Binge viewing started as an anti-holiday tradition for me, a way to shut out the December-to-remember Christmas advertising blitz coursing through the culture. But in recent years, it has become very much a tradition in it’s own way, and is now my favorite thing about the holidays.
If you are a media critic, losing yourself in a TV series or miniseries might seem like a strange way to spend time away from the job. But the last two holiday seasons have been among the best I’ve ever had because of the series in which I lost myself.
I’ve gone global in my holiday viewing, watching mainly series made in other countries and dealing with other cultures. Initially, I did it to force myself to grow as a critic. But some of the series wound up offering me so much more.
In addition to transporting me out of a gray winter space in Baltimore to other worlds, the best series have helped me see those worlds through others’ eyes. That is the gift of art, and it is all the more precious at this painfully polarized moment in American life when we don’t even listen to others who are not members of our tribe, let alone try to see the world as they do.
Here are five series that not only totally engaged me with their storytelling, but also opened my mind to new ideas and made me care about people and places that in some cases had not been on my radar. Some even touched my heart and, I hope, helped me evolve.
Fauda (Israeli) ― The series, which was created by and stars Lior Raz, is about to enter its third season on Netflix. It is said to be based on Raz’s own army experiences. It features a special Israeli unit that deals in covert operations on the West Bank. The show’s name means “chaos” in Arabic.
Season 1 opens on a story at least as old as ancient Rome, the narrative of the Roman leader Cincinnatus, who had left Rome behind for a life of farming, only to be called back into action to lead a Roman army under siege.
In Fauda, Raz’s character, Doron Kavillio, has left the special unit to open a modest vineyard when his former boss comes calling, seeking his help in an operation aimed at assassinating a terrorist on the West Bank ― a terrorist Raz was thought to have already killed.
Kavillio is the gunfighter in the American Western genre who has put down his weapons for what he hoped would be a quiet life of family-centered farming, only to be forced back into action by the violence and evil he tried to leave behind.
The pilot is one of the most intense productions I have ever seen. From the moment Kavillio relents and goes back into the field on an undercover mission targeting a Palestinian wedding the terrorist is expected to attend, “Fauda” is non-stop action. Watch this episode, and you will be hooked straight through the rest of Season 1 and 2. Be warned, though, it is uber male and violent. In fairness, I think that’s a legitimate reflection of the world in which it is set.
Understand also that one tribe’s terrorist is another tribe’s freedom fighter. Palestinian groups have denounced the series as Israeli propaganda pointing out the dearth of Palestinians involved in production of the series.
While I understand and respect that reading of the series, I have to say “Fauda” humanized some Palestinian characters in ways that I have not seen anywhere on American TV.
Available from Netflix.
Line of Duty (British) ― This is the best Brit cop drama I have seen in five years, and that includes a lot of very good productions.
The series is built around an anti-corruption unit headed by Superintendent Ted Hastings played by Adrian Dunbar. He’s surrounded in Season 1 by a terrific cast that includes Tony Gates (“Walking Dead"), Vicky McClure (“Broadchurch”) and Martin Compston (“Monarch of the Glen"). Gina McKee (”In the Loop") is superb in a guest starring role. Keeley Hawes (Ashes to Ashes) lights up Seasons 2 and 3 as an enigmatic and driven Detective Superintendent Lindsay Denton.
The plots are wonderfully dizzying. But what I love is the great moral center to the series provided by Hastings, a quirky, sometimes cranky, hard to love, but easy to admire leader of this beleaguered anti-corruption team. I saw four seasons of this tough-as-nails drama, each better than the previous ones. In this American epoch of scammers, liars, crooks and con men, what a delight it was to visit a world, dark as it is at times, where morality matters.
Available from Acorn.
A French Village (French) ― This series about a French village occupied by Nazis during World War II is also a meditation on morality. But there is no clear moral center as in “Line of Duty.” Quite the opposite, it is instead an exploration of how complicated, difficult and perhaps impossible traditional notions of morality are once evil invades your community.
Here it is the arrival of Nazi occupation in the fictional village of Villeneuve. It starts in 1940 with the lazy flyover of a German plane that suddenly starts shooting at a group of children and their teachers on a field trip. Daniel Larcher (Robin Renucci) as the village doctor who becomes mayor and Marie Kremer as the young schoolteacher, Lucienne Bériot, leading that field trip are the two characters to watch as they show both courage and willingness to compromise and accommodate to survive across the arc of the series. Both suffer greatly for the people and things they choose to love. Their endings are not pretty. There are no happy endings here. I love that about “A French Village,” too.
Each season covers one year under occupation. It is a template that allows us to see characters age and change in multiple way as if in a novel instead of a TV series.
My Brilliant Friend (Italian-American) ―This is listed as a co-production between Italian TV and HBO, and all praise to HBO for its involvement. But it looks to me like the product of HBO money and Italian talent and sensibility.
The setting is Naples after World War II in a hardscrabble part of the city. It is the story of two girls who become best friends, one a shy, reserved, thoughtful girl who becomes our point of entry to the drama, and the other a more daring, flamboyant, adventurous and, if you believe the title, brilliant girl. The former becomes a writer and in telling the story of her friend’s life, tells her story and that of girls and young women of the post-World-War-II generation in Italy.
The juxtaposition of their hopes and dreams versus the brutal reality of their lives under the rule of their uneducated fathers and male authority in the early episodes gets you rooting so hard for them you think your heart will burst.
The friend is brilliant even as the world into which she is born denies her the chance for advanced formal schooling. So is the writing, acting and sociology of gender and class. This is the smartest, deepest and most touching series I watched in 2019.
Borgen (Danish) ― I know it’s been available in the U.S. since 2011, so there is nothing new about this Danish political drama about the rise of Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen) to prime minister. But even though I first saw it a few years ago, it’s near the top of my list of series to revisit during the next two weeks. The series has been described as “West Wing, only better.” To me it is “West Wing” without the male orientation and fundamental mythos-cum-schmaltz creator Aaron Sorkin is all too happy to wallow in. Life can be rough and rocky at the top, and Nyborg pays for her newfound power in some tough ways, sometimes the result of her own bad and selfish choices.
I don’t know if I will get though all 30 episodes, but I badly need a dose of realpolitik leavened with a some sense of idealism and hope, and this feels like just the ticket. I’ve had just about all the unleavened realpolitick I can stand in 2019.