The 12 Best Sundance Now Series to Stream
International psychological thrillers, complex mysteries, true crime, domestic dramedies, and more.Photo Courtesy of Sundance Now TV Lists
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 (specifically UK / European) 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 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 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 addictive 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.
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.
Fans of black comedy rejoice: David Mitchell and Robert Webb teamed up once again after the end of their quintessentially British sitcom Peep Show with Back. The comedy duo had begun branching into solo projects, but reuniting with writer Simon Blackwell (Veep, Succession), they’re allowed to bask in the off-putting comedy style they somehow make addictive. Peep Show 2.0 is here, and apart from ditching its predecessor’s first-person gimmick for a different-yet-still-unnerving stylistic flourish, the distinctions between the series take longer to suss out. In this squirm-worthy British counterpart to Curb Your Enthusiasm, Mitchell and Webb star as brothers (Stephen and Andrew, respectively) brought together after their father dies. The only problem is, Andrew was one of their family’s foster children. For a few months. Now he’s just another member of the family, shoving the submissive Stephen aside.
As with its Channel 4 counterpart, the spectacular Catastrophe, there’s a similar blend of domestic bleakness and our absurd response to it. Back, rather than embracing life’s constant barrage of disasters, breaks out an oversized, Holmesian magnifying glass so these grievances can be analyzed and mulled over with all the perverse pleasure of picking pimples in the mirror. Its judgment falls upon social niceties as tired as “thoughts and prayers” and “people not understanding ‘the cloud’” gags and as specifically absurd as taking credit for discovering a dead body, because the small pub community around which the show is formed is populated by a group of monsters only the worst cynic could dream up.
Back will supply grim chuckles and a surprising taste of mystery, especially if you have a taste for hard-to-watch cringe comedy. And now is the time to catch up: Season 2 is set to premiere Thursday, March 18th as a binge on Sundance Now and AMC+. It will then make a linear cable debut Wednesday, March 31 at Midnight ET/11c on IFC. The first season is also available for free on AMC+ during the month of March —Jacob Oller
Between Prime Video’s premiere of The Wilds and Sundance Now’s stateside release of Total Control, Rachel Griffiths closed out 2020 on a real high note. But while her deceptively warm portrayal of fictional Australian PM Rachel Anderson in the latter is a career standout, it’s first-time lead Deborah Mailman, playing freshman Indigenous Senator Alex Irving, who’s the taut political thriller’s undeniable star. An accidental citizen-hero who gains notoriety after stopping a crazed, shotgun-wielding white man mid-rampage, Mailman’s Irving is shocked to find herself being head-hunted by the Prime Minister herself to take over her district’s recently vacated Senate seat. Griffith’s Anderson pitches the gig as an opportunity for Irving to give her local community—and Australia’s Indigenous community at large—a greater national voice, but Irving is canny enough to recognize that her true motivation is as likely to be about shoring up her party’s majority position than it is about doing right by Australia’s Indigenous population.
Still, Alex takes the job. And while her reservations almost immediately bear out—see: her ambitious white Chief of Staff (Harry Richardson) handing her a pre-written, blandly uncontroversial Maiden Speech before she’s even made it to the Senate chamber, or Anderson groaning at the news that another Indigenous teen has died in a state-run detention facility that “the last thing Australia needs right now is a Black Lives Matter moment”—her deep-seated drive for justice and “stroppy” (to use a political opponent’s term) bullheadedness nevertheless lead her to mount a formidable offense against the racist, colonial rot at the heart of Australia’s government. And thank god—come Season 2, her work will only get harder.
Le Bureau des Légendes (The Bureau)
About as classic a spy drama as you could possibly imagine, The Bureau (or, Le Bureau des Légendes, in its original French) is a perfect anytime-binge for fans of Alias, Nikita, Treadstone and MI-5. Starring Mathieu Kassovitz (Amélie) as Malotru (literally, Lout), a senior field agent from the Directorate-General for External Security (DGE) recently returned from six years undercover in Damascus, this stylish, continent-hopping series is loosely based on real accounts of former spies. Expect the usual twists and turns and international double-crosses you’d find in any good spy thriller, plus a solid serving of clandestine romance (featuring Malotru’s Syrian lover, Nadia, played by Zineb Triki), no small amount of American meddling (think: double agents for the CIA), and a put-upon senior director (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) doing his best to keep it all from falling apart. Add in Kassovitz’s naturally disarming charm and universally relevant contemporary political themes, and you’ve got your next quarantine obsession. And did we mention there are five seasons, ready to go? Because there are five seasons, ready to go. Gavez bien!
To watch a virtual conversation between the French Institute Alliance Française and showrunner Eric Rochant, click here.
A true passion project from series writer/composer/producer/lead, Tim Minchin, Upright is the kind of brutally bittersweet comedy that will appeal to fans of Fleabag or Better Things or Baskets. (Honestly, if it hadn’t found a home on Sundance Now, it could easily have found one on FX.) A bit of an emotional mystery-box of a story, the short series (just eight episodes) co-stars Minchin as Lucky Flynn, a middle-aged dirtbag musician on the verge of some kind of breakdown who is, for reasons initially unknown, driving a banged-up upright piano across the Australian desert, and newcomer Milly Alcock as Meg, a teenage girl on the run from her own mysterious grief who becomes Lucky’s unlikely chauffeur/ally. As traditionally happens in these kinds of odd couple buddy comedies, the two get entangled in increasingly complicated misadventures as the series progresses which, as also traditionally happens in these kinds of odd couple buddy comedies, eventually lead each to the exact emotional breakthrough they needed from the start. Lucky’s story ends up more fleshed out than Meg’s—their trip across the desert is set to end at his family home, as it turns out—but her internal turmoil is treated with just as much respect as his is. Gently funny and ultimately cathartic, Upright is the exact kind of exercise in introspection and self-forgiveness that many of us need right now.
To watch a virtual Q&A between Judd Apatow and Tim Minchin from 2020’s ATX TV…from the Couch! Festival, click here.
Nyrkki (Shadow Lines)
Another international espionage thriller, Shadow Lines (or Nyrkki, in its original Finnish) is doing the television landscape a real solid by putting a vicious Nordic spin on something other than the contemporary snow noir. Set in Helsinki in the 1950s, this Zodiak-produced series is, in terms of spy drama comparison, much nearer in spirit to The Americans than it is to, say, Alias. They’re both period pieces, yes, but more importantly, Shadow Lines, like The Americans derives its narrative tension from the kinds of nationalist anxieties that were so endemic to the Cold War. Where the FX series focused on KGB operatives working towards Soviet dominance, however, Shadow Lines focuses on Finnish operatives working towards Finnish independence—and in so doing, opens up a whole chapter of Cold War history most Americans are unlikely to be familiar with.
Shadow Lines may clock in at only ten episodes (at least, so far), but between the Le Carré-esque intricacies of its spycraft and the liquid deftness of lead Emmi Parviainen as Helena Korhonen, a mysterious co-ed who seems to have some kind of Treadstone-like training (/brainwashing) in her background, it makes good use of every one of them. A word of warning, however: Like their Americans counterparts, the spies at the center of Shadow Lines are willing to get absolutely brutal in the pursuit of their objective. As in, more brutal, possibly, than some viewers might be able to stomach. Thankfully, the bar for that brutality is pretty well set in the first episode, so if you can get through that, this short series may well be worth your time.
The Red Shadows
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, 30 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.
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!
Next of Kin
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 Discovery of Witches
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 (Ready for more? Season 2 is now available).
Couple Trouble (Hånd i Hånd)
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.
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.)
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.
The Best of the Rest: The Sundance Now Non-Original, Non-Exclusive Lightning Round
Paste logline: A snow, moody serial killer-hunting Scandi-set story that wisely captures its prey before the end of the season, this engrossing detective story also features Carrie-Anne Moss as a bullish FBI agent assisting the international team in Norway’s most expensive TV show to date.
Paste logline: Rachel Griffiths is a senior detective with what is either a trauma-induced anger problem or a misogyny-induced drive for respect, Yoson An is her detective-in-training partner, and a gleefully murderous convenience store robber is an entry point to Australia’s specific version of twenty-first century xenophobia and bigotry. Sharp and swift-moving, it’s a short story well worth your time.
Being Human (US Remake)
Paste logline: And we’ve been thinking our efforts at social distancing have been impossibly hard!
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.)
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)?
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.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.
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