Part of Issue #5 of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.
Maybe it was a Colombian drug lord, or the dreamy DEA agents on his tail in Narcos. Or the cadre of French loved ones, mysteriously risen from the dead in Les Revenants. Or maybe it was the teens of Elite, being cruel to each other, that first caught your attention.
Friends, or more likely your favorite streaming service (which knows you with algorithmic precision), probably recommended these shows “because you liked” true crime, melancholic sci-fi, or teens behaving badly at some point before.
The difference is that, although they fit neatly into the established viewing habits of many Americans, these shows are made all over the world — in Spain, India, and Scandinavia, in Germany, Japan, and Brazil.
Subtitled in English and seamlessly wedged between domestic fan favorites like Making a Murderer, Battlestar Galactica, and Gossip Girl, internationally produced series have become routine offerings on most big streaming services, generating word-of-mouth and press attention at a time when the sheer volume of new TV shows makes that a rare accomplishment.
But this past season marked a turning point. HBO introduced two non-English language series to American viewers. The first was a prestige drama, the network’s adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s worldwide bestselling novel My Brilliant Friend, told in Italian and Neapolitan. The second was ... well, a beloved odd duck: The Spanish-language comedy Los Espookys, about a group of Mexican goths that turns fake scares into small business. Both were fawned over by critics and renewed for second seasons; one became a meme (a true mark of pop culture achievement).
Foreign language TV used to be scattered on the fringes of American media, there for those who sought it out. International YouTube channels offered emigrant viewers a taste of their home cultures, while networks like PBS and Sundance TV delivered the occasional co-production, like Germany’s Cold War sleeper hit Deutschland 83, to suit arthouse tastes.
But in the age of streaming, subtitled series developed and shot all over the world are a click away on Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, available in more American households than ever before. The idea of what feels foreign versus familiar has evolved as generations increasingly grow up online, and it’s playing out in how we consume media. As networks grow their operations around the world, they’re making series available to subscribers everywhere.
The results may not rack up award nominations, and most such networks reveal little to no ratings data. But people are watching, both in the US and abroad — and stories that connect with an international audience have become vehicles for understanding the ideas and values that transcend cultural difference.
When language isn’t a barrier
Critics and fans may champion a handful of breakout foreign-language series, but it’s tough to prove American viewership has grown significantly even as international offerings have swelled. Netflix rarely shares any ratings data at all; Amazon recently revealed it doesn’t even disclose such figures to creators. Each network weighs a number of potential factors in ultimate service of driving subscriptions. (Ratings for Los Espookys, for example, were modest and actually fell throughout the season.)
But producers and experts believe the US market for foreign-language productions is expanding, if not necessarily booming.
“There’s every reason to suppose that younger American audiences are watching [foreign language content] on streaming platforms,” says David Craig, a veteran TV producer and clinical associate professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism who specializes in global media. “Most of them never even had cable and are gravitating to more global content.”
Craig calls these viewers the “social generation,” a designation based not on age, but the extent to which millennials and Gen Z grew up on social media. “They spend all day with people from all over the world who don’t necessarily reflect their national cultural or language, so they’re much more keen and open to these shows.”
Appetite for the next new thing and the access streaming platforms provide can lead young viewers to rally around a foreign language series. Devoted fans of a particular genre may not see language as a barrier. Elite, the Spanish-language drama that returns for a second season in September, became a prime example of this last fall. One Vulture headline declared, “Netflix’s Elite Is Riverdale, Gossip Girl, and Big Little Lies Rolled Up Into a Murderous Teen Drama.” Sex, drugs, and vicious teens hardly need any translation; that the series also traverses class difference, clandestine affairs both straight and gay, and a murder investigation is enough to whip any fan of teen drama into a frenzy.
TV produced in other cultures would also seem to fit the call for American media to demonstrate a greater diversity of voices and perspectives. It boils down to matters of accuracy — stories that supposedly reflect American culture ought to outgrow the myth that touching, outrageous, or supernatural things only happen to middle-class, able-bodied, white, cis, heterosexual people.
Netflix’s Indian thriller Sacred Games or Amazon’s Delhi-set Made in Heaven, both presented largely in Hindi, are entirely separate from wanting to see racial and ethnic difference reflected in Hollywood. But an influx of series reflecting other cultures — and the potential growth in American interest and viewership — could be a promising sign. At the very least, it may signal the development of wider-ranging palates, and at best that American viewers are sympathizing with people who don’t live in the US or speak English.
Filling a niche
Though American audiences are becoming used to subtitled TV, from a producer’s perspective, it’s still a relatively tough sell. “The market has grown, but not as massively as you would think,” says Christian Vesper, executive vice president and creative director of global drama for Fremantle, the production company behind My Brilliant Friend. Many of the same factors that determine whether a domestic series will gain traction also apply for international productions vying for US distribution and viewers. My Brilliant Friend, for example, is based on the widely popular book with strong recognition not only in the US and Italy but around the world.
Bankable stars or a major auteur behind the camera can help, but the majority of foreign-language series that catch on around the world tend to be genre-driven. Sci-fi, murder mystery, teen romance, and true-crime thrillers are what Craig calls “global genres,” the types of shows that inspire devoted fandom and travel easily. (Comedies tend not to do as well outside of their home countries for the same reason, Craig says; humor is often more culturally specific.) “Netflix is producing more extensive genre-driven content in local languages, knowing that there’s a possibility that [fans of the genre] will watch outside those territories,” Craig says.
Most foreign-language series on major streaming services are the result of an accelerating race toward revenue growth. Netflix could only court so many subscribers in the US before pursuing them elsewhere. The same goes for Amazon, whose goal is funneling more users to its e-commerce business. So international productions are most often conceived with their local markets in mind, and all the better if they catch on with viewers in other countries.
Brazil’s 3%, a dystopian Netflix original series in the vein of The Hunger Games, not only appeals to sci-fi fans but also tickles anxieties about extreme inequity and the impending apocalypse that ring pretty universal. Rooted in local specifics, the story of young people seizing the chance to escape destitution through a series of physical and psychological trials is practically a tale as old as time. With Narcos and now Narcos: Mexico, Netflix leveraged the appeal of true crime in dramatizing the rise of drug kingpins Pablo Escobar and Félix Gallardo. But the series have also drawn criticism in their home territories for the continued association of drugs and organized crime as Colombia’s and Mexico’s sole cultural exports.
By and large, series produced under what Craig calls the Netflix “geo-cultural” model, need to find success in their home markets to gain traction outside them. As much as factors like genre help the chances a series might attract international viewers, content designed for the global market tends to fall flat, Craig says. One argument he’s seen surface repeatedly in student research is “content that is deliberately meant as cross-cultural isn’t working.”
In other words, a series set in Italy or India may need to feel authentic to its home culture to appeal elsewhere, and viewers can tell when a series seems to pander to an Anglo audience with deliberate or clumsily handled themes of cultural intersection. A prime example in film would be The Great Wall, a co-production between the US and China that airdropped a Western action-hero into a Chinese context. It rang hollow with critics and bombed at the box office.
Emigrant audiences can serve as unique bellwethers for shows. Latinx US viewers, for example, may recognize the hyper-specific goth subculture depicted in Los Espookys, which is set in an unnamed Latin American town. Series developed and produced in international markets may even offer immigrants a connection to their culture of origin not previously experienced. The Delhi of Amazon’s Made in Heaven, with its gay sons, heroin-addicted brothers, and married career women, may offer a new view of the India that first-generation immigrants left behind, or that their American-born kids got to see on their last visit.
Among the surest signs that subtitled series won’t wholly transform TV is their total absence on big-network primetime, where low-lift reality shows and procedurals like NCIS still grab the biggest ratings. And there are clearer signs of resistance. “A lot of networks will say if it’s more than 30 percent foreign language, we are not going to look at the scripts,” says Vesper, who suggests that prestige series like My Brilliant Friend may become a way for networks like HBO to differentiate themselves, particularly as the streaming wars heat up with the upcoming HBO Max and Disney Plus.
Like any offering in the on-demand economy, foreign-language series depend on consumer choice. HBO may be making a case for subtitled appointment television with My Brilliant Friend, whose first season aired in the coveted Sunday night time slot. But the vast majority of foreign language TV still caters to those who seek it out. “I wouldn’t call it an American audience phenomenon,” Craig says of the influx of series that have caught on across cultures. “I think it’s more of a global phenomenon.”
Naveen Kumar covers entertainment, culture, and lifestyle for outlets including them.us, Vice, the New York Times, and Towleroad, where he serves as theater critic.