While we live in a very cross-cultural world, and our choices for media to consume has increased in variety, we tend to seek out what is familiar, what is similar to us. An Australian, given the (not so)expansive collection of media we are offered, we gravitate to what is closest to our own culture, language, and social values. This is cultural proximity, we seek what we know. We’d prefer to watch The West Wing than Les Revenants.
But every now and then, or more often than you’d think, comes a show, a movie, or even a genre, that somehow breaks past these barriers and the ‘cultural discount’, the value of a program decreasing with the need for subtitles or being too ‘difficult’ to enjoy. But if you ask me, the cultural discount doesn’t exist. You need subtitles to understand what the hell is going on in the West Wing too sometimes. The only thing blocking someone’s ability to enjoy a program is simply patience. You can learn to understand and enjoy something that does not have a great cultural proximity to you. I watched The Killing and a French Mystery show and enjoyed both despite not knowing anything about their respective cultures.
Our aversion to foreign shows and the need to ‘read’ a tv show with the subtitles, is slowly fading, probably in relation to our desire for new and diverse stories. TV channels and streaming services offering alternative content to consume. ‘The Killing’ along with many other Nordic Noir styled shows, found large international audiences captivated by its unique, gritty and haunting style, capturing their ordinary that will be our un-ordinary. The landscape will often be central to the program, adding to the whimsical, mystifying quality that will entrance people in Britain sitting on the sofa watching TV on a Sunday night.
The cultural impact of television format has multiple layers of identity that guide us on how it will impact ourselves. Television still remains the largest format for consumption amongst our world, and often shapes the way we respond and react to the real world, not just the one being shown to us on the flat screen. Viewers will deploy a limited set of repertoires to make sense of a show from a foreign culture, and try and relate it to their own. But not everything will always follow clear connections, an blocks your ability to understand and enjoy it. Allowing yourself to be receptive of a show outside of your purview allows you to build connections and strengthen your emotional understanding.
Whilst not technically a noir, ‘Les Revenants’ similarly caught an international following, particularly in the UK, US and Australia. They were subtitled and packaged to other cultures with little more processing. It’s character-oriented episodes a unique style (similar to The Killing’s alteration to the typical ‘murder of the week’ approach to crime shows). The US eventually remade the French show into A&E’s ‘The Returned’, which generated abysmal ratings and cancelled without a finale. Audiences far greater enjoyed the original French version despite being a foreign show. I watched both the French and American versions, and though the adaptation was rather seamless recreation, it lost a certain….je ne sais quoi.
While a foreign show might be valued less if it is ‘too hard’ for people to understand, and the subtitles inhibit our ability to understand style and culture that may not be received through the subtitles; It may also be this element that is lost in adaptations. One of the greatest appeals of Nordic Noir, and Foreign Mystery/Crime genres, is the sense of unfamiliarity, the unease you are never sure what is going on. It is quite fitting in these genres, matched with the style and aesthetic of shows like The Killing and Les Revenants. The barrier, the subtitles, block you from fully understanding what is happening, but it is not a detriment. You are kept at an arms length from these characters, similarly going into intense depth and detail of the story. Having a slightly removed perspective, might make it difficult to sometimes follow what is happening outside of the subtitles you are reading, the cinematography often lends itself to bridge the divide. Having a foreign show be successful to other cultures isn’t an easy task to partake, but can be done. Vise Versa, you too can enjoy foreign show- don’t worry, the subtitles won’t be too distracting for long. I barely notice them now.
‘The Performance of Cultural Citizenship: Audiences and the Politics of Multicultural Television Drama’ Müller, F & Hermes, J ‘Critical Studies in Media Communication‘ 27 , Iss. 2,2010