Who’s Afraid of a Few Subtitles? The Rise of International Television

Who's Afraid of a Few Subtitles? The Rise of International Television
Who's Afraid of Few Subtitles? The Rise of International Television

The Returned” wraps up its eight-episode run on Sundance Channel tonight. The supernatural drama is set in a small mountain town in which the dead have started coming back — whole and looking just like they did when they passed, even if that was decades ago, craving connection with their old lives rather than the more gory appetites of the typical genre undead. It’s a great series — moody, mysterious, combining an exploration of grief with gorgeous imagery of a picturesque town being literally haunted by its past. It’s also in French, a fact that seems more novel when you manage to catch the series on the air alongside televisions other homegrown Thursday night offerings — subtitled television, still a total rarity on American networks.

Foreign films have a place on the arthouse circuit, but where can you find foreign TV? Aside from British imports, which PBS and BBC America have staked out for years with great success, international series have in the past rarely made their way to the U.S. via legal means outside of foreign language channels. At the same time, interest in remaking shows that have been successful in other countries continues to grow — “Homeland” is based on Israeli drama “”Hatufim” (Prisoners of War),” “The Killing” on Danish production “Forbrydelsen” (The Crime), and “The Returned” itself has been targeted for an English-language remake.

Maybe it’s that, more so than film, TV tends to feel culturally specific, tailored to domestic tastes — it gets piped into your home, and for many people serves as audiovisual wallpaper in the background while their attention is mainly focused elsewhere, something that’s impossible when you have to rely on subtitles to understand the action. While Hollywood studios are increasingly in the business of making films that have as much (if not more) appeal abroad than in the U.S. market, the small screen still frequently serves as a reflection of its viewers.

On making “Prisoners of War” into “Homeland,” for instance, creator Gideon Raff noted that the original series focused on the experiences of and the idea of POWs, which he called an “open wound in Israeli society,” but that for the U.S. the emphasis was on the agent investigating the returned soldier, on a more American issues of distrusting the government and of a fears of agents among us.

“The Returned,” which had attracted significant critical praise in its run here (some of it from us) feels unmistakably Gallic in its rhythms and its characters in addition to its language, and has been playing on a network with a history of airing foreign films, even if they aren’t as common on the schedule anymore. “People’s perception of subtitles films, let along subtitled TV shows, is that they’re really hard work — somewhat obscure,” agreed Sundance Channel President Sarah Barnett. “What we loved about this piece was that the genre nature of it to us outweighed the signification of the subtitled TV show. The quality of the work and the ability for it to really engage would be there regardless of the subtitles.” And while there was some resistance expressed via Twitter about the format, it wasn’t a major backlash. “We certainly saw, in terms of social media reaction, initially there was surprise about the subtitles,” said Barnett. “Only really a small handful of viewers who were disappointed. It was great to watch on social media the conversation between viewers.”

Certainly the proliferation of platforms for watching TV series, on cable, on satellite and online, has made more programming from other countries legitimately available than ever before. DirecTV’s exclusive Audience Network has been the U.S. home for acclaimed British anthology series “Black Mirror” and Australian crime drama “Underbelly,” which, while not subtitled, were certainly on the wish lists of Americans who’d heard about them online. Fellow satellite-only network Link TV has been airing “Borgen,” a shockingly smart Danish political drama that’s a favorite of critics who’ve managed to track it down.

And Hulu has become an invaluable resource for a dizzying array of international series, from Parisian law and order drama “Spiral” to anime favorite “Naruto: Shippuden,” Korean dramas to Spanish-language telenovelas, not to mention many English-language series from the U.K., Canada and Australia, like family dramedy “Offspring.” Coming soon to the streaming site is the original Danish/Swedish coproduction “The Bridge,” on which both FX’s “The Bridge” and the British/French “The Tunnel” are based.

Charlotte Koh, Hulu’s head of content, points out that it’s particularly American to be so much more accustomed to exporting our culture than importing it. “We’re used to sharing our stories with the rest of the world. We’re not used to dubbing or subtitling, really. When you live in France or Germany, you’re really accustomed to having American television and having it dubbed or subbed because that’s how they fill their programing hours.” 

Like Barnett, Koh feels that subtitles carry with them the unfair connotation of a more demanding viewing engagement, though she hopes that Hulu’s wide range of international offerings might be opening audiences up to trying out programming from different countries. The streaming service experiences long tail benefits from having such a variety of series available, and they can attract unexpected audiences. “In the specific example of the Korean dramas, they do disseminate to a much wider audience than just Koreans or Korean Americans. I think it has to do with the fact that they are basically soap operas. The charm of it has less to do with it being Korean and more to do with the storytelling, the ‘will they won’t they.'”

One unexpected challenge as networks and television studios look abroad for inspiration is that once a foreign series is picked up for a U.S. remake, it can be difficult to acquire the rights to the original — “maybe because of spoilers,” Koh speculated. “‘The Killing,’ for example — it’s very tricky to find the original. Similarly there is this amazing British show called ‘Utopia,’ or the comedy ‘Cuckoo’ that Andy Samberg did in the U.K. Those shows, I don’t believe you can find them in the U.S. on a streaming platform because they are both under negotiations for American remakes.” 

Still, via the originals or the remakes, there’s a much clearer path now to foreign programs that used to be available only via illegal torrents or fansub sites, and it opens up the possibilities for international coproductions and more culturally diverse programming. Netflix, for instance, had for its first original series back in 2012 “Lilyhammer,” which was shot in Norway and made in partnership with the country’s main television channel NRK1.

Starring “Sopranos” actor Steven Van Zandt, it’s half in English and half in Norwegian. Speaking about the series, the second season of which premiered on Netflix last week, Van Zandt pointed out that before this point NRK had never sold anything internationally before. Serving as a writer and executive producer on the series as well as its lead actor, he suggested that “the way to make this more international is to make this more Norwegian. I want to know everything that is eccentric about Norway, different, funny, unique — all that I want to get into this show.”

“I learned that from Bruce Springsteen and I learned that from David Chase,” Van Sandt explained. “They were both similar in their artistic vision in that they would concentrate on nuance, detail, things that you would think would be very much of local interest. Those were the things that were most universal — things people gravitated toward. People love to learn about how other people live. The fact that the guy speaks English brings the American audience into the show, and you start to live the show and Norway the way the character does, and after a few minutes you forget about the subtitles. I think that’s a really interesting phenomenon that could possibly be repeated in the future, and further broaden the content base to make it more international.”

“That is a fascinating wrinkle to this whole thing,” Van Sandt mused. “I’m sure every country in the world has some cool TV show that we’ll never see.” But given the way things are going, he shouldn’t be so sure — if it’s good, chances are better than ever it’ll make its way here, via a smaller network or streaming.

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