Don't Be Afraid of the Subtitles: The non-English Language TV Shows We're Watching Now

With hundreds of scripted TV shows competing for viewers attention, offerings from Spain, France, Belgium, Denmark and Iceland are worth a look

Public Enemy (2017): 'Not always easy viewing, but unlike anything I’ve seen in a long time.'
Public Enemy / Screengrab

In the self-help book Im currently writing in my head (working title Grow Your Own Low-Hanging Fruit), one chapter covers New Years resolutions. The secret, of course, is to set yourself achievable goals – which is why I have vowed to take up smoking, gain weight and watch more television this year. Two weeks into 2018 and its so far, so good – Im up to 10 a day, but Ill leave you to work out if thats cigarettes, snacks or shows.

I have also resolved to create one of the words of 2018, with the aim of claiming the award Oxford Dictionaries hands out every year to a zeitgeisty word or phrase. While post-truth was the worthy winner in 2016, last years winner was youthquake – a word on absolutely nobodys lips. Mind you, it was positively ubiquitous in comparison to some of the runners-up – milkshake duck, anyone?

My early contender for word of 2018 is saturhate – whereby you have so many television shows to choose from, you cant decide which to watch, and get frustrated. Ive written about the concept of peak television in a previous column, but given that Do more recycling is my only serious New Years resolution, Im writing about it again here.

There were a staggering 487 scripted prime-time shows made in the United States last year, up from 455 in 2016. Those numbers were recently revealed by FX head John Landgraf, who pointed out that, by comparison, there were only 182 scripted shows in 2002. When you break down the reasons for the rise, there are two key factors: the rapid increase of shows made by cable TV channels (when the likes of Showtime waved bye-bye to softcore erotica and hello to shows like The Affair); and the completely new area of streaming websites (your Netflixes, Hulus, etc.). The lattercategory alone produced nearly 120 shows in 2017 – and at least three of them were worth watching.

But theres another category that needs to be factored into our viewing hours and the saturhation effect: foreign-language shows.

In order to fill its schedules and provide viewers with top-quality fare, a country like Israel has always shown foreign-language series, albeit predominantly in the English language (a friend likes to tell me how the BBCs Roman Empire drama I, Claudius was huge in Israel while he was growing up in the 1970s). But TV powerhouses like Britain and the United States never felt the need. That changed in 2011, though, with the phenomenal success of the Danish thriller The Killing, which put world TV and Faroese knitted sweaters on the map. The floodgates opened, with countries, including Israel, suddenly finding a global interest for their shows.

Yes and HOT both show interesting foreign-language shows, like the Spanish crime drama I Know Who You Are and the French thriller Witnesses. But for those of us requiring English subtitles, these are as much use as a razor in Mea Shearim. Consequently, I tend to watch most of my foreign television on DVD. And a quick count reveals that I currently have no fewer than 53 foreign-language shows waiting to be watched – and almost all of them are thrillers.

In the blood

Indeed, looking at the shows that sell globally, televisions international currency appears to be blood. The vistas and languages may be different in each country, but theres clearly a homogeneity to most of the characters and story tropes. Forests are always creepy; politicians are invariably corrupt (unless, of course, they happen to be the Danish female prime minister); journalists are dogged yet dissolute, forever investigating stories that could bring down entire governments; and detectives are lugubrious loners who must first confront their own demons before being able to confront the killer. The more we see of the world, the more we discover that everyone is working from the same drama template.

That said, its amazing what a dash of local culture can do. Only the French, for example, could make a show about people coming back from the dead so damned sexy (The Returned). And only the French could believe that middle-aged male politicians are like catnip for attractive young women – in the otherwise addictive political thriller Spin, set in the world of, you guessed it, spin doctors.

Another French show Ive just started watching is The Bureau, which has been dubbed the French Homeland by lazy critics like myself. The full original title is Le Bureau des Lgendes, referring to the fictitious legends spies must create, and it all feels ripped from the headlines (one of the new recruits, Marina, is being trained to operate in Iran, for example). Its also blessed with a lovely performance by Mathieu Kassovitz as a top French spook.

Given the illustrious pedigree of French cinema, its no big surprise that its television shows are finally enjoying a moment in the sun, too. But who knew that Belgium would become a new European TV powerhouse and unlikely heir to the Scandi-thrillers (more on them anon)?

A couple of its shows have already been remade in the United States: The Antwerp-set virus thriller Cordon was turned into the Atlanta-set snooze-fest Contagion. And the Israeli producer Keshet was one of the companies behind an unsuccessful remake of Salamander, a conspiracy thriller about a doughty middle-aged cop uncovering a plot that goes all the way to the top.

And its not just Belgian chocolate thats dark. Clan is a wickedly funny black comedy about four sisters plotting to kill the annoying husband of their other sister. But the show thats currently giving me the creeps is the (French-language) thriller Public Enemy.

This ones about a notorious child murderer who is released from prison, after many years, to the custody of a monastery in the Ardennes. Here, a young monk has to decide whether his intentions to join the abbey are genuine, while a young female police investigator has to safeguard the odious killer. Even though its set in the present day, it feels like a mix of In the Name of the Rose and True Detective, and things get really messy when a young girl goes missing near the abbey. Its not always easy viewing, but its unlike anything Ive seen in a long time.

The aforementioned Scandinavian countries (and Iceland) are the only ones who have successfully turned their shows into a brand: Nordic Noir. The irony is that while in real life these countries are, statistically speaking, some of the safest places in the world to live, their TV shows have a body count that would make Baltimore feel queasy.

Im talking about shows like the gripping Icelandic thriller Trapped – set in a remote, snowed-in port and featuring the worlds least likely sex symbol, the ursine Ólafur Darri Ólafsson (a second season is set to shoot later this year) – and the consistently brilliant Danish-Swedish police drama The Bridge, which is about to start shooting its fourth (and final?) season with the inimitable Swedish police detective Saga Norn (Sofia Helin).

Another Danish show thats operating in a slightly different milieu is Follow the Money, set in the worlds of high finance and renewable energy (but dont worry, there are still dead bodies). Its highly recommended for fans of Borgen and people who like hearing Danes say Tak a lot. Give it a try, and dont give in to the saturhate.