From Babylon Berlin to Borgen: 10 of the best foreign-language TV dramas

Graeme Virtue
·3-min read

Deutschland 83/86/89
Walter Presents

Since 2016, Channel 4’s Walter Presents portal has offered an intriguing TV window on the world. Deutschland 83 was its first big swing, a cold war infiltration mission that doubled as an artfully framed showcase for 1980s German fashion from both sides of the Berlin wall. The recently launched third season picks up the tale in a notably tumultuous year.

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Kingdom
Netflix

As with pop, South Korea is a prolific exporter of TV, from fizzy romances to slick thrillers. The historical fantasy Kingdom is an audacious genre mash-up, combining the palace intrigue of a rotten 16th-century court with a zombie pandemic. A ruling class mismanaging a public health crisis? It works as both sweeping epic and biting satire.

Babylon Berlin
Now TV

The hedonistic highs and economic lows of the Weimar republic in 1929 are lavishly evoked in this megabucks German drama. But if the plan was to smooth off anything weird to court global appeal, not everyone got the memo. Its glittering noir story throbs like a fever dream, with unexpected nods to Dennis Potter and a Bryan Ferry cameo.

Borgen
Netflix

Lots of us fell hard for Scandi-noir breakouts The Killing and The Bridge, but Borgen offered something a bit different: a sophisticated but relatable political drama where a principled PM (Sidse Babett Knudsen) negotiated the spin and skulduggery of coalition power in Denmark. The BBC Four hit wrapped up in 2013, but a Netflix-funded continuation has been confirmed.

Gomorrah
Now TV

This deep, bleak dive into the Camorra syndicate – created by investigative reporter Roberto Saviano, also the man behind drug drama ZeroZeroZero – strips any residual glamour out of Italian organised crime. Consuming all four seasons requires a strong stomach as clan loyalties fray and hot tempers snap.

Ride Upon the Storm
Walter Presents

Borgen creator Adam Price proved he was no one-hit wonder with this flinty but affecting Danish family saga, powered by a volcanic central performance (and some very cool old-school ruffs). Lars Mikkelsen is the holy patriarch of a clan of priests who, after an unexpected career setback, embarks on a breathtaking spiral of self-sabotage.

The Bureau
Sundance Now (via Amazon Prime Video)

Call my (secret) agent: this slow-burning but moreish drama set in France’s equivalent of the CIA has hovered a little under the radar in the UK. But that chimes with its themes of subterfuge, selfishness and sacrifice among career spies. The show’s admired reputation enticed the Cannes-winning director Jacques Audiard on board for its recent fifth season.

Money Heist
Netflix

In its native Spain, this rollicking crime thriller was titled La Casa de Papel (“The House of Paper”), a reference to its original set-up: an audacious plan to hijack the Royal Mint. Netflix’s worldwide rollout tacked on a more generic title but it may have helped Money Heist become a global smash.

Trapped
Amazon Prime Video

Iceland’s breakout television hit had a neat gimmick in its first season: a murder manhunt in a fishing community that had been isolated by a snowstorm. But its real secret weapon was burly lead Ólafur Darri Ólafsson. His brooding police chief Andri – a Columbo brain in a Cracker frame – gives this windswept procedural some real heft.

The Swingers
Walter Presents

ITV may have tried to reboot Amsterdam-set cop classic Van Der Valk last year, but it all seemed a little tame compared to this highly charged Dutch drama. Over the course of four seasons, the initial pitch of suburban hanky-panky among neighbours – including an improbably handsome journalist – has mutated into a much darker tale.