Slowly but surely, the global TV market is shifting. Whether it’s mainly due to the rise of streaming platforms, the rush for international imports brought on by a pandemic production shortage, or an audience finally taking advantage of a wealth of options, series in languages other than English are in the middle of a boom.
While some shows have certainly helped spur that influx of new fans (including ones that can be found below), the nature of the modern TV world is that there are precious few shows anymore that become can’t-miss phenomena. Netflix recently amended its weekly Top 10 report to include viewing totals in English and non-English categories, where (to the extent that those numbers are accurate and transparent) the top slots in the latter frequently outpace the former.
So in an attempt to help narrow down the wealth of international options available to Netflix subscribers, we’ve put together a list highlighting some of the most fruitful places to start. This is far from a comprehensive list, and it’s one that we’ll be adding to regularly over the course of the months to come. For now, here is an introductory collection of some of the best recent TV offerings on Netflix from around the world.
“Alice in Borderland”
Haro Aso, Shogakukan/Robot
Part of a new effective wave of puzzle-based dystopias, this Japanese drama finds a group of friends unwittingly transported to a Tokyo that has transformed into a game-based fight for survival. In order to stave off the threat of execution (the nightly offings of people whose timecard is up is chilling), they must join the throng of other cross-dimensional survivors to compete in tasks that range from tests of teamwork to winner-take-all shows of deduction and/or force. Director Shinsuke Sato and fellow co-writers Yoshiki Watabe and Yasuko Kuramitsu, adapting the series from the original manga, manage to keep both the audience and the show’s characters at a healthy distance from the truth in a way that isn’t just driven by keeping a show going. That continues up through the opening season’s closing moments, which prove that there are far more discoveries to be made, wherever the people at its center manage to end up.
(Read more on “Alice in Borderland” here.)
A handful of people find their lives intersecting with the decadence and foreboding of Weimar Germany in this sprawling historical drama. From its exhilarating musical sequences to its grounded detective story, it’s a series that reckons with the seismic changes on the horizon without losing track of the more-immediate stakes for everyone caught in this late 1920s/early 1930s web. The attention to detail here on a costuming and professional process level makes sure that this functions in both broad and specific strokes. If you’re on the fence, take a few minutes and revel in one of the true transcendent TV moments of the past decade.
Balancing the practical realities of a national government with a TV tendency toward juicy behind-the-scene scandal is a task that not every political show is capable of doing. Yet this Danish drama, following the roller-coaster fortunes of a newly-minted Prime Minister (Sidse Babett Knudsen), handles those competing pulls and synthesizes them with ease. A dozen years after it debuted, this show still feels like a savvy look at the always-tricky intersection between public opinion and policymaking. Not just treating its characters as ideological stand-ins, but as people whose personal decisions end up having wide-reaching ramifications, “Borgen” is a drama that takes a full view of an institution without ignoring the potential toll on those who keep it running.
One mysterious cave in the middle of a German town becomes the center of a sprawling, multi-generational sci-fi epic that managed to never collapse under the weight of its own ambition. What could have easily stayed an elusive mystery about a disappearing child evolved into a thoughtful, dense look at how trauma manifests across generations. Series creators Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese (whose upcoming “1899” looks to be just as far-reaching in its scope) pushed a drama with a knotty family tree to its cosmic limits, with the help of an ever-growing cast that helped everything stick together. It’s the kind of show that demands your attention and rewards you in kind.
This Turkish drama presents a kaleidoscopic view of Istanbul from the perspective of different, seemingly unconnected people who live there — a cleaner, an actress, and a psychiatrist, among others, each carrying differing views on faith, relationships, and family. As the series progresses and shows how these people’s lives begin to intersect in unexpected way, “Ethos” tries to unpack what (if anything) they owe to each other as strangers, neighbors, and fellow human beings. Writer/Director Berkun Oya brings a patient and confident approach to this story, with a pace dictated not by the demands of TV but a more transparent, conversational style. From sweeping establishing shots of the city to unpredictable end credits sequences, it’s a show that follows its own instincts.
“Everything Will Be Fine”
Diego Luna directs this eight-part series about a crumbling family trying to stay afloat. As estranged married couple Julia (Lucía Uribe) and Ruy (Flavio Medina) decide how they want to handle the responsibilities of raising their young daughter, each of them juggles the expectations they face outside their home. With more outside individuals caught in this festering dispute, “Everything Will Be Fine” gives Uribe and Medina moments of bleak comedy to complement a thoughtful actors’ showcase. Julia and Ruy each have points where they convince themselves that the show’s title is true. On the whole, “Everything Will Be Fine” offers a thoughtful reminder of how and why they each may not be right.
(Read more on “Everything Will Be Fine” here.)
So many of the most memorable recent series, regardless of language or country of origin, revolve around characters being confronted with the inexplicable. Here, that comes in the form of giant smoky demons who arrive through a mysterious portal, single out an individual, and pummel their target into damnation. Not only does director Yeon Sang-ho execute these broad daylight spectacles with a jarring straightforwardness, the show thrives on looking at the way a modern society responds to such a profound splintering of the social fabric. Grifters, prophets, survivors, and nihilists all have their place in this fictional world, one that still draws on a very real and recognizable way that an unfathomable tragedy gets manipulated into attempted gains.
(Read more on “Hellbound” here.)
“How to Sell Drugs Online (Fast)”
For as much as shows centered on teen characters have to deal with the internet, few of them capture the frenzied, frenetic nature of spending life online more than this German dark comedy. When desperate high schooler Moritz (Maximilian Mundt) runs out of ways to try to win back his girlfriend, a series of fateful (and almost certainly ill-advised) decisions lead him and best friend Lenny (Danilo Kamperidis) to start a lucrative dark web drug emporium. Drenched in format-bending touches (think “Adam McKay directs ‘Euphoria,’” but infinitely better than that sounds), it’s a show that has no problem dialing in its pace to match its main character’s stacking list of predicaments. Moritz is the key figure here — he’s the one talking directly to camera in the documentary show-within-a-show — but “How to Sell Drugs Online (Fast)” avoids staying locked into one lovesick boundary crosser’s perspective. It’s not a show to sacrifice substance for style’s sake, but if along the way you feel like you’ve dipped into Moritz and Lenny’s stash, it’s probably not an accident.
“Love & Anarchy”
For those who like their TV romances with a razor-blade edge, here’s this Swedish comedy that grows out of an office flirtation. When an incoming publishing exec (Ida Engvoll) and the temp IT guy (Björn Mosten) set off a codependent blackmail game, their back-and-forth hijinks become a high-stakes emotional gamble. It’s a show that would work on its own as a workplace comedy, a charming and thorny love story, or a marriage drama. That it manages to seamlessly blend all of them and bring a different sense of control in how this kind of story usually plays out, is an impressive achievement. Season 2 is on its way and can’t get here soon enough.
(Read more on “Love & Anarchy” here.)
“Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories”
The Master (Kaoru Kobayashi), the proprietor of the diner of the show’s title, says in each episode’s opening that he’ll make anything for his customers, so long as he has the ingredients. Fortunately for this iteration of “Midnight Diner” — based on Yarō Abe’s manga series — he never really runs short. The people who come through his place guide each episode, with the show unfolding like an anthology of sorts courtesy of a rotating group of familiar faces and newcomers. There’s a resulting gentle seesaw between the handful of standby dishes that are on the menu on the wall and the new experiences and requests that add extra flavors to an already overflowing plate. The people who sit at the small, wraparound counter are wistful, flustered, lovesick, hopeful, or wracked by regret. Over the five seasons of the show (two of which made as a Netflix Original) The Master is the steady hand and the connective tissue. There’s enough leeway to go out far beyond the walls of the restaurant, but it’s the intimacy of the cozy space that makes it easy to come back for extra helpings. Regardless of whether these stories stick to expectations or take some unexpected swerves, you end most episodes with some helpful food tips. So either way, it’s a show where patience almost always pays off.
The world of fictional sports stories is certainly not short on tales of overbearing parents or youngsters dead-set on fulfilling a dream. Yet, this tale of a father and his pair of would-be cricket prodigy sons sets in motion on a familiar path before picking key moments to veer away from it. Rajesh Tailang brings a fascinating mix of the dedicated and domineering to Mohan, a man who’s meticulously crafted a lucrative career plan for his two skilled children, Manju (Mohammad Samad) and Radha (Yash Dholye). But rather than share Mohan’s singular focus, “Selection Day” opens its scope a bit wider. There’s a heavy dose of school drama, a touch of administrative intrigue, and room for plenty of passions away from the pitch. Much like the recent youth basketball drama “Swagger,” it lays out a world where the aspirations and accomplishments of emerging superstars don’t exist in a vacuum. There’s an internal tug-of-war for both the people in their lives who want to put these teens in a position to succeed regardless of the cost and those who want to see them have all the experiences of a “normal” childhood. You don’t have to know a thing about wickets or boundaries to see the pull and community reach that this sport has. Balancing the promise of being legendary with its price is where this show keeps its attention.
Inspired by the Swedish film trilogy of the same name, this show draws together the hopes and fates of a disparate Stockholm trio: Leya (Evin Ahmad) is looking to launch an ambitious tech startup and provide for her son, Salim (Alexander Abdallah) is a wedding singer who works for a local drug dealer after hours, and Tim (Ali Alarik) is a rebellious teen looking for the acceptance he can’t find at home. As the webs of their lives start to intersect and tangle, the show sharpens its complicated ideas about what it means to survive and succeed in a crowded field. There’s a coiled tension around every corner in “Snabba Cash,” whether in boardroom presentations, secret warehouse meetings, or even casual trips to the local park. It makes for a tense, anxiety-dripping viewing experience, constantly elevated by kinetic visual storytelling and an array of magnetic performances, anchored by Ahmad and Abdallah. Director Jesper Ganslandt and head writer Oskar Söderlund (who adapts Jens Lapidus’ Swedish crime novels with the help of Lapidus himself) keeps an ever-moving seesaw between grim consequences and glimmers of a brighter unencumbered future.
A perfect storm of ambition and execution. It arrived in 2021 as a sensation, but its staying power will be as a high-concept standard bearer for an ever-growing subset of TV stories: one where crushing social and financial realities keep entire swaths of people locked in a cycle that’s not meant to be escaped. All credit to a cast that takes characters literally stripped of their identities and makes them each feel like they still have entire lives behind them. Those stories playing out against a tapestry of pastel-colored children’s game nightmares is another key part in ensuring this was more than the binge du jour. It’s simple dystopian torture rendered in an operatic way, all while trying to afford these individuals the humanity their predatory captors seem intent on taking away.
(Read more on “Squid Game” here.)
This methodical Belgian series follows the arc of high-profile murder trial, beginning with the selection of the jury that helps give the show its title. As the courtroom proceedings lay out the details of a pair of possibly-connected homicides sixteen years apart, each episode follows the defendant, her ex-husband, family friends, and those individuals tasked with determining her guilt or innocent. “The Twelve” doesn’t completely upend the rhythms of a tense, deliberate legal slow burn, but those glimpses into the outside forces and anxieties that seep their way into the process are reminders that these kinds of cases are fundamentally based on human judgment. However clinical a courtroom setting can be, writer/creators Sanne Nuyens and Bert Van Dael tap into the taxing nature of being part of a public spectacle, especially for those who are usually relegated to being mere faces in the background in these kinds of stories. (An Australian remake is on its way and is slated to premiere by the end of 2022.)
Another show that also helped pushed Netflix to see its international series as more than just library content, this is a portrait of one young woman’s quest to balance her upbringing with her changing desires from life. Shira Haas rightly gained widespread acclaim for her starring role as Esther, a young woman who leaves her home in Brooklyn and jumps into the deep end of an entirely different chapter in Berlin. “Unorthodox” is also a great calling card for Maria Schrader, who in addition to her on-camera work (“Deutschland 83” would certainly be on the Hulu version of this list) has become an exciting emerging director in her own right.
(Read more on “Unorthodox” here.)
“A Very Secret Service”
“A Very Secret Service” transforms a usually self-serious espionage subgenre into a vehicle for taking aim at Cold War shortcomings of all kinds. Rather than stuff this secret agent show with elite super spies, “A Very Secret Service” punctures the idea of the suave global traveler and instead makes this specialized foreign affairs office the domain of bumbling (if well-dressed) middle managers. Focusing his work as a writer on the recent “OSS 117” spoof trilogy, creator Jean-François Halin treads a fine line as he fashions a twisty web of double-crosses underneath the jokes and slapstick. It’s a show that makes a glorious meal out of indulging in its French early-60s aesthetic (the music and design of that opening credits sequence is always a delight when it pops up) while also knowing just when to undercut the pomposity and prejudice of the day with some well-timed jabs at certain characters’ expense. Toss in some inter-office pining and a heavy dose of goofiness and you have a show that tackles the time period like few others could.
(Read more on “A Very Secret Service” here.)