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Streaming International TV Thrillers Are the New Cinema

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Last night I screamed at the TV – and I wasn’t even watching MSNBC!

I was streaming the MHz Choice thriller The Team, which ended on a cliffhanger so hard that I jumped up from the couch and disturbed the cat who hadn’t even received that reaction when, earlier that evening, she brought in the first mouse of the winter still alive and chirping like a carbon monoxide detector.

My Academy screener of All the Money in the World sat unwatched and still sealed beside the remotes on the coffee table. (And that was even before folks started boycotting the film for allegedly paying star Michelle Williams $1,000 for reshoots while Marky Mark got a cool $1.5 million.)

While the movie industry disappoints and struggles to compensate for an inclusion that isn’t organic to the studios, storytellers elsewhere seize the opportunity. The Team isn’t reinventing the wheel; it’s just a super good (as opposed to masterpiece super plus plus) eight-episode Danish cat-and-mouser. It follows the particularly gory slaughter of a quartet of prostitutes and the bloody, bloody fallout. The titular team is international: Dane Harald (Lars Mikkelsen, Mad’s brother and the most exquisite Putin knockoff in House of Cards), German Jackie (Jasmin Gerat) and Belgian Alicia (Oscar-nominee The Broken Circle Breakdown‘s Veerle Baetans).

It’s not quite the Mod Squad, but the trio chases organized vile criminals and exposes corrupt investigators from the slums of Berlin to the penthouses of Copenhagen, with pit stops in the Alps. I enjoy seeing unfamiliar landscapes and, since I’m a frequent visitor to Berlin, I enjoy the familiarity of the locations in the way that I loved The Squid and the Whale for putting familiar Park Slope street corners onto the screen.

While I’m not above ogling Mikkelsen’s butt in the opening sequence as he makes love to his very, very pregnant wife, that’s just a gimme. There’s enough eye candy for every palate. As in most good crime-fighting team shows, there’s also a lot of personal baggage here – liaisons past and future, broken marriages that distract during crucial encounters, alcoholism, ambition, lust and vanity. The relationships seem more current and urgent than most contemporary movie thrillers and the 8-part format allows for a depth of character development of both women and men that makes the viewer graft to the individuals in peril and make the plot shocks all the more disturbing. Good stuff!

One of The Team‘s supporting characters is a shrewd blond beauty played by Ida Engvoll who mans the computer for the Danish crew (as of Episode 4, she hasn’t even stood up once, although she does have a plot-snagging black eye). In the daisy chain of binge-watching that leads from one show to the next, Engvoll has her own show over on Acorn, Sweden’s Rebecka Martinsson, an eight-episode series that kept me out of the cinema for many nights and left me craving more.

Based on the Asa Larsson novels that I devoured,  this twisty series follows unconventional Stockholm lawyer Martinsson as she gets pulled back into the remote hometown she left under a cloud when a friend dies in suspicious circumstances. Martinsson is the kind of cat who can’t resist pulling a thread. As she delves deeper into the small community’s dark secrets, she finds she is also on a journey back to her truer self – with the help of the local moonshine and a few friends old and new. She’s a vividly drawn, flawed character whose hunt for authenticity is both existential and reflective of a larger societal pull – and, if you’re searching for familiar parallels, she recalls the off-kilter heroines of The Bridge and The Tunnel. Added bonus: the scenery is stunning, as is Engvoll.

Not all heroines are on the side of the law – and the Netflix Original La Mante features a frosty French serial killer with a sixty-something supermodel’s looks played by For Your Eyes Only Bond girl Carole Bouquet. In French with English subtitles, the six-part psychological thriller is a nesting doll of plot revelations and warped relationships. When a copycat killer starts to replay the brutally theatrical murders perpetrated by La Mante (The Mantis), the French police release her from her high-security cell, using a murderess to catch a killer.

The complication is that The Mantis will only help hunt the copycat on condition that her estranged son, Damien (Fred Testot who resembles a sulky serious Steve Carell), now an undercover cop, leads the investigative team. As the show pursues an increasingly bold killer in the present, it also unravels the roots of the past murder spree, unwrapping plot points to the very, very end. While this is a classic of mother-son dysfunction, and how that shapes the moody bloke’s personal life, what makes the mini-series remarkable is Bouquet’s restrained acting style. Her beautiful mask of a face would make even the legendary Isabelle Huppert seem effusive. She’s impossible to read – and so until the very last sequence, she confounds the audience expectations, a character that is a mystery in her own right.

There is, in fact, no need to settle for the Hollywood sausage machine except when the movies are extraordinary (see my top ten of 2017) because the streaming scene is so vibrant. And don’t get me started on my favorite show – the French grittier-than-thou policier Spiral, currently available on MHz Choice for seasons one to five, with a sixth season already available in France and unfolding on BBC 4. How do you say kick ass in French?