The 14 Best Foreign Language TV Shows on Netflix

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The 14 Best Foreign Language TV Shows on Netflix

“International” is obviously a relative term, but since Paste is based in the U.S. then international means, basically, “not that.” For our list of the best foreign language series on Netflix, though, we’ve also cut out most British and Anglo series which share our language (you can check out our list of the best British TV shows on Netflix here). The main thing we’re looking to celebrate below are subtitles, yes, subtitles! Which you absolutely will need when watching even a Northern Ireland-based series like Derry Girls (included below).

Now, we understand that some people do prefer dubbing because it’s just easier—you can do other things and not always look at the screen, and plenty of viewers would prefer to not to read their TV. But we at Paste highly encourage you to give the subtitled or captioned versions of these shows a try. There’s just no substitute for the way that Lotte says “gud” in Babylon Berlin, for example. Often, these stories just land better when presented in their original language. But we’re not snobs—if you want to put on the dubbed version (which Netflix typically defaults to), we’ll only judge you a little bit.

14. Ninguém Tá Olhando (Nobody’s Looking)

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Country: Brazil
Category: Supernatural Comedy

Watch on Netflix

Apologies for recommending a mystery-box show that was canceled before it could make good on its big twist ending, but Brazil’s Ninguém Tá Olhando (AKA, Nobody’s Looking) is just too much fun to be consigned to the (ever-deepening) bin of forgotten Netflix Could-Haves. Starring Victor Lamoglia as Ulisses, the first new Guardian Angel to join the Angelus System for Human Protection in over 300 years, Nobody’s Looking is a kind of PG-13 cross between The Good Place, Better Off Ted and Dead Like Me. Reimagining Guardian Angels as punctilious office drones clocking in, century after century, to keep us “flammable, brittle and highly perishable” mammals safe from innumerable daily mishaps, the series is most explicitly interested in using comedy to investigate the idea of free will. As the hero of that investigation, Uli starts making trouble from the moment he steps on Region 5511°’s factory-like floor and accidentally knocks the giant Rules placard to the floor. Intractably curious and inherently driven to seek justice, Uli struggles to understand everything from why all the angeli wear ties and if they’re invisible to humans, to why they can’t step in to protect humans they haven’t officially been assigned. Plus, what exactly it is that 5511° Supervisor Fred (Thor Bishopric) does, and if his second-in-command, Wanda (Telma Souza), is in charge of handing out assignments, filing daily reports, and troubleshooting daily angeli issues. (Not for nothing, Wanda takes to Uli immediately.) The series’ first (and only) season is short, but it packs a ton in, spinning Uli and his angeli mentors (Júlia Rabello and Danilo de Moura) into genuine existential crises, and giving Uli himself a romantic/heroic arc by sending human do-gooder Miriam (Kéfera Buchmann) crashing into his path. 

It’s a true shame we won’t get to see where Nobody’s Looking might have taken its funny, thoughtful mystery (there’s a whole thing with hamster wheels and tiny baby angel wings I can’t get into here, but which definitely deserved to be explored further), but it’s still impressive how much story it managed to tell in the eight episodes we got. I just hope Netflix keeps creators Carolina Markowicz and Teodoro Poppovic on speed dial—I can’t wait to see what they come up with next.  —Alexis Gunderson


13. Dark

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Country: Germany
Category: Sci-fi / Thriller

Watch on Netflix

Even dashing off a synopsis of Dark, co-created by Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese, is no simple task. The first episode opens with the promise that “everything is connected”—intoned over photographs of the same people at different ages, in different fashions, pinned to the wall of an underground fallout shelter and connected by stretches of twine—and on this, at least, the series keeps its word. In the remote outpost of Winden, Germany, in 2019, Jonas Kahnwald (Louis Hofmann), reeling from his father’s suicide and the disappearance of a high-school classmate, embarks on a search for the missing boy and becomes embroiled in a supernatural mystery, one that reaches back to 1986—six months after the Chernobyl disaster—and thence to 1953—when Winden’s own nuclear power plant, slated to go offline in 2020, is under construction. If its initial allusions—Einstein, The Matrix, A Clockwork Orange, Goethe, Back to the Future—feel as threadbare as those of Stranger Things, albeit with a certain “highbrow” gloss, Dark nonetheless succeeds in drawing one in; as with countless sci-fi, horror and crime dramas of recent vintage, it suggests the pleasures of puzzles and riddles, plopping us down in the center of its very own Carcosa and inviting us to scrabble our way out. —Matt Brennan


12. Cable Girls

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Country: Spain
Category: Telenovela

Watch on Netflix

Whatever you’re in the mood for—corporate intrigue, romance, family drama—Cable Girls is bound to have it. The Spanish series, which ran from 2017 until 2020, is set in Madrid in the late 1920s and follows the lives of four switchboard operators as they attempt to overcome the many barriers that make women answerable to men. Lidia (Blanca Suárez), a woman who’s been burned by life and whose real name is Alba, has taken a job at the telephone company with the intent to rob it only to discover the love of her life now runs it, significantly complicating matters. Meanwhile, Carlota (Ana Fernández) is a high society woman desperate to escape her controlling father, Marga (Nadia de Santiago) is from a small town and striking out on her own for the first time, and Ángeles (Maggie Civantos), the longest tenured and best operator at the company, is working to provide for her family. Over the course of the series, the show skilfully tackles relevant topics like LGBTQ rights and spousal abuse through the lens of the 1920s and what women went through in order to survive in a patriarchal society. But at its heart, Cable Girls is ultimately a powerful story about the strength of female friendship and women’s collective fight for power and independence. The fact that the costumes are excellent is simply an added bonus. —Kaitlin Thomas


11. Bordertown

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Country: Finland
Category: Crime Drama

Watch on Netflix

The Nordic region has produced a number of excellent atmospheric dramas over the years, making it quite difficult to choose which ones to watch. But the moody Bordertown, set on the border between Finland and Russia (hence the show’s title), is one example of Nordic noir that is not to be missed. The three-season show, which usually splits its mysteries over two episodes, follows Kari Sorjonen (Ville Virtanen), a highly skilled detective who has left his job at the National Bureau of Investigation to relocate his family, including his cancer survivor wife, to the border in search of a slower life. However, Kari soon finds there are horrible crimes to be solved everywhere, and life on the border is anything but quiet. Equipped with a photographic memory and an almost frightening understanding of murderers and how they think, he joins the Serious Crimes Unit and eventually partners with a former FSB agent by the name of Lena (Anu Sinisalo) to solve the area’s own set of disorienting crimes. —Kaitlin Thomas


10. Fallet

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Country: Sweden
Category: Comedy-Drama

Watch on Netflix

Scene:

A police inspector is questioning a priest about a recent murder, about which the priest might have valuable information.

“How did he die?” asks the priest.

“Uh, well, the short answer is he was found hanging with a Bible pierced by a knife through his chest,” the inspector replies.

“Awful!” says the priest. “Though I’m glad to hear that people take an interest in the Bible.”

Fin.

If that’s funny to you, as it was to me, then Fallet might be right up your alley. The nordic noir genre, so prevalent as to be inescapable at this point, was ripe for a send-up, and as spoofs go, this one is tremendous. Lisa Henni and Adam Godley star as two incompetent detectives, one from Sweden and one from England, who are paired together in a last chance for both. Their target is a killer who dabbles in all the noir cliches: Latin verses inscribed into his victim (“carpe diem,” hilariously), deer skull imagery, and various forms of egregious torture. The best thing about Fallet is that the creators clearly have a true affection for, and obsession with, actual noir. You can’t satirize something without really understanding it, and this show is all the more hilarious for its adherence to the beats of the genre. —Shane Ryan


9. Casa de Papel (Money Heist)

Country: Spain
Category: Heist Drama

Watch on Netflix

A blockbuster ensemble drama with a broad demographic appeal, Casa de Papel (AKA, Money Heist) is likely the one international Netflix Original you don’t need us to tell you to watch, given that 2020 saw it hit the Top 10 in a whopping 92 countries. Still, in case you’ve yet to hop the Money Heist train, the deal is this: A kind of serialized Ocean’s Eleven, the show follows a group of criminals as they launch a mad plan to rob the Spanish mint. Like in Ocean’s Eleven, most of the ne’er-do-wells involved in the series’ titular heist are strangers to one another before being tapped by El Profesor (Álvaro Morte); unlike in Ocean’s Eleven, El Profesor works hard to make sure it stays that way. Thus we get a narrator (Úrsula Corberó, Snatch) known only as Tokío, a baby-faced tech genius (Miguel Herrán, Élite) known only as Río, a sociopathic ringleader (Pedro Alonso) known only as Berlín, and so on down the line, as well as the show’s signature red jumpsuit+Dalí mask aesthetic, which both the thieves and their hostages wear throughout the series. In combination, these details effectively anonymize them both to each other, and to hostage negotiator Raquel Murillo (Itziar Ituño), whose team El Profesor spends the first season working to infiltrate from outside the building—though whether that anonymity serves the heist’s purpose in the long run, you’ll have to watch to find out.

There’s a lot going on in Casa de Papel—as a serialized drama with a love for mystery-box storytelling and an ensemble cast that starts big and just gets bigger, it’s as interested in being a character study and exploring interpersonal relationships as it is in thrilling the audience with its own cleverness—but stretched across four seasons, it never feels like Too Much. So whether you’re jonesing for more heist action after Lupin, or in the mood for more Spanish melodrama after Élite, Casa de Papel might be for you. And with its fifth and final season due to hit Netflix later this year, now is a perfect time to catch up.  —Alexis Gunderson


8. Norsemen

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Country: Norway
Category: Comedy

Watch on Netflix

Is there comedy to be found in the saga of bloodthirsty and loot-hungry pillagers like the vikings? As it turns out, yes, and the vehicle for this comedy is Netflix’s Norsemen Here, you can see a chieftain force his warriors to give up the metal from their weapons so a slave with artistic pretensions can build a sculpture, all of which leads to the clan getting captured by their enemies while the chieftain is in a dress (long story). What makes Norsemen so funny is the very modern human sensibilities pasted onto these marauders, so that along with brutality of every kind, you have an insecure warrior like Arvid whose bullies him for not understanding poetry. The best character of all, though, is Rufus, the enslaved (bad) actor who refuses to accept that he’s a slave and manages to carve out a small sphere of influence for himself among constant threats of death and people who largely hate him. Despite the ubiquity of death, Rufus’ chief concerns are the slights he must bear as an artist among rubes. It’s a brilliant role, totally contradictory, and the highlight of this endlessly hysterical satire. —Shane Ryan


7. Élite (E L I T E)

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Country: Spain
Category: Teen Drama

Watch on Netflix

A spiritual (though sexier and more diverse) successor to both The O.C. and Gossip Girl, with just a touch of SKAM thrown in for good measure, Netflix’s Spanish-language Original Series Élite is a teenage-class-warfare-lover’s dream. Featuring a sprawling ensemble cast of attractive Spanish twentysomethings, Élite follows a trio of working class public school kids—one of them, a hijabi from an immigrant Palestinian family—as they transfer to Las Encinas, an academically elite (and extremely expensive) private school on a kind of “whoops, my bad” scholarship sponsored by some of the rich parents whose cost-cutting construction business was found to have been at fault for their public school literally collapsing. The class tensions and psychosexual dramas this move provokes would be more than enough to fill any sexy, A+ teen series with (Riverdale truly wishes). Élite, however, is nothing if not expert in raising the stakes, each season framing these more quotidian (if highly stylized) teen dramas with a more explosive mystery—a brutal murder of a central member of the ensemble in Season 1, the bloody disappearance of another in Season 2, and the even bloodier death of a third in Season 3. By the end of the most recent season, alliances have fully swapped, ‘ships have been thoroughly mixed up, and allegiances have been pinned in every possible configuration. With two more seasons officially on the way—and who knows how many more possibly beyond those—the only thing we can really be certain of is that nothing at Las Encinas will ever be boring. —Alexis Gunderson


6. Lupin

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Country: France
Category: Mystery / Thriller

Watch on Netflix

Lupin is a show about a boy named Assane who becomes a thief, and may have some identity crisis issues in that he seems to believe he is—and I mean “is” in a literal sense—a gentleman thief named Arsene Lupin (Omar Sy) from a series of stories by the writer Maurice Leblanc. There are some family issues at play; he and his father were Senegalese immigrants, and the old man was accused of stealing a valuable necklace when Assane was a child, which provided the seed for how his entire life unfolded. From that tragic backstory, a sort of comic book hero emerges, and his superpower is legerdemain: the artistry of the thief.

In style, Lupin bears some similarity to the BBC’s Sherlock, at least in the frenetic worship of cleverness that makes an hour-long show feel like 10 jam-packed minutes. Sherlock is the smarter show, Lupin the more outlandish, even though Benedict Cumberbatch’s detective is a wilder character by far. In both shows, though, the viewer is taken into the labyrinth of the mind, where the resolution of a thorny puzzle functions as the pounding impulse behind every plot device. With all its bells and whistles, Sherlock is still the more grounded show, and as mentioned above Lupin is never afraid to veer off the rails, but the pleasures of the unraveling mystery are the same, even if the protagonists operate on opposite sides of the law.

While Lupin strains and then shatters credulity at the best of times, it’s also a pretty great way to spend an hour, especially in a year when you take what you can get. Make of that conclusion what you will, but I think as long as we keep our wits about us, there’s nothing wrong with a little fun. —Shane Ryan


5. Kingdom

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Country: South Korea
Category: Political Drama / Horror

Watch on Netflix

American (or even just Western) zombies are almost always the driving point of the narrative—representing big nasty threats like national anxiety about disease, nuclear war, capitalism, the collapse of society, and racism—often limiting the genre’s possibilities and focusing their plots largely on external forces. By contrast, in Kingdom (transported to South Korea’s Joseon period) these stories become more interested in how existing structures (and the normal people living inside them) handle the threat, and how coping makes them better equipped for the inevitable return to normal. Western zombie shows allow their audiences to appreciate how society adapts to these monstrous allegories, forming the factional city-states of The Walking Dead (Alexandria, Hilltop, Woodbury) or the religious zeal of Santa Clarita Diet’s Anne Garcia (Natalie Morales); Korean zombies rage in a society that ultimately stays the same. The latter’s evils are amplified and exposed by the zombies, but the infected undead also catalyze a satisfying hero’s journey in the midst of misguided magistrates, fear-based isolationism, and class warfare. —Jacob Oller


4. Giri/Haji

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Country: Japan / England
Category: Crime Drama

Watch on Netflix

International thriller Giri / Haji starts when a Tokyo detective, Kenzo Mori (Takehiro Hira), is tasked by a prominent Yakuza crime family—in conjunction with the police force—to secretly go to London in search of his brother Yuto (Yosuke Kubozuka), who he thought died a year ago. The hope is that bringing Yuto back will stop a sprawling war that he helped kickstart among the Yakuza factions. But like Kenzo’s investigation into Yuto’s disappearance and faked death, Giri /Haji is full of unexpected twists, not just in its narrative but in its form. It’s dark and violent at times, but also funny and full of heart. At the center of the story is the tale of two brothers, yet it’s also about forged family and discovering the truth about one’s self. The gang war is the framework for the story, which plays out in many ways like Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (as far as a variety of different crime bosses all marching toward one another); and yet, one of its most moving scenes takes place during a quiet, makeshift Yom Kippur dinner regarding atonement.

The series is just frankly stunning. And crucially, funny. Though it would be wonderful to spend more time in this world with a second season, there is a palpable and beautiful sense of healing that has ended this one. —Allison Keene


3. Derry Girls

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Country: Northern Ireland
Category: Comedy

Watch on Netflix

The lovely, silly, funny and emotional Derry Girls is a brief series (each of its two seasons only run six episodes) focusing on a group of schoolgirls in Northern Ireland in the ‘90s, during the last days of the Troubles. But in Lisa McGee’s series, that darkness is relegated to the background. Instead, the more traditional teen conflicts of school life and being boy crazy take center stage, along with lots of incredibly specific language and jokes about both that region and that time (you will definitely want to watch with subtitles on). Derry Girls is a warm and funny time hop carried by a dreamy 90s playlist and the gigantic charisma of its wee leads. —Allison Keene


2. Borgen

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Country: Denmark
Category: Political Drama

Watch on Netflix

One of television’s best political dramas, Borgen was historically hard to find in the U.S., but that changed in 2020 when Netflix picked up the streaming rights for the show’s first three seasons and even signed on to produce a fourth. Following Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudson), a minor centrist politician who, through a series of convenient circumstances, finds herself the first female prime minister of Denmark, the show is one of a handful of Danish series that helped redefine the global TV landscape in the early 2010s. Over the course of the 30 episodes that made up the show’s initial run, Birgitte struggles to hold onto power without compromising her principles and ideals, facing attacks not just from the left and the right, but from within her own cabinet and the dogged press as well. 

But while the political intrigue is what ultimately keeps Borgen’s overarching narrative moving, one of the more interesting aspects of the show is its investigation of how Birgitte approaches her career and her home life, engaging with the double standard that women can’t have it all while seemingly also understanding how unfair it is that Birgitte must deal with these issues while men in her same position do not. Much like the political drama at its center, this remains messy and complicated throughout, but always makes you root for Birgitte to succeed. —Kaitlin Thomas


1. Babylon Berlin

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Country: Germany
Category: Thriller / Noir

Watch on Netflix

The excellent ‘20s-set series Babylon Berlin is a labyrinthine but deeply human exploration of a key era of German history. Focusing primarily on a mysterious detective from Cologne (Volker Brunch’s Gereon Rath), as well as a poor, ambitious flapper with a desire to work in Berlin’s homicide division (Liv Lisa Fries’ Charlotte Ritter), this neo-noir builds a case around the many forces at work in German society and politics during the Weimar Republic. With the rise of Stalin impacting Europe, and the Treaty of Versailles not sitting well with dangerous nationalist groups, Berlin is a hotbed of covert activities. And the payoff, after the show’s marvelous first two seasons, culminates in one of television’s best episodes of all time (including an outrageous twist you will never see coming).

Despite the time period (in a surprise perhaps to American viewers), the first time we are shown a swastika is not until the Season 2 finale. But the slow turning of that tide—the fall of democracy, the rising blame against the Jewish community—is felt throughout, as violence spills out onto the streets, among a population still splintered from the horrors of the first World War. And yet, Babylon Berlin is never a dark series. It can be sad or heartbreaking, but it can also be luminous and joyous. It’s cerebral and emotional. It takes time to spend an entire episode casually lounging by a lake, but also builds such an intricate interplay of narrative threads that, when they start to pay off, you will come away astonished. The show’s distinct German Expressionist style, gorgeous costuming, and keen sense of character make it unmissable TV. Don’t be scared of the subtitles—though it is dubbed, it is best experienced in its native language. —Allison Keene



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