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How foreign TV shows are bringing the world together

Money Heist is a huge global hit. Picture: IMBD - Credit: Archant

SUNA ERDEM on the spectacular success of foreign TV shows on streaming channels – accelerated during lockdown – and how they represent an emerging global culture, characterised by differences.

Babylon Berlin – German neo-noir television series. Picture: Archant – Credit: Archant

It was only days into lockdown and we were already slouched on the sofa together. Our fingers hovered restlessly on the TV remote. ‘Look, it’s number two now!’ quipped my son, as he flicked through the Netflix menu. Then, the next day: ‘Number one! I told you!’ Rankings on screen confirmed what he had been trying to tell me for over a year. To pinch a phrase from the show itself, Money Heist was ‘the f***ing boss’.

The Spanish heist series crept up on me, much as, I imagine, it crept up on the housebound nation and beyond. The show that has been exponentially conquering hearts across the world became the hot viewing of the early Covid-19 lockdown.

Stylish, frisky, visually alluring and full of unexpected turns, Money Heist is peopled with memorable, complex characters tagged with city names such as Denver and Nairobi and dressed in the striking uniform of red jumpsuit and Salvador Dali mask. It combines the cerebral thrill of a heist with a cool yet volatile Latino vibe.

Since it was launched internationally in 2017 after its Spanish debut, La Casa de Papel – to give it its original name – has smashed records, won a Best Drama Emmy and now topped the charts in the famously resistant Anglo Saxon television world.

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It’s not the only one. Foreign-language shows such as Germany’s Babylon Berlin, Israel’s Fauda and Italy’s Gomorrah have been ranking highly, including in English-speaking countries, where watching such things has long been for the esoteric bluestocking.

As the lockdown progressed, rarely a day went by when the latest Norwegian thriller or Italian costume drama wasn’t put under the microscope by subject-starved feature writers.

‘When it launched between April 3-5, La Casa de Papel beat shows such as Game of Thrones, Brooklyn 99 and Westworld to become the most in-demand series in our database,’ said Steve Langdon, from the media statistics platform Parrot Analytics. ‘During its launch it was most popular on a per capita basis in the United States, France and Italy, (and the UK). It genuinely is a global show… And it has longevity… New viewers come to it all the time.’

In its first quarter report this year, Netflix revealed that Money Heist was watched by a projected 65 million ‘member households’ – a million more than the other talk of quarantine, Tiger King.

The Spanish show’s gradual spread was chronicled via sightings of its iconography everywhere from Saudi Arabian football terraces to the carnival in Rio, music videos, fan tattoos and on copycat robbers. Its followers include the writer Stephen King and footballer Neymar, who liked it so much he had a cameo as a monk. The suits and masks have appeared at civil rights protests in Lebanon, Iraq, France and Chile.

The Italian anti-fascist partisan song Bella Ciao, the show’s recurring theme tune, enjoyed a resurgence. A group of migrants rescued from a sinking boat were filmed singing it in jubilation.

‘The show talks about resistance,’ says director Jesus Colmenar, explaining how its anti-establishment storyline tapped into the global anti-government mood. ‘Anyone can pick up the red suit, Dali’s mask and the Bella Ciao hymn for whatever they’re fighting for.’

The overall burgeoning of foreign language content across the world is not quite so colourfully expressed. But, according to Parrot Analytics – whose findings are based on collating and interpreting 1.5 billion daily ‘expressions of demand’ online, including social media – it is certainly striking. ‘If you just take the UK, interest in all TV content has seen a rise of 86% since (last June)…But for non-native language content, that increase is 147%,’ said Langdon. ‘It’s similar in the US.’

This is interesting in itself, although the rise of such programming, from the gritty French police procedural Spiral, which hit British screens nearly a decade ago, to the ubiquitous Scandi boom kicked off by the crime series The Killing, starts from a lower base and is not entirely new.

But put this in the current context of international isolationism – both political and literal – and it becomes more surprising.

In the past few years we have got used to the image of Britain as a place full of flagwaving, Blitz-spirit channelling Brexiteers and angry, ‘left behind’ followers. Or of a US apparently packed with America First zealots bent on banning all things foreign – including foreigners. Then there’s continental Europe, reportedly teeming with far-right activists, and a wider world peopled with populist leaders such as Viktor Orban, Jair Bolsonaro, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Even the response to the current global pandemic has been characterized not so much by international cooperation as competing national strategies.

Streaming companies do not release demographic breakdowns, so it’s hard to know exactly how the counterintuitive spread of international viewing touches politics. Are these viewers disgruntled Remainers making a point? Or, in the US, anti-Trump Democrats? Are they simply cosmopolitan professionals equally at home in Singapore, Paris or Dubai? Or young, internationalist travellers. Maybe. But the sheer extent surely points to something wider.

Dr Andrea Esser, professor of media and globalisation at Roehampton University, found, while studying the transnational appeal of Danish TV dramas, that anti-immigrant sentiment and nationalism were no barriers to embracing foreign language and culture. She cited 1990s sociologists and anthropologists showing how, in times when people worried that national sovereignty was in danger, they did not just turn to nationalism but also increased their interest in localism – theirs and others’.

For those unsettled about the prospect of supranational superstates making everything look the same, the depiction of foreign characters doing foreign things in foreign settings can actually reassure them that lifestyles are not being bulldozed. ‘They don’t want their culture to change,’ Esser says. ‘But they also like to see the local specificity of the other – which you can in a TV series. It puts the world in its place.’

There is also anecdotal evidence of a wider demographic. Walter Iuzzolino, in some ways the godfather of international programming in the UK after he set up his curated Walter Presents platform for foreign television series for Channel Four in 2016, recalls a book fair where he thought his talk on the subject would fail.

Yet once the packed crowd dispersed, he was approached by a ‘delicate’ elderly lady. Expecting generic small talk, he was surprised when she asked for more episodes of an obscure Czech thriller: ‘It’s a bizarre political satire set in Prague about a group of humans who breathe underwater. It’s bonkers. A complete outlier. I only bought it for the variety,’ Iuzzolino explains. Yet a bookish old English lady in a market town ‘was passionate about this weird show in Czech that nobody in the universe was going to watch.’

Iuzzolino contends that the appetite for international content overturned assumptions from the start. His first big acquisition, daringly shown at prime time, was Deutschland 83 – a quirky Cold War spy drama. It attracted 1.5 million overnight and 2.5 million consolidated viewers, making it the highest rated subtitled drama in British TV history, despite being scheduled against such stalwarts as Endeavour and Celebrity Big Brother.

In the past, and to an extent still, plentiful quality English-language content and the general lack of airtime on terrestrial TV ensured that British and American television schedules were much more monocultural than those in non-English speaking countries, where Desperate Housewives might vie for attention with a French family drama and an Austrian police procedural – all expertly dubbed by specialist actors.

Then came streaming. With the expansion of TV to the seemingly infinite digital space, there was need for content of every sort. And as the big platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Hulu or Disney+ opened in scores of territories across the world, they needed to feed their new audiences with content close to home.

The initial cross-pollination of TV with programmes from other parts of the world was an almost accidental byproduct. Put on a big Indian or Spanish drama for local audiences, and it becomes available everywhere, piquing the interest of a suburban British parent or a middle manager in Texas and then growing by word of mouth from there.

The growth in genre dramas across the world – thriller, crime, sci-fi, moody noir, costume dramas – has also helped, providing viewers across continents with a comfortingly familiar vernacular. And although the initial spread of foreign content involved subtitles, most series now have English soundtrack options as Anglo-Saxon programmers learn – as others have long had to – how to make a quality dub. They have a familiar language track and content – these are no brooding, tortured European auteur films with incomprehensible conversations. But equally, viewers have moved on from expecting unchallenging native content.

These series are landing in a more fragmented but global environment where YouTubers and users of other video platforms are busy influencing young viewers across the world who are less hung up about nationality.

In fact, many play on stereotypes – who would have thought that a series of clips about a fictional, ‘typical’ Singapore school would be such a hit? A quick glance across my children’s phones yields anything from a young Palestinian woman sending up her mother’s old-fashioned attitudes to snippets from what looks like a Latino version of Friends. Japanese anime is commonplace and, for younger viewers still, there is the global ubiquity of Russia’s Masha and the Bear, loosely based on a Russian folk story. Last year a Masha episode was YouTube’s most viewed non-music video of all time, totally untroubled by political antipathy towards Russia.

There are also examples today of Anglo Saxon series aping international conventions. The hit American series Jane the Virgin – with its bafflingly complex and absurd storyline centring on a three-generation Latino family – is effectively a Latin telenovela, of the kind that has been the staple soap fare in non-English countries for decades.

But, aimed at expats or the young, none of these examples, in themselves, quite explain what looks like a radical change in habits.

And yet, the answer may actually be quite simple. People have always been interested in good stories, regardless of source. Novels by foreign writers have crossed borders in less globalised times, mostly on the strength of the story – from Tolstoy, Thomas Mann and Victor Hugo to Umberto Eco and Marquez, there are international names known to even those who have not read their books. And even in the current atmosphere, the rise of the translated novel has been noticeable.

As Money Heist creator Alex Pina says when trying to explain his show’s broad appeal, it’s the people and the empathy they generate that counts: ‘When people get addicted to a show you get addicted to the characters.’ Injecting Latin passion, sexiness and ambiguous characters such as the psychopathic aesthete Berlin and the hot but dangerously hotheaded Tokyo into a genre usually known for hollow action scenes upends the expectations.

This fits in with Esser’s work, which cites neurological studies showing that viewers can strongly identify with characters on the screen, even actually experiencing their feelings, regardless of nationality, because ‘humans automatically respond with empathy upon observing others due to hard-wired, dedicated neural structures in the brain’.

This overturns long-prevailing attitudes that presumed audiences – especially Anglo Saxons, who are less likely to learn languages – were naturally reticent about international content.

So when such products became available, the appetite already existed. And once erstwhile reluctant commissioners saw this, they pounced. They cast the net ever wider, constantly seeking the next big things – whether South Korean series about K-Pop stars, Romanian thrillers or new dramas from across Africa.

Even so, today’s TV audiences are fragmented due to endless options, making mainstream success hard. So, it was at the Academy Awards in February, that the landscape truly changed.

‘The collective gasp in this story is Parasite winning an Oscar – and not the foreign language cutesy movie one,’ said Iuzzolino. ‘The main Best Picture award going to a South Korean fable of wealth and grizzly murder, a film with a complexity of tone that shifts from laughs to grotesque… It almost removes the idea of language altogether.’

It is perhaps unlikely that Parasite would have reached such heights without the groundwork laid by foreign language series, whose longer formats allow for greater character development and audience investment, thus drawing viewers in and opening minds.

In a way, this isn’t that different from the effects of international travel, where even the most die-hard pie-eating sunseeker starts to connect to aspects of foreign life – witness the sushi rice, Thai curry ingredients, humus, Chorizo and pomegranates in British supermarkets.

The increasingly stylish aesthetic of most television, created by people exposed to the best quality international content, provides viewers with the added dimension of browsing an upmarket interior magazine. We can poke our noses into the houses of others, which is always tempting.

Most successful shows have an intense sense of place. Compare ITV’s Hatton Garden – shabby, go-for-it old blokes in ill-fitting shirts and sweaters eating packed lunches under the shadow of the Old Bailey – with Money Heist, styled to within an inch of its life with its tough-but-hot female criminals sexing up their boiler suits with all-too-visible lingerie inside imposing neo-classical buildings.

In Italy’s Inspector Montalbano, bathed in Sicilian sun, the protagonist enjoys lengthy, exquisite meals with gourmet companions, sleeps in comfortable rooms and hangs out with glamorous women. Contrast this to Sweden’s Wallander, superficially in the same genre, but in whose dark, minimalist-craft interiors
the detective has a lonely, stressed life of bad takeaways and unsociable working hours.

Maybe in these locked-down times, watching foreign TV and film will become the only international journeys we can make. When watching a version of alien lives abroad, viewers will either learn about and appreciate their differences, or notice that, actually, even when seated on their modern Danish chairs, cooking in rustic Belgian kitchens or battling sci-fi demons with foreign accents, these characters’ interior lives are not so different. Their relationship fails, political corruption, troubling debates over immigration – all of these are replicated, in different ways, across the globe. Either way, it’s a win.

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