Sunday, January 5, 2014

Traveling Through Television: Great International Television from the Great White North to the Outback

A cold snap like much of the United States is experiencing right now makes for the perfect excuse to stay inside on the couch with a cup of coffee or tea and watch television. If you’re like us, though, the fact that we’re coming up on the end of the winter tv hiatus means that you’ve pretty much worked through everything that had piled up on your DVR in the fall. What’s a TV fan who just wants to be warm and cozy to do? Thanks to stations like PBS and BBC America, plus web sites like Hulu and Netflix, there are more ways than ever for Americans to legally have access to international television shows. We’ve put together a sampling of six of our favorites here for you to get started.

Downton Abbey

One of the UK’s newest imports of the last few years (airing on PBS) has been the critically acclaimed “Downton Abbey”. Opening just after the sinking of the Titanic in April 1912, the series follows the Crowley family and their household staff as they make their way through the changing times. With a very large ensemble cast, the show does a fairly good job of splitting the stories between the family above stairs and the staff below.

When it started out, Downton was a unique period drama, at least for the US. It has superb acting chops linked to it, including the ever witty Dame Maggie Smith and family patriarch Hugh Bonneville. We both enjoyed the first two series (as they are referred to across the pond) as the household lived and changed through the First World War and into the roaring 20s. We were fascinated by the interplay between the upper and lower classes and enjoyed seeing them merge. Series 3 was a bit more polarizing with the unexpected deaths of youngest Crowley sister, Lady Sybil and family heir, Matthew. While Jen may not be tuning in to series 4, Sarah will be sticking around as long as Maggie Smith and her snappy one-liners continue. From the limited buzz we’ve paid attention to, series 4 sounds at least a little more positive than last year. We both hope that the series will not linger longer than it should and think perhaps series 5 should be its final foray into the world of the Crowleys.

Call the Midwife

Another little-known British period gem broadcast state-side by PBS is “Call the Midwife,” based on the memoirs of a young midwife in East London in the early 1950s. Not only do we get to see this profession which has somewhat fallen by the wayside but how these women (both nuns and regular nurses) serve this tiny portion of the city.

Sarah initially started watching the show to tide her over during the lull between series of “Downton Abbey.” While not a perfect substitute, it is a quaint little show with well-drawn characters which we suspect has to do with being based on real people. It provides interesting social commentary on small city living in the ‘50s as well as how the role of midwives changed during that era. Sarah also found it interesting to see it address other issues such as children born of mixed race relationships and children with disabilities. We’ve come to care deeply about the women who provide care to expectant mothers and their babies and are excited to see the next chapter unfold in March.


"Broadchurch" was broadcast to great critical acclaim on BBC America this past summer. Starring David Tennant (the Tenth Doctor...can you sense a theme among some of the international shows we like?), the show tells the story of the fallout of a murder in a small seaside town. When a young boy is found dead on the beach, DI Alec Hardy (Tennant) and DS Ellie Miller (Olivia Coleman) are on the case. In the process of investigating the murder, they dig up many of the small town’s long held secrets. What once seemed like an idyllic place becomes anything but. The show also takes a look at how the media sensationalizes stories such as this boy’s murder, following two reporters as they try to do the police department’s job for them.

"Broadchurch" all around just has a stellar cast who turn in stellar performances. Tennant portrays the very damaged DI Hardy with a lot of vulnerability underneath the gruff exterior. It’s also clear that he’ll do what is necessary to protect the people who work for him, which is always an admirable trait. Ellie, who thought she was going to get the promotion Hardy swoops in from outside to take, even appreciates that about him by the end of the series. As for Ellie herself, Coleman does a great job portraying her character development in the opposite direction. Ellie toughens up and becomes a better cop than she was before. She needs that additional strength when the real story behind the murder is finally revealed.

The Thick of It

To add some comedy to the mix, British comedy “The Thick of It” is currently available on Hulu. Created by Armando Iannucci, “The Thick of It” is basically the British version of “Veep,” which currently airs on Showtime. It follows the misadventures of the people who work at the Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship (DoSaC), a rather inconsequential government department that always seems to have a rather disproportionate amount of bad press. Trying to contain the damage is Labour government spin doctor Malcolm Tucker, played by new Twelfth Doctor Peter Capaldi.

We’re both government employees ourselves, so “The Thick of It” provides a good release from work stressors. It reminds us not to take ourselves so seriously all the time (although taking your job seriously most of the time is generally a good thing). The real draw of “The Thick of It’ is Capaldi’s performance as Malcolm Tucker. He can weave together insults and profanity like nobody’s business, yet somehow it’s all hilarious. All he has to do is glare at a DoSaC employee, and the laughs start. It’s a bit of wish fulfillment sometimes, really. Who wouldn’t like to let off a string of profanity at certain people they have contact with in their professional lives once in a while? We can’t do that in real life, so it’s entertaining to watch Malcolm. There’s a bit more to Malcolm under the sweary surface, though, as we learn in season four when his spin empire starts to crumble.

Lost Girl

Not unlike the UK, Canada has its own intriguing imports. You would think that we would get Canadian shows at the same as they air up north seeing as we are on the same continent, but you’d be wrong. One of the better examples of Canadian sci-fi fare, which you can sometimes see on Syfy here in the U.S, is “Lost Girl”. It follows a young woman named Bo who discovers she is a succubus and that the Light and Dark Fae exist. Neither side is pleased when she won’t declare allegiance one way or the other.

Jen originally started watching Lost Girl a year or so ago (in fact she blogged season 1 this past summer), and then Sarah binge watched all 3 seasons and is eagerly awaiting the start of season 4. The world is vividly drawn and you get sucked into the Light v. Dark battles just as much as Bo’s journey to discover who she is, where she came from and what her destiny has in store. The characters are quirky, and it feels as much a straight sci-fi/mythology show as it does a procedural as it mixes those elements throughout its three-season run. Amongst all of this drama, Bo has her own love triangle going on with hunky werewolf Dyson and Light-serving mortal doctor Lauren. We are firmly in Camp Dyson by the way. With the shifting dynamics of the Light and Dark and how it all plays out in the wider world, we can’t wait to see where it goes. And really, who doesn’t love the idea of a leading lady being a succubus.

The Straits

The Straits is an Australian show produced in 2012 which is currently available on Hulu. It’s basically an attempt at creating an Australian “Sopranos,” following a crime family that is powerful in Far North Queensland and the Torres Strait Islands. Harry and Kitty Montebello, he Caucasian and she from Zey Island in the Torres Strait, rule over their crime empire and their four adopted children. As the show begins, Harry is beginning to contemplate his mortality, and he wants one of his kids (preferably oldest son Noel) to prove they have what it takes to run the Montebello business one day.

Like “The Sopranos,” (so we’re told), “The Straits,” especially in the earlier episodes, mixes dark humor and melodrama. While “The Sopranos” may actually be the superior show (we wouldn’t know...we’ve never watched it), “The Straits” is entertaining from start to finish. There’s some torture in the middle (thanks to a feud the Montebellos are having with a local biker gang) that is a bit hard to get through, but the rest of it is addictive, soapy goodness. The concept of the crime family drama isn’t original, but what makes “The Straits” especially interesting is that it serves as a sort of primer on a culture most Americans know nothing about. The show is rich with Far North Queensland/Torres Strait dialect, and by the end of the series, it seems perfectly normal to refer to Papua New Guinea as “PNG” or say that somebody is “going tropical.”

We hope this gives you some ideas for how to spend the rest of this weekend. It’s too icy to try and go outside anyway, so enjoy your international television guilt-free! In researching this post, we’ve come upon a plethora of other international shows we want to check out (some of which aren’t even English language shows and require subtitles), so this is really just the beginning. Expect another post like this when the summer TV doldrums kick in. You can also watch “Doctor Who,” which is an international show we’ve written so much about we didn’t think it necessary to spotlight it here! For now, though, enjoy a nice cuppa and stay warm!

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