As one of many niche streaming services available to the average American consumer these days, Sundance Now—not to be confused with Sundance TV (a linear channel owned by AMC) or the Sundance Film Festival (the largest independent film festival in the U.S.)—might not be on your radar. But if your TV tastes run the direction of international (well, European/Antipodean) psychological thrillers, complex mysteries and true crime (with the occasional domestic dramedy sprinkled in for balance), then it’s definitely one worth checking out.
Like its AMC-owned sister service, Acorn TV, Sundance Now has from the start been putting up the resources to build out a strong portfolio of Original Series to complement an equally strong (if still fairly limited) portfolio of platform Exclusives. The most high profile Sundance Now Original is likely the sexy supernatural thriller A Discovery of Witches, but with The Cry, Riviera, and The Restaurant making increasingly large mainstream waves these past few years, that’s a trophy likely to be in greater and greater contention as the service settles in for the long haul.
For now, the variety and quality of Original and Exclusive programming on Sundance Now is sufficient for any television lover with a taste for thrills and a tolerance for subtitles to feel like their monthly subscription fee is worthwhile—a value made all the greater if you also care about access to a regularly updating collection of independent films. (Paste’s picks for many of those are here.)
Cost: $6.99 per month, or $4.99/month with an annual subscription, with a 30-day introductory free trial period. Gift subscriptions are forthcoming, but not currently available.
Available on: Roku, iTunes, Google Play, Android TV, Apple TV, Chromecast, LG TV, Vizio, Samsung, XBOXONE and Amazon Fire TV (on supported devices), as well as online at sundancenow.com.
What Makes It Unique: Slightly more international (though somehow even more overwhelmingly white) in its scope than its anglo-centric sister platform, Acorn TV, Sundance Now’s curatorial focus is on “engrossing true crime to heart-stopping dramas and fiercely intelligent thrillers from around the world.” This means lots of stories about obsessive (mostly white Scandinavian, Antipodean, or Western European) detectives falling deeper and deeper into the grayer areas of police work as they struggle to find justice for brutal murders or decades-old abductions enacted in desolate environs, at great cost to their own personal sanity and family ties. And also, for whatever reason, TNT’s Leverage (2008-2012).
Basically, if you like things like Broadchurch or The Bridge or Unspeakable, and also are able to put down your second and third screens long enough to keep track of subtitles, Sundance Now is for you. (Plus, of course, it has lots of great independent films.)
What You’ll Find on This List: With Originals and Exclusives being such high priorities for Sundance Now, we’re taking the same tack here as we did Acorn TV—that is, we have limited our full list to just Originals and Exclusives, but are leading with a quick Lightning Round covering some of the best non-Original, non-exclusive series currently on the platform that you’ll get as a bonus if you do end up subscribing.
Spoiler alert: They aren’t all thrillers and true crime!
State of the Union
Paste logline: Nick Hornby presents a web series that’s not on the web, a comedy, but not one that’s funny, a therapy story, but without the therapist. And yet, still trenchant and engaging!
(Read Amy Glynn’s full review .)
Little Drummer Girl
Paste logline: Tune in for A) an early entry to The Pugh-naissance, duh, but also B) Park Chan-wook’s sharp, confident direction, even in the face of a story that can often threaten more languor than forward motion.
(Read Jacob Oller’s full review here.)
Raised by Wolves
Paste logline: Starring Spy’s Rebekah Staton as a single mum raising her six kids on a mix of brassiness, secondhand smoke, and fuck-the-man self-sufficiency, the series blends the domestic chaos of Pete and Pete/Raising Hope/Stuck in the Middle, and sticks a big, blue-as-balls Wolverhampton bow on top.
Photo: A History From Behind the Lens
Paste logline: Playful, controlled mini-lectures from the hot-ticket History of Photography course you never made it off your local college art department’s miles-long waitlist to take. Starts with the Surrealists bending early photography into unreal art; ends with digital photography bending our everyday reality into the surreal.
(BBC One/Sundance TV)
Paste logline: What if Marriage Story, but it starred the divorce lawyers, and also the divorce lawyers were sisters who work at rival family law firms, and also Anthony Stewart Head was hanging around the town square as a silver fox deadbeat dad, back after thirty years gone?
Law & Order: UK
Paste logline: What if Law & Order, but with two Doctor’s companions (Freema Agyeman, Bradley Walsh) and one grounded Battlestar Galactica pilot (Jamie Bamber)?
Paste logline: What if Grantchester, but now he’s a jet-setting, British-born Russian mafioso, and it’s the new Cold War. Also David Straithan shows up as a conniving Israeli “businessman.”
/Deutschland 86 (RTL/Sundance TV)
Paste logline: Can a title sequence be a logline? If so:
If not: If you miss the ambivalent feeling of luxuriating in pitch-perfect 80s fashion, music, and general pop culture aesthetic while being asked to root for the success of Soviet-allied spies, this haphazardly plotted “what if John Hughes made an East-meets-West German take on The Americans?” spy thriller is for you! Bonus? Deutschland 89 is set to premiere later this year.
Okay, lightning round over! On to our (unranked) list of Sundance Now’s best Originals and Exclusives.
A Sundance Now: Exclusive (And extremely fresh: New episodes drop every Thursday, January 23 through February 27.)
Remarkably not the only Sundance Now series set in the Riviera (see: Riviera), this not overly stylish French detective thriller/domestic drama follows Detective Aurore Garnier Paoletti (Nadia Farès) as she tracks down the strongest lead yet in the lifelong mystery of who murdered her mother and kidnapped her little sister, Clara, thirty years earlier, a mystery that led directly to her becoming a cop in the first place. Naturally, there is a juicy family drama going on underneath all of this. Aurore’s grandparents, who own a glitzy resort on the Riviera, start the series by calling a family meeting to discuss the possibility of selling it off for an eye-bleeding sum of money. Naturally, that brings out all the darkest impulses of everyone both in the family and out, including the investors to whom Aurore’s club-owner brother owes a lot of money to, and the woman who might possibly be Clara (Manon Azem)—but none of it overwhelms the solid mystery/detective thriller at the show’s heart.
A Sundance Now: Original
Starring Jeanne Tripplehorn and Ray McKinnon as a pair of detectives in small town South Carolina who find themselves having to face down various ghosts of their professional and personal pasts, Exeter is unlike anything you’ll find on television. Written by indie filmmaker Ronnie Gunter (Lighter), the series was originally produced as Sundance Now’s first foray into podcasting. As a series on the service’s SVOD platform, it takes on a completely new form, adapted for the screen not in the traditional way that something like Gimlet’s Homecoming was done by Prime Video (with the script being handed over to live actors and real sets), but rather as something more akin to kinetic typography, the podcast’s original audio playing over stylized cards that dynamically unspool the script—stage directions and all. It’s hard to say what kind of audience this is most (or least) for, but it’s definitely fascinating, and worth checking out no matter how much interest (or confusion) you feel at the prospect.
(Note: At time of publication, all six episodes of the first season were available in full on the Sundance Now YouTube channel.)
A Sundance Now: Exclusive (though also available on Acorn TV)
Clocking in at just four episodes, Australian detective drama Dead Lucky is more miniseries than series, but even in its short run, it packs a lot in. Starring Rachel Griffiths (as a senior detective with what is either a trauma-induced anger problem or a misogyny-induced drive for respect) Yoson An as her detective-in-training partner, and Mojean Aria and Xana Tang as a pair of international students being crushed by the country’s draconian and racist immigration policies, Dead Lucky uses the resurfacing of a gleefully murderous convenience store robber as an entry point to Australia’s specific version of 21st century xenophobia and bigotry. Sharp and swift-moving, it’s a short story well worth your time.
A Sundance Now: Original
As Amy Glynn wrote in her official review, this slick Julia Stiles/Lena Olin vehicle is “utterly binge-worthy […], a smartly paced, mysterious and lavish thriller with a fabulous cast and stunning visuals. There are twists, there are turns. There is a sleek visual sensibility and a pretty dang resplendent setting.” As I wrote in my notes when I sat down to watch it myself, it is all that, but also Revenge—at least, for people who only ever guessed at what Revenge was about insofar as they saw the occasional photo—just with more bare boobs (Europe!), fine art (rich Europe!), and Mediterranean accents (sexy Europe!). It does have an extremely slow-burn start, but once the plot picks up in the second and third episodes, it’s easy to get sucked in. Plus, it features a minimalist secret pied-à-terre that has a literal gold bar as its one of pieces of interior “decoration.” I mean, there’s Chekhov’s gun, and then there’s Chekhov’s gold bar. What a show!
A Sundance Now: Exclusive
One of the few Sundance Now series starring more than a passel of white people, Next of Kin is a London-set Archie Punjabi vehicle that attempts to pick its way through the prickly tangle that is British Muslim identity and family loyalty in that nation’s current climate of both increasing xenophobia and homegrown terrorism. It’s a tricky balance, telling a story that treats its characters with complexity and compassion without turning any of them into caricatures or martyrs, but the showrunners Natasha Narayan and Paul Rutman take their job seriously, and even as the plot gets more and more convoluted—and as Punjabi’s Mona takes a kind of goofy “only on TV” action hero turn halfway through (as our own Amy Amatangelo puts it)—it’s a balance they still, for the most part, manage to find.
(Read Amy Amatangelo’s full review here.)
A Sundance Now: Original (in collaboration with Shudder)
If you only tune in to Sundance Now to see just what Matthew Goode’s vampiric charm is all about in the Sundance Now/Shudder adaptation of Deborah Harkness’ sexy supernatural romance, A Discovery of Witches, well, you won’t be alone. “You want these men to sink their teeth into you,” former Paste TV editor Matt Brennan wrote when the series first debuted, “even if it means being devoured whole. Lucky, then, that A Discovery of Witches—an otherwise unremarkable fantasy, a half-baked Harry Potter for horny adults—knows what it has in Goode’s seductive nastiness.”
Sure, that’s not what the series is entirely about, but honestly—how could I possibly top such a description? You read that, you know immediately if you’re in, or you’re out. If you’re in, well, Matt has lots more to say to you here.
A Sundance Now: Exclusive
Full of striking long shots over Norway’s (and later, Sweden’s) snowy wilds, the half-Norwegian, half-English Wisting earns its reputation early and often as Norway’s most expensive series to date. Adapted from Jørn Lier Horst’s detective series of the same name, the Sundance Now version stars Sven Nordin as the titular detective, Thea Green Lundberg as his intrepid journalist daughter, and Carrie-Anne Moss as the more bullish of two FBI agents who end up flying across the Atlantic to assist with the season’s first case: It turns out that the cops in Wisting’s small Northern city have likely been playing host to one of America’s most wanted (fictional) serial killers. Aside from the occasional gimmicky quick-zoom when something surprising happens (like, to a close-up of Moss’s face as she declares, “We’re hunting a SERIAL KILLER”), the drama is well-developed and the characters well-drawn. That the series wraps its serial killer story by the middle of the season and shifts into a different case for the remainder is also smart, showing that Wisting, unlike too many shows in the same genre, understands that stringing a single story out for a whole season isn’t always necessary or compelling. Given all the resources put into this adaptation, it seems a safe bet that this will just be the first of many seasons—you might as well get on the wagon now, while it’s still nice and cold.
(Note: If Wisting whets your appetite for moody international crime dramas, New Zealand’s The Gulf is just a click away.)
A Sundance Now: Original
Billed as Sweden’s answer to Downton Abbey, the stylish and successfully infuriating Sundance Now-produced period piece, The Restaurant, aims more for the class- and culture-based drama than for psychological, brutal thrills. This does put it a little ways off from the streamer’s general remit, but also makes it a satisfying (if not necessarily relaxing) piece of counterprogramming for moments when you’ve had just a bit too much dark Scandi murder. That said, between Sweden’s basic demographic facts and the distracting sameness of men’s fashion in the post-WWII era, keeping track off all the round-faced, brillo-ed blonde Swedish males populating the story will require as much of your full attention or more than the subtitles might.
A Sundance Now: Exclusive
In her review of State of the Union, Amy Glynn noted how glad she was that the series employed such a brief format, as it was difficult to imagine how compelling a more traditional longform format dissecting the last gasps of a couple’s crumbling marriage could be. (“An hour-long vignette of this kind might be asking a lot of viewers even given the clever dialogue and engaging performances,” she wrote. “In 10-minute increments, it stays punchy and trenchant and reasonable.”) Well, enter Danish dramedy Couple Trouble, one of the handful of new Exclusive series hitting Sundance Now this month, which takes the nut of State of the Union’s premise—a struggling couple heads to therapy in the hopes of resuscitating a marriage that was likely doomed from the start—but parks the format squarely in full-length territory.
Between the fact that Couple Trouble opens with Lise (Ditte Ylva Olsen) and Anders (Esben Dalgaard Andersen) on the couch in front of their new therapist (Rasmus Bjerg) and ricochets the audience back and forth between the couple’s present day therapy sessions and the early days of their meet-cute romance, the parallels to SOTU cease early, but that’s more than fine. Andersen and Olsen are sweet and sharp as the show’s dual protagonists, and they are surrounded by a fun, strong ensemble cast whose love of the pair makes it easy for the audience to root for them to find the best solution to their situation—even if, as Bjerg’s therapist points out early on, that solution is divorce. (Making good sense of the series’ Danish title, Hånd i Hånd.) The season ends on both a final decision and a cliffhanger, so hopefully a second season will be forthcoming. In the meantime, enjoy the emotional ride.
A Sundance Now: Original
One of Paste’s favorite sleeper series from the last couple of years, The Cry, is not for the faint of heart. Originally produced by the BBC, the four-part mini-series stars Jenna Coleman as a young mother whose baby disappeared during a trip to Australia in a high-stress moment when her husband (Ewen Leslie) was just out of sight. “This excruciating breakdown of a toxic marriage will keep most people on the edges of their chairs,” Amy Glynn wrote when the show first hit Sundance Now back in 2018. “[It] is a deft, gripping, sophisticated anatomy of gaslighting, right down to the part where Joanna (Coleman) tells the court appointed psychiatric expert why Alistair (Leslie) has held such Svengali-like power over her: “Because I gave it to him.”
Naturally, this isn’t the kind of experience many people might want to have when settling in for a short weekend binge, but for those who have a high level of tolerance for stories about the worst thing that can happen when parenting, or who love a sleekly executed psychological thriller, this is a solid pick.
(Read Amy Glynn’s full review here.)
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.
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