An International Buffet, From Elena Ferrante to ‘Slow Horses’
At the end of this week, 31 new or returning American scripted series will have premiered in the first 21 days of the year. (By my non-definitive but probably fairly accurate count.)
It’s a healthy number. But there’s another number that dwarfs it: In those same three weeks, at least 98 international scripted shows from 25 countries will have premiered or returned on American networks and streaming services.
The winter anime season began in that time frame, which accounts for about half of those shows. That doesn’t diminish the impact of the numbers; Japan just happens to turn out a couple of hundred animated programs every year, across a range of genres, that as a group are as good as any other format on television. And any peak-TV tally of series that doesn’t include the anime on Crunchyroll and Hidive, the Asian dramas on Rakuten Viki or the European series on boutique streamers like MHz Choice or Topic is seriously undercounting what’s available to the American audience.
Here’s a small selection from that abundance; the shows listed premiered this year or near the end of 2022.
‘The Lying Life of Adults’
While HBO’s adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s “My Brilliant Friend” awaits its final season, Netflix has jumped in with this six-episode rendition of her most recent novel. Giovanna (Giordana Marengo), a middle-class Neapolitan teenager, tries to sort out her beliefs amid the deceptions and hypocrisies of family and friends, the crude come-ons of men and the doctrinal dog fights among Marxists, Catholics and mobsters. Angry at her parents, she ventures down from their hilltop enclave to spend time in the industrial flatlands with her black-sheep aunt (Valeria Golino), an avatar of the life force who tells Giordana that when she has sex she has to scream or else “what are you living for?”
“Lying Life,” which credits Ferrante as one of its four writers, is a particular type of Italian production: an intellectualized and politicized but unashamed melodrama. As such, it can feel irritatingly artificial and insubstantial — beneath the philosophical and literary veneer, there’s not a whole lot going on. Under Edoardo De Angelis’s direction, though, it’s more successful as another variety of Italian product: a sophisticated, sleekly designed luxury good. Ferran Paredes Rubio’s vivid on-location photography, Carmine Guarino’s scenic design, Susanna Mastroianni’s costumes and a soundtrack that combines English- and Italian-language pop with Enzo Avitabile’s skittery, dissonant original music keep you in a pleasant cocoon of sensation — like the films of Paolo Sorrentino but more connected to the earth.
This charming series, which is halfway through its 40-episode run on Rakuten Viki, is like a manufacturer’s proof of concept. It demonstrates that a Chinese producer (in this case Zhejiang Huace, the company behind such films as Bi Gan’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s “Assassin”) can take the kind of romantic dramedy churned out by American networks like Hallmark and Up and do it better: more subtly, more naturally, more resonantly, and with equal or higher production values. It’s a very pleasant surprise.
The premise is a TV rom-com classic: Xu Hong Du (Liu Yi Fei, star of the live-action “Mulan”), an ambitious young woman working her way up in the hotel business in Beijing, has a personal crisis and heads to the country, where quirky characters and potential love interests abound. In the early episodes, the portrayal of her and her colleagues’ city grind is more poignant and affecting than the genre demands; when she arrives in the countryside, the story settles into a more formulaic groove, but the execution, and the performances, are still more dependable than you’d expect. Liu is appealing as the initially reserved heroine, and the show serves as a picturesque, convincing argument for the virtues of heritage tourism in Yunnan Province.
The video-game adaptation that is currently getting all of the attention is HBO’s zombie series “The Last of Us,” but this new anime on Crunchyroll (its third episode streams on Saturday) is a stylish alternative, or supplement. Based on the highly praised role-playing game Nier:Automata and made by the Japanese animation studio A-1 Pictures (“Sword Art Online,” “Kaguya-sama: Love Is War”), it is set far in the future and imagines a war between humans and invading aliens fought on the surface of the earth by robot proxies. The aliens employ hulking, not quite sentient tin cans that look like larger and more lethal cousins of the Minions. The surviving humans, who have escaped to the moon, send lifelike android warriors; the most advanced ones resemble pop idols, pilot jet-powered missile platforms and quietly exhibit signs of emotional attachment.
In its first two episodes, “Ver1.1a” shows a slight propensity for solemn pontification that echoes the less successful sections of the seminal mecha anime “Neon Genesis Evangelion.” When it sticks to straight-ahead science-fiction storytelling, however, it’s very enjoyable. The engaging 2D animation toggles between monochrome space outposts, rusty ruins and delicate scenes of nature reasserting itself on a planet abandoned to the robots. The protagonists are a pair of androids — an anime-gorgeous female killing machine and a talkative male scout — but the point of view sometimes shifts to the aliens’ mute robots, in winsome and melancholy ways. And employing the large margin for whimsy that anime allows, the show replicates the gamer’s experience in a way that “The Last of Us” can’t match: At the end of each episode, doll versions of the hero androids act out grisly alternate endings taken from the video game.
This six-episode missing-persons drama from France, a recent addition at MHz Choice, has connections to a clutch of that country’s most notable TV shows. One of its creators, Anne Landois, was a showrunner and writer for the classic policier “Spiral,” and the other, Gaëlle Bellan, wrote for both “Spiral” and the great spy thriller “The Bureau.” One of the performers, Irina Muluile, summons the same laconic sang-froid that she exhibited as the Mule in “The Bureau,” while one of the stars, Olivier Marchal, was the creator of the hit crime drama “Braquo.”
Here, Marchal plays a policeman in southwestern France whose obsession with the disappearance of a young girl ruins his life and fractures his family; years later, his daughter Sarah (Elisa Ezzedine as a teenager, Sofia Essaïdi as an adult), now a cop herself, comes back to her hometown and, while investigating a new disappearance, reopens the case that bedeviled her father. Sarah makes a double promise: to find the newly missing girl and to vindicate her dad.
The past-and-present double investigations that ensue — and, of course, eventually come together — are not airtight; the characters, especially Sarah, are prone to the kind of head-scratching decisions that exasperate the true mystery fan. The atmosphere, performances and evocation of the coastal Bayonne forests are all firmly in place, however.
Most spy thrillers are propelled by action, tension and the pleasures of deduction. “Slow Horses” moves on waves of ennui and disappointment, and on the bitter joy of expertly honed sarcasm. The second season of this tremendously entertaining British series on Apple TV+ begins with the forgotten MI5 agents of the Slough House office back on the sideline, after their brief moment of triumph in Season 1. The young striver River Cartwright (played with a constant, keen edge of complaint by Jack Lowden) is interviewing for a job in private security while the middle-aged lovebirds Louisa (Rosalind Eleazar) and Min (Dustin Demri-Burns) eagerly accept a degrading assignment from headquarters in hopes of resuscitating their careers.
Based on “Dead Lions,” the second novel in Mick Herron’s Slough House series, the season immediately gets the third-stringers back in action. The death of an old cold warrior raises the suspicions of Slough House’s boss, the extravagantly seedy and insulting Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman), and the possible involvement of the K.G.B. makes the stakes deadly. Part of the success of “Slow Horses” lies in its combining ambient satire with smart spy work and authentically frightening suspense. Much of it comes from the delight the stellar cast, led by Oldman and Lowden and including Saskia Reeves, Kristin Scott Thomas and, in the new season, Aimee-Ffion Edwards, take in their thoroughly compromised characters.