10 Best Foreign-language Miniseries of All Time

Updated June 11, 2024 • Staff

Miniseries are the best of both worlds. Think about it: they're cinematic and concise, like a slightly overlong film, but they're also episodic, filled with cliffhangers and special episodes, like a good old TV show. They're the best thing to put on if you want to binge something you can finish over the weekend (or evening, even!) and if you choose right, you can be sure it won't be time wasted. 

There are already many lists that compile the best mini-series of all time, so here we thought of narrowing the selection to just the foreign-language titles. If the success of shows like Squid Game and Money Heist prove anything, it's that there is a wealth of hidden gems in the non-English world of television. So below, we rounded up the very best you can find in a convenient four-to-eight-episode format, all of which are available to stream right now on various platforms.

 

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10.

The Good Mothers

With years of films depicting Italian crime syndicates, most focus on their leaders – the Dons, the Capos, and the Consiglieres. Most of them focus on the mafia’s men. However, in this series, it’s the women who are the stars of the show. Based on the novel of the same name, The Good Mothers is a compelling crime drama, focused on the women, not the men, of the 'Ndrangheta clan. It’s from their perspective we see the mafia. The masterful way the series unfolds makes it clear that their lives are constrained, that this dated way of life still prioritizes the family over their individual women. It makes it all the more satisfying when they’re given the opportunity to retaliate, and when they choose to take that opportunity. And it’s so much better knowing that this was real.

Our staff rating: 8/10
Genre: Crime, Drama
Actor: Barbara Chichiarelli, Francesco Colella, Gaia Girace, Marco Zingaro, Micaela Ramazzotti, Simona Distefano, Valentina Bellè
Director: Elisa Amoruso, Julian Jarrold
Rating: TV-MA

Free Watching Options:

Watch The Good Mothers on Hulu for free
9.

The Staircase

The latest addition to the murder mini-series genre is the incredible thriller “The Staircase.” It originally aired in 2004, but the producers took the same director and allowed him to add new episodes in 2018 to complete the story. 

The plot: A famous American novelist’s wife is found dead, and he is accused of killing her. His life comes under scrutiny as everyone asks whether she died in an accident or was murdered. If you liked their other hit, “Making a Murderer,” you will love this. You should also definitely check out “The Keepers” or Netflix’s binge-worthy crime documentary, “Evil Genius.”

Our staff rating: 8.2/10
Genre: Mystery
Actor: Jean-Xavier de Lestrade
Director: Jean-Xavier de Lestrade
Rating: TV-MA
8.

PLUTO

Reimagining a children’s classic as a mature serial killer mystery, PLUTO already had high expectations for its anime adaptation. The limited series adds an additional challenge, with only hour-long episodes dedicated to each of the series’ eight volumes, which follows not only Gesicht’s own investigation, but also in-depth stories of each of the remaining Great Robots. However, the anime, now showing on Netflix, is able to meet this challenge with its deep understanding of the source material. It’s not just a straightforward police procedural, or just futuristic dream of how AI and humans can co-exist. PLUTO is a robot series that strikes at the heart of what it means to be human.

Our staff rating: 8.2/10
Genre: Animation, Crime, Mystery, Sci-Fi & Fantasy
Actor: Hidenobu Kiuchi, Hiroki Yasumoto, Koichi Yamadera, Mamoru Miyano, Minori Suzuki, Rikiya Koyama, Shinshu Fuji, Toshihiko Seki, Yoko Hikasa
Rating: TV-14
7.

Barakamon

Featuring almost no external conflict for its protagonist to face, this story of a young, ill-tempered calligraphy artist—sent to recollect himself at an island community—makes the private process of soul-searching as inspiring as it is cathartic. It's a series that understands how one's art is informed almost subliminally by the smallest observations and interactions, transforming the act of personal expression into a tribute to the people and places who give this expression real weight. So even if Barakamon spends most of its time on quaint, everyday experiences without any heightened drama, you get the sense that something significant is shifting within Seishu with every day that passes. It's a warm, beautiful anime about some of the biggest existential questions, delivered in a modest, good-humored way.

Our staff rating: 8.4/10
Genre: Animation, Comedy, Drama, Family
Actor: Atsushi Ono, Daisuke Ono, Fumihiko Tachiki, Junichi Suwabe, Koki Uchiyama, Megumi Han, Nozomi Furuki, Rina Endou, Rumi Okubo, Suzuko Hara, Tanuki Sugino, Yoshino Takamori, Yuki Kaji
6.

Youth of May

Youth of May is exactly what it says on the tin. It’s a straightforward spring-set coming-of-age drama where young adults chase after their dreams, if they have any, and try to figure out what they want otherwise. Like plenty of other K-dramas, this usually involves a romance. But in between the ordinary romance, life strikes. Students fight for democracy, and at the time, the government cracked down on them brutally, but because the show spent time getting to know Myung-hee and Hui-tae, the consequences of these events make it all the more poignant. Youth of May reminds us of the humanity behind the brave students that fought for South Korea’s democracy, and the lives that have been tragically cut short for it.

Our staff rating: 8.4/10
Genre: Drama
Actor: Geum Sae-rok, Go Min-si, Lee Do-hyun, Lee Sang-yi, Oh Man-seok
5.

Phoenix: Eden17

Based on an arc of the classic Space Age manga, Phoenix: Eden17 reimagines the future of space exploration into a contemplation of human nature. While the show’s pacing speeds through its plot points within four episodes, each reveal feels gut wrenching, as Romi consistently has to deal with changes in Eden, Earth, and what happened to her loved ones. Modern-style animation is used, but inspired the original style of its time, creating a modernized version of the original mangaka Osamu Tezuka’s stunning images. But it’s the series’ ideas that make the show unique. Greed, betrayal, isolation, and human error causes all the disasters in this show’s universe, and even when you know it’s coming, it’s still hard not to feel the devastation the characters feel. Despite being based on a manga created decades ago, Phoenix: Eden17 still feels like an entirely singular work. Given modern animation, the ideas of the father of manga feel like it’s something never seen before.

Our staff rating: 8.5/10
Genre: Animation
Actor: Honoka Yoshida, Issey Ogata, Rie Miyazawa, Ryohei Kimura, Shintaro Asanuma, Yosuke Kubozuka
Rating: TV-MA

Free Watching Options:

Watch Phoenix: Eden17 on Hulu for free
4.

Cigarette Girl

Netflix is no stranger to adapting novels, nor to period dramas – Cigarette Girl is one of many, but it’s one from Indonesia that stands out due to its unique premise and excellent execution. Based on the novel by Ratih Kumala, the show is a slow-burn, smoldering period romance set amidst Indonesia’s kretek cigarette industry, booming in the 1960s, but it’s framed within the 2000s, where the man’s family uncovers his lost love before he dies. The alternating timelines keep the mystery fresh, as each new revelation uncovers what really happened between the two, as well as what would happen with the fate of their families. This intriguing structure, along with excellent writing, and stunning sets and costumes, make Cigarette Girl a compelling show to watch.

Our staff rating: 8.5/10
Genre: Drama
Actor: Ario Bayu, Arya Saloka, Dian Sastrowardoyo, Putri Marino, Sha Ine Febriyanti, Tissa Biani Azzahra
Director: Ifa Isfansyah, Kamila Andini
Rating: TV-14
3.

The Playlist

In the early 2000s, amid the rapid rise of online piracy and the consequent fall of paid music, tech genius Daniel Ek would find Spotify, a revolutionary streaming platform that served as a middle ground between user accessibility and artist rights. But even now, at its peak, Spotify’s success seems mystifying. How did they get away with providing free music to all? 

Enter The Playlist—an impressive attempt at answering that very question. In this fictionalized account, key players in Spotify’s success are given their own episode-long arc, starting with the visionary himself, Ek (played by Edvin Endre), followed by the artist, the coder, and the industry insider, to name a few. By employing multiple perspectives, each with its own cinematic style (a particular favorite is that of the lawyer's, the most experimental out of all the episodes), The Playlist manages to spin the technical and complicated story of Spotify’s origins into something fresh, dynamic, and addictive. Despite utilizing the Rashomon effect—risky but rewarding in this case—The Playlist rarely strays from its main point and, the result is a lean, well-rounded story that’s just as credible as it is heightened. 

Our staff rating: 8.6/10
Genre: Drama
Actor: Agnes Kittelsen, Christian Hillborg, Edvin Endre, Ella Rappich, Gizem Erdogan, Hanna Ardéhn, Joel Lützow, Severija Janušauskaitė, Sofia Karemyr, Ulf Stenberg, Valter Skarsgård
Rating: TV-MA

Free Watching Options:

Watch The Playlist on Hulu for free
2.

The Makanai: Cooking for the Maiko House

On the surface, The Makanai is a simple, slice-of-life show about food and friendship. While it is that, to be sure, it's also a substantial drama that tackles questions about art vs. love, and love vs. companionship, and career vs. purpose. Under the gentle guidance of showrunner Hirokazu Kore-eda (Still Walking, Shoplifters, Broker), who generously allows up-and-coming directors to take the helm on certain episodes, The Makanai feels at once light and hefty, comforting and challenging. We're seeing mundane events unfold before us as if we were bystanders, but we also understand that there is so much more happening than what meets the eye. A prolonged gaze, a lovingly prepped meal, an especially sharp wing-eye, all of these have much to say about the state of mind of these girls. 

It’s a supremely gentle and culturally rich show with a tender heart; a truly great watch on all accounts.

Our staff rating: 8.8/10
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Actor: Ai Hashimoto, Aju Makita, Arata Iura, Jyo Kairi, Kairi Jo, Kanji Furutachi, Keiko Matsuzaka, Keiko Toda, Lily Franky, Mayu Matsuoka, Momoko Fukuchi, Nana Mori, Natsuki Deguchi, Ryota Suzuki, Takako Tokiwa, Toshinori Omi, Win Morisaki, Yukiya Kitamura
Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda, Hiroshi Okuyama, Megumi Tsuno, Takuma Sato
Rating: TV-14
1.

1994

Have you finished Wild Wild Country and are up for another binge-worthy documentary? If so, 1994 might be a compelling option for you to consider. Released on Netflix for the 25th anniversary of the events in 2019, most of the story would be hard to believe if it wasn't… you know… based on facts and backed up by archival footage and interviews. As it often goes with documentaries, truth is stranger than fiction.

In 1994, the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, also known as the EZLN or the Zapatistas, declared war on the Mexican government. This happened after the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, was signed into law. Incumbent Mexican president Salinas (pictured above) selected prominent reformist presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio to become his heir. Just three months later, Colosio was shot in Tijuana on live television.

1994 is a rich, informative, and fascinating account of this violent and tumultuous year in Mexican history, featuring in-depth interviews with many of those pulling the strings at the time, including former president Salinas. As the people being interviewed point out, understanding the relevance of 1994 in Mexican politics will help you understand the country's political and economic landscape today.

Our staff rating: 9/10
Genre: Documentary
Actor: Carlos Salinas de Gortari, Rafael Sebastián Guillén Vicente
Director: Diego Enrique Osorno
Rating: N/A

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