Lunchtable TV Talk: 1992 – Italian TV

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Don’t let Italy fool you” – the one motto that remains constant in my life. This motto, usually holding true, sometimes prevents me from watching some otherwise riveting film – and surprisingly television.

1992, a ten-part Italian TV series, tells a story of lives that intersect across several Italian cities in 1992. From perspectives that span the law, politics, corruption and scandalous outcomes of these intertwining areas, it’s a gripping story with deep, interesting characters, each with his or her own challenges, and quite a bit of insight. Modern stories that plumb the past not just to spin a tale of historical fiction but to shine a light on universal and enduring truths are common enough (we’re seeing echoes of this in the current TV dramatization of the OJ Simpson trial in American Crime Story: The People v. OJ Simpson), but are they always edge-of-your-seat TV? Not always. But in this case, I’ve been on a binge.

Admittedly though I’ve had this lined up to watch for more than six months. I kept putting it off because I don’t know Italian and did not really have time for reading subtitles. I got halfway through the first episode twice before finally getting through the whole thing in a third-time’s-a-charm result. Now that I devoted a whole day to gobbling this up, I can’t believe I didn’t watch it sooner.

Of note is the great soundtrack that is just so 1992 (“Nearly Lost You” by the Screaming Trees, for example). And also one character’s insistence that we have a leader in Silvio Berlusconi – and everyone else around him is discounting this vision as pure folly, scoffing at an opinion poll he’d done with youth. One man even laughed and told him the list of popular public figures he’d compiled, with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the number three slot, was patently ridiculous because – guffaw, guffaw – who on earth would take the idea of old Arnie as a politician seriously!? Haha. We know what happened there. And look what happened for Berlusconi in 1994 (and a few times thereafter).

Lunchtable TV Talk: Welcome to Sweden: Vi kommer att sakna dig

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The vagaries of TV-show renewal decisionmaking never fail to confuse. It’s disappointing to see that a unique, funny show like Welcome to Sweden is canceled almost before its second season has a chance to gain momentum. I suppose that is the way network TV works, and WTS was definitely an unusual presence on network TV in the first place. The good stuff almost never lasts there, which I suppose should be a stamp of approval in some ways. Most creators and writers would hope their shows would find popularity and a broad audience, but if a show like WTS doesn’t, I am sure there are enough ardent and vocal fans of the show to make it clear that it was loved. We know how American audiences are, after all, with “foreign” and subtitled stuff. Americans seem to embrace non-English entertainment with greater patience, but I daresay that maybe NBC hasn’t.

As a happy resident of western Sweden, I love my views of the forest and west coast, but seeing views once a week of one of the world’s loveliest cities, Stockholm, will also be missed.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Deutschland83

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Four-three-two-one… earth below us…

I have been blown away by the German eight-part spy drama, Deutschland83. I love Germany, and Berlin in particular, but I cannot say I have ever understood German tastes. And when it comes to TV, it’s not like the Germans churn out anything that anyone outside of the German-speaking world wants to watch or copy. As I wrote the other day, the US and UK seem to travel on a fast-track highway of exchanging each other’s entertainment. The Nordic countries have infiltrated, exporting both their “Nordic Noir” dramas and the ideas behind them (to be adapted and redone to varying degrees of success). And even France has joined the fray, offering up stuff like Les Revenants, already remade into The Returned, and Engrenages (Spiral), and Les témoins (Witnesses). And Israel is a rich source of inspiration. But Germany? Not so much. Don’t believe me? I’m not the only one to think so.

“For decades, German TV drama was seen as reflecting the kind of cultural tastes that made David Hasselhoff a nation’s rock god: trite, unadventurous, psychologically challenging only when the lead actor of one particularly long-running detective show was outed as a former SS member.”

Until now.

The premise: a young East German guy, Martin, is forced to become a Stasi operative in West Germany as a West German military officer named Moritz. His aunt is an upper-level Stasi operative herself, and she recruits him, against his will, and uses carrots (the promise of an apartment and car) and sticks (indirectly threatens her sister, his mother) to keep him in line. The story is taut and aligned with real events from the early 1980s. I am totally disappointed that it is only eight episodes long, but I was duly impressed with not just the pacing and storytelling at work but with the way the period is handled – so many of the events and fears of the moment (everything from nuclear annihilation to AIDS), so much of the music (“99 Luftballons” of course!), the “high-tech” developments of the time that young people today would be as clueless about as Martin is when he encounters them (he goes to steal a document and instead only finds a little plastic square with a hole in it – a floppy disk!).

I can’t recommend the show enough. I wrote about it the other day, highlighting the fact that it is the first program to be shown in the US with English subtitles for its almost exclusively German-language script. Even when an American military general appears in the story and starts to talk, you’d expect everything to switch to English (he is an American after all!), everything continues in German. International programming has more to offer than ever, and while one could say that the content was always there and we were not paying attention, I doubt it. It’s a lot like US programming… as distribution has changed and major networks are not the only channels through which content is available, creativity is being unleashed everywhere.

Even in Hasselhoff’s Germany.

It’s a small world on TV after all: More subtitled TV

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More than ever, creators of TV are trusting audiences (particularly English-language markets) to delve into storylines that mix in non-English-language characters (integral characters and stories, beyond the stereotypical and often offensive Spanish-only illegal immigrant or household worker). I have written about the increasing instances of more foreign language subtitles on TV – and the number of shows weaving “globalization” into the story is increasing and lending depth and credibility to stories that are often removed from authenticity by giving English-speaking actors awkward, false, non-descript “foreign” accents while still speaking English.

Finally, we see more reality coming to the screen. This is the case because non-network TV has greater leeway. It is also happening because a more international group of people is creating TV entertainment. It is also happening because people are connecting more with reality – not in the sense of reality TV (ugh!) but in the sense of wanting to see reality reflected in the characters and stories depicted on screen.

In some cases, a show is created and not primarily intended for an English-language audience but is eventually exported and subtitled, such as the recent NRK production, The Saboteurs (Kampen om tungtvannet). The story and language is Norwegian with a heavy peppering of English and German. It’s been shown on UK TV recently.

Similarly the recent Deutschland 83, an eight-part, German-led drama (supported by German RTL and US-based Sundance), is the first German-language production to air in the US.

Yet, even in almost entirely English-language shows, we’re hearing a lot more diversity. While we tend to hear more (again stereotypical) Chinese-language in contemporary crime shows (always associated with Chinese gangs, such as in the recent Murder in the First and Sons of Anarchy), the latest (and final) season of Hell on Wheels has introduced a new story about Chinese railroad workers, and in telling these stories, we do get a “Chinese villain/gangster” but he is not a caricature so much as he is depicted as a profiteer not unlike the rest of the profiteers of the time, regardless of race or background. The Chinese workers, too, get a bit more depth to their story than standing around in the background. While I cannot say that Hell on Wheels has always been a superb show, it has sometimes taken interesting perspectives on intercultural interaction, conflict and integration in both a post-Civil War and westward-moving, “manifest destiny” environment. The Chinese language and culture addition is just another layer to a show that rolled out several layers already.

The already unusual Orphan Black, in which Tatiana Maslany plays multiple, very different characters (she has finally been recognized with an Emmy nomination), shows one character who is Ukrainian (and who uses Ukrainian). This affixes yet another piece of complexity to Maslany’s expertise at differentiating each character from the others

Ultimately what prompted my writing about this topic again, though, was the Swedish-speaking couple in the new show Mr Robot. Somehow their Swedishness makes them feel like a complete “otherness” in an already strange milieu. In Mr Robot, everyone is a bit of a weirdo, and while the Swedish guy seems to have it all together on the surface, he is perhaps the biggest weirdo of all, and his very private Swedish-speaking home life feels like it adds to that division.

Language can serve that purpose, too, which is of course something common in language and linguistic fields – different languages and how you use them in your life can contribute to very different aspects to your personality. In this sense, it is deeply interesting to watch how different characters’ behavior changes based on the language they use, choose to use in specific situations and with which other characters they interact in which language.

Lunchtable TV Talk – Dig: More subtitled entertainment

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I have been a fan of A Fine Frenzy for years. I had no idea when I started watching Dig – a show that is not (so far) great by any means, but which has enough twists and turns and depth to keep me watching – that A Fine Frenzy’s Alison Sudol is one of its standout characters.

While it does not seem to be a great show yet, it fits squarely into the category of shows I have been considering and writing about lately – those shows that use languages other than English extensively (and thus a liberal use of subtitles). With Dig, it’s Hebrew.

Jason Isaacs often shows up in programs that are a bit too obscure and conceptual – and thus do not seem like they will be long for this world. Awake is a good example. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t bring exceptional insight to his roles. He plays grief and confusion quite well. This large cast, in addition to Isaacs and Sudol, includes some great talent; notably, Regina Taylor (also seen in The Unit and the great, long-gone but not-forgotten I’ll Fly Away), Anne Heche (also seen in Hung and Men in Trees), Lauren Ambrose (also seen in Six Feet Under and Torchwood), Richard E. Grant (also seen most recently in Downton Abbey and Girls – among a million other things) and David Costabile (also seen in Suits, Ripper Street, Breaking Bad, Flight of the Conchords, Damages and many others).

With Dig, which has a few related storylines in play in parallel, it might be too slow, too intricate and again, obscure, for most viewers. But I will give it a shot… and like every time I watch a film from Israel, wish that I knew Hebrew.

With Dig, which has a few related storylines in play in parallel, it might be too slow, too intricate and again, obscure, for most viewers. But I will give it a shot… and like every time I watch a film from Israel, wish that I knew Hebrew.

Subtitled entertainment – Language realism on TV

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As a person who often multitasks while “watching” television, I don’t always pay close attention to every moment of action. (That is, I hear all the dialogue but don’t always catch the visuals going with it.) Particularly with some of the dumber shows I watch, such as The Following or The Slap, this does not bother me much. I pay closer attention to shows I enjoy. But then there is a growing middle category: subtitled entertainment.

When I watch a foreign (non-English-language) film, I already know there will be subtitles, and I don’t watch something like that until I am ready to focus. But television is starting to introduce more and more subtitled content. In a sense it’s an era of language realism. In most films and TV of the past, we’d be treated to unrealistic and frankly stupid dialogue in which the actors (English speakers) adopted some kind of vaguely similar regional accent representing the place they were supposed to be from… and very little of the actual local language would appear.

Now, in a further change to content development – language is adding to the realism of many TV shows. The Americans probably leads the way, with a liberal mix of English and Russian. An article has even been written on how the writers decide when to use Russian. Hint: The choice comes down to authenticity. In The Americans, it makes perfect sense. Russians working within a Soviet institution in the United States are not going to speak to each other in English.

Another show where the blend makes perfect sense is the US version of The Bridge. It takes place on the US-Mexico border, and US police and working closely with Mexican police.

It has appeared more and more in various shows recently, such as Allegiance and The Blacklist. Interesting, it appears in shows in which the plot involves a lot of international intrigue. No big surprise. Language realism also appears in shows like Jane the Virgin, in which the grandmother speaks exclusively in Spanish, but understands English perfectly. She always speaks Spanish with her daughter, Xiomara, and granddaughter, Jane, but they almost always answer her in English.

The same kind of mix has appeared in Netflix’s Lilyhammer. An American organized criminal, exiled in witness protection in Lillehammer, Norway, navigates Norwegian language and society – the longer the show goes on, the more it’s conducted in Norwegian, mirroring the main character’s “integration” (which never quite happens fully).

These are all one-hour dramas, and somehow the language realism feels more expected in that setting. But it’s also happening more and more in the half-hour sitcom format, which feels strange in that I can’t imagine people having the attention span required to read the screen. But strangely – they do. The best example of this I can come up with is Welcome to Sweden, in which a fairly typical American guy moves to Stockholm with his Swedish girlfriend. His comical trials feature prominently – often in Swedish (particularly interactions with his in-laws). I did not even think about it when I recommended it to someone who only speaks English. He was going to watch it using my Swedish Netflix account, which did not offer subtitles in English.

It seems remarkable that as foreign language is receiving less emphasis than ever in US schools, language and culture diversity is appearing in a bigger way than ever on America’s TV shows. And it has jumped from just the occasional bit of Spanish, which has arguably been the most common second language on US TV, to reflect a slightly wider range of language diversity.