The Tuesday Thread: Euro-vision Series Contest

What international TV shows are floating your boat?

The Tuesday Thread: Euro-vision Series Contest
Ólafur Darri Ólafsson in “Trapped”

Let’s pretend you and I and our spouses are at a dinner party. We’ve talked about the kids, we’ve talked about the state of the world, we’ve talked about where we go to get away on the weekends. There’s a pause. Someone says, “So… what are you watching?” And we’re off to the races, everyone writing down recommendations on their smartphones.

So… what are you watching? On the advice of friends from last week’s dinner, my wife and I are currently (and belatedly) halfway through the first season of “Trapped” (Amazon Prime), a 2015 Icelandic murder mystery that takes places during a catastrophic snowstorm. It has a cinematic bonafides in series creator Baltasar Kormakur (“101 Reykjavik”) and the late composer Jóhan Jóhansson (“Arrival,” “Blade Runner 2049”), but it functions exactly the way we’ve come to expect a series to function in the pandemic years, pulling us through the week from night to night as we binge and allowing us to choose favorites among a colorful motley of characters (including Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, above, as the harried bear of a police detective in the eye of the storm). That we can look forward to two more seasons of “Trapped” (one from 2019 and available in the US and a new season now airing on Icelandic TV) only emphasizes how the ways we watch have changed in the streaming era. We no longer have to wait for episodes of TV shows on a strung-out timeline but instead can inhale them like beach reads, reaching for the next book in the series as soon as we’re finished with the last. Shows that are several years old can still be new to us. At the same time, the process of selecting which ones to watch has become an a la carte chore, with American series bankrolled by HBO, Showtime, Amazon, and Hulu jostling for attention with all those international series imported by Netflix and BBC America. How does one choose among the buzz shows and the sleepers, the hidden gems and the must-sees? (And let’s not even get into where stand-alone movies fit into the equation, an issue this newsletter wrangles with on a weekly basis.)

A scene from “Money Heist”

“So… what are you watching?” seems to work as well as anything, especially with TV shows from other countries that rely on word of mouth. The reality is that most of us juggle several series at a time, staying with the ones that keep the energy going and letting others fall by the wayside. A few years back, my wife and I stuck with popular murder mystery “Broadchurch” (Netflix) through its excellent first season, slogged through the aimless second season, and rallied with the reasonably engrossing third. We took a break from Spain’s byzantine “Money Heist” (Netflix) midway through season two and haven’t been back, although I am curious about whether the robbers ever get out of that bank. We sailed through all five seasons of period crime saga “Peaky Blinders” (Netflix), mesmerized by Cillian Murphy’s Thomas Shelby and aching for Paul Anderson as his hapless brother Arthur, but bailed from Germany’s “Dark” (Netflix) after the thickets of time travel plot-lines started giving us a joint headache.

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All these series, you notice, are on Netflix, and it’s true that the streaming giant does international TV better than movies. Netflix has “Babylon Berlin,” which addicted my wife across three seasons, and it has “Midnight Diner,” a mysterious Japanese entry – sort of a late-night sushi serial – that I’m consuming slowly, like a serving of high-end escolar. Over on Amazon Prime is “The Paradise,” which does for early 20th century British department stores what “Downton Abbey” did for landed estates, and available for streaming from AMC+, DirecTV, Sundance Now, and Hoopla (and for purchase on Amazon) is “The Restaurant,” a similar Swedish series that covers four decades of a Stockholm eatery where, miraculously, no one ever seems to age.

The cast of “The Restaurant”

Those last two shows especially serve as high-end soap operas (as did “Downton”) and nightly comfort food, tiding us through the increasingly fraught days of our lives and drowning out the noise coming from the headlines and cable news channels. That’s the blessing and the curse of our 24-7 media omniverse: Disappearing into the multigenerational comedy-drama of “Last Tango in Halifax” (Netflix) or the soothing rusticity of Canada’s “Anne with an ‘E’” (Netflix) or the sexed-up Jane Austen couplings of “Bridgerton” (Netflix) – an American attempt to replicate an import series – has become a way to temporarily find respite from the world hurtling past our windows. But it’s also a convenient way to hide from it.

I wonder if we’re eventually going to reach a saturation point, when we’ve ingested one too many Swedish serials and BBC period dramas and, with a contented burp, finally press the “Off” button and head outdoors. Until then – what are you watching?

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