Welcome to W TV Club, in which W magazine chooses a television show they’d recommend you binge-watch. This week, writer Michel Ghanem, aka @tvscholar, recommends HBO’s adaptation of My Brilliant Friend, along with four additional international series to stream once you’ve finished.
Viewers who opted to watch Squid Game without English dubs might have noticed how subtitles can draw you into a series and away from your phone in rewarding ways. Such is the case with the absorbing and transportive My Brilliant Friend, the Italian-American co-production which just wrapped its third season on HBO. This under-the-radar series is an adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s highly acclaimed four-part Neapolitan Novels, which made the rounds on bestseller lists and in most book clubs. If you were at all intrigued by the Oscar-nominated film The Lost Daughter, another Ferrante adaptation, you might enjoy this more long-form iteration that draws from the author’s written work.
For the past three seasons, we have followed protagonists Elena Grecco (Margherita Mazzucco) and Lila Cerullo (Gaia Girace) through an evocative exploration of female friendship, from their shared experience growing up in an oppressive rural neighborhood in Naples, Italy to an eventual adult rivalry and the push-and-pull of priorities between motherhood, career, and love. The series is exceptionally nuanced in its depictions of class, gender, and political affiliation—particularly in the midst of the clash between Italian communism and fascism in the country’s turbulent 1970s, which the third season explores.
In this rare instance, watching the series before reading the books is not necessarily a disservice to the source material. My Brilliant Friend unravels so beautifully and carefully that experiencing the twists and turns of Elena’s journey might be worth watching without prior context. Each season’s score has been composed carefully by Max Richter (Arrival, Ad Astra) to yield emotional results, and the series comes alive through its mid-to-late 20th century Italian costume and set design. Beyond Italian cinema aesthetics and an extremely capable ensemble cast, the show probes questions throughout, pondered by Elena’s future-self narration: Is it possible to truly escape the trauma and violence that shapes your youth? In the process of trying to become who you really want to be, do you get closer to or further from that dream? And how much of this becoming is shaped by one’s experience as a woman living under patriarchy in the 20th century?
The global splash following the release of non-English-language series like Squid Game and Lupin demonstrated a hunger for stories told outside of the North American cultural scope. And as much as we like watching a small-town American murder mystery (looking at you, Mare of Easttown), Squid Game felt fresh and exciting to watch unfold—both on-screen and within the online discourse surrounding it. Its success will surely reverberate in projects greenlit on television going forward, but My Brilliant Friend stands as perhaps one of the best series currently getting lost in the shuffle of peak television. Thankfully, the series will return for a fourth and final season to conclude the book’s trajectory. Until then, we’ve compiled a few more international series you might be interested in below.
Pachinko is a sweeping story covering four generations of a Korean family across multiple timelines, based on a novel of the same name. Among other family members, we mostly follow young matriarch Sunja (Minha Kim) living in a Japanese-occupied Korea in the early 20th century, and as a grandmother later in the 1980s, played in this timeline by Oscar-winner Youn Yuh-jung. Both actresses play the role to incredible emotional achievement. If you gravitate toward monologues, cinematic sound design, and long-lost love, try this. The series is currently airing weekly on Apple TV+.
Young Royals is bringing gay yearning back to the teen television genre. The Swedish series explores a slow-burn relationship between Wihelm (Edvin Ryding), Sweden’s royal prince sent away to boarding school, and Simon (Omar Rudberg), a scholarship student who lives in town. Here, teens are depicted in unusually realistic fashion—acne scarring and greasy hair are commonplace. The tone of the series sits at a crossroads between The Crown and Elite, but with an earnest touch which doesn’t feel pretentious or hypersexualized. A second season is expected to come to Netflix in 2022.
Borgen may be the last optimistic political drama in a post-House of Cards world. Nearly a decade after its original three-season run in the early 2010s, the critically acclaimed Danish series was added to Netflix internationally in 2020 and will return for a new, fourth season this June. The series follows Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen) as she is unexpectedly elected to be Denmark’s Prime Minister. It’s a fish-out-of-water story with a strong supporting cast, and can be surprisingly compelling as Nyborg balances family life with political crisis and trying, at the end of the day, to be a leader worth remembering. At a time when there are still too few women in political office around the globe, it feels like a real gift to see the series return and claim its spot as one of the best political dramas of all time.
In the 1990s, La Veneno was a Spanish media personality who brought trans visibly to the forefront of Spanish media and culture. In this biographical limited series, we follow writer Valeria Vegas (Lola Rodríguez) as she begins writing a book on Veneno’s story while simultaneously coming to terms with her own identity and sense of community. The series is at times comedic and over-the-top, but also challenging and hard-hitting, particularly around the realities of Veneno’s sex work, family estrangement, and eventual time in prison. Heartwarming and rare to see in the biographical genre, the series stars one of her real-life friends, Paca la Piraña, as herself. A sequel series is in production for a 2022 release.