How We Watch Now

The International Language of Tube

French procedurals, Danish thrillers, addictive Korean dramas—if you’re not watching foreign TV, you’re missing out.

Borgen, Birgitte Nyborg
Birgitte Nyborg, played by Sidse Babett Knudsen, in the Danish political drama Borgen.

Photo courtesy Link TV

Why is television so provincial? I’ve been noodling this question since a cinephile colleague pointed out that while movie lovers routinely take in foreign films at festivals, art-house cinemas, and even in their own homes thanks to streaming services like Netflix, American television tends to be home-grown. It’s much easier to keep up with Almodóvar than with the latest from TVE.

There are exceptions, of course. PBS has been bringing us classy British television for decades, and BBC America occasionally interrupts its endless Top Gear reruns to air a new drama. In recent months, Sundance has shown Top of the Lake, set in New Zealand, and The Returned from France; and new cable network Pivot’s big launch premiere was Please Like Me, a gay Aussie cousin of Girls. Even the broadcast networks are stealthily getting in on the overseas action: NBC’s Dracula is an international co-production filmed and set in Britain with few American actors in the cast.

For the most part, though, viewers steer clear. With the exception of Downton Abbey, which drew 12.3 million people to PBS for the Season 3 finale last March, foreign fare scores mediocre ratings. That’s probably why American networks prefer to remake international shows rather than import them. The Returned and British drama Broadchurch, which earned rave reviews when it aired on BBC America this summer, are being transposed to stateside settings for A&E and Fox, respectively. And while our British cousins are crazy for Scandinavian dramas like Forbrydelsen and Broen, we get U.S. remakes The Killing and The Bridge.

I’m sorry, America, but that’s like eating Brussels sprouts and french fries and claiming you’re feasting on fine European food. I’m not saying that television fans should imitate those movie snobs whose year-end best-of lists consist of nothing but obscure foreign titles, but nor should we act like every TV show worth watching makes it onto the U.S. schedule. After all, it’s not as though you have to be Sherlock Holmes—either the BBC/PBS Sherlock or the CBS Elementary version—to track down quality television from the rest of the world.

Let’s start with the highest degree of difficulty: foreign-language shows. Last winter, when I told a journalist from Copenhagen that I was dying to see the latest episodes of the superb Danish political drama Borgen, he pointed out that they were already available on the national broadcaster’s website. Unfortunately, since I don’t speak Danish, that source was of no use to me. And while my Spanish and French are good enough to watch a movie without subtitles if need be, I’m not up for the multihour commitment that a TV series requires without an assist at the bottom of the screen.

Fortunately, there’s no shortage of legal options for subtitled series. If The Returned left you craving a soupçon more télé française, Hulu has two seasons of the gritty crime drama Braquo, while Netflix has four seasons of the gritty crime drama Spiral (Engrenages). Have you always wondered how Univision racks up such amazing ratings with telenovelas? Then why not watch one? La Tempestad is available with English subtitles on Hulu, though since so much of the action is communicated through long, meaningful stares, you may not need them. And if you prefer Peninsular Spanish, try Grand Hotel, an Iberian Upstairs Downstairs that is one of the rare Spanish shows to be shown outside the country. One day I’ll get into the Korean dramas that are on Hulu—according to my friends who’ve lost entire weeks marathoning shows like Boys Before Flowers, they’re insanely addictive—but for the moment that’s my blind spot. I’m a total sucker for the Nordics, though. If you like your mysteries brutal and psychological, Netflix has both the Swedish and the British Wallander, and Bron/Broen, the original Swedish-Danish version of The Bridge, is coming to Hulu in early 2014.

Season 3 of my beloved Borgen is about to end its run on Link TV, but the first two seasons are available on DVD, and I simply can’t imagine any intelligent person not loving it. As I wrote in Slate last June, the story of Denmark’s first female prime minister is “a rumination on power, ambition, integrity, love, and the art of making a deal.” It’s politics at its most inspiring and heartbreaking, no matter what language the characters are speaking.

Language can also be an issue with many native English programs—foul language, that is. Some of the best British and Australian telly has far too much swearing and slang for nervous American networks, not to mention “adult situations” that could only be shown on premium cable over here. So while finding a show on a streaming service rather than in TV Guide might suggest that it’s not ready for prime time, when it comes to British shows like Misfits or The Thick of It, the reality is that they’re just too hot for American television.

My own international TV tastes tend toward the anthropological: I crave shows that take me inside people’s houses. That’s why I’m a sucker for Coronation Street, an English kitchen-sink-drama-cum-soap-opera that’s been on the air for 53 years. (Episodes appear on Hulu two weeks after their U.K. broadcast.) Unlike America’s aspirational soaps, “Corrie” revolves around the lives of ordinary working-class people, though they’re often saddled with extraordinary problems.

Of course, shows don’t need to be on Hulu or Netflix to be easily accessible without torrenting. Thanks to an uploader whose love for the show apparently exceeds his respect for copyright law, entire weeks’ worth of Britain’s Come Dine With Me are easily discoverable on YouTube. I can’t imagine any better demonstration of the way Brits talk, dress, decorate their homes, or feed themselves than this contest, in which amateur cooks compete to host the best dinner party—all accompanied by a sarcastic narration by caustic comedian Dave Lamb. (There are more than 30 international versions—and all the ones I’ve seen feature fancier food and kinder narrators than the British original. I’m particularly fond of Quebec’s Un Souper Presque Parfait, which taught me that when it comes to eating, French-Canadians are more Canadian than French.)

In a couple of weeks’ time, the U.S. TV schedule will be a solid wall of reruns. That’s when I plan to spend some time on Hulu finishing The Straits, an extraordinary Australian series set in Far North Queensland, the Torres Strait Islands, and Papua New Guinea. British actor Brian Cox plays Harry, the paterfamilias of the Montebello clan, who announces in the first episode that one of the three sons he and his wife, Kitty, adopted from the islands will soon take over the family’s vast criminal enterprise. It’s King Lear with meth, guns, and biker gangs—and you won’t find anything like it on American television.