Best Foreign Series of 2013
Deciding on the best foreign series of 2013 has been a difficult task. 2013 saw some incredible shows throughout the world, many of them in their inaugural seasons. But, after much thought and serious internal debate, I’ve narrowed the field down to one winner and two very deserving runners-up.
Before we dive in, a few notes regarding my guidelines for determining a show’s eligibility. First, the show has to have been produced and developed by a non-US production company. Second, the show must have been available to US viewers via a legal viewing means in 2013 – meaning that something like Downton Abbey
's fourth season is not eligible as it has not aired in the US as of yet, but it’s third season, which aired earlier this year in the US, is. I know that this might eliminate some truly deserving shows, but if those of us in the US not able to legally watch the show, I don’t want to encourage them to try and procure it themselves.
Second Runner-Up: The Fall (BBC Two, available for streaming on Netflix)
Shows focused on a cop chasing a killer have been around since the early years of television dramas. If you flip through the channels on an average night, there are plenty cop/killer dramas to choose from. And, at its heart, The Fall
is the story of a cop trying to catch a killer. But unlike so many of the various shows out there, this show doesn’t concern itself solely with showing us what makes its detective, Stella, tick or with catching the killer, Paul. Rather, the show lets us see who Paul is (a family man, with a job, two kids, and another on the way, who is chaffing under the responsibilities of this life), and shows us brief glimpses into Stella outside of her role as a cop.
Stella is clearly the “hero” of the story, and we aren’t expected to sympathize with Paul. But when the “good guy” is more of a mystery than the “villain,” it creates a unique viewing experience. Stella is brash and doesn’t bow down to the macho attitudes of the various male police officers around her. Paul is generally genial around his children, but commits horrific acts with no remorse. The character study presented by this series is incredible, heightened by the excellent work of Gillian Anderson (The X-Files
) and Jamie Dornan (Once Upon a Time
) as the two leads.
While the characterizations alone might be enough to earn the show a spot on this list, it’s the combination of the exquisitely crafted characters with the show’s building tension and pacing that makes the show truly click. The first season is only five episodes long, but those episodes build to an exciting climax within the cat and mouse game between Stella and Paul. Without giving anything away, the series has set itself up for an excellent continuation when its second season premieres some time in
First Runner-Up: The Returned (Canal+, aired on the Sundance Channel)
Imagine if one of your deceased loved ones appeared on your doorstep, alive and looking the same as the last day you saw them. That’s exactly what happens in The Returned
. In a small French mountain town, several deceased individuals return to their loved ones, appearing in perfect health and with no memory as to what happened to them. We are the witness to these reunions, and the multitude of emotions they bring about. Watching the various “returned” interact with the living townspeople is thoroughly engaging, as everyone struggles to accept this new reality with varying degrees of success.
What might strike viewers as odd is that no one really asks why or how this miraculous resurrection has occurred. No one calls for outside help. The town keeps it quiet, trying to digest it on their own. I cannot imagine a US series with the same conceit (and, of course, there is already a US version of the show in the early planning stages) not bringing in the cavalry by episode five, with a round of government sponsored tests to try and understand what caused this to happen. Rather than suffering through that, we are treated to hints that something is not quite right with the returned – but that is all we are given, hints.
The show is absolutely beautifully shot, with sweeping shots of gorgeous mountains and a stunning lake. And the acting is exceptional. Each character grouping begins isolated from the others, but slowly the storylines seamlessly merge until the show hits its incredible season climax. Stories that initially appeared less important than others gain steam (particularly the one involving a young boy named Victor). Time is spent learning about each character, delving into their pasts, their present, their hopes and fears. The Returned
will return for a second season in 2014, hopefully with some new answers and many more questions.
Best Foreign Import of 2013: Orphan Black (BBC Worldwide, aired on BBC America)
I really didn't want to leave Orphan Black off my list of the top new shows of 2013, but the knowledge that I could name this Canadian gem as the best foreign show of the year made me feel a bit better. Because, frankly, this is one of the best shows of the year, period. The series, which follows a loner named Sarah as she comes to the realization that she is one of several clones, is the perfect blend of drama, action, and sci-fi with just the right dash of comedy thrown in for good measure.
The story is fast paced and well thought out (and, it turns out, topical, as the US Supreme Court handed down a decision on a case dealing with copyrights on genetic material mere weeks after the show handled the same topic), with witty dialogue and strong performances across the board. However, the show would fall apart were it not for the superhuman efforts of Tatiana Maslany, who plays each of the various clones. It’s a technical feat to have Maslany appear as several characters within a single scene. But to have an actress create such unique characterizations with each clone that a viewer actually forgets that it’s a single actor playing all the roles? That’s truly
Sarah, Beth, Cosima, Helena, and Alison (the five central clones in the first season) each have clear personalities that shine throughout every scene they are in. Each has a set of unique mannerisms and physical presence. You feel as if you know who each woman is, which makes it even more frightening when the clones are put in danger due to the interference of the shadowy corporation that created them.
While Maslany has gotten the bulk of the praise for the series (and rightfully so – she truly is exceptional), the rest of the supporting cast is also strong. Jordan Garvaris, who plays the delightful Felix, is a particular stand-out, occasionally even managing to steal scenes from Maslany. I often find myself hoping there might be a few Felix clones out there as well. There is a true sense that each character is necessary to the series (even the sometimes weaker character of Paul – Beth’s boyfriend – has a crucial role to play as the season unfurls), and the story (while dealing with some very complex themes), cinematography, and direction are all top notch. Most importantly, the show retains its sense of fun amid the serious drama and intrigue, which is never an easy thing to do. If the first season is only a tantalizing look at what delights this world has in store for us in the future (more clones, a potentially deadly clone disease, and several intriguing romantic possibilities), I cannot wait to see what the show has in store for us in 2014.