For those who cannot travel abroad or don’t wish to endure the hassles of international travel, there is an easier way of engaging with other cultures. It’s called Armchair Travel.
WHAT IS ARMCHAIR TRAVEL?
Armchair travel is discovering another country/destination through cultural outlets such as television, film, music, theatre, books and websites. It’s a pretty wide definition which means we all subconsciously travel abroad every day.
In this post, I’ll focus on non-English language European TV series that are well worth exploring. The list is divided into genres with titles in no particular order under that genre.
I have a favourite that is head and shoulders above the rest but you’ll have to wait until the end before I reveal that!
By the way, if you want more ideas on armchair travel, check out my general Guide to Discovering the World from Home.
BORGEN: Danish coalition politics is an unlikely subject matter for an international smash hit but, such is the quality of acting and writing, Borgen has captivated audiences around the world. Sidse Babett Knudsen is sublime as the fictional Brigitte Nyborg, Denmark’s first female Prime Minister. Coincidentally, Helle Thorning-Schmidt became Denmark’s first female Prime Minister the year after Borgen’s first screening.
The word borgen means castle, the informal name given to Christiansborg Palace in Copenhagen where Denmark’s government operates from.
SPIN: If you want your politics with oodles of trés chic style and a Parisian backdrop then Spin is the programme to watch. Known as Les hommes de l’ombre (The men of the shadows) in its native France, Spin concerns the battle of two spin doctors conniving to get their candidate into the presidential Élysée Palace.
DEUTSCHLAND 83 & 86: Set in pre-unified Germany, this Cold War thriller concerns an East German border guard sent to infiltrate and spy on the West German and NATO forces. Not only is it a political thriller but a family drama at heart. The first series is set in 1983 and the second in 1986. With a fantastic soundtrack, the Cold War never looked as hot!
THICKER THAN WATER: A Swedish drama set on Finland’s Aland Islands, Thicker Than Water is about three siblings who have to run a guesthouse as a stipulation to inheriting it. Family secrets begin to unfold and the family bond unravels as soon as all three siblings re-unite. Tjockare än vatten is its original title.
THE BRIDGE: Denmark and Sweden excel when it comes to the crime genre and the two countries combined to make one of the best. The Bridge (Danish = Broen; Swedish = Bron) centres on the combined efforts of the Malmo and Copenhagen police forces to solve crimes concerning both jurisdictions.
The series one crime sees a dead body placed on the exact border between the two countries on the Oresund Bridge, the infrastructure that gives the series its name. Sophia Helin is outstanding as Saga Norén, the unconventional, results-driven Malmo lead detective.
THE KILLING: Another series featuring the Copenhagen police force, Sofie Gråbøl stars as Sarah Lund, a detective who is drawn to investigating a serious crime prior to re-locating to Sweden with her fiancé. She becomes consumed in her hunt for the killer, a hunt which leads to the corridors of power. Known as Forbrydelsen in Denmark, this show gained international acclaim and awards.
BELOW THE SURFACE: Staying in Copenhagen, Below the Surface is one of the most tense security procedural thrillers you are likely to see. Passengers on the Copenhagen metro are taken hostage in an act of terrorism and the race is on to save the hostages and kill the baddies. Below the Surface is known as Gidseltagningen in Denmark.
TRAPPED: A ferry from Denmark arrives into the harbour of a remote Icelandic town at the same time a mutilated corpse is fished from the water. The small, under-resourced local police force manage the colossal investigation. Antagonism from within the police force doesn’t help matters either. Known as Ófærð in its native Iceland, Trapped was a refreshing take on the genre.
WALLANDER: The second police drama on my list set in Southern Sweden’s Skåne County, Detective Kurt Wallander isn’t exactly the most uplifting of fictional characters given his line of work and messy personal life. But the Wallander series showcases the beautiful landscape of Southern Sweden more than The Bridge. The series is based on the books by Henning Mankell.
INSPECTOR MONTALBANO: The second crime drama on my list based on a book series. Set in beautiful Sicily in the South of Italy, Inspector Montalbano is more a destination promotional video than a crime series. Along with detective work, Inspector Montalbano is equally concerned with finding great food and drink. Luca Zingaretti plays Andrea Camilleri’s lead character with aplomb.
SPIRAL: The slice of Parisian life that we don’t see on tourist brochures is the focus of this police procedural drama. Spiral (French = Engrenages) stars Caroline Proust as the lead investigator under constant pressure for results from superiors, leading to unethical methods on occasion. Spiral also gives us an insight into the French legal system.
THE OUT-LAWS: Known as Clan in its native Belgium, The Out-Laws is an outrageous black comedy centred on four of the Goethals sisters and their attempts to murder Jean-Claude, the husband of the fifth sister. The Goethals sisters come up against the DeWitt brothers whose insurance business will collapse if they pay out on Jean-Claude’s life insurance policy. Set in the Flanders region of Belgium expect to learn plenty of Flemish swear words.
PROFESSOR T: Another black comedy from the Flanders region, Professor Jasper Teerlinck is the eccentric and offensive psychology academic contracted as an advisor to the Belgian police. Some classify this as a police procedural and crime drama series. To be honest, the crimes play second fiddle to the professor’s comical eccentricities.
BLACK LAKE: Some consider Black Lake a crime drama/thriller but for me it was definitely in the supernatural/horror genre. A group of friends visit a disused ski resort in Northern Sweden with one of the group intent on buying the resort. Yes, people go missing and bodies pile up but the culprit may not be of this life or world. Svartsjön is Black Lake in Swedish although the series featured Danish and Norwegian dialogue as well.
THE RETURNED: Filmed in the scenic mountainous Haute-Savoie part of France, this was one of the most atmospheric and innovative shows to air in recent years. The first series opens with a couple in shock to discover their daughter returned from the dead. Soon, more of the town’s deceased reappear and their return coincides with strange happenings. An outstanding series with terrific direction and music, it is known as Les Revenants in its native France.
AND THAT’S A WRAP
Those who overlook TV series not scripted in their native language, usually on the basis of an aversion to subtitles, are missing out. Some of the best television in recent times has come from a variety of non-English speaking countries.
And while some titles in the genres are in sharp contrast with traditional tourism promotional material, it still allows for cultural insight and escapism. Armchair travel has its benefits if only for a few hours at a time.
And as for my favourite on the list? It’s Borgen. Given that House of Cards is one of my favourite English language TV shows in recent years, it’s only natural that a political drama command the top spot on my European TV series list. Saying that, The Returned and The Outlaws are a very close second.