Monday, March 15, 2021

5 terrific streaming foreign TV series to watch while waiting for the pandemic to be over

Andea Riseborough and Dane DeHaan in ZeroZeroZero

Thanks to COVID, Americans have discovered that Hollywood is no longer the only game in town when it comes to television and movie production.

For more than a year now, millions of us have been hunkered down, unwilling to go to movie theaters, or to watch network TV shows that force us to wait a week for the next episode. Many of us can’t remember what we had for lunch, much less the intricacies of a plot from last week. So we stay home, day after day, night after night, and binge-watch streaming TV.

The pandemic has turbocharged the growth of Netflix, Amazon Prime and other streaming services that showcase programs from all over the world, directed by directors you’ve never heard of and starring actors who actually studied acting rather than slid into leading roles because they were models and/or the spawn of Hollywood celebrities. Many foreign TV scripts are original ideas, something that's rarely greenlighted in risk-averse Hollywood which produces formulaic entertainment that relies on special effects rather than coherent plots.

Over the last 12 months, my wife and I have binge-watched more streaming multi-episode foreign TV series than we could have ever envisioned watching in 12 years.  Some didn’t meet our expectations but a surprising number exceeded them. If you missed it, here’s a blog post I wrote recommending some of the best shows we watched during the first six months of the pandemic. 

And here, as a public service are five more, pre-screened for your viewing pleasure, assuming you are willing to read subtitles and have an attention span longer than a Jack Russell terrier.

Even if you’ve been vaccinated, you’re going to be staying home binge-watching TV for the foreseeable future because, Fauci now tells us, the vaccine may keep you from dying but won’t prevent you from getting COVID which you could unwittingly pass along to someone unless you wear a mask in public and you’re sick of that shit not to mention you’re tired of hearing waiters recite tonight’s specials through masks— you can’t understand most of them when they’re not wearing masks much less when they are.  

So you might as well call Uber Eats, park yourself in front of the TV, and imagine yourself someplace far away.

Click the videos below to watch the official trailers for each series.



Amazon Prime

8 episodes

There are three interwoven stories in this thriller shot in Italy, Mexico, New Orleans and Morocco, each equally fascinating and disturbing.

In Calabria, Italy, an aging Don, who has been hiding out from his enemies in a mountaintop bunker, orders $900 million worth of cocaine from a Mexican cartel. His grandson, already envisioning himself as grandpa’s replacement, vows to prevent the shipment from being delivered.

In Monterey, where the drugs are hidden in cans of chiles then vacuum sealed for shipment, God tells a Mexican army sergeant to take over that city’s street distribution of coke. At least that’s how the soldier conveniently interprets God’s command; God would no doubt disagree. (“I said hugs, not drugs.”)  One minute he’s leading a team of fellow soldiers executing a bus full of innocent passengers to prove to the locals there’s a new cartel in town, the next he’s attending a fundamentalist church service where people are speaking in tongues and writhing about. 

Meanwhile, in New Orleans, a shipping magnate the Don has always depended upon to deliver his drugs from the New World to the Old, dies, and his two thirty-something grief-stricken offspring decide to oversee the consignment themselves, using one of their father’s ships. Once at sea, things go awry and the shipment is diverted to Senegal, then driven through the jihadist-infested Sahara Desert to Casablanca to be loaded on a new ship. There, the Don’s grandson shows up in a desperate attempt to halt the delivery, discredit the grandfather he loathes, and save his wife and child who are being held hostage back in Calabria. 

The final scene, shot in Monterey, will leave you bug-eyed.

American actor Dane DeHaan, who plays the son of the shipping magnate, turns in an unforgettable performance. Hope he’s keeping an empty shelf to display his Best Actor in a TV series award because he deserves it. Andrea Riseborough, who plays his sister, should get one, too. Not that I would know who deserves what acting award but critics always write as if they are intimately familiar with every actor and his or her roles, and I’m getting paid by the word so I am writing it too. (Disclosure: I don’t get paid to write this blog. I said that to see if you’re still reading.)

Money Heist



4 parts, 31 episodes

The English name of this series is unfortunate and uninspiring. In Spanish the show is titled La Casa de Papel, House of Paper. A much better name. 

A team of misfit thieves, forgers, miners and computer experts is recruited by a professorial mastermind to pull off the ultimate money heist. To ensure they can’t identify their fellow heisters if they’re caught, none are allowed to reveal their names to the others; they’re renamed after cities — Tokyo, Berlin, Rio, Denver, Oslo, Helsinki, etc.  After months of boot camp to prepare  for every eventuality, the group occupies the Spanish Mint, takes hostages, cranks up the presses, and starts printing hundreds of millions of Euros they plan to smuggle out through a tunnel they are excavating under the building. The public is so enthralled by the audacity of this out-of-the-box heist, not to mention the fact that the crooks and their hostages wear Salvador Dali masks making it impossible for cops to tell the good guys from the bad, that they cheer for the bad guys, making the job of law enforcement officials doubly difficult. 

Directing the heist from a hideout outside the Mint, the professor finds himself falling in love with the lead detective who wavers between believing she has, at long last, found the man of her dreams, and suspecting he just may be the thief she’s searching for. One of the hostages, pregnant by the Mint’s manager, falls head over heels with one of the heisters, and joins the group as her weaselly former lover tries to stir his fellow hostages to revolt. Do they escape with the money? That’s what the show is all about and you won’t find out until the very end.

One of Netflix’ biggest global hits, Money Heist has achieved cult status. The actors are mobbed wherever they go.  Originally envisioned as a two-part self-contained miniseries, two more parts were hastily written and produced to cash in on the phenomenon. Don’t bother watching parts 3 and 4. These parts feature the same basic storyline, substituting Spain’s gold depository for its Mint. Instead, sign up for the Sundance Now streaming channel (not to be confused with the plain old Sundance Channel) for a month to watch two altogether different and equally satisfying series.

Tommy’s tip: You can subscribe to Sundance Now through your Amazon Prime account for $6.99 a month and cancel at any time with no penalty. One month is enough to watch the next two shows if you watch two a night, which you easily can if you, like I, have no life. 

The Restaurant


Sundance Now

Three seasons, 32 episodes

This soapy series covers a 25-year period in the lives of the well-to-do Lowander family and the employees of the upscale restaurant they own. Think of it as a cross between Downton Abbey and Dallas.

It begins in Stockholm on VE Day 1945 when daughter Nina has a brief fling with a poverty-stricken young man, Calle, who has just started as an assistant in the restaurant’s kitchen. Their on- and off- love affair is one of the several storylines that will keep you tuning in night after night. (Surely you haven’t sunk to the point that you watch streaming TV during the daytime, have you? If you have, you’re not alone. In the early days of the pandemic when we all thought it would be over soon, I did, too. Disgusted after watching three back-to-back seasons of “90 Day Fiance” on TLC’s streaming app, I forced myself to stop but not until I had lost billions of brain cells I’ll never get back.)

The restaurant, which hasn’t changed much over the last 50 years, is being managed by Gustaf, the stodgy oldest son who drinks too much because he has a deep dark secret. Nina, a vacuous party girl, hangs with her equally vapid society friends and wants to start a nightclub. Their brother, Peter, returns home from the war with a girlfriend, a concentration camp survivor — every postwar European series features a Holocaust survivor. He decides he doesn’t want to be involved in the restaurant, becomes a lawyer, but finally has to step in to save it from financial ruin.

Calle, it turns out, is a creative genius. Unlike the long-time chef with whom the matriarch of the family has been having a decades-long affair, he has the ability to create the type of newfangled dishes two of the three children believe the restaurant needs to stay in business. He eventually lands his own TV cooking show, which only increases his reputation.

Margareta, a waitress trying to raise her fatherless child, joins the restaurant workers’ union, rises through the rank and file, and by the end of the series has become one of Sweden’s most powerful politicians. But she has the same troubling secret as Gustaf.

Soapy? For sure. Educational? Yep, if you, like me, are interested in postwar Sweden whose economy was rebuilt by unionization into one of the world’s strongest, then almost destroyed by taxation. (OK, so you aren’t interested in postwar Sweden, but watch it anyway. You know I’m a nerd.) And the clothes, sets and props are outstanding.

As long as you’re subscribing to Sundance Now, scroll down the list of available series and select …



Sundance Now

One season (with another on the way), 8 episodes

Money Heist is a bad name for sure but McMafia takes the cake for the worst-named show on TV. 

It’s about neither the Mafia nor McDonald’s. It’s about the family of a Russian-Jewish crime boss who has moved to London to spend his ill-gotten gains and live in luxury. Son Alex has just graduated from law school and is planning to live a crime-free life as an investment banker. Think Al Pacino as Michael Corleone, who wanted to stay on the straight and narrow and settle down with Diane Keaton so he wouldn’t turn out like his old man.

So much for that. Alex’s best-laid plans veer off course early on when his uncle, who has headed the family crime business, is murdered and Alex has to take over, while trying to play against each other the divergent interests of crooks scattered in intriguing locales around the globe who are trying to destroy him and his family.

The star of the show, James Norton, played the likable crime-solving vicar on Grantchester. It’s interesting to see him slowly but surely lose his likable qualities and harden into a ruthless thug while remaining outwardly calm. The settings — the series was shot in Moscow, Cairo, London, Istanbul, Israel and the south of France — are spectacular. 

Net net: McMafia, which borrows heavily from The Godfather (not a bad script to borrow from), is poorly named but highly watchable. Enjoy.




8 episodes

I’m a peaceful kinda guy so I was less than enthusiastic when my wife suggested we watch yet another crime drama. But this series, which means “Duty/Shame” in English, hooked me from the get-go. It’s the tale of two brothers, one a Gallant, one a Goofus.  

Kenzo, a middle-aged Tokyo detective trapped in a stale marriage in an apartment he shares with his parents and punked-out teenage daughter, has, with one secret exception, always done what is expected of him. His much younger ne’er-do-well bro, Yuto, a minor member of a crime syndicate, has knocked up his boss’ daughter, fled to the UK, and murdered a rival gang member which is out for revenge.

The series is set in Japan and London, where Kenzo has been dispatched to track down Yuto, whom the family thinks is dead. There he falls in love with an Irish-Jewish detective who figures out what he’s up to. As he has been all his life, Kenzo is torn between doing what has been expected of a dutiful son, husband and father, and what he wants to do, which is to chuck it all and live out his life with his new lover. Will he? 

The scenes shot in the Japanese countryside, where Kenzo’s wife and mother flee with Yuto’s girlfriend and baby, will enable you to experience a part of the country most Americans will never see for themselves. And the finale? Whoa, you've never seen anything quite like this, I guarantee it. 

So, there you have it — roughly 87 hours of not-so-mindless entertainment which, if you watch three hours per night, should see you through until the Fourth of July when Biden says that, if all goes well, we should all be able to attend socially-distanced backyard cookouts. Swell.

In the meantime, email and I’ll write back with my address so you can send a gift card to show your appreciation. 

Uber Eats gift cards will be especially welcome.