One of These Foreign TV Shows Could Be the Next 'Squid Game'

Almost every U.S. Netflix subscriber has watched a foreign-language show in recent times. Here are four more ways to go global, from ‘Anna’ in Italy to ‘Anxious People’ in Sweden

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Clockwise from top left: The Silent Sea, Anna, Anxious People and Forhoret.
Clockwise from top left: The Silent Sea, Anna, Anxious People and Forhoret.
Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan

I have made two New Year’s resolutions. The first is to create some words that will enter the general lexicon in 2022. And with that in mind, I am totally abusing my TV column to introduce the first batch right now.

The first is “soundenfreude” – which is the feeling you experience when you hear the first chord of a song you love, dash onto the dance floor and then discover that it’s actually one you absolutely detest but have to keep dancing to, for fear of looking stupid.

Then there’s “tiptoecurrency” – which is any kind of currency, real or crypto, you should be wary of holding. As in, “Oh man, Erdogan has made the Turkish lira a total tiptoecurrency.”

And finally, there’s “theything” – which is the preferred term for someone who gets bent out of shape whenever the subject of preferred pronouns is raised.

That resolution is in the lap of the internet gods, of course, but the second one is totally up to me: to watch more international TV shows in 2022.

Netflix revealed last summer that 97 percent of American subscribers had watched a non-English-language title over the previous year – and this, remember, was before “Squid Game” came along in September.

What we don’t know is how many chose the subtitled version and how many the dubbed, and I’d love to know what these figures are at Netflix and the other streaming platforms.

Personally, I think dubbing is one of the world’s greatest aberrations, right up there with climate change denial and Donald Trump’s hair. But I also know people who think subtitles are the devil’s work and refuse to engage with them.

One such person is a filmmaker I interviewed who argued that cinema is a visual art and subtitling is nothing but a fatal distraction. After all, he said, nobody takes a book into a cinema to read while watching a film; it’s either one or the other. Obviously, this statement was made prior to the rise of social media.

For me, though, dubbing destroys the authenticity of what I’m watching. If the words I’m hearing aren’t the actual ones coming out of the actor’s mouth, the spell is broken – and I’m aware of the irony here that so much dialogue is rerecorded in a sound studio to make it as clear as possible. Or, in Tom Hardy’s case, as unclear as possible.

A few years ago, I was hunting for a Dutch TV series called “The Swell” after Ridley Scott recommended it online. I eventually found a German DVD with English subtitles and popped it into the player – only to discover that the show had been dubbed into German. Understanding neither Dutch nor German, I couldn’t even make it past the first episode, unable to bear the obvious dubbing.

One of the many successes of “Squid Game” was that it shone a welcome spotlight on the art of the subtitler – which, you will not be surprised to learn, is an increasingly in-demand yet also increasingly underpaid skill. Indeed, as the Netflixes and Amazons of this world have beefed up their non-English-language content, the subtitlers who should be in their pomp are now being asked to do more for less.

A great subtitler can condense a 10-second sentence into a handful of words yet still capture the meaning and essence of the original speech. Or even add a level of poetry that rivals or even surpasses the original text. For me, the greatest work of British writer Anthony Burgess’ career was not his “A Clockwork Orange” novel but his translation of “Cyrano de Bergerac,” which was used for the 1990 French film adaptation starring Gérard Depardieu.

To borrow a word from the most memorable episode of “Squid Game,” the subtitler is a show’s “gganbu” – a very good friend they trust a lot. Burgess did Edmond Rostand proud with his beautiful translation, and while most Netflix shows might struggle to be described as pure poetry, it would be a huge mistake for streaming platforms to fail to appreciate subtitlers when their skill is more necessary than ever – as seen by Apple TV+’s recent purchase of its first-ever Russian-language show, “Container,” which it will stream this spring.

Clearly, there has never been greater awareness of foreign-language shows or the opportunity to see the finest of them. Yet what we’re still lacking is a global platform whose raison d’être is simply to showcase the best of international television – a worldwide Topic or Walter Presents, if you know those bespoke platforms that cherry-pick top content for country-specific audiences. A platform, in other words, that offers English subtitles no matter where you’re watching from.

HBO Max is doing holy work in North America by screening series such as the Norwegian sci-fier “Beforeigners” and the French thriller “Laetitia.” And given its relentless, Bond villain-esque desire for world domination, maybe an HBO Max operating in as many markets as Netflix may one day provide the answer to my (very first world) prayers.

Cellcom tv is currently doing a great job in Israel with its foreign offerings, but these only come with Hebrew subtitles. So, apologies, but when I recommend the following four international shows, some may not be legally available where you are. Illegally available is another story, of course…

‘The Silent Sea’ (Netflix)

Alongside Bollywood, South Korea is perhaps the most prolific film and TV producer outside of Hollywood. For sure, anyone who happens to partake in the filthy habit of illegally downloading shows will be aware that there are days when every other available show appears to hail from that particular peninsula.

Still, it took “Squid Game” for the world to hail K-Drama as just as potent a force as K-Pop before it. (If Israel ever becomes a prime location for horror shows, I would like it noted that I first used the term “I-Scream” on January 2, 2022. I have nothing to add about Ukraine’s standing in the jazz world.) Of course, the full extent of the “Squid Game” phenomenon will only truly become apparent at Purim parties in March, when everyone will be wearing green tracksuits numbered from 001 to 456.

Yet while “The Silent Sea” most definitely will not be inspiring any fancy dress choices, it’s another reminder of Korean television’s ability to make the kind of high-quality, large-scale entertainment that was once the preserve of American TV.

Combining two of our greatest modern concerns – the origins of hummus and Britney Spears’ well-being, sorry, I mean viruses and water shortage – the series also combines spectacular lunar landscapes with taut action sequences, as a small space crew attempt to rescue a mystery sample from an abandoned lunar research center. You know things are not going to go swimmingly when, early on, someone’s dying words are: “The water – don’t…”

“The Silent Sea” is the latest in a long line of space-based thrillers to owe a huge debt of gratitude to “Alien,” which must be one of the most influential mainstream movies from the past 40-odd years. It’s impossible to see and hear dots moving on a computer screen or witness people frantically running down metallic corridors without recalling Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley and the crew of the Nostromo. “Sea” isn’t in the same league, but it is – no pun intended – quietly effective.

‘Anna’ (Cellcom tv/AMC+)

Italian television may not be as well-known as its European counterparts in the U.K., Spain, Scandinavia and France, but it’s increasingly producing impressive work such as “My Brilliant Friend” (though Netflix teen hit “Baby” definitely does not fall into that category).

New six-parter “Anna” is one of the most disturbing shows I’ve seen in quite some time – although I should qualify that by noting that I’ve yet to see “Sex and the City” sequel “And Just Like That…”

“Anna” is also one of the most visually stunning shows I’ve seen in quite some time. Set in a world – the southern island of Sicily, to be precise – where adults have fallen prey to a virus called the Red Fever, leaving children as the sole survivors, this is a hypnotic mix of “Bugsy Malone,” “The Walking Dead” and the sun-kissed vistas of Luca “Call Me by Your Name” Guadagnino.

Yet while this is an apocalyptic world free of zombies, it is populated by youngsters whose main cultural reference is reality TV shows like “X Factor” and “MasterChef,” and who are every bit as dangerous as the brain-chowing undead. At its heart is a charismatic, titular 13-year-old heroine (Giulia Dragotto), who we see in both “the Before” – as the virus coughs and splutters its way through the adult population – and as she hunts for her younger brother in a post-pandemic place where, horror of horrors for any Italian foodie, even the pancetta has gone moldy.

This is a bewitching, discomforting show, full of jaw-dropping imagery and horrific moments, and it’s one that’s totally unique – no mean feat in this increasingly crowded world of pandemic programming.

‘Anxious People’ (Netflix)

Sometimes you just need a heartwarming, mainstream comedy to cleanse the palate – and that’s certainly what this adaptation of the hit 2020 Fredrik Backman novel provides.

Along with the works of fellow Swede Jonas Jonasson (“The Hundred-Year-Old Man who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared”), Backman’s sweet-natured comedies have swept the world over the past decade. Full disclosure: I’ve yet to read any of them or see the earlier screen adaptations (which include “A Man Called Ove” and “Beartown” – the latter series is available on HBO Max, while “Ove” is reportedly being remade with Tom Hanks in the title role), but there’s an irresistible warmth to “Anxious People” that charms and captivates from the first moment – or at least from the early moment when hapless cop Jack has to hurriedly dash to a crime scene from the hairdresser’s, even though she’s only partway through giving him a cut that passes for stylish in suburban Sweden.

This is a gentle comedy where the only edge is provided by said hairdresser’s scissors, but it worked its magic on me. I laughed throughout at this beautifully orchestrated mini-farce that revolves around a hostage situation at an open apartment viewing. Over six short and sweet episodes, I was certainly sold.

‘Forhøret’ (Cellcom tv)

As I watched this gripping eight-part thriller featuring a who’s who of Danish talent, I was convinced it must have been shot during the pandemic. That’s because its 25-minute format sees a desperate police detective, Bjørn (Ulrich Thomsen), grill a single person each episode in various settings around Copenhagen – though, this being Scandi Noir, you won’t be surprised to learn that it begins with a Jane Doe on the slab of a forensics lab.

Lars Ranthe and Ulrich Thomsen in Danish thriller "Forhoret."

The first season of the show, called “Face to Face” in English, was actually shot just prior to the COVID outbreak. But it’s a wonderfully claustrophobic thriller in which our detective switches from playing bad cop to even worse cop while trying to solve a death that’s very close to home.

Watching it made realize how I’ve lost touch with a lot of familiar Danish faces in recent years – the likes of Søren Malling of “The Killing” and “Borgen” fame, Lars Mikkelsen of “The Killing” and “Borgen” fame … well, you get the picture.

If I don’t achieve anything else in 2022 (and I probably won’t), I’d love to rekindle my love of Danish television – which includes the belated fourth season of “Borgen” on Netflix and Sofie Gråbøl’s latest show, “The Shift.” Who knows, maybe someone will have invented a word to describe such an experience by the end of the year.

Oh, and if you hate the idea of watching foreign-language shows in any form, you'll be relieved to learn that Britain's Channel 4 is currently remaking “Forhøret” as “Suspect,” with James Nesbitt playing the dyspeptic detective.  

“The Silent Sea” and “Anxious People” are available now on Netflix; “Anna” and “Forhøret” are available on Cellcom tv in Israel (but without English subtitles).

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