Dear Netflix, just a quick note to say thanks for keeping me sane – well, sane-ish – during my 120 (and counting) days in COVID captivity.
Thanks for those great documentaries – though, apparently, it’s also possible to make ones that aren’t just about serial killers, miscarriages of justice and sexual abuse.
Thanks also for babysitting the kids. Seriously, I can go days on end without seeing them, secure in the knowledge that they’re safe in their rooms with you for company. What’s this “365 Days” they keep talking about? Some kind of numeracy or reality show?
Thanks, too, for redefining the word “Originals” for me. That’s going to come in real handy for my next plagiarism case.
And finally, thanks for letting me tour the world from the comfort of my own battered sofa with your vast selection of foreign shows. In the past week alone, I’ve visited Australia, Belgium, Denmark and Poland – the kind of jet-setting normally reserved for my baggage whenever I fly United from Tel Aviv to Newark.
You know where I’d love to go next? Somewhere exotic like a Greek island or Portugal – can you get onto that for me? Muchas gracias; mi contraseña es su contraseña, as they say in Spain.
And in case you’re interested, these are the foreign shows I watched…
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For me, this is the best political drama series ever made. What’s that you just sputtered into your almond milk latte – “The West Wing”? Sorry, but that’s not even the best Aaron Sorkin show out there (that honor goes to “Sports Night”).
For three seasons between 2010 and 2013, “Borgen” gave us an inspirational portrait of how politics could be, with its depiction of an honorable woman climbing to the top of the greasy pole in a dishonorable profession, and her struggles to stay there.
This unabashed liberal fantasy emerged at the same time as those groundbreaking Nordic noirs “The Killing” and “The Bridge,” but what’s really refreshing and unique about “Borgen” is that its only slayings are of political careers. It’s smart, witty, moving and, 10 years after first airing, has actually acquired even greater potency in this age of diminished democracy.
The great news is that Netflix has commissioned a fourth season for 2022 and recently dropped the first three seasons online. I’ve just started rewatching the adventures of Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Co., and am blown away by the sheer brilliance of it all. That said, you won’t know whether to clap or weep when she states: “We have to find a new way of talking to each other and a new way of doing politics.”
If you saw the show the first time around, it more than stands up to a repeat viewing – even if things looked so much simpler a decade ago. And if you missed out before, you’ve got at least 18 months to catch up before season four airs. That should also give you just enough time to learn how to say “Let’s walk and talk” in Danish.
Imagine if they announced that next year’s Black History Month would focus on Rachel Dolezal – the white woman who infamously passed herself off as Black – and the career of Thomas Dartmouth Rice, the so-called father of minstrelsy. Everyone would be appalled (apart than Donald Trump, obviously), but that’s kind of what happens in “Stateless.”
Because its storyline is basically split between three white Australians at a detention facility for unlawful non-citizens (UNCs) and an asylum seeker waiting to become an Australian citizen (sadly, Godot is more likely to show up first), this six-parter – which initially aired on Australian state TV earlier this year – is equal parts infuriating and involving. Yet despite its obvious flaws, it’s still worth watching thanks to the vitalness of its subject matter.
The show is the brainchild of Cate Blanchett and is inspired by the true story of an Australian-German woman, Cornelia Rau, who was accidentally placed in an Australian UNC camp in 2004 while battling severe psychological problems.
Her story is presented fairly accurately here, with “Handmaid’s Tale” star Yvonne Strahovski given the potentially award-winning/somewhat thankless task (delete according to personal tastes) of playing the increasingly psychotic Sofie Werner, a flight attendant falling under the spell of Pat (Blanchett) and Gordon Masters (Dominic West). They’re the creepy leaders of a cult-like group that, somewhat bizarrely, seems to use ballroom dancing as its main grooming tool.
Neither star is particularly convincing, though it seems apt that West’s Aussie accent goes walkabout for long stretches.
To cut a long story that belonged in a separate film/series short, this is how Sofie eventually rolls up at the Barton Immigration Detention Center – a remote desert camp that’s hot as hell and only slightly less sulfurous.
It’s here we meet the rest of our cast: newbie guard Cam Sandford (Jai Courtney), who resembles a kind of ripped Care Bear and sports a permanently blank facial expression that suggests someone’s just asked him to define “cymotrichous.”
We also have state apparatchik Clare Kowitz (Asher Keddie, excellent as the increasingly frustrated face of a faceless system), parachuted into the facility to sort out the latest mess that’s threatening to embarrass the government back in Canberra.
Then, of course, there are the asylum seekers who have washed up on Australia’s shores paperless, stateless and with a desperate desire to start anew. It would have been much more rewarding to explore the backstories of these refugees rather than their jailors or Sofie, but we have to suffice with the tragic tale of Afghan refugee Ameer (Fayssal Bazzi) and his young family. Collectively, they’ve experienced the kind of misfortune normally only found on Country & Western album box sets. Heartbreaking doesn’t even come close to describing their fate, which is what ultimately gives “Stateless” its power.
To be fair, I did enjoy the saltiness of the characters working at the facility (“Just remember, those nuns can be real mongrels”) and the spectacular Antipodean landscapes (the show is filmed in South Australia). But like another Australian series – “Safe Harbor” – before it, “Stateless” is stymied by its reluctance to place its refugees front and center.
To truly capture a humanitarian crisis, you need to focus on the humans at its core.
‘The Twelve’ (Belgium)
I’ve always been a sucker for jury dramas. You know, Henry Fonda convincing his fellow jurors of a man’s innocence in “12 Angry Men” or John Cusack and Dustin Hoffman hamming it up in “Runaway Jury.” (The only way a male-centric film called “12 Angry Men” will be made today is if it’s about Trump’s base come November.)
Ten-part Belgian drama “The Twelve” is definitely more in the vein of the above-mentioned John Grisham potboiler than the Sidney Lumet classic. Its plot contains more soapy elements than a hand sanitizer factory, yet it’s also quietly addictive – even if it does threaten to OD on the melodrama at least twice every episode.
“I hope you never have to appear before a jury like this one,” the show’s Henry Fonda wannabe says toward the end, and he’s got a point: This jury hears about Jay-Z’s 99 problems and says “Hold my beer.” Indeed, what makes this show watchable is that it’s far more interested in the lives of the jurors than what goes on in the courtroom.
Out of the 14 selected jurors (12 jurors plus two substitutes) on a double murder trial in Ghent, about half of them get their own storylines, while the others sit around like chopped liver (a situation jokily referenced in the final episode when a hitherto anonymous juror finally gets one line of dialogue: “As I’ve said from the start, guilty”).
Of the jurors we do get to know, they’re all afforded one trait/issue, which plays out alongside the courtroom drama. So, one gets a controlling, manipulative husband; another is a widower with an unhealthy obsession about a caged monkey (honestly, I’m not making this up); another has problems communicating with his teenage daughter; another is so po-faced, he presumably once saw a copy of “The Importance of Being Earnest” and assumed it was a self-help book.
Then there’s the suspect in the case – a school principal belatedly accused of murdering her best friend at the start of the millennium and, 16 years later, her own infant daughter. Doleful is too cheery a description for a character even Eugene O’Neill might deem a bit of a downer.
In a way, Netflix has created a rod for its own back by buying a show like “Borgen,” because most of its other foreign-language shows are minor league by comparison – “The Twelve” being a classic example. It’s not subtle and it’s not memorable, but it will keep you guessing till the end – and sometimes that’s enough.
‘The Woods’ (Poland)
If a show drops on Netflix and no one talks about it, does that show exist? That’s the question prompted by the release last month of “The Woods,” a six-part Polish adaptation of the Harlan Coben thriller published in 2006.
I’m surprised the series hasn’t garnered more attention, because it’s one of those totally engrossing, binge-in-one-sitting shows that Netflix was made for.
Coben, of course, is one of those prolific crime novelists who writes books the way the rest of us write emails – making you wonder whether he’s either discovered the secret of cloning or has a roomful of highly trained monkeys sitting at typewriters and cranking out twisty plots at a furious rate. Don’t quote me on this, but I think it’s the latter.
“The Woods” is Coben’s fourth Netflix show (following “The Stranger,” “Safe” and “The Five”), and I’d say it’s the best yet. Relocating the book’s action from Essex County, New Jersey, to Poland, this is a richly rewarding, “slow build” of a thriller.
I can’t say the ultimate revelation was overly shocking (yes, a creep you immediately suspect might be involved is involved; and there’s one reveal that’s so blindingly obvious, you can see it all the way from New Jersey), but that’s not really the point with this particular tale.
This is a show in which character triumphs over tropes, with the mystery playing out over 25 years. We flit between a woodland summer camp in southern Poland in 1994, where four kids go into the woods one night and are sure of a big surprise; and present-day Warsaw, where ghosts of the past start to reemerge.
While this is a generally faithful adaptation – kudos to those monkeys for the way the plot was relocatable without striking a false note – I was intrigued by one particular change. In the book, the protagonist, a regional prosecutor called Paul Copeland, is the Jewish son of a Russian émigré. In the Polish version, he’s still a prosecutor, Pawel Kopinski, but the only Jewish characters are his first love, Laura Goldsztajn (Lucy Gold in the original), and her father, Dawid.
Without revealing too much, the new setting allows the Goldsztajns’ Jewishness to become a source of tension within the Polish community and leaves them susceptible to hate crimes. Yes, antisemitism in Poland – who knew?
It also helps that the relationship between Pawel and Laura – played as adults by Grzegorz Damiecki and Agnieszka Grochowska, looking like the Polish equivalents of Kenneth Branagh and Penélope Cruz – is so compelling. You’re rooting for them to find redemption, which ultimately gives the show an emotional kick that’s rare in a thriller.
Finally, at a time when the world is preoccupied by the perils of onscreen “copaganda,” it’s reassuring to note that the balding, bespectacled detective investigating the case (Arkadiusz Jakubik – the Polish Toby Jones) never does a single thing that could remotely be seen as glamorizing the life of a police officer, anywhere. “Woods” 1, cops 0.
Oh look, I have a new Twitter account: @AdrianHennigan1 (because @realdonaldtrump was taken by what I can only assume is a fake account)