Recent international series of note include “A Spy Among Friends” on MGM+ and “Sam: A Saxon” on Hulu.
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By Mike Hale
It has been a quiet season for international television on American screens — nothing has grabbed attention on a “Squid Game” or “Downton Abbey” scale. But barely a day goes by, in the streaming age, without an interesting series washing up from some foreign shore. Here are four recent shows worth tracking down, from an elegant British thriller to a Chinese dramedy about a demon god and an immortal warrior who meet cute on the mortal plane.
‘A Spy Among Friends’
Alexander Cary, a writer and executive producer on “Homeland,” wrote this six-episode spy thriller as a leisurely, literate, three- or four-dimensional game of chess. Based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Ben Macintyre, it tells the story of Kim Philby (and the other high-level Soviet spies known as the Cambridge Five) by focusing on a set of intertwined sparring matches: Philby’s with his friend and MI6 colleague Nicholas Elliott, sent to Beirut to bring the disgraced Philby home; Elliott’s with a (fictional) agent, Lily Thomas, assigned to interrogate him when he returns to London alone; and Elliott and Thomas’s with the MI6 hierarchy once he brings her around to his side.
Made for the British streaming service ITVX and available here on MGM+ and Prime Video, “A Spy Among Friends” is smart, complicated (at times overly so) and saturated in a particular Cold War blend of tragic romanticism and kitchen-sink class politics. What makes it stand out, though, is its casting. Anna Maxwell Martin and Guy Pearce are excellent as Thomas and Philby, and Damian Lewis is outstanding as Elliott, the colorless spy’s spy whose skills and motives are in question until the end. Tightly controlled yet somehow relaxed, Lewis gives a performance in which the coldblooded manipulator and the sentimentally loyal bro coexist at every moment.
‘Sam: A Saxon’
As triumph-of-the-spirit stories go, “Sam: A Saxon” is notably low on triumph. Sam Meffire, the subject of this German biographical mini-series from Hulu, grew up in Dresden, both acutely aware of how his skin color set him apart and fiercely loyal to his East German homeland; shortly before the Berlin Wall fell, he became the country’s first policeman of African descent. His life since then — he’s only 52 — has been a carnival ride that no screenwriter would be likely to dream up: first a poster boy in a national ad campaign designed to humanize the police, and then a fugitive fleeing to Africa to avoid arrest for armed robbery.
Jörg Winger, a creator and the showrunner of “Sam,” was also a creator of “Deutschland 83” and its sequels, and the shows share a knack for embedding engaging characters in real-world events in a way that feels both credible and suspenseful. In this dramatized telling, Meffire, played by the imposing actor Malick Bauer, is a true believer who finds himself continually and perversely acted upon by history. He is tossed about by the fall of Communism, and by the ravages of capitalism, racist nationalism and crime that the collapse unleashes. “Sam: A Saxon” stands firm against streaming-video bloat: Its seven episodes barely contain the story it sets out to tell.
‘Skip and Loafer’
This sweet, lightly sentimental slice-of-life anime, halfway through its 12-episode season on Crunchyroll (and available for purchase on Prime Video), is an example of something that Japanese animation provides more consistently than American live-action TV: a comic, even expressionistic depiction of high-school life that still feels unforced and natural. Mitsumi, the star student of her small seaside town, moves to Tokyo to attend an elite prep school. Ferociously single-minded, very impressed with herself and determined to take her new school by storm, she’s also a quick-to-embarrass country bumpkin, a classic setup for teenage comedy.
An early scene of Mitsumi’s childhood friends chasing after her departing train is a ruse, a poke at the conventions of this sort of story in traditional anime and Studio Ghibli-style films. And the bending of perspectives continues: While Mitsumi runs a gantlet of welcoming ceremonies, classroom presentations and karaoke parties in Tokyo, we and everyone around her — new friends, old friends and family — can see the anxieties and mortifications that she thinks she is hiding. The show (whose cryptic title, taken from the manga on which the anime is based, probably alludes to Mitsumi and her slacker crush, Sousuke) is a lighthearted essay on loneliness and the life-or-death nature of every decision a 15-year-old makes.
‘Till the End of the Moon’
While a demon god is in the process of destroying the world, the resolute mystical warrior Li Susu (Bai Lu) is sent back in time 500 years to find the demon while he is still in mortal form and kill him. Arriving in the kingdom of Sheng, she discovers that she is in the body of a headstrong, very poorly behaved princess who is married to — do I have to spell it out?
“Till the End of the Moon,” which is 35 episodes into its 40-episode run on Rakuten Viki, was a major hit in China, where it wrapped up this week; its premiere reportedly drew the highest numbers in three years for a xianxia (immortal heroes) drama. It’s an excellent example of the Chinese streaming-video industry’s capacity for making slickly disposable, highly enjoyable entertainment that combines elements of costume drama and special-effects-laden fantasy action with a healthy portion of romantic comedy. The humor will largely translate for a Western viewer, and Luo Yunxi (“My Sunshine,” “Ashes of Love”), who plays both the annihilating god and the possibly sympathetic human prince, is a hypnotic camera subject.
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