If you’re feeling the creeping symptoms of cabin fever, you’re not the only one. As I continue to avoid crowds and cancel vacation plans during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, there are only so many Zoom parties I can handle before getting tired of someone forgetting to mute their mic or the internet connection constantly dropping out.
Of course, there is an absurd amount of prestige television to watch these days to help pass the time, but finding the perfect show to binge while in Japan can be annoying: Streaming sites’ catalogs often differ country by country due to licensing agreements, which makes many recommendation lists from overseas outlets seem more like a taunt than an invitation to a good time.
Comedies are a good option for a temporary escape from reality, but my brain tends to wander after a few episodes of low-stakes laughs. A good drama with plenty of twists and turns, however, keeps me glued to my couch, safely at home, as I watch just one more episode to see how the story unfolds.
Here is a list of six award-winning miniseries from the past decade that you can watch in Japan without a VPN. They’ve helped me during my self-isolation and, who knows, they may also hook you from beginning to end as you binge the entire show in one sitting.
“Enlightened” (2011-2013) Amazon Prime Japan
The dark comedy series “Enlightened” was prematurely canceled back in 2013, but on the bright side it’s very bingeable with only 18 episodes. Amy Jellicoe (played by Golden Globe-winner Laura Dern) is a woman on the edge who has recently lost her husband, job and sense of sanity. After an eye-opening stay at a rehab center in Hawaii following a breakdown, Amy is back at her old company, trying to piece her life back together while keeping her temper in check. I initially fell for the show for its humor, which is reminiscent of “Office Space,” but what hooked me was the conspiracy that unfolds at Amy’s megacorporation. So will she try to claw her way back to the top, or will she burn the company to the ground?
“Mildred Pierce” (2011) Amazon Prime Japan
The HBO adaptation of the classic American novel “Mildred Pierce” by James M. Cain takes its time to retell the story almost page by page, beginning as a slow burn and ending with a bang. The series is about a single mother (Kate Winslet) trying to survive the Great Depression, alongside her ungrateful daughter who only wants more. Winslet won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for her performance as the titular character, and the miniseries won an additional four Emmys for its cast and production. The first episode is a bit slow, but you’ll be hooked once you see Mildred starting to juggle her expanding business empire and her crumbling family life.
“Victoria” (2016-2019) Hulu Japan
Hulu Japan has finally picked up the first season of the historical British drama “Victoria.” One part “The Crown” and one part “Downton Abbey,” the show revolves around the rise of a young Queen Victoria (Jenna Coleman) in the 1800s, as well as the power-hungry people in her court and penny-pinching servants in her palace. The series may feel like it’s full of over-the-top plotlines fitting your typical soap opera — assassination attempts, cancer diagnoses and political scandals — but a quick internet search shows that the 1830s actually rivaled 2020 in terms of wild headlines. Hopefully Hulu brings us the second and third seasons as well.
“Sharp Objects” (2018) Amazon Prime Japan
Prepare to block out an entire day on your calendar as you unravel the mystery behind “Sharp Objects.” Based on the suspense novel from “Gone Girl” author Gillian Flynn, the eight episodes follow a crime journalist Camille (played by Emmy-nominated Amy Adams) as she returns to her hometown to investigate a series of murders of young girls who are killed in broad daylight. There she has to contend with old classmates, tight-lipped police officers and her emotionally frigid mother. The beautifully shot Southern Gothic drama may make your skin crawl with its closeups of blood and gore. No spoilers, but when you reach the finale, stick around for the post-credits scenes — you won’t want to miss them.
“Unbelievable” (2019) Netflix Japan
Based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative story by ProPublica and The Marshall Project, “Unbelievable” follows two detectives who use every resource available to track down a serial rapist. The eight-episode series bounces back and forth between the original victim (Kaitlyn Dever), and the two officers (Toni Collette and Merritt Wever) who are searching for any scrap of evidence in a seemingly hopeless case. All three actresses were nominated for Golden Globes, and special attention should go to Dever for playing the harrowing role of a young survivor who is labeled a liar. The first episode, which shows graphic scenes of sexual assault, was hard to watch, but it made me eager to see how this true crime story plays out and for justice to be served.
“Little Fires Everywhere” (2020) Amazon Prime Japan
The newest entry on this list is an eight-episode TV adaptation of Celeste Ng’s bestselling book that appeared on Amazon Prime Japan this summer. Set in a picturesque Ohio town in the 1990s, Elena Richardson (Reese Witherspoon) is keeping up with the Joneses when her life goes up in flames — literally. The first scene shows Elena watching her castle-like suburban home become engulfed by fire. The show then rewinds to months prior when Elena meets the new Black family in town, daughter Pearl (Lexi Underwood) and her mother Mia (Kerry Washington). While the show might initially seem like a feel-good series where the main characters hug it out and denounce racism, it delves deeper into race, class, privilege and motherhood. All the while viewers are left wondering who will eventually light Elena’s house on fire. And why?