Since before my college years, I’ve been a gigantic fan of foreign cinema – my love for cinema as a creative medium and an art form is squarely rooted in my love for European art cinema from the 60s and 70s (whether it was Fellini, Godard, Kurosawa, Ozu, Sanjit Ray, Herzog, Fassbinder, Bergman those guys did something with the movie camera). And even to this day, foreign cinema feeds my need for emotional, intellectual and spiritual nourishment from art the way hardly Hollywood/American film has in the last decade.
Yet it’s only recently foreign TV has come to our shores on a consistent basis, and as a viewer/consumer, I couldn’t be more avidly delightedly by what’s making its way to our big ass flatscreen TVs.
In fact, over the last year I’ve been watching a lot more TV from outside the US borders than I ever have before – starting with “Luther” a few years ago and currently “Copper”… as well as the revamped Doctor Who and “The Hour” (all British productions). And none of them have disappointed. There was even an Australian gangster show that I checked out last year, it was okay, but seemed to be trying to emulate a US show from the late 90s more than anything.
“Luther” was simply amazing, more than a cop show. Iris Elba is the titular Luther, and he gives the performance of a lifetime in the first season, as an on-the-edge cop who can’t exist unless he’s working a case. “Luther” is the type of show that would never get produced in the US – a black male lead who isn’t saddled with the baggage of being Black in America.
My current addiction the Cinemax show “Strike Back”, which is a British Sky Broadcasting production, is (as you can safely assume from the title) a military action adventure show – and it’s the premier version of “that show” – a mix of “24” and “The Unit” and that old movie “Navy SEALs” (starring Charlie Sheen). The first season on Cinemax (which debuted last fall) was, it seems, season two of the show that aired only in the UK and for the second season on American TV, the show got some tweaks from American TV vet Frank Spotnitz (of “The X-Files” fame). It’s no coincidence that “Strike Back” is on Cinemax, because it’s violent, filled with sex (which isn’t gratuitous… even though Cinemax has that ‘Skinemax’ moniker still hanging on), and highly serialized.
“Strike Back” has a episodic structure in which every two episodes tells a “mission”, so basically you’re getting a movie every two weeks… yeah, it’s a low-budget action film — ‘cause it’s not getting all MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE on your ass, but it’s still highly entertaining… and more emotionally complex than those types of movies are “allowed” to be in the Hollywood climate of the last decade…
Cinemax will be broadcasting a new Brit spy thriller next month – “HUNTED”, it looks every bit as action-packed as Strike Back, but covering the spy game, instead of the Black Ops game. Oh, and Frank Spotnitz is behind “Hunted” as well. I guess he’s a producer/showrunner that I need to meet.
Another interesting way of consuming TV from across the pond is the remake. Last year’s most explosive hit was obviously “Homeland”, which is a reboot of an Israeli TV show. Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon (alums from 24) have certainly made “Homeland” live and breathe on its own merits – Claire Danes was never better, never sexier, never more compelling; Mandy Patinkin stretches farther than anything he did on CBS’s “Criminal Minds” and Damien Lewis (who I’ve been a fan of since “Band of Brothers”) continues to impress me with his ability to play all the colors of the emotional rainbow.
AMC’s aggravating “The Killing” was a Danish import, and CBS wanted to mimic the success of the BBC’s “Sherlock” (a modern day Sherlock Holmes) with “Elementary”, which has Lucy Liu playing Doctor Watson (this is a solid show… based upon only seeing the pilot though).
Curiously, Canadian-originated TV content doesn’t have the crossover appeal as the British shows. Over this past summer, I was suckered into seeing a Franco-Canadian spy/action series called “XIII”; I saw the nearly hour movie first (starring as Stephen Dorff as XIII; this was originally made in 2008) as a lead-in to the series. “XIII” is based on a Franco-Belgian comic series of the same name created by Jean Van Hamme and William Vance that first became popular in the mid 80s.
I had high hopes for “XIII”, because it is essentially rip-off of Robert Ludlum’s Bourne Identity books (so here was a chance to bring the crackerjack storytelling of the hugely impressive movies to the small screen), but aside from the fact that Tony Gilroy wasn’t hired as an executive producer (or story consultant of some sorts) there was something about “XIII” just rubbed me the wrong way…
Spy thrillers – post TRUE LIES and the Matt Damon BOURNE IDENTITY have to have a slick, muscular, yet empathetic storytelling aesthetic – that is replete with camera work and editing that heightens the sense of immediacy, as well as brain-twisting story turns – “XIII” didn’t do anything to elevate or even meet the bar.
So you can’t win with every foreign TV import, but they give us exciting alternatives to the Big Four’s output and the various cable productions.