From Brazilian oil-rig workers to a German U-boat crew, from a Chinese concubine to a Spanish spy in Ava Gardner’s home, international TV has served up some memorable characters this year. Variety’s international correspondents take a trip around the world and pick a dozen buzzed-about shows — some of which can be seen soon on Hulu, Amazon Prime and HBO. As for the others — paging Netflix!
“Iron Island” (Brazil)
Following a group of oil workers, “Iron Island” was a big-ticket action drama for Brazilian powerhouse Globo, which went all out on the series’ VFX. With a raft of local talent, it follows the protagonists’ high-pressured lives at home and work (15 days on, 15 days off). Accidents happen, love blossoms, and events ultimately have widespread political ramifications in the 12-part series.
“The Story of Yanxi Palace” (China)
A hit in China and beyond, “The Story of Yanxi Palace” runs to a hefty 70 episodes, posing a challenge to even the most ardent binger. A Cinderella tale, it follows a plucky young woman who uses her wits to rise from lowly seamstress to the emperor’s favorite concubine. The lavish period drama plays on streaming platform iQIYI in China and, unusually, has sold widely throughout Asia, landing on screens in scores of countries in the region.
“Ride Upon the Storm” (Denmark)
From “Borgen” creator Adam Price, “Ride Upon the Storm” lets a little light into the Nordic noir genre, visually at least. Lars Mikkelsen (“House of Cards”) is the patriarch of a family of priests, who has a favorite but wayward son. The series was produced for Danish pubcaster DR and Arte in France and has sold widely internationally.
Julien Lilti is a trained doctor who used his real-life experiences as inspiration for the darkly comic movie “Hippocrates,” which played in Cannes Critics’ Week in 2014. The spinoff series of the same name dropped on Canal Plus this year and follows three interns and a forensic expert who are forced to look after an entire hospital when the other medical professionals are quarantined. Shot in and around Paris, the comedy-drama stars Louise Bourgoin and Alice Belaidi and was created by Lilti alongside Anais Carpita (“Call My Agent!”) and Claude Le Pape (“Love at First Fight”).
“Das Boot” (Germany)
German submarine U-612 set off from La Rochelle, France, at the start of the first season of “Das Boot,” which also followed the efforts of the French resistance on the European mainland. German viewers immediately took to the series – one of the most expensive in the country’s history – which stars Rick Okon (“Tatort”) and Lizzy Caplan (“Masters of Sex”) and is on Sky locally. A sophomore run enters production in 2019. It sails onto U.S. screens via Hulu in 2019.
A “Black Mirror”-esque take on an alternate-reality Jewish state, “Autonomies” imagines a world in which Israel is divided into a secular state and an ultra-Orthodox “Haredi Autonomy.” The series doesn’t shy away from looking at religion, politics and identity head-on, and it launched to critical acclaim on pay-TV locally. It follows Broide, a wheeler-dealer from the ultra-Orthodox side who is asked to smuggle a girl across the border, unwittingly sparking a series of events that threaten the fragile peace. There are tentative plans for an English-language version set in the U.S.
“The Hunter” (Italy)
“The Hunter” has grabbed viewers for Italian pubcaster Rai for its gritty look at the fight against organized crime, following a Palermo prosecutor on the scent of big players in the syndicates. Based on the memoir of real-life prosecutor Alfonso Sabella, it’s set in the early 1990s during a major anti-Mafia offensive that followed the assassination of a pair of magistrates who had taken on the crime bosses. The show has been sold to Australia and France, with a Latin American deal pending.
“State of Happiness” (Norway)
From “Nobel” writer Mette Bolstad, “State of Happiness” is set in the Norwegian coastal town of Stavanger in the summer of 1969, during the country’s oil boom. Cutting away from the standard crime tropes of Nordic drama, the show follows four characters as oil money changes them and the society around them.
“Blinded by the Lights” (Poland)
Kuba is a Warsaw drug dealer who mixes with politicians and celebrities, but he wants out of the game, in HBO Europe original “Blinded by the Lights.” He’s got a one-way ticket to Argentina, leaving Poland on Christmas Day. But things invariably don’t go to plan, and, with just a week to go, his meticulously planned life starts to spin out of control. The Polish-produced series is the most-watched show on HBO Go locally and will run in the U.S. next year.
“Generations: the Legacy” (South Africa)
“Generations: the Legacy” was spawned from long-running South African soap “Generations,” which was at the center of a controversy in 2014 when key stars went on strike in a pay dispute. The new series follows the intrigue, relationships and rivalries in the fast-paced world of advertising in Johannesburg. It was created by producer Mfundi Vundla and features some of the same cast. After initial viewer resistance, it has become the most-watched scripted show on South African TV.
“Madrid on Fire” (Spain)
The most-binged original to date for pay-TV service Movistar+, “Madrid on Fire” is set in the Spanish capital in 1961, and follows Ana Mari, a governess dispatched by Franco’s regime to become a spy in the house of Ava Gardner. Paco Leon stars and co-directs alongside up-and-comer Anna Rodriguez in a black-and-white, darkly comic homage to Gardner, the hard-drinking, humane actress who was ahead of her time. The show is also a feminist tale of women discovering their sexuality in a dreary, repressed land.
Nabhaan Rizwan’s Raza is a second-generation British-Pakistani Londoner coerced into informing by counterterrorism officer Gabe in BBC series “Informer.” Gabe, played by Paddy Considine, has his own secrets, and as the counterterrorism investigation unfolds, the stakes get higher for both cop and informer. Set in London’s gritty East End, the drama touches upon global terror and will be available on Amazon Prime in the U.S. in 2019. “Skyfall” director Sam Mendes is an executive producer on the six-parter, which was produced by his shingle, Neal Street.
Leo Barraclough, Rebecca Davis, Patrick Frater, John Hopewell, Elsa Keslassy and Nick Vivarelli contributed to this report.
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