Merciless (Brazil, Dupla Identidade): Like the British-Irish crime drama The Fall, it's serial killer as matinee idol, the unsub's good looks not merely allowing him to terrorize a city and evade capture, but muddying our response to his crimes. At first glance, the similarities between the two shows are disconcerting; like Jamie Dornan in The Fall, Merciless's Bruno Gagliasso sports a thick wave of brunette hair and a meticulously-trimmed beard. (Their characters' jobs are even similar: Dornan works as a therapist, Gagliasso mans the phone at a crisis center.) But whereas The Fall was a psychological chase, Merciless gleefully cuts across genres, blending the intrigue of a political thriller, the grittiness of a cop show, and -- what gives it its kick -- the sudsiness of a telenovela. With its edgy camerawork and angular soundtrack, Merciless imagines Rio de Janeiro as a hotbed where passions spiral out of control, in a postmillennium world where control is everything. And as political strategist Eduardo "Edu" Borges, who insinuates himself into a Senator's campaign for reelection, into the police department investigating the very crimes that he himself is committing, and into the life of one of the department's star witnesses, Gagliasso is mesmerizing. He took home the 2015 Prêmio Contigo for Best Actor in a Series or Miniseries -- and watching him, you can see why; his virtuosity makes this unlikely mix of genres not only plausible, but persuasive. Each episode begins with a quote from Ted Bundy or John Wayne Gacy or the BTK Strangler; for all its frothy excesses, it's a show committed to teaching its audience about the psychology of serial killers and the techniques of behavioral analysis used to apprehend them. (The lead detective has returned to Rio to assist in the investigation, following a stint with the FBI. As this is a cop show, she's determined to show the department head how criminal profiling can be used in tandem with traditional detective work; as this is also a soap, he's more interested in renewing the affair they began twenty years earlier.) Serial murderers -- and the methods used to track them -- have been explored in countless U.S. dramas; of course they have -- the United States has had over 2700 spree killings, more than nineteen times that of any other country. Brazil, on the other hand, has had less than ten. So if series creator Glória Perez's scripts play a bit like a primer on criminal profiling, it's understandable -- but the tone never become heavy-handed; on the contrary, her back-to-basics approach makes it feel fresh. That said, Merciless would be merely a great piece of guilty-pleasure programming, if Gagliasso's performance weren't such a jaw-dropper: commanding not only attention, but respect. The result, at its best, is gripping, daring and disturbing -- and, at its least, it's still wicked fun.
Framed (Netherlands, Bellicher): Charles den Tex, the Netherlands' top writer of thrillers, has penned two award-winning novels centered around a software consultant, Michael Bellicher, who finds himself unwittingly caught up in conspiracy. The first, De macht van meneer Miller (The Power of Mr. Miller, 2006), was adapted for television in 2010, and a second season -- based on the sequel Cel (Cell, 2008) -- followed three years later. The novels are a decade old, but the themes are computer hacking and identity theft -- could they be more relevant? (The first novel, alarmingly prescient, turns on a secret organization that pries into the computers of government officials: manipulating policy and public opinion through the falsifying of data and relentless propaganda.) And the TV adaptations are grounded by Daan Schuurmans, one of the Netherlands' most respected theatre, television and film actors. Compared to his other 2010 roles -- in Bernhard, schavuit van Oranje and Annie MG, both of which won him the Netherlands' Beeld en Geluid Award -- Framed is decidedly lightweight fare, but how lovely to have an action hero played by someone of such skill. Schuurmans projects every moment of surprise, clarity and resolve, making it the rare thriller that's equally effective as character drama. Feats of derring-do don't come naturally to Michael Bellicher; Schuurmans is careful to show the fear and desperation as he outruns the authorities, or bluffs his way into a political summit, or scrambles to stay one step ahead of a terrorist -- all to clear his name and expose those who've sullied his reputation. He's agile, quick-witted and occasionally lucky, but never superhuman, and he's splendidly paired in the first season with Anna Drijver, radiant as his newly-transitioned sister Kirsten, who understands fully his need to get at the truth. (Their separate quests for identity -- and how her own journey has made her sympathetic to his -- is one of the nicest, understated aspects of the series.) Drijver, sadly, is relegated to supporting player in the sequel, and in fact, the two seasons feel markedly different in tone: the first boasting an urgency, a leanness and a barrage of action sequences that's replaced, in the second, by a slower build, a broader canvas and a more tempered approach. Even Bellicher himself, in Season 2, takes a while to find his bearings, as if he's never faced adversity before. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. If you're going to go the unlikely route of having a man framed not once, but twice, better the two seasons balance rather than duplicate each other's efforts -- as they do here, admirably and effectively.
The Hunter (France, Le chasseur): The tango music at the top prepares you for what lies ahead: an air of respectability that masks the brutality at the series' core. Each week, once the opening credits have rolled, an immaculately styled and coiffed businesswoman, Mme. Natacha Delaunay, greets a new client in her plush home office. (It's Marie-France Pisier, muse of the New Wave movement, best remembered in the U.S. as Karine in Cousin cousine, and here giving one of her final -- and defining -- performances.) Perhaps she and her latest client are old friends; perhaps they're fresh acquaintances. Perhaps they chat a bit, or dispense with pleasantries altogether. But at some point, the client gets down to business: he has someone he wants assassinated. The Hunter is a fable about a family engaged in contract killing, where the mother brokers the deals, and her son Simon carries them out. Arch and entertaining, it takes the sting out of death by turning it into just another business transaction, handled by professionals. (Whenever the client names the next victim, Mme. Delauney hears the desperation or determination in their voice and instantly ups the price. She understand what the market will bear.) And Simon is exemplary at his job; he's an impressive assassin, who can take out a target without exposing himself to suspicion. (He sees to it that the deaths appear to be suicides, or tragic accidents, or the work of others.) Once he receives his assignment, he devises a strategy within hours, and if it means insinuating himself into the life of the victim, he has a new identity devised and backstopped soon after. As Simon, Yannick Soulier is a marvelous chameleon, equally convincing posing as a doctor or a circus performer: comfortable in a sports coat or a leather jacket, in a luxury car or on a motorcycle. He can be as tough or as tender as the situation demands. The Hunter asks us to sympathize with a contract killer, and we do, because Soulier and writer Laurent Burtin see to it that he's clever and charming and resourceful -- and because, crucially, he's anguishing over a previous case, a woman he was supposed to kill, but whom he chose to spare instead. The repercussions from that decision come back to haunt him in a continuing story-line that's threaded through the narrative; each episode has procedural and serialized elements that intertwine until, in the final installment, they collide. Its "victim of the week" format could quickly grow predictable, but each episode adds a new layer of intrigue, and ultimately, we lose ourselves in a world in which everyone is lying about their lives and about their loyalties -- and we scramble to keep track of what is true, and truly felt. The Hunter keeps piling on twists till the very end, when it explodes in a marvelous bluff that not only reboots the narrative, but makes us reconsider everything we've seen. It keeps us guessing, and we're glad.
Duel (France, Duel en ville): It's easy to dismiss as "just another crime drama." It's got the corrupt politician, and the cop eager to take him down. It's got the town simmering with racial and religious tensions, and the police department struggling to diffuse them. It's got a dabbling of personal subplots -- from alcoholism to divorce to office romance -- that we've seen countless times, and in better dramas. What elevates Duel are two characters, and not the obvious ones (the politician and the cop). It's the politician and his bodyguard, played by two veterans giving performances of such conviction and dimension that you forgive even their gravest transgressions. As Mayor Philippe Dellas, who makes one deadly mistake in the opening episode and then spends the rest of the series running from it, the prolific character actor Patrick Chesnais (best-known to American audiences as the physician in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) gives the series stature and unexpected pathos. Dellas has lost the fire in his belly; mired in an increasingly ugly re-election campaign, he's disheartened by a political atmosphere that's abandoned all pretense of integrity and inclusiveness. (His opponent is an extremist all too eager to incite racial violence, to energize his base and expand his media coverage -- the themes feel particularly pertinent in 2017.) He wearies, too, of a home life that's begun to feel flat and fraudulent. And Chesnais is matched, beautifully, by actor Olivier Rabourdin. (Rabourdin's supporting turn in 2010's Of Gods and Men, which received the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival, was nominated for a César Award; he seems to turn up in every American movie set in France, and is probably most familiar to U.S. audiences as former agent Jean-Claude Pitrel in Taken and Taken 2.) As Joël Delpierre, a police officer who left the force to look out for Mayor Dellas, he's tasked with cleaning up his boss's messes, and although the lengths to which he'll go to do so are extreme and abhorrent, the series gets past that, turning instead on the devotion and constancy between these two old friends, and the rapport between two distinguished actors. There's an end-of-an-era feel to Duel that's inescapably moving. The teleplay by Gérard Carré is imbued with nostalgia for "simpler" times, and Chesnais and Rabourdin's performances seem sympathetic to that notion: that the world is spinning too fast, and that decent men -- and reasonable discourse -- are being perverted and discarded in the process.
Valkyrien (Norway, Valkyrien): The past decade has seen more than its share of dystopian dramas, as films and TV series have plunged us into post-apocalyptic chaos. Valkyrien is the rare pre-apocalyptic drama, taking its cue from a lead character -- Leif Lien, chief technical officer of Norway's Civil Defense Unit -- who's a doomsday prepper and blogger, and placing his survivalism front and center. Lien is tasked with risk assessment and emergency management, and he's good at what he does, but his heightened awareness of the threats posed by climate change, terrorism, overpopulation, energy shortages and a shaky global economy have bled into his personal life and stoked his private fears. (As Leif, Pål Sverre Hagen -- one of Norway's most versatile and popular actors -- manages a double-edged performance that evokes both modesty and mania, a dictatorial manner tempered by basic decency.) Leif's doomsday preparations find an outlet when his doctor, Ravn Eikanger, approaches him, in desperate need of a laboratory to carry out private research; his wife, also a physician, and suffering degenerative illness, has fallen into a coma after her hospital prevented her from pursuing experimental testing that might have saved her. And so Leif -- who's built a significant network in Oslo's black economy -- sets up Ravn in an abandoned shelter beneath Valkyrien Square, and in exchange for the space and equipment to keep his wife alive and continue his research, convinces him to open a clinic -- both literally and figuratively underground -- catering to other societal outcasts, who are unable or unwilling to risk treatment in traditional settings. (Ravn is played by the great Sven Nordin, star of TV and film -- including the Oscar-nominated Best Foreign Film Elling -- and a forty-year member of Oslo's New Theatre.) Once creator Erik Richter Strand has put his pieces in place, Valkyrien becomes a character drama focused on a core four: in addition to Leif and Ravn, there's a second doctor at the clinic (a colleague of Ravn's wife, who's been equally mistreated by her superiors) and a reluctant bank robber who's running from authorities. They form the most improbable of blended families, but because the emotional beats are so strong, the dramatic detours (including several to explore their home lives) never feel random. It's only in the final third, when a couple of the interpersonal conflicts seem cursory and convenient, that you raise an eyebrow or two. But the game-changer at the close of the penultimate chapter -- and the satisfying way it's resolved -- ameliorates any concerns you might have had. Valkyrien is about four unlikely allies who've grown wary of a world defined by greed, corruption and inaction, and the (small) steps they take to correct it. In this pre-apocalyptic age, it's the rare ray of hope.
Enjoy reading about TV's best? Check out two similarly-styled posts: The Five Best TV Shows You Might Not Be Watching and My Top-Ten One-Season Wonders. Or if you enjoy detailed looks at hit shows, check out my write-ups of Cold Case Season 4, Gilmore Girls Season 7 (and the subsequent Netflix miniseries), Judging Amy Season 6, and countless essays devoted to seasons of the great nighttime soap Knots Landing, starting here. I also look back at Murder, She Wrote and pick out The 10 Best "Murder She Wrote" Mysteries -- not (necessarily) my top episodes, but the best whodunnits. Or if you have a preference for sitcoms, I delve into Rhoda Season 3, WKRP in Cincinnati Season 4 and Bewitched Season 2, pen an appreciation of the underrated Mike & Molly, and offer up some thoughts as to why The New Adventures of Old Christine took such a tumble in quality over its five seasons.