic Gunvald adds to the layers of this study of complex characters who develop subtly over time. The cases are very good but it is the personalities that shine. Over nine seasons, starting in 1997 and continuing into 2023, this is a series to savor and enjoy.
“A Dark, Dark Man”
“A Dark, Dark Man,” a three-part limited series from Kazakhstan, is set up like a Becket play that has no beginning and no end; it’s bleak from start to finish, surrealistic, almost existential in plot. The series explores the political realities and corruption of a small farming community where children on the margins of society have gone missing. Detective Bekzat has been assigned the case and must close it quickly. The guilty party has allegedly been found and the politicians are demanding swift justice (i.e., this mustn’t come to trial). Bekzat is a man of no ambition in a town and country where no matter how far down on the totem pole you are, you can always go down some more.
This darkly humorous, dangerous thriller is set in the so-called safest town in Norway. Things go badly awry, however, when main character Jonas discovers that everyone in town is a criminal of some sort or other, including himself, who has paid a nefarious organization to “disappear” them into a new life. The murder of a girl, found in the woods, brings the danger of discovery to Jonas and the other townspeople. There is much pleasure to be derived from a series where the town inhabitants are up in arms about the damage to the bust of the town founding father, a vicious antisemite, but have no interest in the girl found murdered in the woods.
Mike, played by the charismatic Morten Hee Andersen, has been terrorizing his small Danish town for quite some time and may well be responsible for the death of a boy who was run down by Mike’s truck. Everyone in this village has secrets and Mike has an uncanny knack for using them for extortion. When the targets of his schemes have had enough, they decide to kill him. But can these ordinary citizens do it? It’s a cat-and-mouse game to the finish there is no finish.
“Extraordinary Attorney Woo”
This Korean series may well be the best thing on television right now. Attorney Woo, played by Park Eun-bin, is a young woman with autism who happens to be a legal genius graced with an eidetic mind. A pretty, petite young woman raised by an empathetic father, her ticks and lack of filter are both an asset and a deficit. The legal cases she argues for her firm are interesting both from the standpoint of the law and the moral and ethical issues they raise. She is the very definition of a rooting interest.
If there’s a better series out there that dissects political structure and party maneuvering, I haven’t found it. This Danish series led by the incomparable Sidse Babett Knudsen as Birgitte Nyborg is about the fictional first woman prime minister and what it took to get there, what it takes to stay there, and what must be sacrificed along the way. Birgitte must navigate party politics, male intransigence and a voracious media in order to succeed, let alone survive.
A juicy French drama about political machinations in Marseilles, rivalries, betrayals, corruption, revenge and succession with the backdrop of right wing nationalism and organized crime battling for the soul of this important port city on the verge of redevelopment. Gérard Depardieu as the mayor and Benoît Magimel as his young protégé turned enemy are so compelling you’ll need to binge this one.
Having only recently discovered this series set in 1929 Berlin, I now understand what all the buzz was about. A jaded examination of a society still suffering from the deprivations caused by the First World War and flirting with the totalitarian ideas that will soon emerge from the darkness, this series explores the lives of characters from all strata of society and what they must do to get ahead. Whether it’s the police detective from Cologne trying to recover a pornographic film that implicates politicians in high places, or the poor girl capitalizing on her good looks and flexible morals to get a better job, or the police sergeant who belongs to a right-wing organization that will stop at nothing to squash Communist revolutionaries, this microcosm of Berlin on the cusp is as fast moving as it is fascinating.
There have been two murders recently in Reykjavik and Kata, an ambitious investigator in the police department, is determined to crack the case. Her supervisor, however, brings in someone outside the department who may know the territory better, Amar, now living in Oslo. There is a link between these murders but finding it will be difficult and lead to misdeeds of the past. The characters are strong, the case is fascinating, and the outcome and implications are as complex as everyone involved.
“Call My Agent”
This French series about a boutique talent agency is nothing short of delicious. I watched all three seasons twice and may watch again. Rich in characters, the agents and their assistants are as venal, scheming and cutthroat as their American counterparts at CAA, WME, or pick another one. The humor is laugh out loud, the characters all show many colors, and even better, each episode features famous French actors, some of whom you’ll recognize and some of whom you won’t, spoofing themselves as they display their neediness and narcissism to their agents who are called on as fixers. Make this series one of the first on your list of “must sees.” There is now a British version called “10%” but it lacks the soul of the original.
Based on a true crime that spilled over between Denmark and Sweden, Jens Møller, head of Copenhagen’s homicide unit, is tasked with finding the killer of journalist Kim Wall, last seen boarding the homemade submarine of a local inventor. Cause of death will be difficult to determine because only parts of the body were found. They know who did it but proving it will be something else. Tension runs high as time begins to run out. Starring Jens Møller and Jakob Buch-Jepsen, both of whom co-starred in Borgen, this true-life limited series is best binged.
Nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, this Korean series that primarily takes place in Japan, is the story of four generations of a Korean family who moved to Japan during a forced migration period. Beginning in 1915 where we meet the matriarch of those who follow, the series jumps to the present day with Solomon, raised in Japan and educated at Yale, who has been denied a deserved promotion by the Wall Street firm he works for. In a bold move, he indicates that he can close a deal in Japan that is stalled and they send him back there to prove his worth. Constantly interweaving the past history of his family with present-day issues, it is a dizzying perspective on how the past is never really the past.
This endearing, warm series is set up as the origin story of uber-rich Maximo as he tells the tale of growing up in Acapulco as an ambitious street kid with limited prospects to his nephew Hugo. Starring the charming Eugenio Derbez (“Coda,” “How to Be a Latin Lover”), it paints a picture of a poor boy who finds his way to success as an employee at Las Colinas (a stand in for Las Brisas), a luxury hotel catering to wealthy tourists. The life, loves and tribulations of Maximo as he tries to navigate the unknown pathways between Diane, the rich American proprietress and his mentor, Don Pablo, the Mexican general manager are explored. Part humorous telenovela and part social commentary, this is truly a Mexican American show because it is presented partly in Spanish, with subtitles, and in English.
A dazzlingly brilliant thriller series centered on Guillaume Debailly played by the incredible Mathieu Kassovitz, a spy who has been brought in from the cold to lead the Paris office. But sex (isn’t it always sex) has led him astray and a liaison from his past in Syria has come back to haunt him and endanger everyone around him. Smart, chilling, well written with complex characters, this series is every bit as good as I had heard; good enough for me to subscribe to Sundance Now just so I could review its potential for this article. Money well spent.
This French/British remake of “The Bridge” (Swedish/Danish and no longer found on any platform) is a melding of British and French politics as both countries try to sort out who is responsible for solving the murder of an unidentified corpse found in the Chunnel straddling the underwater border of both countries. They hunt for a serial killer who has left the torso of a French politician and the lower half of a British prostitute. The killer’s alleged purpose is to highlight the social problems of both countries and more bodies will follow. Starring Stephen Dillane and Clémence Poésy as the British and French investigators, the interaction of the characters and the scenery alone make this must-see viewing. In English and French with subtitles.
Inger (Melinda Kinnaman) has returned to Sweden hoping for a quiet life with her two children after spending several years with the FBI in Washington as a profiler. Spending the night in Stockholm for a wedding, Inger has left her two children in the hotel room assuming all will be well. How wrong she is because daughter Stina, autistic, roams the corridors and unwittingly witnesses a murder and the murderer sees her. Ignoring her for the time being, he moves quickly, cleverly hiding the body. It won’t be discovered until days after the body of his next victim turns up. Trying to discover how the targets, none of whom were random, are related is perplexing. Police inspector Ingvar (Henrik Norlén) tries to get Inger involved with limited success until it becomes personal for her. Lots of twists and turns, ethical as well as moral dilemmas and sexual tension (this is, after all, Sweden). Season two is equally enthralling with a very different scenario but some character overlap and a surprisingly good Kim Cattrall as the President of the United States.
A French series centered on the coast of Normandy where detectives Sandra (Marie Dompnier) and Justin (Jan Hammenecker) are called to investigate the bizarre staging of corpses in new model homes. Representing a family scenario, there is always a recently disinterred woman and child, mounted with a man who has been murdered. A clue is left behind tying the scene to the former chief of police, Paul Maisonneuve played by the still charismatic movie star Thierry Lhermitte. (Note: Maisonneuve is translated as “new house” in English). These clues and the murders draw Paul out of his disability retirement to help piece together how the murdered men are tied together and why they were targeted. It’s somewhat convoluted but ultimately makes sense and the tension rises steadily through the six-episode season. Season two, eight episodes, has Sandra searching for a serial killer who murders the former lovers of his kidnap victims. The always interesting Audrey Fleurot (“Spiral”) is a key member of the cast.
I had wanted to make this a top 10 but that was impossible. As it is, I had to drop several favorites because as good as they were they didn’t quite reach the standards of the ones mentioned. New foreign series are premiering all the time so I will, no doubt, have more to add in the future. In the meantime, apprécier, god fornøjelse, jeulgida enjoy!