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Escape Your Travel Limitations With These 10 International Thriller Series


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If a thrilling movie filmed in a foreign locale helps you escape for an hour or two from limitations on travel imposed by the pandemic, imagine what watching 25 episodes of an international thriller series might do to uplift your psyche and energize your creativity! I thought I’d test that theory, and over the last month have streamed 27 international thriller TV series in a variety of subgenres—espionage, political, romantic, and more—from continents across the globe. I do feel considerably less home-bound, and have drawn from what I learned about the wider world as I write my next book.

Based on that experience, I’m delighted to share with you my Top 10 Streaming International Thriller Series.I’d love to hear from you which you like best (or least), and any I might have missed.

Criteria for inclusion and a note on presentation:

Highly entertaining; well written and well acted.

Diverse characters ethnically and racially, across the gender continuum, and in sexual orientation; I want the series to engage with the vibrancy of humanity that exists in real life.   

Gives me the feeling I am “there”— that I can “see” vistas and cities as though I am part of them, not standing at a distance.

Available now in the U.S.

I excluded from this list any series where the story arc is based on child murders or child rape.

– Given how different they are from one another, I did not attempt to rank the series within the list. They are presented in alphabetical order.

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Ambitions (South Africa)

A news editor, a young investigative journalist, an assistant to an ambitious politician, and the elders of a vulnerable community work together to uncover public sector corruption. Stories that stress the importance of a free press in challenging corrupt government officials have been told across eras and cultures. But in Ambitions, all the key players are women, all but one are Black, and the drama plays out entirely on location in South Africa, produced by an African company. In a compelling performance by Zikhona Bali, journalist Qhawe Ledwaba is a convincing champion for the land use rights of those who lack the power to protect their homes themselves. The battle for social justice is at the heart of this simply-filmed, yet beautifully-executed series. Cautionary notes: If you are seeking a high-energy, high budget production, this is not that. Also, if you’re a “puzzle-seeker”, it might not be appealing, since it does not have startling twists or challenging mysteries to solve. Primary language: Zulu. English language subtitles. DemandAfrica Channel (subscription). 1 season/26 episodes (2018).

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The Bureau (France)

For agents of this clandestine French intelligence agency, the dangers from their own colleagues rival those from terrorists and adversarial governments. Interesting story lines are drawn from the world of cyber-warfare and high-tech surveillance, but The Bureau is propelled forward by two questions: “Whom can I trust?” and “How far will I compromise my principles to protect the one I love?” Fifty episodes over five seasons offer a true globe-trotting experience, from the agency’s headquarters in Paris to extended stays in Cambodia, Russia, the Ukraine, Morocco, and more. It is a well-written, finely crafted espionage thriller. Cautionary notes: Graphic sex scenes, always consensual and often loving, in terms of nudity and soundtrack leave little to the imagination. Also, for those who get attached to fictional characters, be forewarned, no one is sacred. Harm and even death can come to anyone at any time. Primary language: French. English language subtitles. Sundance Channel. 5 seasons/50 episodes (2015-2020).

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The Family Man (India)

Srikant Tiwari’s wife is frustrated that his poorly-paid government job “pushing papers” seems to always take precedence over his family responsibilities, like driving their two children to school. But unbeknownst to her, Srikant (Manoj Bajpayee) is actually a top-level, gun-carrying operative who confronts danger daily in his work for a secret Indian intelligence agency. Filmed in Mumbai, Jammu and Kashmir, India, The Family Man balances domestic drama and humor with intense action scenes, and the masterful plotting pulls threads from the first episode tightly to the last. Characters in this ensemble piece are multi-dimensional, with even the most violent terrorist evidencing relatable, if not redeeming, characteristics. Cautionary notes: The first season ends with a real cliffhanger, but the timing of the release of the second season is uncertain. So you may be waiting for a while for a resolution. Primary language: Hindi. English language options: dubbed and subtitles. Amazon Prime. 1 season/10 episodes (2019). 2nd season anticipated.

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Giri/Haji (Japan)

This single-season series has the feel of a high-quality independent film, sleekly made with graphic art renderings of characters interspersed with the live action. Gangsters in Tokyo and London breach national boundaries; killings that appear to be about local turf have deeper, transcontinental motives. Homicide detective Kenzo (Takehiro Hira), and his gangster brother, Yuto (Yosuke Kubozuka), are at the center of this maelstrom, dragging family, colleagues and new acquaintances along with them. The supporting cast is extraordinary. For those who admire creativity and a production that fully utilizes its talented cast to ramp up the action and the drama, this is an international thriller series you won’t want to miss. Cautionary notes: If you value a linear progression Giri/Haji might not be for you, since the timeline jumps from present to past to present again. Also, you don’t get much of a sense of the unique aspects of either Tokyo or London, as scenes take place primarily inside houses, restaurants, police headquarters, and offices that might be located in a large city anywhere. Finally, so many characters face seemingly insurmountable odds for their safety and/or happiness that it can be hard to see how any of that will get resolved. (It’s not really a spoiler to say, broadly, some of it does and some of it doesn’t.) Primary languages: English & Japanese. English language subtitles. Netflix 1 season/8 episodes (2019).

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Itaewon Class (South Korea)

An endearing coming-of-age story, a superhero without superpowers tale (watch it, you’ll see!), and a David versus Goliath corporate rivalry thriller. I know I said I wouldn’t rank them, but this is my personal favorite of the lot. Itaewon Class moves somewhat slowly in terms of the crime/thriller aspects, since there are relationship dynamics of all types-—family, love, friendship— that have to be worked out in the 16-episode season. The protagonist’s father is my favorite character. He might have the best laugh I’ve ever heard. I’ve never been to Seoul, but now feel as though I have. Based on a “webtoon” (a digitally released comic), perhaps there are other shows like this (tell me if you’ve seen one), but it felt completely different to me. Bottom line: I loved this series. Primary language: Korean. English language subtitles. Netflix 1 season/16 episodes (2019).

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Luther  (UK)

Idris Elba is Luther, a brilliant and troubled detective. To say he has anger management issues would be putting it mildly. Luther is the story of one person—one man—who will break every rule if he can get the bad guy, and these are really bad guys. The series provides an opportunity to get to know every part of London: Central, North, West and East. Cautionary notes: Exceedingly violent, most of the story arcs involve serial killers, several who torture and maim their victims. One unexpected advantage I found of subtitles was I didn’t have to hear women screaming in pain. (Somehow, the caption “woman screams” was not as bad.) Even so, the violence was, at times, over the top for me, but I pushed through it —sound off— because Elba’s performance was so compelling. Primary Language: English. HBOMax and Amazon Prime. 5 Seasons/20 episodes (2010-2019). 

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Puerta 7 (Argentina)

An Argentinian fútbol (soccer) club is struggling to contain the violence of a mobster and his gang of hooligans who use the club’s stadium as the base for their illegal operations. The president of the fútbol club brings in an attorney for a nonprofit organization that works with youth to take over as his Head of Security and clean things up. (The premise is a bit of a stretch.) Argentinian-born actor Dolores Fonzi gives a powerful, yet quiet performance in that role. It took me a few episodes of Puerta 7 to figure out who exactly to root for but once I got there, I really enjoyed this thrilling drama. Of note, one of the characters is in a lesbian live-in relationship, portrayed without fanfare, as any heterosexual marriage or live-in relationship might be. Sexual orientation does not define the character, and it is not a plot point on which the story turns. This portrayal might be possible, in part, because Argentina made gay marriage legal more than a decade ago, the first South American country to do so, and far ahead of the United States. Primary language: Spanish. English subtitles. Netflix. 1 season/8 episodes (2020).

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Queen Sono (Multiple countries across Africa)

She has attitude, lots of it. Her motives are pure, though her behavior is not. Queen Sono (“Queen” is her first name) is a young, highly trained spy in an elite, clandestine service based in South Africa that fights terrorism and corruption across the continent. Pearl Thusi, who plays Queen, is the heart and soul of the series. It is impossible to look away from her when she’s on the screen. Whether in a hot pink evening gown with a plunging neckline or a tangerine orange jumpsuit ideal for running, she’s bigger and bolder than life in every action she takes. The production has a bright, fun, beautiful feel to it, and the dialogue and fast action has echoes of early James Bond. Queen Sono is filmed in more than 30 locations across Johannesburg, South Africa, as well as in Zanzibar, Tanzania, Nigeria and Kenya. English, Zulu, Afrikaans, French and Russian are all spoken, so the experience of watching it truly feels international. The first season is only 6 episodes, each well under an hour, so it is easily bingeable. Cautionary notes: The fight scenes are frequent and often brutal. Language is R-rated, though the relaxed use of profanity feels consistent with Queen’s young age and confident demeanor. The “bad guys” border on evil, lacking depth, which I think keeps the series from being all it could be. Primary languages: Many (see above). English subtitles. Netflix. 1 season/6 episodes. (2020) Season 2 on the way.

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Striking Out (Ireland)

In this legal thriller with a heavy dose of romance, a top-notch young woman lawyer in Dublin leaves a prestigious firm for personal reasons. As she tries to carve out a solo practice, she comes up against political and corporate corruption that threatens her livelihood and even her freedom. There’s plenty of romance, featuring cheaters and cads, some of whom might redeem themselves, and others who definitely will not. Striking Out is pleasant, mostly nonviolent, and what better place to spend some time than Dublin? Primary language: English. Sundance Channel. 2 Seasons/10 episodes (2017-2018).

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Total Control (Australia)

Women, race, politics and power drive this contemporary Australian political thriller. Prime Minister Rachel Anderson (Rachel Griffiths) is one senator short of a majority in parliament. To fill the seat, she appoints Alex Irving (Deborah Malman), a young, indigenous single mother, who is trending on social media in a video clip that captures her bravery facing down a man with a rifle on a killing spree. Alex’s mother and and a young woman in her teens caught in the criminal justice system have important roles to play, making Total Control a truly multi-generational story. The political action is nonstop—deals brokered, promises made, some kept, some broken. It felt like an up close and personal trip to Australia, from the rural outback to the capital city of Canberra. The soundtrack is a treat, with tracks by Australian talents, including singer-songwriter Missy Higgins. Primary language: English. Sundance Channel. 1 season/6 episodes (2019). Second season soon.

***

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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