Last weekend saw the release of the third and final season of Netflix’s mind-bending epic Dark – a mesmerising show that began its run as a simple mystery drama before evolving into one of the most exhilarating pieces of sci-fi television I can remember watching.
Dark is, for my money at least, one of the very finest programmes the streaming platform has to offer, complete with superb visuals, exquisite performances and an endlessly fascinating plot. And yet I can’t help but feel that the release of the closing instalment was relatively muted – it certainly didn’t arrive on Netflix with anything like the fanfare that usually greets a new season of some of the streamer’s big hitters – Stranger Things or The Crown, for example.
Now, there are a number of reasons why the show might not be considered as marketable as some of those other series – the fact that it’s plot is admittedly rather complicated shouldn’t be overlooked, for example – but it’s hard to argue that one of the main reasons is the simple fact that the series is in German, and so for most English-language viewers will require subtitles. (There’s also an option to watch the series with an English dub, although quite why anyone would wish to take up that option is beyond me.)
In fairness, Dark is one of Netflix’s more heavily promoted foreign language series (perhaps only Money Heist gets a better deal) but my point is that “foreign language” shouldn’t be treated as some kind of niche genre in itself, as something separate and specialist.
There’s absolutely no reason why foreign language shows shouldn’t get the same kind of publicity as arguably weaker shows that just happen to be in the English language, rather than dumped on the site and left to languish in its far corners, rarely to be watched – as is often the case. Netflix has produced shows from France, Sweden, Japan, Belgium, Israel, Argentina, South Korea and others – but how many of those have you actually heard of, let alone seen take up space on the streamer’s UK home page?
Now, there’s a theory that English-speaking audiences simply don’t have an appetite for foreign language film and TV – that subtitles present too much of an effort – but this is an entirely erroneous assertion. We need only look back to earlier this year and the tremendous success of Parasite at the global box office to understand that when there’s a sustained marketing push around a production in another language, viewers are more than willing to buy into the hype.
Parasite was unquestionably a terrific film and deserved its Oscar glory, but the idea that it is some kind of an outlier – the only foreign language film worthy of our time in a sea of superior English language productions – is absolutely ludicrous. Every year there is an avalanche of wonderful films from across the world released in the UK that are at the very least in the same league as Parasite, but which don’t get anything like the coverage, and which are therefore only seen on the big screen by avowed cinephiles in the country’s various arthouse and independent venues.
Upon winning a Golden Globe for the film, director Bong Joon-ho himself said, “once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films”. Well, that same logic should be applied to Netflix.
In fact a couple of examples further point to the fact that there’s a ready made audience for these foreign language productions. For one let’s look at the exceptional success of Narcos, which has now run for a total of five seasons (if you include the Mexico variant). Although Narcos is an American production and features English-speaking protagonists, much of the dialogue is in Spanish – and this has done little to put viewers off, with the series consistently ranking among Netflix’s most successful original shows.
Secondly there’s the recent success of the Polish film 365 DNI, which was one of the most viewed films on the platform for weeks after it debuted last month. Now while it’s certainly correct to say that the thing that drew audiences to that particular film wasn’t, ahem, the language – it’s equally true that the dialogue being in a foreign tongue was not seen as a major turn off to the millions of viewers who tuned in.
Imagine, then, the new worlds that could be opened up to viewers if Netflix simply had a bit more belief in its foreign language productions, and a little bit more faith in its English-speaking audience’s ability to read subtitles. The high volume of foreign language content Netflix has is admirable, as is its commitment to becoming an international platform, and it should certainly be praised for that. But it would be so much better if they actually treated some of these shows as big event releases in their own right – and not as niche little oddities that you have to seek out on your own.