Last week we published a list of 396 international dramas releasing new episodes in the UK in the past 12 months so I feel the “I’ve seen” caveat above is a very necessary one. I like other TV too (British and American) so it’s not as if I dedicate all my viewing time to shows eligible for this list (anything not British or American). I’m a little dubious about saying “the best” as opposed to just “my favourite” too as I’m definitely not a critic – just a viewer who likes to think he knows when he’s been moved or entertained by a show. One final note – I considered anything releasing new episodes between 1 December last year and 30 November this year as eligible for the list – giving December released shows a fair crack of the whip which they might not always get on other end of year lists.
All that said time to get onto the list, which I think I’ve whittled down to 10 new and 5 returning dramas with a bunch of honourable mentions thrown in.
Top 10 new dramas
Babylon Berlin (Germany) (Sky/Now TV) (Netflix in the US) – This fabulous crime drama has a fascinating historical setting (late 1920s Berlin), complex – sometimes a little ludicrous but always entertaining – plotting and one of my favourite characters of the year in night club dancer/secretary/wannabe detective Charlotte Ritter (Liv Lisa Fries).
Before We Die (Innan vi dör) (Sweden) (All4/Walter Presents) – One of a few shows on this list it’s hard to say too much about without spoilers but this thriller will have you on the edge of your seat throughout. There are moments that will leave you slack-jawed but equally important are the moments that seem inevitable and the emotional heft they still carry. Three stunning performances at the centre of the show too with special praise for Alexej Manvelov as Davor Mimica.
Black Spot (Zone Blanche) (Belgium/France) (Amazon Prime) – This is a show that kind of snuck onto my list as opposed to just landing an honourable mention. I like hybrid shows – this is mostly a crime drama in season 1 but has hints of other elements too – but it mostly makes the list for how well it balances story of the week episodes with the wider mystery and lets you meet its characters through these other stories rather than spending all its time on endless red herrings relevant to the one mystery. I watch a lot of crime dramas and this is a format others could learn from.
Dark (Germany) (Netflix). This show is probably the one on this list that took the longest to cast a spell on me: I actually ended up re-watching most of the first three or four episodes in an attempt to get a handle on all the characters and what was happening in the show, but I ended up absolutely loving it. It’s one of those shows that you almost need a chart for to keep track of all the characters – if you’re paying attention the show itself has one – and at least in season 1 for me it’s mostly the plot (and the puzzle of the plot) that carries the series along so if that’s not your thing it might not be a series for you. It’s definitely a genre show though I don’t want to be more specific than that – I’ll just endorse Netflix’s description of the show – a “mind-bending mystery”.
Maltese: The Mafia Detective (Maltese – Il romanzo del Commissario) (Italy) (All4/Walter Presents) – It’s a recurring theme with this list that I seem to enjoy shows with a period setting that evoke a strong sense of time and place and this is another one. This time it’s 1970s Sicily and a transfixing central performance from Kim Rossi Stuart as Dario Maltese – an honourable man in a time and place where such things are in short supply. Just wonderful.
Money Heist (La Casa de Papel) (Spain) (Netflix) – Reading the premise of this show I must admit I wondered how the writers would make a heist last for 22 episodes and still keep me engaged. I’m still not sure how they did it but wow did they pull it off. Edge of your seat entertainment throughout but it also manages to be a smart show with nuanced characters and some thought provoking storylines.
Night and Day (Nit i dia) (Spain) (All4/Walter Presents) – Another compelling crime drama for the list – this one actually from Catalonia. I loved the show even though the initial set up and central premise – that of a cat and mouse game between a serial killer and a forensic pathologist – wasn’t one that inspired me. The characters – talking the wider cast, not just the two notional leads – are just so well written and the various story strands manage to go to so many interesting places. A riveting series.
Tabula Rasa (Belgium) (All4/Walter Presents) (Netflix in the US) – This Belgian crime drama about a woman with amnesia who is a person of interest in a missing person case is another it’s hard to rave about too much without risking spoiling the plot. Suffice to say that Veerle Baetens gives one of the performances of the year as Mie and the show would be worth watching for that alone even if I laid out every plot turn for you now.
An Unknown Enemy (Un Extraño Enemigo) (Mexico) (Amazon Prime) – This hidden gem on Amazon Prime Video is a dark political thriller inspired by real historical events that took place in Mexico in 1968. I found it to be a fascinating look at another time and place, a series with stunning production values and one I’d expect to get a decent amount of critical acclaim if critics actually knew it existed. A more detailed review of the show here.
Warrior (Kriger) (Denmark) (Netflix) – This is another show I liked a little more on reflection than on first viewing. Once I’d come to terms with the fact the show was nothing like Nobel – another not to be missed Scandi drama with a military backdrop that happens to also feature the wonderful Danica Curcic – and that some of the things I dinged it for on my initial viewing were more about my expectations of what the series was going to be than what it was trying to be, I decided it deserves a place on this list. Watching the two lead characters – CC played by Dar Salim and Louise – played by the aforementioned Danica Curcic – deal with (or avoid dealing with) their sense of guilt and loss after the death of Louise’s husband in Afghanistan makes the ride well worth while.
Top 5 returning shows
The Bridge (Bron/Broen) (Sweden/Denmark) (BBC2) (Hulu in the US) – The final season of one of the great Scandi crime dramas may have relied on a few more coincidences than I recall in previous seasons but was still gripping throughout. Most importantly, boy did it deliver emotionally in terms of the characters we cared about the most as the stories of Saga Norén and Henrik Sabroe came to an end – seemingly for good.
Fauda (Israel) (Netflix) – This gripping thriller pulls no punches as it depicts the on the ground conflict between Palestinian terrorists and an Israeli Defence Force (IDF) unit. It’s an Israeli show and so comes from an Israeli perspective but one of its key strengths is in its relatively balanced depiction of the two sides of the conflict. Another show where you feel like you’re getting an insight into another world and one where you’ll be on the edge of your seat a good chunk of the time.
Gomorrah (Gomorra) (Italy) (Sky/Now TV) – This Naples set crime drama still isn’t pulling any punches and still has the ability to shock and surprise after 3 seasons.
Occupied (Okkupert) (Norway) (Sky/Now TV) (Netflix in the US) – Based on an idea by Jo Nesbø this series imagines a near future/alternative present where Russia has invaded Norway in order to keep oil production flowing. It’s a fascinating look at the compromises people are forced to make and the things they might be forced to do in unthinkable circumstances. A wonderful series.
Spiral (Engrenages) (France) (BBC4) (MHz Choice in the US) – Another of the great international dramas will soon be airing its seventh (and possibly final) season in France. Even if it has never quite hit the heights of its incredible 3rd season for me and I struggle to remember much of the core mystery of this latest (sixth) series without doing some revision that core cast of blundering cops, flawed lawyers & a judge is now so beloved it hardly matters. Giant panda… See!
1983, 3%, 54 Hours: The Gladbeck Hostage Crisis, Alex, Contact, Deadwind, Elite, The Forest, Harrow, Jordskott, The Ministry of Time, Mystery Road, Secret City, Transfers, Travelers. In addition Burning Bush (sadly no longer available on Walter Presents) would’ve made my top 10 for the year if it had fallen within the qualifying period (I watched it late) and I have little doubt that The Bureau would’ve made my list of top returning shows but I’ve not yet subscribed to Sundance Now to watch the new season. Season 4 is imminent in the UK so I’m waiting until I can watch both seasons before I subscribe.