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Need to Escape? Stream These 12 Great Foreign-Language TV Shows

Subtitled television shows have always been a great way to travel vicariously, and that particular thrill has grown exponentially in a time of homebound self-containment.

Another advantage is that subtitles demand a single-minded focus on the show. In other words, you can’t multitask with one eye on the action and the other checking the news. Right now, taking a mental break is a good thing.

The recommendations below offer a mix of stylish action, political and family dramas, white-knuckle thrillers, soothing small-screen balms and shows that are just plain fun. The only thing they share: None are in English.

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Credit...Etienne Chognard/CCSP

Stream it on Hulu; rent it on Amazon (all streaming information subject to change).

Few historical series are as conceptually ambitious as this French saga, which manages to be intimate and sprawling as it looks at World War II through a tight lens on a small village. Each season covers a year, from 1939 to the liberation in 1945, and its consequences, and we follow what happens to a doctor and his wife, the cops, the teachers, the businessmen and other members of the local social, political and economical establishment as they try to survive. Moral ambiguity reigns, and the series makes viewers ask themselves uncomfortable questions. Oh, and if you think things are looking up when the Resistance starts fighting back, watch out for some startling revenge-minded acts.

Stream it on Netflix.

This opulent period series explores the underbelly of the “divine decadence” extolled by Sally Bowles in “Cabaret.” The dizzying story starts off in the German capital in 1929 and threads procedural elements (by way of the drug-addicted, post-traumatic-stress-suffering Inspector Gereon Rath, portrayed by Volker Bruch) into political intrigue (the Nazis are on the rise, aided by powerful industrialists). The show ricochets between grimy tenements and extravagant nightclubs, intimate relationship plots and big-picture social changes. And it never looks less than fantastic, with a spellbinding reconstruction of a city teetering on the brink of the abyss.

Rent or buy it on Google Play, iTunes and YouTube.

Fans of “The West Wing” — and anybody with a taste for political shows undergirded by sophisticated, thoughtful human drama — should head to this essential Danish series, stat. Over three seasons, the show tracks Birgitte Nyborg (the formidable Sidse Babett Knudsen) as she becomes Prime Minister of Denmark and tries to balance backbiting political factions, the national interest, and an increasingly rocky domestic life. What may most astonish American viewers, however, is that Birgitte bikes to the office. Look for Pilou Asbaek (Euron Greyjoy on “Game of Thrones”) as the tormented spin doctor Kasper Juul.

(When you are done with “Borgen,” check out two Netflix series from Borgen’s creator, Adam Price — Denmark’s answer to David Simon. “Herrens Veje”/“Ride Upon the Storm” is a taut family drama in which Lars Mikkelsen plays a Lutheran minister, while “Ragnarok” mixes Norse mythology, a superpowered teenager and environmental activism.)

Stream it on Netflix.

You know this series takes place outside Hollywood because it is about movie agents who care about their clients’ well-being — and the artistic value of their projects. Think of this French comedy series as the anti-“Entourage”: frothy, funny, refreshingly devoid of cynicism and with great female roles — chief among them Andréa (Camille Cottin), a witty power lesbian. Set in Paris, each episode also features A-list guest stars playing satirical versions of themselves — the episodes involving Juliette Binoche, Nathalie Baye, Isabelle Adjani and Isabelle Huppert are especially fun.

Stream it on Netflix.

The teenage Carole and Tuesday are a singer-songwriter duo trying to make it in a music industry where songs are mostly written by artificial intelligence; the show is set on Mars, 50 years from now. Directed by Shinichiro Watanabe (“Cowboy Bebop,” which is available on Hulu), this very funny anime series is a constantly inventive delight. This Mars is both exotic (gadgets abound) and familiar (Instagram and Teen Vogue still exist), and it’s a perfect frame for the friendship between the women, which is the show’s beating heart. Bonus: The tunes (in English) are total ear worms — you may watch the first season’s end credits every time just so you can hear “Hold Me Now” again and again.

Stream it on Netflix.

If anything can distract from the news, it’s this German science-fiction series. The plot is so convoluted that it requires undivided attention — and possibly one of the many character maps to be found on the internet. This sounds daunting, but fear not: “Dark” exerts a powerful pull once you enter its mazelike structure. Set in a world where time travel is possible through a wormhole located in a tunnel, the action hopscotches between 1953, 1986 and 2019 (that’s just for starters). What’s most impressive is the complexity of the storytelling as we follow a small town’s families across generations, and a cosmic-level big picture eventually emerges.

Stream it on Netflix.

Let’s face it: A lot of zombie fare tends to look a little cheap. But this period epic, set in 16th-century Korea, is positively lavish. The costumes are eye-poppingly beautiful; the crowd scenes actually feel dense; and the vast landscapes are varied and sumptuously photographed. Matching those high production values is an ambitious tale of political intrigue. The king has become a zombie, a fact that’s kept secret by a court cabal led by a diabolical minister (Ryu Seung-ryong). The heroic crown prince (Ju Ji-hoon) must simultaneously fight for his right to the throne and prevent the spread of the zombie epidemic. Season 1 ended with a memorable plot twist; fortunately Season 2 just dropped.

Stream it on Netflix.

When many series strut like the TV equivalent of EDM or stadium rock, this humane, slightly melancholy Japanese series is more like chamber music. It is as intimate as its setting, a tiny restaurant with just a few counter seats, which is open from midnight to 7 a.m. The dispassionate chef, called simply the Master (Kaoru Kobayashi), quietly feeds his night-owl clients while lending a sympathetic ear and occasionally imparting some advice. Mostly, the Master is a witness to myriad stories, some quirky and other seemingly banal, all of them affecting. The show has been compared to “High Maintenance,” though its touch is gentler. Each of the self-contained episodes, which average 24 minutes, make for a soothing nightcap.

Stream it on Netflix.

This Spanish import is a worldwide phenomenon, and it’s easy to see why: Time just flies when you start watching. Divided into three parts rather than seasons (Netflix recut the episodes after they were broadcast in Spain), the show is about heists. Of money. The audacious schemes are hatched by a cooler-than-cool group of thieves — “Oceano Once,” anyone? — and the show always keeps the pedal to the metal. Part 4 drops on April 3.

Stream it on Netflix.

Based on an original concept by the best-selling Norwegian crime novelist Jo Nesbo, “Occupied” envisions a scenario in which Norway decides to abandon fossil fuels in favor of renewable energy, prompting Russia to launch a soft invasion and take control of its oil and gas production. The series brings up hot-button issues and introduces morally ambiguous characters while incorporating gripping cloak-and-dagger elements — members of an anti-Russian resistance group communicate through an online video game, for instance. Warning: Season 2 flags at times, but Season 3 rebounds with addictive vigor, so stick with it.

Stream it on Hulu; rent or buy it on Amazon and iTunes.

There is something special about Israeli action series — they tend to be smarter and more complex than American productions while still providing seat-of-the-pants action. And “Prisoners of War” is pretty much the ne plus ultra of the genre. Oh heck, it’s one of the best series you’ll ever see, regardless of origin or genre. “Prisoners of War” inspired the initial premise of “Homeland,” as Season 1 focused on the difficult homecoming of two Israeli soldiers who had been held hostage for a whopping 17 years. The show does not shy from violence (which never feels gratuitous), but it is best at exploring murky interpersonal waters. The first season is mostly a family drama — both the men and their loved ones have irremediably changed over the years — while the second adds white-knuckle suspense without losing psychological integrity.

Stream it on Hulu; rent or buy it on Amazon.

The procedural field is a crowded one, but this French series easily stands out. Over the course of seven seasons (the first six of which are available in the United States), it has proved to be a fascinating hybrid of “Prime Suspect” and “The Wire,” led by the tormented Capt. Laure Berthaud (Caroline Proust), the leader of a tightly knit squad in a gritty Parisian neighborhood. The main cast of characters also includes a ruthless defense lawyer (Audrey Fleurot), an honorable judge (Philippe Duclos) and a dashing prosecutor (Grégory Fitoussi). While each season follows a stand-alone case, the best part of “Spiral” is the way the characters evolve over the years, always straddling a thin line between legal and illegal, expedient and principled, good and bad.

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