During the Covid-19 pandemic, I haven’t been able to go around the world the way I did in Before Times but traveled virtually via way more time watching television than ever before.
When a friend recently asked me for recommendations of the TV binges that have gotten me through the pandemic, I realized that my favorites had common threads running through them. As you might have expected, I particularly enjoy shows that let me travel the world vicariously and have something to say about society, present and past.
So, since I’m in the mood for something a bit lighter this week, I wanted to share the list with you. Here it is:
Money Heist (“La casa de papel”) Set against the backdrop of the massive money printing unleashed during the Great Financial Crisis, this series is the story of not one but (eventually) two robberies: of the Spanish Central Bank and of the Spanish Mint. Every time you think the series could not possibly do more with the story of a rag-tag band of thieves led by a nerdy master criminal (who is hot despite, or maybe because of his nerdiness), it proves you wrong. (2017-2022)
The Bureau (“Le bureau des legendes”) is a French spy thriller exploring the complex relationship between the US CIA and European intelligence agencies in the Middle East, North Africa, and Russia. Powerful story lines, great writing, moral dilemmas, and fully drawn characters. (2015-2020)
Lupin Assane Diop, a French-Senegalese gentleman master thief out to avenge his father, who as a boy saw his father’s wealthy employer frame him for a diamond “heist.” Diop is inspired in his exploits by a series –17 novels and 39 novellas–written by French novelist Maurice Leblanc about the gentleman burglar and master of disguise, Arsène Lupin. (2021)
Homeland Brilliant and bipolar, CIA officer Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) risks everything, including heartbreak and sanity, at every twist and turn of this long-running thriller. Against a global backdrop that takes viewers from Washington, DC, to Iran, Syria, Germany, Afghanistan, Russia, and Israel, Homeland has its own take on the global War on Terror and its unintended consequences. Oh, and it showcases award-winning performances by Claire Danes, Damien Lewis, and Mandy Patinkin. Need I say more? (2011-2020)
The Americans This drama about two Russian spies posing as Americans in suburban Washington, DC, in the 1980s, was inspired by the spy ring that the FBI busted in 2010. A few months before that bust, I briefly met one of those spies, an eager young man who handed me his card after a panel in New York City where I was speaking about risk. He later became a travel agent, inspiring the profession of the husband in this series, played by the talented Matthew Rhys. Keri Russell was also fantastic, as was Costa Ronin, who later played a Russian spy in Homeland. (2013-2018)
El Presidente (Do you really need this translated?) This Emmy-nominated eight-episode Chilean drama takes viewers inside the 2015 FIFA soccer scandal from the perspective of a hapless small-town soccer association club who is tapped to head Chile’s national soccer association. The FBI later leans on Sergio Jadue, who becomes the linchpin of their case against FIFA. It’s a poignant, sometimes comical, look at how corruption insidiously drags people in and how hard it is to give it up. (2020)
Call My Agent (“Dix pour cent”) is a French comedy drama about a talent agency, with cameos by real-life movie stars playing versions of themselves. (2015-2019)
Kim’s Convenience Based on a play of the same name by co-producer Ins Choi, Kim’s Convenience is the story of a Korean family in Toronto running a small convenience store. The dynamic between the Korean-born parents, Umma and Apa, and their Canadian-raised children, is achingly bittersweet. See the performances that got Simu Liu noticed and cast as the Marvel hero, Shang-Chi. (2016-2021)
The One I Missed
I may be the last person on the planet who has not seen Squid Game, the global phenomenon released in 2021. I was eager to watch because I’ve enjoyed so much other TV, film, and music from Korea’s amazing culture industry, and because of its implied commentary on global inequality and economic desperation. Alas, I only got a few minutes in to the first episode then became too squeamish. But as I understand it, that’s entirely my loss.
I’m always looking for new suggestions, particularly smartly written series from around the world with well-developed characters and insights into salient issues. Please share your favorites in the comments.
This article is part of my LinkedIn newsletter series, “Around My Mind” – a regular walk through the ideas, events, people, and places that kick my synapses into action, sparking sometimes surprising or counter-intuitive connections.
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