One of my favorite television shows of 2018 is the 2015 French dramedy “Call My Agent!” (called “Dix pour cent,” or “10 Percent,” in the original), about a Parisian talent agency. I was slow to find it, but a friend, an ordinary, TV nonprofessional friend, told me about it. (Thanks, Nina.) I find that interesting in itself and part of what seems to be a trend: American TV viewers are increasingly watching foreign-language series and talking about them.
You may have lately watched, discussed or read about HBO’s “My Brilliant Friend,” co-produced with a pair of Italian networks, much of it played in an antique Neapolitan dialect that required subtitling even in Italy. Or “Babylon Berlin,” a Weimar Republic crime drama picked up by Netflix from Sky Deutschland.
As with all waves, it had been building for awhile before it broke, but this does feel like the year American television went global. Indeed, it is easily possible now to watch way too much television — even too much good television — and never hear a word of English.
This is good news for us and everybody. The seemingly ineluctable one-way flow of American pop culture to the world, at least since the movies came in, could not but help swell the size of our national head.
It's not just television: For years, outside of the occasional novelty song, music from outside the English-speaking world rarely made it over the border. (It is true too that we are less familiar with the outside world's contemporary novelists, directors, playwrights and painters, and in no particular rush to be.)
Even as the world convulses in fits of chauvinism, parochialism, populism and xenophobia, television in its various delivery systems has never been more cosmopolitan and international. Netflix, which rules the streaming world, is everywhere (except mainland China, Syria, North Korea and Crimea) and, according to one report, consumes 15% of global internet bandwidth. (Indeed, the streamer's first excursion into "exclusive content" was the Norwegian comedy "Lilyhammer," with Steven Van Zandt as a mobster in exile.) Amazon Prime — where you can watch the German innocent-man thriller "You Are Wanted," the Japanese comedy "Businessmen vs. Aliens" (what it sounds like) and India's "The Remix," a musical reality show involving Bollywood songs — is also a global player.
Hulu, the other big streamer, lacks the reach of Netflix and Amazon, though that is likely to change. Disney will own 60% of Hulu once its acquisition of Fox goes through, and Chief Executive-Chairman Bob Iger recently spoke to investors of investigating "opportunities … in terms of both global growth and investing more in content." Meanwhile, Hulu is the home of the Swedish sci-fi drama "Real Humans," the Israeli spy drama "False Flag" and the German high-finance drama “Bad Banks.”
“What’s in the back and front of my mind is sharing the world’s best content, whether that’s Japanese anime, Turkish telenovelas, the film noir of the Nordics,” Netflix Chief Executive Reed Hastings told the Financial Times in October. “I’ve never been very Hollywood-centric.”
American television was slow to look abroad — British series began creeping into view in the late 1960s, mostly as prime-time summer replacements, in syndication or what used to be called "educational" (now "public") television — "The Avengers," "The Prisoner," "Monty Python's Flying Circus," “The Six Wives of Henry VIII,” "Benny Hill." In the 1970s, "SCTV" came from Canada; nothing I can think of came from Australia in those years, even though we speak roughly the same language.
Now, with the 2017 launch of Acorn, an early niche streamer with a British bent (whose success seems to have inspired the BBC- and ITV-backed Britbox), the increasing licensing (and co-production) of British series by the big streamers, plus basic cable's BBC America, not to mention to continuing importation of British programming by public television, we may be getting everything British of note, along with a growing number of Australian series.
It’s true that American Spanish-language networks Telemundo (a branch of NBCUniversal) and Univision, which broadcasts on what Angelenos with long memories will know as Channel 34, have been around for awhile, as have dedicated cable and satellite stations like the Francophone TV5MONDE, TV Japan and the Cantonese TVB. But as a rule, foreign language series, though sometimes remade for American television, never made the crossing; indeed, they have yet to crack broadcast prime time, and they may never. But elsewhere, we are taking them straight now, with gusto.
Our television has come to this smorgasbord in part because there is now so much television to fill, and because what can be presented as original content (whether original productions or branded acquisitions) creates more status than the recycled material upon which nearly every major cable network and all the streaming networks were originally built. In some cases, this may result in the TV equivalent of a bargain store that fills its shelves with cheap imported junk; but even these shows can be interesting if they have been made to satisfy local tastes and not just as something to sell to Americans.
Much of this content, to be sure, consists of procedurals and thrillers — murder and action travel well internationally, and a detective is a detective is a detective, whether wearing a rumpled raincoat or an Italian suit. The web is rife with articles like "Great Foreign Police Shows to Stream Tonight" and "The New New Wave of European Crime Drama on Netflix." But this is evolving. (You can also find articles like "Six Addictive Series to Bingewatch That Aren't Nordic Noir.")
This can’t be just a matter of top-down business decisions; something also must have changed in viewers. A switch has been turned on. For whatever reason, we have become a little more open to otherness. It may just be a matter of looking abroad for things to watch that are more like the American shows we like to watch than those shows are like the American shows we don't like to watch. It may be that foreign television production is reaching a level of technical sophistication that makes it visually compatible with domestic shows. It may be that younger generations, raised on anime and manga, on the music of Tiësto and Daft Punk and David Guetta, are used to looking abroad for influence. It may be that, in a culture that talks about television all the time, we're just more likely to hear about things a little off the beaten path.
And maybe we want more now, to know lands beyond the one we wake up in. For a long time, our pop-cultural notions of other places were shaped by whatever could be built on a Hollywood back lot. Given the circumstances, it is not strange that a person raised here might come to believe that everything of value comes from the United States and takes place in English. Globalized television is invigorating. It brings us to the intersection of the familiar and the exotic, shows us that we are alike but different, different but alike. It teaches us that we are not the center of the universe, and even beside the point. It may be just what the world needs now.