In this era of “Peak TV” there doesn’t seem to be enough time to bother with drama and comedy imports. But while there are more than enough American shows to binge, it would be a mistake to bypass great foreign TV. After all, that would mean missing out on fan favorites like “Doctor Who,” “Orphan Black,” “Downton Abbey” and “Sherlock.”
Foreign TV has spawned hit U.S. adaptations like “Homeland” and “The Office,” as well as pale imitations of the original. Remember the failed American versions of “The IT Crowd” and “Coupling”? Yeah, we’d like to forget ’em as well.
It’s a shame that the major streaming services rarely showcase their foreign acquisitions as well as their homegrown originals. We get it; there is just too much damn TV to give all these extra shows the attention they deserve, so it makes more sense to promote series that are produced in-house.
IndieWire has sifted through some of these unsung imports to find a few gems hidden in plain sight. First, a couple of rules:
1. To qualify, these series must have aired first in another country. Don’t be fooled by the word “Original.” The streaming services often use the word “original” to denote shows that are premiering for the first time on our shores, but may not in fact be created as an original series in-house.
2. The series cannot be a co-production between the streaming service and a foreign company. (In some cases, American producers or distributors are involved, but the show’s original network is overseas.)
“Chewing Gum” (Netflix)
This spiritual cousin of Issa Rae’s “Insecure” stars playwright Michaela Coel as Tracey, a young Londoner with sex on the brain. Too bad she’s still a virgin… engaged to a guy who doesn’t seem interested in her… and raised in a very religious family. The show has earned praise for its fearless wit and its depiction of an everyday black woman with her own colorful and imperfect personality.
We would never invoke the name “Buffy” lightly, but this British supernatural action-comedy certainly scratches that Sunnyvale itch. Starring Susan Wokoma and “Downton Abbey’s” Cara Theobald as the Millennial demon hunters Raquel and Amy, respectively, “Crazyhead” immediately veers into jolly but wicked territory from the get-go. Despite battling those with a supernatural, everything feels incredibly earthbound, especially with the matter-of-fact emphasis on sex and sometimes even bodily functions. Despite the outrageous circumstances, writer Howard Overman (who had created the similarly high-energy “Misfits” below) has a deft hand with characterizations, which elevates the show beyond a mere romp.
“The Fall” (Netflix)
This British-Irish crime series is a cat-and-mouse game as its finest, and unfortunately for Gillian Anderson, who plays Det. Stella Gibson, she’s occasionally seems to be the mouse to serial killer Paul Spector’s (Jamie Dornan) cat. His appetite for attacking young professional women is all the more frightening because he’s also incredibly strategic and plays a long game when it comes to his “fun.” Saying too much more will give away the game, but these three short seasons are an easy and addictive binge.
Bless the Australians, because they’re giving us some of the eeriest shows with sneaky, character-based drama to ground it. In the small town of Yoorana, police sergeant James Hayes (Patrick Brammall) is shocked when six dead locals rise from their graves seemingly in perfect health but without memory of their own identities. Adding a bit of heartache to this craziness: James knows one of the Risen. While he tries to understand the link between the six people — and why they can’t leave town or risk losing their supernatural good health — James’ reunion with his resurrected friend is marred by issues in his personal life. Like “The Returned” or “The Leftovers,” the fantastical elements of the series feel tinged by the supernatural or possibly Biblical.
“Happy Valley” (Netflix)
Like the excellent “Broadchurch” and “Top of the Lake,” there is an intimacy about living and breathing in these small towns that concentrates the noir-ish elements of crime and personal demons. The first season’s abduction storyline takes center stage, but compounding that are the surprising depths of one villain’s frightening toxicity. Meanwhile, the excellent Sarah Lancashire as Sgt. Catherine Cawood is the mature, steely cop we need, but she also has her own issues. The man behind her daughter’s brutal rape and eventual suicide is now out of jail. All of this coalesces into an intense experience punctuated by episodes of brutal violence. It’s a lot to take but is beautifully parsed out over the course of six episodes. In the second season, Catherine tackles a murder investigation, and it’s just as satisfying.
“The Kettering Incident” (Amazon)
If you have a hankering for the mysteriously creepy after watching “Stranger Things,” taste the Tasmanian gothic with this Australian import. Elizabeth Debicki, who you may remember from “The Night Manager,” stars as Dr. Anna Macy, who’s been suffering from inexplicable episodes: nosebleeds, seeing bright lights and waking up in odd places with no memory of where she’s been. It’s all related to an incident that happened in her childhood when her friend Gillian disappeared while they were riding bikes through a Tasmanian forest in Kettering. It’s been 15 years since that event, and when Anna returns home, another girl goes missing, prompting Anna to seek out answers for what happened to Gillian. With a gorgeously cool palette, the beautifully shot series builds eerie moment upon eerie moment, creating an atmosphere of surreal danger just hovering out of reach of what we can discern. Can we all say “Upside Down Under”?
“Game of Thrones” bastard Iwan Rheon and Antonia Thomas (yes, the same Antonia Thomas from “Lovesick” above). star as two of five young offenders who look far too good in the orange jumpsuits they’re required to wear while taking part in a community service program. When a freak electrical storm bestows these miscreants with supernatural powers, their behavior goes from merely bad to accidentally deadly. Morally bankrupt but fun, these charismatic misfits fulfill our unspoken desires for mischief and mayhem. The series gets a huge facelift over its five seasons but also boasts a number of well-known recurring stars, including Michelle Fairley and Ellie Kendrick from “Game of Thrones,” “Downton Abbey’s” Jessica Brown Findlay and Ruth Negga, who’s received a slew of nominations and awards for her role in the big-screen “Loving.”
“Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries” (Netflix)
Even without the mysteries, the irrepressible and irresistible Phryne Fisher (Essie Davis) is a woman worth watching. Not only is she the epitome of 1920s glamour (with the wardrobe and killer bob to match) in Melbourne, but she has the most charming way about solving puzzles that balances perception, practicality and lots of chutzpah. As a woman who’s ahead of her time, Phryne unrepentantly pursues her lusts, carries a pearl-handled revolver and exceeds the speed limit. Is it any wonder that no man, including the dashing Det. Jack Robinson (Nathan Page), can resist her? Fun, racy and with just a dash of peril, this is a new classic in the cosy murder mystery genre.
“My Mad Fat Diary” (Hulu)
This is not your typical teen show, but perhaps it should be. The overweight Rae Earl (Sharon Rooney) is only 16 years old, but she’s already spent four months in a psychiatric hospital after an attempted suicide. As she returns home to Lincolnshire, she tries to fit back in with her friends without revealing where she’s been or that she has a therapist. The show was critically acclaimed for its realistic treatment of mental illness in a non-cliched way.
“Peaky Blinders” (Netflix)
Sort of the “Boardwalk Empire” of Birmingham, England, this is perhaps one of the better known imports boasting a big-name cast, including Cillian Murphy as Tommy Shelby, the head of an Irish gang, and Sam Neill, who chews the scenery with such glee as a detective bent on taking the Shelbys down. To give just a taste of the casual violence seen in the show, the name of the Peaky Blinders gang is thought to have come from the real-life gang that sewed razor blades into the peaks of their flatcaps so they could be used as weapons. Bloody brutal, yeah?
“Please Like Me” (Hulu)
Awkward, funny and sweet describes both creator-star Josh Thomas and his comedy brainchild, a show about 20-somethings in Australia who can’t quite figure out how to live in their own skin. Despite the beseeching tone of the title, the show celebrates the odd and quirky people who don’t quite fit in. Although the series originally aired on Pivot, once that cable station went kaput, Hulu swooped in for the show’s fourth and final season. Its natural and relaxed humor is an antidote to the overworked, over-serious tone of today’s social interactions.
“Shadow of Truth” (Netflix)
This true crime docuseries rocked Israel when it was released, partly because it addressed the notorious murder case of a 13-year-old girl mutilated in a high school bathroom. Although a suspect was found guilty, enough of the evidence was inconclusive to the point that even the victim’s mother questioned the conviction and the motives that may have led to it. The series, which some deem to be the most important TV show in Israel’s history, strongly questions the actions of the judicial system and even drew Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into the debate over the show’s right to free speech. Watch the trailer here.
“The Thick of It” (Hulu)
If you love the tone and pacing of “Veep,” you’ll recognize its British ancestor in this comedy that was also created by Armando Iannucci. This satire of the inner workings of the British government stars a pre-“Doctor Who” Peter Capaldi as a rather profane and intimidating director of communications who keeps the cabinet ministers in line for the prime minister and is also a master of spin, especially when it comes to crisis management. In addition to winning a number of BAFTA awards, it inspired the feature film spinoff “In the Loop” and of course “Veep.” The series also coined the term “omnishambles,” which was used so much in politics afterwards that the Oxford English Dictionary named it the Word of the Year in 2012.
If you’re missing the ladies of Litchfield, this Australian prison drama will cure those “Orange Is the New Black” blues. First-time offender Bea Smith (Danielle Cormack) gets sent to prison after the attempted murder of her abusive husband. Life behind these bars is dark, violent and without mercy, and the writing and characterizations do justice to that serious subject matter. This series is not for the faint of heart and keeps the urgency elevated in each episode with a strong sense of purpose and storytelling throughout.