Roundup

FP’s Holiday Movie, TV, and Podcast Recommendations

Globe-trotting diversions from us to you.

reccomends-best-of-holiday-recs-tv-movies
JON BENEDICT FOR FOREIGN POLICY

Whether you’re looking for a TV show to watch with the family around the Christmas tree, a movie to stream while flying overseas to visit friends, or a podcast to listen to while you’re frantically cleaning the house before your mother-in-law arrives, here’s a great list of recommendations from FP staff and contributors to keep you entertained throughout the holidays.


AlRawabi School for Girls (TV)
Available on Netflix

When Netflix released its first Arabic-language original series, Jinn, in 2019, it provoked an uproar—and even a rare political scandal—in Jordan, where it was filmed and produced. The show briefly depicted teenagers kissing and drinking alcohol, and many Jordanians felt these scenes tarnished their country’s image. The irony is Jinn made few waves abroad. Although the show, in many ways, marked a milestone for Arab media, it wallowed in drab mediocrity. The acting was subpar and the narrative woefully predictable.

Whether you’re looking for a TV show to watch with the family around the Christmas tree, a movie to stream while flying overseas to visit friends, or a podcast to listen to while you’re frantically cleaning the house before your mother-in-law arrives, here’s a great list of recommendations from FP staff and contributors to keep you entertained throughout the holidays.


AlRawabi School for Girls (TV)
Available on Netflix

When Netflix released its first Arabic-language original series, Jinn, in 2019, it provoked an uproar—and even a rare political scandal—in Jordan, where it was filmed and produced. The show briefly depicted teenagers kissing and drinking alcohol, and many Jordanians felt these scenes tarnished their country’s image. The irony is Jinn made few waves abroad. Although the show, in many ways, marked a milestone for Arab media, it wallowed in drab mediocrity. The acting was subpar and the narrative woefully predictable.

It was with great trepidation, then, that I watched Netflix’s second Jordanian production, AlRawabi School for Girls, when it was released in August. Like Jinn, AlRawabi School for Girls is a teen drama set at an elite Amman high school, where rich kids divorced from their country’s mainstream speak in a mix of Arabic and English. Unlike Jinn, it is actually good.

The universe at al-Rawabi is painfully pink. From the first minute, the color is everywhere: on the school’s walls, uniforms, and notebooks. When a triad of teenage bullies—and the nerdy girl they terrorize—emerge against this backdrop, the show appears to be a Levantine spin on Mean Girls. But it is so much more—in all the worst ways.

Throughout its six, hourlong episodes, the girls of al-Rawabi School escalate their feud by wielding patriarchal violence against one another. What begins with the seemingly trivial ends with tragedy. At this single-gender school, male characters are secondary. So the series becomes a stunning condemnation of misogyny’s capacity—both internalized and societal—to permeate, define, and destroy women’s relationships and spaces. The color pink takes on very dark undertones.

When I finished watching AlRawabi School for Girls, I had a pit in my stomach. The show’s gravity made the controversy surrounding Jinn seem all the more ludicrous. It does not feature any kissing or alcohol, but it is a far more explicit rebuke of the rigid norms undergirding Jordanian society. And though its reception has also been fraught, AlRawabi School for Girls seems to at least have planted a seed for dialogue—if not genuine cultural change.

—Allison Meakem


Years and Years (TV)
Available on HBO Max, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, and others

Embrace the dystopian nature of today’s world with Years and Years, a short series that predicted today’s insanity three years before it began. And when I say predicted, I mean aired the events of 2021 with the preciseness only a time traveler could have. Starting in 2019, the show follows a British family over a span of 15 years as they face everything including the rise of far-right populist governments, a massive migrant crisis, a surge in gender-identity questions, and (of course) a global pandemic. With its stunning accuracy and heart-wrenching relationships, I wouldn’t be shocked if these six episodes predict 2022 as well.

Alexandra Sharp


Simple as Water (movie)
Available on HBO Max and Hulu

Filmed over five years in five separate countries, Simple as Water by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Megan Mylan chronicles the stories of four families navigating the repercussions of Syria’s civil war, traveling with them on their journey to find a new sense of belonging. I didn’t expect to be transfixed by these characters’ lives. But just as she did with her previous documentaries, Smile Pinki and Lost Boys of Sudan, Mylan powerfully weaves humble and mundane everyday acts into touching stories of resilience: a mother’s love, a brother’s sense of duty to protect his siblings, and the ties that bind families together during times of adversity.

—Elise Labott


Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (TV)
Available on Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, and others

For all my fellow Marvel fans who wonder where today’s tech world might lead us, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is for you. This seven-season series follows a group of agents battling international (and intergalactic) forces even the Avengers can’t handle. As they face pushback from fascist regimes and U.N. bodies, all while grappling with artificial intelligence, hacking networks, and medical experimentation, an ethical dilemma akin to today’s arises—specifically, if technological advancement will truly better society.

Alexandra Sharp


Fauda (TV)
Available on Netflix

Many of us are eagerly awaiting the next season of Fauda (literally “chaos” in Arabic), an Israeli television series shot entirely on location in various parts of Israel. Focused on the lives and work of an elite Israeli counterterrorism unit, it has a snatched-from-the headlines quality. All the characters in this show are full-blooded and carefully fleshed out, ranging from the principal brooding protagonist, Doron Kavillio, to Nurit, the sole female member of the team. Some viewers have, given the fraught subject of the series, invariably taken issue with the politics surrounding it. That aside, from the standpoint of storytelling and cinematic skill, the series is simply spellbinding.

—Sumit Ganguly


Happiness (TV)
Available on tvN (South Korea), Rakuten Viki (United States), and others depending on region

Did you enjoy Netflix’s Squid Game and want to dive deeper into South Korea’s rich dystopian genre? Currently airing on tvN (South Korea), Happiness is an action thriller set in a post-coronavirus future. Residents of a newly constructed apartment building are sealed off from the outside world when a new sickness begins spreading floor by floor. In a twist reminiscent of Snowpiercer, the residents find themselves battling not only their diseased, blood-crazed neighbors but the class distinctions and physical barriers separating the upper and lower floors, owners and renters. Want even more Korean dystopia with a zombie-monster flavor? Check out Dark Hole, Sweet Home, or Kingdom.

—Shannon Schweitzer


Trese (TV)
Available on Netflix

Philippine Campfire Stories (podcast)
Available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Player FM, and others

Filipino folklore had a global moment this year with the release of Netflix’s original anime series Trese, based on the Filipino komik of the same name. An urban fantasy noir, Trese follows Alexandra Trese, a detective and warrior shaman tasked with maintaining peace between the human and supernatural worlds—a tough job when the mayor of Manila is in bed with flesh-eating aswangs. After bingeing Trese, be sure to check out Philippine Campfire Stories; although most of its episodes are in Tagalog, a few have been retold in English, including “Tinyente Gimo and the Town of Aswang,” the urban legend that inspired one of the best episodes in the cult classic Filipino horror anthology Shake, Rattle & Roll.

—Shannon Schweitzer


Circumpolar Waves (podcast)
Available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Buzzsprout, and others

In the last few years, the stories and perspectives of Indigenous peoples have moved toward the global center stage. But while the media has a newfound focus on the sociocultural issues impacting Indigenous people, it’s harder still to find media that comes straight from the communities themselves.

Enter Circumpolar Waves. If you listen past the grainy audio quality of some of its episodes, this Inuit-made podcast offers in-depth discussions and first-hand testimonies of Indigenous experts and political leaders from across the Inuit diaspora—particularly as their stories pertain to the political goings-on of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC). For those unfamiliar with the body, the ICC is a nongovernmental organization that represents more than 18,000 Indigenous people from across the United States, Canada, Russia, Greenland, and Chukotka and has observer or participant status on a number of international bodies from the United Nations to the Arctic Council.

In their words, the ICC “brings the Inuit voice to the international arena,” advocating within and outside of international bodies for such things as firmer ethics in climate mitigation, resurged respect and dignity for Indigenous treaties and territories, and greater recognition of Indigenous elders who hold knowledge that can help protect the Arctic region’s fragile flora and fauna.

As a fun bonus, each monthly 30- to 45-minute episode begins and ends with a musical segment of Inuit throat-singing, many of which are performed by Canadian Inuit throat-boxing artist Nelson Tagoona.

—Kelly Kimball


Patriot (TV)
Available on Amazon Prime Video

It is a great tragedy of modern entertainment that Homeland was allowed to limp into its eighth season while the sorely underrated Patriot only got to grace our screens for two seasons. Actor Michael Dorman carries this show as its dour protagonist: a broken CIA operative sent undercover in a Wisconsin-based industrial pipe company to infiltrate Iran, all to stop a hard-liner from coming to power in the next presidential election.

Like a hyper-stylized In The Loop, this work of foreign-policy high farce is at times absurd, heartbreaking, deeply funny, and (considering the history of the CIA’s interventions—that we know about) more realistic than the flag-waving bunk that too often forms the backbone of national security-focused entertainment.

Dorman’s straight man gives the cast’s stacked array of character actors room to shine, with star turns from Lost’s Terry O’Quinn as Dorman’s elite spook father, Michael Chernus as a do-nothing congressman-turned-attaché, and Kurtwood Smith as a company executive suspicious of our hero’s pipe industry bona fides. Season two slows down the action even further but keeps the pitch-dark humor, pulling on the previous season’s threads to a breaking point. By the end, you will wonder two things: How did this get made, and who stopped a third season?

—Colm Quinn


Casefile (podcast)
Available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, and others 

At this point, “true crime” is a genre more than a description, but Australian podcast Casefile breaks the mold. For a start, there’s a script, which means no loose banter over dead bodies. It’s also deeply reported, drawing on news accounts, interviews, and police records to piece together some of the darkest episodes in Australian history.

The host is an anonymous Australian baritone. We don’t think of the Aussie bloke as a paragon of sensitivity, but this one’s determined detachment succeeds in dodging the issue of appropriate emotional registers. Casefile has been running for five years and recently expanded its scope to crimes committed outside Australia. Still, it’s the treatment of local cases—such as the murders in Bowraville, covered this year—that makes it authoritative.

Some episodes delve into crimes that led to major policy reforms, such as the 1996 massacre at Port Arthur. In the wake of those killings, then-Australian Prime Minister John Howard implemented reforms that made Australia the gold standard for gun safety for many years. In a tradition dating back to Picnic at Hanging Rock and beyond, Casefile also highlights how the Australian landscape is a dangerous antagonist. Cars break down in the desert, late-night fishing trips go wrong, and forest fires burn out of control.

—Amelia Lester


Seinfeld (TV)
Available on Netflix, Google Play, Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, and others

The collected series of classic television show Seinfeld is now on Netflix, and I’ve been binging it with my wife after the kids are in bed.

But wait, this is an FP list—what does a 1990s New York City sitcom about a middle-aged comedian and his group of friends’ relentless focus on the minutiae of life have anything to do with national security, international relations, etc.?

Fair question! I could point to the occasional intrusions of global politics. (“Ukraine is game to you?”) But the deeper answer has to do with everything that’s not in the frame: the global peace and prosperity that are the precondition of the show’s unremitting neuroticism. And I don’t mean that pejoratively.

Don’t we all deserve the freedom to obsess about minor annoyances? To be forced to gather our energy for a struggle with Soup Nazis rather than real Nazis? Seen in that way, Jerry Seinfeld is a sort of moral-political prophet, offering revelations on the end of history by way of puffy shirts and chocolate babka. Call it the book of Yada Yada Yada.

—Cameron Abadi


Red Penguins (movie)
Available on Hulu, Google Play, Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, and others

Director Gabe Polsky’s 2019 documentary about CSKA Moscow, Red Penguins, is a compelling watch even for non-hockey fans—and a powerful exposé of Western cowboy capitalism in the dying Soviet Union.

CSKA Moscow (also known as the Red Army Club) was one of the world’s absolute best ice hockey teams, just as the Soviet national team was among the world’s best during the Cold War. But as the Soviet Union collapsed, the club descended into financial difficulties. The Pittsburgh Penguins spotted an opportunity: They bought a significant stake in the club and sent a marketing manager from New York City to deliver American-style pizazz.

That manager, Steven Warshaw, introduced strippers and lots of beer to CSKA Moscow’s games. Sure, such crude tricks brought in spectators and money, but imagine how the players felt about having to perform their masterful strategy-on-ice surrounded by strippers and beer-slurping crowds. Indeed, imagine how their many fans and the rest of Russia felt. The same cowboy capitalism, of course, soon entered the whole country. The humiliation of it doesn’t excuse Russia’s aggression toward the West today—but it helps explain why Russia’s leadership seems intent on harming the West.

—Elisabeth Braw


Kim’s Convenience (TV)
Available on Netflix and Amazon Prime Video

I’m a sucker for immigrant stories and Canada, which is why I was drawn to Kim’s Convenience. Set in Toronto, the show tells the story of the Kims, a Korean Canadian family who runs a small store called Kim’s Convenience

The series is more lighthearted than laugh out loud, though Paul Sun-Hyung Lee as Mr. Kim is hilarious. Put him up there with actors John Candy, Eugene Levy, and Catherine O’Hara as great gifts from the United States’ friends to the north. (Although in Lee’s case, he comes to Canada via South Korea.) The series plumbs familiar issues about the pull and tension between traditional parents and assimilated children, historical memory (South Korea remains the center of Mr. Kim’s worldview), and the way Korean Canadians navigate and relate to the polyglot cultural world of Canada’s largest city.

Even though all these themes are familiar, the series initially presented them in ways that seemed sophisticated and fun. Yet the show ran into controversy during its five seasons over the lead actors’ criticisms of an almost entirely white writers’ room that engaged in inauthentic and crude stereotyping of the Korean Canadian community. This was particularly the case after the show’s Korean originator was ousted. The actors had a point. There were episodes that were decidedly cringeworthy.

The controversy raises an important question: Can the show still be a valuable contribution despite these problems because it was the first to feature a storyline about South Koreans in North America and, importantly, because it is a cautionary tale for what can go wrong when writers and producers value laughs over authenticity?

—Steven Cook


Snowpiercer (movie)
Available on Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, Vudu, and others

Fans of the dystopian Netflix hit series Squid Game might enjoy Snowpiercer, a 2013 film that blends the climate crisis’s apocalyptic nature with class rebellion. After a failed climate engineering experiment transforms the planet into an uninhabitable frozen tundra, the only remaining survivors live on a powerful—and ruthlessly segregated—train that winds around the world.

What ensues is a treacherous journey to overturn the system, one that brings viewers through opulent railway cars and into conflict with murderous school teachers. Directed by Bong Joon-ho, the same mind behind the 2019 film Parasite, Snowpiercer is in equal parts horrifying, absurd, and darkly funny. Viewers are left with a stark question: Who has the power to shape the future—and who will bear the brunt of their mistakes?

—Christina Lu


Below Deck Mediterranean (TV)
Available on Peacock, Hulu, Sling TV, and others

Just as Rome and Carthage struggled for control of the seas to define the fate of their empires in ancient Europe, there is another, equally vicious melodrama playing out on the Mediterranean today. Below Deck Mediterranean is a top-tier documentary series (or, depending on how you prefer to label things, a super-addictive, trashy Bravo reality TV show) following the messy, drama-filled lives of crew members aboard a luxury super yacht the world’s ultra rich charter to float around picturesque Mediterranean rivieras.

Okay, look, I get it. Award-winning foreign dramas and documentaries are sophisticated and thought-provoking and cool and perfect for FP readers. But it’s been a long year, and our brains need a break. Enter the mindless bliss of Below Deck Mediterranean: alcohol-fueled drama, messy love triangles, and heated fights between overworked immature crew members—all while the cameras are rolling.

Plus, what better way to study one of the most pressing socioeconomic issues of our era—the yawning gap between the ultra rich and the rest of us—than by binge-watching a reality TV show about how those ultra rich are taking over the Mediterranean faster than Hanno’s Carthaginian fleet during the First Punic War?

—Robbie Gramer

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