Through means of Netflix and the Interwebs, I’ve been watching a lot of foreign TV series lately.
In the process, I’ve discovered something that probably isn’t news to people far smarter than me: Many of the best shows on television aren’t made in the U.S. This realization has delivered some new additions to my list of favorite shows, so I thought I’d share a few of them with you. There are four shows in particular that I want to focus on, three from across the pond and one from our hockey-loving brothers in the Great White North.
The first is a cop show that puts such domestic procedurals as CSI and Law & Order to shame: Luther. He’s a Columbo-type genius detective, but it would be easy to imagine this Peter Falk playing linebacker for the Detroit Lions. And star Idris Elba (The Wire, Prometheus) is able to use his size, in combination with his brains, pretty regularly.
As with a lot of cop shows, our hero wasn’t a great husband, which led him to a state of almost constant depression mixed with a desire for justice. Unlike most other cop stories, Detective John Luther befriends not only his ex-wife’s lover but also a serial killer; he adopts a teen porn star and is wrongly assumed to be dirty by almost every other cop on the force. The show starts off with the detective maybe (or maybe not) dropping a pedophile off a roof. Did he throw him or did the guy fall? That’s what everyone wants to know, and this gives us an immediate Luther vs. the world feeling as the assumption is that he pushed the guy.
The first season of Luther has only six episodes, and the follow-up was only four. This is yet another show you can catch on Netflix, and I highly recommend that you do.
1.4 – Someone is killing women in the park, and the guy is setting off my creepy meter like crazy – this one ends in a satisfying fashion.
1.5 – This one ends in a shocker as one of our principal characters is killed off, launching Luther into an epic rage that sets up the finale.
2.4 – The second part of the Dice Killings, the season finale is an edge-of-your-seat style showdown between hero and villain.
Next up is Misfits. Now through three seasons on England’s Channel 4, Misfits has delivered a less family friendly, dark-comedy version of Heroes, showing what happens when a freak electrical storm gives a bunch of twentysomethings superpowers. But, unlike Heroes, these “supers” are concerned with little more than getting laid and completing their state-ordered community service. They have little interest in fighting crime or anything else that’s constructive. So it’s enjoyable to watch as they are often thrust into situations where using their powers becomes a must. When forced to work together, they bond over the powers that make them different from everybody else. Well, almost everybody, as we soon learn that they weren’t the only ones affected by that freaky storm.
What makes Misfits great are the characters. Their powers are simply a device used to propel the story and, before long, you realize that you’d watch this show even if our would-be heroes had no powers at all. From time travel to immortality to mind-reading, their abilities are constantly used to reveal more about each character’s true nature than anything else. And the show often pokes fun at itself via the absurdity of the situations its protagonists are constantly thrust into. Running jokes reward regular viewers and create a familiarity between the characters and the audience. After a few episodes, I found myself predicting how the characters would react, not because the writing was weak, but because I felt as though I knew them.
Aside from the mostly unknown but likable cast, the writing has stayed fresh through the seasons. Even after the second season when my favorite character left the show — something that could’ve crippled another program — the writers simply refocused the story. Given the short seasons that have become so common among British television series, Misfits is an easy show to catch up on. The first two seasons had only six episodes apiece and a Christmas special; the third season started with a 10-minute Internet episode and was followed by eight regular length shows. All in, that’s less of a time commitment than watching a single season of 24. Yep, time to jump on Hulu for this one.
1.4 – Reminiscent of Run Lola Run, Curtis must use his time-traveling ability to repeatedly try to fix a past mistake.
1.6 – When the rest of the group falls prey to a mind-controlled cult, Nathan must play hero, which is when we finally learn what his power is.
2.2 – Nathan learns he has a brother and the two of them confront their father. Also, we get introduced to Nikki.
3.4 – A time traveler attempts to kill Hitler but instead fails and ends up costing the Allies the war. When he returns to the present, he finds that the Nazis won World War II, and now things need to be put back the way they were.
The third show will keep us in the U.K. and involves some significantly above-average detective work. I’m referring, of course, to the BBC’s Sherlock. Here’s a modern take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic character that American audiences have recently seen revived by Robert Downey Jr. — though Downey’s flashy, big-screen iterations can’t hold a candle to the BBC show.
In this contemporary Sherlock, we see Holmes as a socially inept Police Consultant, the first of his kind. He is deeply disliked by most everyone he meets, but is incredibly endearing to the audience. In the first episode, he’s introduced to Dr. John Watson, a retired Army doctor who was injured in Afghanistan and needs a flatmate. The two men quickly bond and become friends, something Holmes is in short supply of. What he’s not in shortage of, though, is a quality nemesis, and the character of Jim Moriarty serves as his exceptional foil. He and Holmes have an electric on-screen chemistry. Like Batman with the Joker, Holmes benefits from having such a quality opponent.
The writing here is brilliant and unpredictable, as each mystery is extremely intricate, well-paced and enhanced by the fact that the lead parts are played to perfection. Benedict Cumberbatch (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) and Martin Freeman (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), who both star in Peter Jackson’s upcoming The Hobbit, impeccably portray the classic duo.
Sherlock also has very short seasons, totaling only three episodes in each of its first two years. It does help that each is 90-minutes long, so it’s almost like having six sweet movies to enjoy. Sherlock is available to stream on Netflix, and season three will likely air in early 2013.
1.1 – “A Study in Pink”: The duo first meet and are quickly thrust into their first case together, a series of suicides that Sherlock is convinced are murders.
2.1 – “A Scandal in Belgravia”: Season 2 took a look at some of the old stories and gave us my favorite ever interpretation of Irene Adler.
2.3 – “The Reichenbach Fall”: The famous showdown between Sherlock and Moriarty, this is the fastest-paced episode, which I spent hoping it would last more than the usual 90 minutes.
Todd and the Book of Pure Evil
Finally, jumping back across the Atlantic and into Canada, we have a show that I’ve heard described as “Buffy + Evil Dead + The Breakfast Club.” And while I’m typically not a fan of such comparisons, it’s the best way to describe Todd and the Book of Pure Evil. Fans of Kevin Smith-style comedy who also dig Buffy’s old monster-of-the-week format, this show is for you — full of lowbrow jokes that fit the narrative so well you don’t notice how stupid a lot of it is. And did I mention that Jason Mewes plays the “wise janitor”? Classic.
Underneath all the comedy is a classic story of a reluctant hero in love. Todd is prophesied to be the Pure Evil One, which is a stigma he tries hard to fight. He and his crew — consisting of Jenny, the girl he is crushing on; Curtis, his one-armed best friend; and Hannah, the brains of the group — spend week after week fighting The Book of Pure Evil. The book itself has a zany Army of Darkness quality to it and even resembles that film’s memorable Necronomicon. Essentially, in each episode some poor dumb bastard student finds the book and makes a wish that horribly backfires.
What really makes the show for me is the Satanic Guidance Counselor, Atticus Murphy Jr. Initially desiring to become part of “the gang” and help Todd destroy the book, Atticus eventually decides he’d rather have it for himself and they become rivals. Between Atticus looking more than a little bit like Ned Flanders, his constantly exasperated phrases and his cowardice, I can’t help but crack up every time he’s onscreen.
While Todd was recently cancelled, its two seasons are now airing in the U.S. on FearNet. And though they are a little long at 13 episodes per season, it’s only a half-hour show. So if you looking for something to watch between seasons of Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones or Justified — or if you’re under the mistaken impression that we are not currently enjoying the greatest era of television programming ever — check out a couple of these. I promise you won’t be disappointed.
1.11 – “The Phantom of Crowley High”: Atticus is put in charge of putting together a school musical, which turns hilariously autobiographical. Curtis falls in love with the phantom.
2.6 – “Fisting Fantasy”: The gang is inserted into their favorite video game and must track down and destroy the Red Knight in order to escape the game.
2.12 – “The Toddyssey”: Todd is taken to a future where Atticus is ruler and the world has fallen apart without him.