The recent rise of foreign language dramas proves that it is now a medium for concentration rather than distractionby Lucinda Smyth / December 15, 2017 / Leave a comment
Nearly twenty-five years ago, in 1993, David Foster Wallace wrote “E Unibus Pluram: Television and US Fiction”—an essay in which he extolled the virtues and pitfalls of watching television (among other things). Wallace saw TV as an essentially low-brow but important cultural force which reflected “what we as Audience want to see ourselves as.”
In other words, he believed that it operated at a level of desire, placating viewers rather than challenging them in the way that good literature does. “TV’s biggest minute-by-minute appeal is that it engages without demanding,” he wrote, also citing a list of characteristics that TV was thought to possess: “hackneyed plots, the unlikely dialogue, the Cheez-Whiz resolutions, the bland condescension of the news anchors, the shrill wheedling of commercials.”
“E Unibus Pluram” was written before the release of The Sopranos, before Mad Men and House of Cards, and before the advent of big-budget streaming services like Netflix. As such, several aspects of Wallace’s essay now seem as outdated as the sweaty bandana he used to wear. In 2017, pop culture often classifies as serious art—Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year—and TV operates at a level of sophistication and complexity that is far from the slapstick melodrama of the early 1990s. (There are, obviously, examples of great TV from earlier decades, including Twin Peaks, but these tend to be exceptions which prove the rule. The consistently high standard of programmes today is unlike anything seen before.)
Part of this shift is down to improved technology, increased funds, and a willingness from networks and producers to take creative risks. But it is also because our attitude toward television has changed, along with the cultural landscape. In a world of constant connectivity and digital distraction, TV is now considered a positive cultural influence. In contrast with social media (which despite its name is usually solitary as well as voyeuristic) TV is often a communal activity, and even when you watch on your own, you are concentrating on something specific. This isn’t usually the case with social media. Though the internet offers a wealth of information, with fifteen tabs open, you are less likely to concentrate on one thing for a long period of time and therefore remember what you’ve been reading.
It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that in this climate there is evidence to suggest that watching significant amounts of TV can help with concentration. In 2015, a study conducted by Jessica Black and Jennifer L Barnes (published in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts) concluded that binge-watching award-winning dramas often improves concentration as well as empathy. TV is therefore no longer just a mirror reflecting only “what we want to see,” but a medium that functions on a similar level to literary fiction. It can be both artistic and educational.
In light of this, it’s worth considering the current popularity of foreign language dramas. Channel Four’s Walter Presents offers an on-demand service which exclusively streams foreign-language content, and other providers including Netflix, Amazon Prime, Sky Atlantic and the BBC have seamlessly integrated European imports into their mainstream line-ups.
This autumn, two of the most talked-about new shows were German dramas: Babylon Berlin, on Sky Atlantic, and Dark on Netflix. Babylon Berlin is a slick noir set in the Weimar Republic, following the investigations and personal dilemmas of Vice Squad detective Gereon Rath. Stylistically it’s daring—with lots of yellow smoky lighting and long set-pieces—and its panoramic spread of characters has led to comparisons with Mad Men. Dark, on the other hand, is a gritty supernatural series, not dissimilar to Stranger Things. Both offerings make for compelling television, but the fact that we are watching them in the first place does raise questions about how our attitude to different types of TV has developed. Even ten years ago, if you said that you were staying in to watch a German noir set in the Weimar Republic, people would assume you were incredibly pretentious. Now it classifies as a mainstream activity. So what has happened, and what does it say about us?
“Ten years ago, if you said that you were staying in to watch a German noir set in the Weimar Republic people would assume you were incredibly pretentious”
The recent appetite for foreign drama can likely be traced back, most directly, to Scandi-noir, the most obvious culprit among these being The Killing. The Danish thriller hit BBC4 in January 2011 and was an instant success with UK audiences. It was quickly followed up by Danish-Swedish import The Bridge, which drew in two million viewers when it aired that summer. The popularity of these shows was, I suspect, also bolstered by the upcoming release of David Fincher’s English-language adaptation of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, starring stubble-jawed Daniel Craig, who was at that time also playing Bond. Nevertheless, a trend was born, and UK and US commissioners were persuaded that their audiences wanted to see more foreign imports.
They were right: The Trapped, The Legacy, and Modus are just a few examples of successful follow-ups, and since then we’ve had a swathe of foreign language drama not only from Scandinavia but all over Europe, including Germany’s Deutschland 83, and France’s The Returned. As Gabriel Tate puts it, writing for the Guardian, foreign drama has become very much “de rigeur with UK viewers.”
That’s the recent history, then, but what’s striking about the enduring popularity of foreign drama is what it reveals about our capacity for concentration while watching TV—or to put it more accurately, our willingness to challenge ourselves.
Watching a programme in a foreign language is not the same experience as watching something in your native tongue. It exercises a slightly different part of the brain, and—whether dubbed or subtitled—requires an extra degree of attention. A sort of adaptation process needs to occur while you’re watching: either you adjust your eyes to flick between the images and the subtitles, or if it’s dubbed, you have to force yourself to ignore the jarring, out-of-sync lip-movements.
The two German debuts give helpful illustrations of this—Dark is dubbed; Babylon Berlin is subtitled. In the first instance, the dubbing gives the show an unnerving, otherworldly quality which works well with its tone: there’s a sense that something isn’t quite right. Babylon Berlin’s subtitling, on the other hand, means that you are always paying attention to the dialogue on the screen. Unless you speak German, it is not something that you can just have playing in the background. It is an immersive experience which requires full concentration.
The fact that audiences are voluntarily putting themselves through the challenge of this type of viewing puts a positive spin on the impact of the television age. Contrary to Wallace’s earlier sentiments, these are programmes which both “engage and demand.” TV is now a medium for concentration rather than distraction, and foreign language drama intensifies this concentration. It is a reprieve from the digital circus, as well as a way to expand perspective and understand other ways of viewing.
Ultimately, it is not just that television has changed or that our attitudes towards it have changed. It’s also changed us—and in a way that might not be as apocalyptic as previously feared.