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A Global Guide To Binge-worthy TV For The Pandemic

Top to bottom: must-watch TV shows that people are binge-watching around the world: <em>The Bad Kids</em> in China, <em>Pasión de Gavilanes </em>in Colombia, and <em>Tehran</em> in Israel.
Youtube/ Screenshots by NPR
Top to bottom: must-watch TV shows that people are binge-watching around the world: The Bad Kids in China, Pasión de Gavilanes in Colombia, and Tehran in Israel.

What TV are you bingeing these days?

It's a question you've probably been asked a lot — and asked others — five months into the pandemic. Movies are shut. Theater is on hold. So there's not much else to do. I myself can't stop watching Korean dramas (just finished Crash Landing On You) and reruns of Gossip Girl on Netflix.

Our blog covers the globe, so we were curious — what shows are people in other countries obsessed about in this pandemic? We asked reporters in nine countries to find out. — Malaka Gharib

Argentina: Time travel and missing kids in a German drama

In Argentina, people are pondering existential questions. What is the meaning of life? What is time? And it's not just because of the pandemic. Can it be because nearly everyone is watching the Netflix series Dark?

The suspenseful show from Germany, set in the town of Winden in the present day, explores time travel and the philosophical issues related to it. Members of four families try to discover the reason why children have mysteriously disappeared by heading to the past and future.

"I could have a lot of debates [around these existential topics] thanks to this show," says Maria Pirsch, a 30-year-old Dark fan and producer and photographer. She studied physics for a time and is interested in the idea of time travel.

Launched in 2017, Dark is now in its third season. The latest installment was released on June 27 in Argentina — and some fans were so excited they watched it at 4 a.m. when it premiered. "I do not need sleep, I need answers," wrote someone on Twitter.

Julia Pujol, a technician in a pathology laboratory, confesses that when Season 3 came out she watched two episodes and, after sleeping a little, watched the remaining six in a row. And like many fans stuck home in the pandemic, she found the quarantine to be a good excuse to watch the first two seasons over again.

Dark is available in the U.S. on Netflix.

Anita Pouchard Serra is a photojournalist based in Argentina.

India: An iconic '80s show with a demon king and a kidnapped wife

Ramayan, a series based on Hindu mythology, tells the story of Lord Ram as he goes into exile, fights the demon king Ravan who kidnapped his wife — then finally returns to his hometown Ayodhya to be crowned king.

That's the plot of an iconic show that first aired in 1987 — when TV sets weren't common in India and neighbors would make a pilgrimage to the nearest home with TV to watch.

During the pandemic, fans demanded its return and state-run TV channel Doordarshan National (DD National) obliged.

DD National began re-telecasting Ramayan on March 28. That week, the channel's viewership jumped to 545 million from about 9 million in January.

Social media is now full of nostalgic posts from people reliving their childhood memories — many with their own kids this time. Ramayan is now streaming on Disney-owned Hotstar.

Sushmita Pathak is a producer for NPR in Mumbai.

Colombia: A telenovela about 3 brothers out for revenge

In Colombia, telenovela addicts are binge-watching an old favorite, Pasión de Gavilanes, which has made a comeback 17 years after it originally aired.

The TV network Caracol says it is re-running the Colombian telenovela — the second-most watched show in its history — during lockdown at its audience's request, given that recordings of current shows are on pause due to the pandemic.

Over 188 episodes, Pasión de Gavilanes tells the story of three brothers looking to avenge the suicide of their sister, Libia Reyes. She was in a relationship with a wealthy married man named Bernardo Elizondo and got pregnant. Then he died. She went to his family to tell them that she was having his baby. And after Elizondo's wife humiliated her, she threw herself off a bridge.

The Reyes brothers descend upon the Elizondo household posing as bricklayers. Their plan is to seduce Elizondo's three daughters as payback for their sister's death.

María Fernanda Martínez, 24, says she is re-watching the novela with her mother during lockdown out of "pure and simple nostalgia."

Hilda Cárdenas Vergara, 57, who watched the novela in its heyday, enjoys reliving the experience with her family during lockdown. "There's not one boring episode," she told NPR.

But not everyone feels the same. Some Twitter users say the storyline is classist, as Gabriela, the wife of late Elizondo, punishes her wealthy daughters for falling in love with working class men. Others say it glorifies physical and verbal violence against women.

Pasión de Gavilanes is currently leading national TV ratings and is the most-watched show on Colombian Netflix. It's also available for streaming in Spanish on U.S. Netflix.

Sophie Foggin is a journalist based in Medellin, Colombia, covering politics, human rights, history and justice in Latin America.

Kenya: Rich man falls for poor woman — but he has another lover

One of the most-watched TV shows in Kenya during the pandemic is Maria, a 30-minute Kenyan drama that revolves around the life of Luwi, the youngest son of a wealthy family. Luwi falls in love with gorgeous — and poor — Maria. Only he has another lover, and when she finds out, things get complicated.

Even before COVID-19 came along, the Swahili-language drama was one of the most popular TV shows in the country, according to the GeoPoll Audience Measurement Report, which measures viewership. In fact, when the actor Brian Ogana, who plays Luwi, visited a primary school in Kibera in March, hooting and hollering young fans could barely contain their excitement.

And people love Yasmin Said, the actress who plays Maria. "You have bewitched my family! As from 6 p.m., people in this family run up and down to prepare so as not to miss you in action. Congratulations," wrote one person on Twitter.

New episodes continue to air throughout the pandemic. The half-hour show is broadcast from Monday to Friday at 7:30 p.m., with reruns on Saturday from 4-6 p.m. There are about 150 episodes to date.

The show has been one of Julia Anyango's favorite ways to pass time since the pandemic began. A teacher by profession, living in the Korogocho slums in Nairobi, she's had to stop work due to school closures.

Her favorite character is Maria: "She gives the rich family problems because she is coming from a ghetto life," Anyango says.

Some of the episodes can be found on YouTube.

Thomas Bwire is a co-founder and editor at Habari Kibra, a news hub that focuses on reporting stories from the Kibera community.

Israel: Spies, lovers and Iran's nuclear reactor are part of the plot

The hot new binge-watch in Israel is Tehran, an Israeli spy thriller about Israel's covert war with its archenemy Iran. A young Mossad agent goes on her first mission to her home city of Tehran to help Israel take out an Iranian nuclear reactor, but the mission goes awry and she ends up falling in love with an Iranian activist who opposes the regime.

The show is based on real-life tensions between the Jewish state and the Islamic republic's rulers. It appears to be the first popular Israeli TV series to focus on contemporary Iran. Israel and Iran have hostile relations and Iran bans Israelis from visiting. So there's a lot of curiosity.

The main Iranian character is portrayed by Iranian-born actor Shervin Alenabi. Based in London, he says his participation in the show is controversial in Iran — and it means he may not be able to travel back to the country and see his family because Iran strictly forbids interaction with Israel.

The 8-episode show, with each episode about 45 minutes long, premiered on June 22 on Israel's public TV broadcaster Kan. The show is in Hebrew, Farsi and English with Hebrew subtitles.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.

China: Kids solve a double homicide

China is enthralled by The Bad Kids, a Chinese thriller TV drama that tells the tale of three young children who decide to take justice into their own hands after they accidentally capture on camera a cliffside double homicide. In their pursuit of the truth, the kids are caught up in revenge and blackmail.

It's filled with thrilling twists and turns: it obfuscates ethical boundaries for its characters and tests its viewers' moral compass.

The 12-episode series premiered on the Chinese streaming platform iQIYI on June 16. And it's won over China's demanding viewers — it received a 8.9/10 rating on the notoriously hard-to-please review site Douban. Even The People's Daily, the official Communist Party paper, published an article praising the show for being "an exemplar of high-quality short series."

Chinese drama shows tend to favor interminable plot lines (The Story of Yanxi Palace, another wildly popular TV series from two summers ago, required serious commitment to finish all 75 episodes.) But most important, the show is seen as the herald of a new age in Chinese television, one that expands beyond traditional genres like period pieces, family drama and the Sino-Japanese War.

Amy Cheng is a producer for NPR in Beijing.

Senegal: Love affairs — and lots of controversy

Senegal's TV series Infidéles -- or "unfaithful" in French — is dripping with drama. Within the first few minutes of the first episode, audiences were introduced to half a dozen characters and a few different entanglements. A wife and husband dispute over social media posts, but quickly make up; one woman confides to her male friend that her boyfriend — their mutual friend — is physically abusing her; and two friends pressure a third friend who prefers to wear the hijab to dress more provocatively and study less.

The series, which premiered on July 18 on YouTube and Senegalese TV channel SenTV, airs every Wednesday and Friday. And it has both fans and detractors.

In the country of 16 million, the YouTube videos get well over 1.5 million views, but most people prefer to watch it on TV to watch it as it airs, says Senegalese cultural critic Aboubacar Demba Cissokho. "People are watching it on TV so that afterward on Facebook or WhatsApp they can engage in the reactions that are happening," he says.

The show has also created controversy. After a character with the same name as the mother of a historic Muslim leader in the country – Mame Diarra — was portrayed in a scene that discussed same-sex relations (which are outlawed in Senegal), a leader of a local conservative nonprofit organization, Jaamra, publicly denounced the name choice.

On the other hand, says Cissokho, the episode's controversy highlights the contentious LGBT issues in the country. "People are already talking about these issues, but the debate becomes a public debate, and it takes on another dimension when it's portrayed on television."

Ricci Shryock is a freelance photographer and journalist based in Dakar, Senegal. Follow her on Instagram at @ricci_s.

Pakistan: They call it 'The Muslim Game Of Thrones'

In Pakistan, the must-watch show is a wildly popular Turkish drama that local media call "The Muslim Game of Thrones."

Resurrection: Ertugrul dramatizes the story of the man it's named for — the father of the founder of the Ottoman Empire. It was the last sweeping Muslim empire, ruling swathes of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa for more than 600 years, falling apart in the aftermath of World War I.

The 5-season series, which first premiered on the Turkish channel TRT 1 in 2014, has drama, heroes and heroines and chaste romance with Muslim characters at its center. That's key to its popularity in Pakistan, a Muslim-majority country of more than 200 million people, where it's seen as gripping, wholesome family fare. And it lets Pakistanis indulge in nostalgia for the glories of the Muslim past.

"What has affected me most about [Etrugrul] the way he united the entire tribe and formed the Ottoman Empire," says Muhammad Shahzad Cheema to local newspaper Dawn. He is such a fan that he arranged for a statue of the character of Ertugrul from the show to be erected in his Lahore housing community in June.

Prime Minister Imran Khan, a playboy-turned-conservative, is also a fan. He recommended Pakistanis watch the show to connect to their Muslim roots.

The show isn't without its critics. In an op-ed for Dawn, liberal writer Pervez Hoodbhoy, described it as "frankly propagandistic" and said the violence inflicted by the Muslim heroes "suggests the way forward is through the sword."

Diaa Hadid is NPR's international correspondent in Islamabad.

South Africa: Kidnapped At Birth, Found 17 Years Later

When a newborn named Zephany Nurse was kidnapped from beside her mother's bed in a Cape Town hospital in 1997, the case gripped South Africa. And then the trail went cold. That is, until 17 years later, when the Nurses' younger daughter spotted a girl who bore an uncanny resemblance to her at her new high school, and a DNA test proved they were sisters.

Zephany Nurse's stranger-than-fiction story is now the basis of a popular South African Netflix series, Blood & Water. The series turns up the glamor on the Nurses' story by giving it the Gossip Girl treatment, with the fictional retelling set against the backdrop of an ivy-covered Cape Town prep school whose students come home to waterfront mansions and spend their weekends drinking cocktails at beachside hotels.

For South Africans, the show is an escapist fantasy, but for a country used to wincing through Western retellings of their stories (think Morgan Freeman's strangely American-accented Nelson Mandela in Invictus) it's also a reversal of roles. "I've seen a lot of excitement... in the States, to see young Black kids be represented," Ama Qamata, the show's lead, told Elle.

Blood & Water, only the second Netflix original series from Africa, has been streaming globally on the platform since May and was renewed for a second season.

Ryan Lenora Brown is a reporter based in Johannesburg, South Africa. She writes frequently about women, migration and pop culture.

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