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The Foreign TV Dramas You’re Missing Out On

TV has no borders, but are foreign and subtitled dramas more difficult to find?
By  · Published on June 11th, 2017

TV has no borders, but are foreign and subtitled dramas more difficult to find?

In a world filled with political dramas such as House of Cards, crime thrillers like Breaking Bad, comedy dramas such as Fargo, along with the dose of the surreal as seen in the posthumous Hannibal and this year’s Twin Peaks revival, it’s easy to understand why audiences don’t venture out of American television; it’s already so good.

Yet, as the worldwide success of Germany’s Deutschland ’83 proves, viewers want to see global drama — and television certainly has room for it. In fact, Deutschland ’83 is an apt example when discussing English-speaking audience’s subtitled television show habits.

Premiering on AMC Network’s Sundance TV in June 2015, the show was the first German-language TV series to premiere on a US network. The fact Germany’s commercial RTL channel received Deutschland ’83 five months after the US both signifies the series’ global appeal as well as foreshadows where the German crime thriller was (and is) to find its audience.

Whilst Deutschland ’83 received significantly fewer viewers in the US than Germany, with its US premiere garnering 0.066 million viewers compared to Germany’s 3.19 million, the series proved more successful in the US than its homeland. The majority of German audiences did not like neither the show nor its premise, with the Guardian‘s Philip Oltermann observing the Cold War politics and “cool and sexy” style as factors that distanced them from the series. As previously mentioned, the German premiere had 3.19 million viewers. Each new episode saw that figure drop, and by the series’ conclusion the figures had fallen down to 1.63 million — it’s lowest figure.

Meanwhile, American audience viewing figures kept rising, and, not only did more people tune in, but the series was a critical success. With a 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes and critics at publications like the New York Times calling it “refreshing,” and indieWire a “genuine corker” with the geopolitical divide “rendered in bold, artful strokes,” it’s clear that Deutschland ’83 had a more successful impact on its US viewership than the series’ own homeland.

January 2016 saw the UK premiere of the series on mainstream Channel 4, and with this came foreign drama and television expert Walter Iuzzolino’s streaming service Walter Presents. Perhaps the most successful broadcast of the show to date, Channel 4 saw viewing figures reach a peak of 2.13 million viewers in a prime time TV slot, earning it the title of the UK’s highest-rated foreign drama. Like in the US, its success brought impressive reviews. Yet, the UK broadcast also achieved something more: a renewal of a foreign drama.

After a period of uncertainty surrounding its renewal, SundanceTV and FremantleMedia finally announced in October that there will be a second series of Deutschland 83 (called Deutschland 86, more likely than not followed by the pivotal year of 89). What with its lackluster response in Germany, it’s apparent the US critical reception and UK’s record-breaking viewership have a role to play in renewing the show. With this foreign drama revival spurred on by the series’ foreign viewers, questions surrounding the power of American/UK audiences and critics arise. The spy thriller’a presence in American television signifies that there is not just room for foreign and subtitled drama in an era when TV shows are frequently becoming more daring than feature films, but that audiences both want it and have an impact into whether it comes back.

The difference in the UK and US’ accessibility of Deutschland 83 is important. The UK aired the show on a well-known channel during prime time television, along with plenty of idents and trailers promoting the German thriller, while America rebranded the show’s posters and promotional materials. Yet, by bringing Walter Presents with it, it was not just Deutschland 83 that the UK audiences were being introduced to, but foreign drama as a whole. Whilst Sundance TV provides their viewers with numerous foreign dramas, the TV channel and its streaming service also ventures into English language series as well as feature-length films. Like with the foreign dramas and films on Netflix, Amazon Prime, and so on, they are often surrounded by more familiar and/or promoted English-speaking shows.

Meanwhile, the Walter Presents streaming service is dedicated solely to foreign drama. Having launched successfully in the UK via Channel 4’s online streaming service All 4, Iuzzolino – the titular Walter — brought his world of dramatic subtitled TV to America with “USA” added to the end of the brand name. Iuzzolino’s inspiration for his service comes from childhood. Speaking to Charles Sharfaieh, the curator says: “being born and raised in Italy I was exposed to many different nationalities’ […] TV. […] You’ll have an Italian show on Monday, an American import […] on Tuesday,” and so on, which, for Iuzzuolino, allowed him to be exposed “to a lot of different textures, types, and cultural perspectives.”

Perhaps now more than ever, it’s important to be aware of and empathize with people and their experiences from around the globe. The influx of streaming services and amount of attention currently on TV means that there’s more room than ever for foreign dramas, yet there’s also more space for sophisticated American dramas, too, with the movie-star driven Big Little Lies being one of the most recent examples.

Most foreign dramas, then, seem to lie beneath homegrown productions: on Netflix you have the French drama Marseille and Oscar-winning Ida, but you have the 80s throwback Stranger Things and BAFTA-winning 13th before that; Amazon Prime is the home for the current series of one of America’s best showrunners, Bryan Fuller and his adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, underneath which films such as the Italian comedy The Salt of Life lives on. This isn’t to say that the English-language productions are worse than their imported counterparts because in fact, the opposite is true.

As Hanh Nguyen at indieWire observes, “in this era of ‘Peak TV’ there doesn’t seem to be enough time to bother with drama and comedy imports,” with Nguyen continuing to note that major streaming services rarely promote their foreign acquisitions. (Nguyen also wrote an impressive list of the imports viewers may have missed on Amazon Prime, Netflix, and Hulu, with the wonderful Chewing Gum rightly being at the top of said list).

This “too much TV” problem that isn’t really a problem proves why a streaming service like Walter Presents USA is so important. By promoting foreign drama on its own terms viewers can pick and choose from the most popular productions from around the world. With Iuzzolino being the man behind it all — carefully curating and selecting each series for the viewer — the service feels handpicked and personally designed, going against the faceless identities behind Netflix and Amazon Prime.

Even if you’re weary of foreign drama, with Iuzzolino posting a “Weekend Pick” on his Facebook page and engaging with viewers on Twitter, it’s impossible not to become engrossed in the experience. As Iuzzolino says, in the UK subtitled and foreign productions are “relegated to the elite” and the art-house. His streaming service has certainly changed this perception in Britain.  For America audiences, it’s not so much filling a gap (Iuzzolino and his co-founders Jo McGrath and Jason Thorp in fact modeled the service on big networks like HBO) than promoting what is readily available.

To help potential viewers begin to navigate the world of foreign drama, below are five of some of the most exciting foreign dramas on Walter Presents USA, and why you should watch them based on more familiar tastes.

1. If you liked House of Cards you should watch…Spin

A French political drama thriller, Spin is bold and its production lavish. The often dark, moody cinematography mirrors its characters and the secrets and lies hidden within

2. If you liked The Americans you should watch…Resistance

Inspired by the Groupe du musée de l’Homme, Resistance is a period drama set in 1940s Paris documenting a facet of the French Resistance during World War II.

3. If you liked Jane the Virgin you should watch…The Cleaning Lady

Rosa, a single mother, becomes the self-titled “the cleaning lady,” having to clean her local mob’s crime scenes so they’re free from incriminating evidence.

4. If you liked Girls you should watch…Young and Promising

Often compared to Lena Dunham’s Girls, this Norwegian comedy depicts the embarrassing, painful, and fun experiences of three 20-something women.

5. If you liked Breaking Bad or Dexter you should watch…Valkyrien

In order to try and save his wife’s life from a fatal illness, a Norwegian doctor runs an illegal hospital in an unused underground station. Like with Breaking Bad, good and bad boundaries become blurred in this “high-concept” gripping thriller.

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Freelance writer based in the UK.