“Let’s go to Paris,” my wife, Carol, said to me last weekend. “Absolutely!” I replied.
Were we having a mutual daydream of roaming free and far, brought on by a year of lockdown?
Well, sort of. What she was really saying, and I was enthusiastically assenting to, was: “Let’s watch ‘Call My Agent!,’ that French series on Netflix we now can’t live without.”
During the pandemic, watching foreign-language shows has become, quite literally, the only way to travel. At a time when we’ve never felt more confined, it’s been a way to transport ourselves to another place and even broaden our cultural horizons a bit. Any trade-offs seem pretty negligible by comparison.
Subtitles? Pas de problème, mon ami. These days I’m not just watching TV; I’m reading it.
In fact, all four of the shows I’m currently bingeing are in foreign languages, with subtitles: “Borgen,” a taut Danish series on Netflix about the political intrigue and family tensions swirling around Denmark’s first female prime minister; “Gomorrah,” a bloody Italian drama about organized-crime warfare in Naples, now on HBO Max; “Lupin,” a stylish French series about a professional thief and master of disguise; and “Call My Agent!,” a delicious dramedy about movie agents and their clientele, with real French film stars playing exaggerated versions of themselves.
What’s telling is not just that I didn’t set out deliberately to concoct an international diet, but that there’s nothing remarkable about my televisual trips abroad. For many viewers, the search for something good to watch no longer stops at the water’s edge. Having exported TV shows abroad for decades, a nation notoriously incurious about other countries has grown steadily more receptive to imported programs.
Streaming platforms have both stimulated and met this demand by greatly expanding their catalogs of foreign-language series. A Netflix spokesperson told me that viewership of non-English titles by US subscribers climbed by more than 50 percent in 2020, compared with the previous, non-pandemic year. And momentum is apparently still building: In January, “Lupin” became the first French series to appear on Netflix’s US Top 10 list.
While obviously accelerated by the nation’s protracted quarantine, changes in US viewing habits were already underway before the shutdown began. A spokesperson for Amazon Studios said the number of non-US original series and movies launched on Amazon Prime Video has doubled every year since 2017. “Made in Heaven” and “The Family Man,” both from India and both launched two years ago, have proven to be among Amazon Prime’s most popular international original series in the United States.
Yes, foreign-language shows can serve as a means of partly escaping the confinement imposed by the coronavirus, but their popularity also reflects a growing openness in the United States to the rest of the world. (Interestingly, this intensified at the same time the former president, Donald Trump, was bellowing “America first” every time he got near a microphone. President Biden recently signaled a break with that go-it-alone approach, declaring that “America is back, the trans-Atlantic alliance is back.”)
Because it’s widely understood that we now live and work in a globalized economy, it’s only logical that our curiosity about other cultures would grow and that we would seek to satisfy that curiosity through our trusty medium, television.
With this country having just survived a nasty threat to our own democracy, it’s been engrossing to watch the prime minister repeatedly have to struggle in Netflix’s “Borgen,” within the parliamentary system, to keep her fractious and precarious coalition together. Anyone who associates French film solely with seriousness of purpose and lofty art-house fare will find a corrective in “Call My Agent!,” which illustrates that the obsession with celebrities crosses national boundaries. International shows can function as both a window onto another culture and a mirror of our own.
Also, I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen enough TV shows set in New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles to last several lifetimes. So it’s been nice to vicariously take in the wonders of Paris as an employee of the talent agency whizzes around the City of Light on his motorized scooter in “Call My Agent!”; or to see the Neo-Baroque splendor of Christiansborg Palace in Copenhagen, the building that houses the Danish government and is colloquially known as Borgen, in the series of the same name; or to feast my eyes on the I.M. Pei-designed glass pyramid outside the Louvre in the first episode of “Lupin.”
I wonder, too, if the popularity of foreign-language programming reflects the emergence of a more generalized spirit of adventure among a viewing audience whose cultural appetites have been both whetted and broadened by Peak TV, with its intricate narrative structures and psychological complexity.
Moreover, countless American shows in recent years have been adapted from or inspired by shows from abroad. A partial list would include “The Office,” “House of Cards,” “Ugly Betty,” “Shameless,” “Jane the Virgin,” “In Treatment,” and “Homeland.” Has that kindled a desire among viewers to cut out the middleman and check out the original source of all this programming?
Then, of course, there’s the simple law of supply and demand. The proliferation of TV shows here over the past two decades has revealed how much previously untapped creative talent will push its way to the surface if there are enough channels of content distribution. Netflix today produces TV shows in more than 20 countries, according to the service’s spokesperson.
As streaming services increasingly license or produce original scripted series from abroad, it stands to reason that creatives in other countries would be inspired to fill that need.
The result is an overflowing smorgasbord from which to choose. My personal to-watch list includes the aforementioned “Made in Heaven,” an Indian drama about the operators of a wedding-planning company in New Delhi, which has won praise for grappling with social issues like homophobia, class prejudice, and sexual harassment, and is streaming on Amazon Prime; “Deutschland 83,” a Cold War thriller about an undercover spy operating in West Germany for East Germany’s Stasi, which was the first German-language series to air on an American TV network and is now streaming on Hulu; and “Losing Alice,” an Israeli series about a middle-aged director who becomes obsessed with a young screenwriter, being presented on Apple+ in Hebrew, with English subtitles.
Of course, the picture is not all rosy. Like their US counterparts, international TV shows have faced immense pandemic-caused production challenges. For instance, in December Netflix canceled “Queen Sono,” its first African original series, after only one season. The second season had been slated to be filmed in multiple countries, and creator-director Kagiso Lediga said in a statement at the time: “We wrote a beautiful story that spanned the continent but unfortunately could not be executed in these current trying times.” On Twitter, he called his series “another casualty of 2020.”
Live stage performance was certainly a casualty of 2020. But before the curtain came down, the growing interest in international fare was reflected in the theater landscape in Boston, whose vaunted self-image as the Hub of the Universe was vividly encapsulated in that old story about the local dowager who, when asked why she didn’t travel, supposedly replied: “Why should I travel when I’m already here?”
Today, the city wears a more international face onstage than it ever has, principally due to the emergence of ArtsEmerson, a presenting and producing organization that operates under the auspices of Emerson College. Nearly half of the stage productions ArtsEmerson has presented since its 2010 launch — more than 60 out of around 140 — have been international in origin, according to a spokesperson.
On those opening nights, the lobbies of the Paramount Center or the Cutler Majestic Theatre are often filled with the sounds of spectators speaking Russian, German, Chinese, Spanish, and other languages. I’m looking forward to hearing those voices again and seeing performances of international (and domestic, and local) productions at Boston’s theaters when they can safely reopen.
Till then, my remote will function as my passport. While the journeys we’re taking these days extend only as far as the TV room, our true destination is thousands of miles away — and memorable sights await us there.