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.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Israeli TV – Beyond Homeland

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Homeland is probably the only well-known reimagining of an original Israeli TV program. Americans (or anyone, really) grabbing onto an existing show – and either bastardizing it (which in television is more like stealing a scene-for-scene replay without adaptation or creativity or even cultural consideration) or redirecting it not for the better but maybe for greater perspective on a similar theme – is nothing new. The UK and US bat their respective shows across the Atlantic to make and remake like so many shuttlecocks, but adaptations from further afield are beginning to inspire. That said, just because you can watch a remake does not mean you should avoid the original. In fact, the original is usually better. The original UK version of The Office lasted only two glorious seasons. When the US made its own version, it started off slowly and tried to make a scene-by-scene copy of the original. Only when the US started to use the concept but not the play-by-play sameness did the US version of The Office find its voice – and become its own show. Both are good shows.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a fan of (most of) Homeland. It is loosely based on Israeli program Hatufim (Prisoners of War), which is considerably more complex than Homeland. I am a bigger fan of Hatufim, even if it suffers from very different production values. It feels like a human story, much more than the edgy thriller Homeland aspires to be.

But Israeli TV has also offered up some adapted gems, such as the little-watched and often frustrating (in a good way) In Treatment. In it, Gabriel Byrne played a therapist and patient. Each night of the week, he would see a patient and on the last night of the week, he would see his own therapist (Dianne Wiest). The Israeli original was called B’tipul and introduced the concept of showing one episode nightly – each one representing one patient’s appointment, i.e. each Monday was the same patient, etc. It only lasted for two seasons, but it was engaging in a way that most shows are not. You would not imagine that a show in which two people sit, talk and engage in what are fairly realistic therapy sessions would draw you in. But somehow they did. Maybe not enough, though, because the show did not last.

Taking inspiration from an Israeli source does not always work – most likely when major American networks get their claws into the idea. The recent attempt to adapt Israeli program, The Gordin Cell, into a spy thriller, Allegiance, did not work at all. In this case, it seems it was less about trying to create a quality show and more about trying to capitalize on the critical praise heaped on The Americans. I assume NBC thought they could jump on the “Russian spy story” bandwagon, but it’s not as simple as that. Just as Mad Men’s popularity and critical acclaim did not transfer automatically to other 1960s period dramas with thin plots, like Pan Am and The Playboy Club, among others. Further evidence that major networks are usually followers, not leaders. Sometimes that works; usually it doesn’t.