How Netflix revolutionised foreign-language TV

Subtitled media was once for pretentious film nerds obsessed with Amelie. Netflix has changed this. 

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Netflix’s newly acquired immigrant family comedy Kim’s Convenience, formerly on the CBC network, follows a Korean-Canadian family who own a convenience store in Toronto. It has its warm and funny moments, but the way in which it handles the Korean language leaves much to be desired. It’s just about believable that the immigrant parents would only speak in English to their kids, but it is jarring and impossible to believe that they would speak in only English to each other even when alone. It doesn’t make sense. It’s lazy writing and assumes that the audience isn’t smart enough to handle the slight complexity of subtitles.

Kim’s Convenience is hardly the first such production. But it stands out when viewed on Netflix, because the on-demand streaming site has shown a more sophisticated approach when it comes to its own original content. 

Traditionally, American TV companies have catered to American audiences, who were assumed to be repulsed by foreign languages. Subtitled media was for pretentious film nerds obsessed with Amelie. Happily Netflix doesn’t seem to feel this way, perhaps because it wants to be watched across the whole world.

For instance: Altered Carbon, a cyberpunk sci-fi original show, uses foreign languages cleverly and extensively. While English is the primary tongue, characters slip constantly in and out of others, denoting that in this future, being multilingual is the norm. That reaches out to an audience most other networks ignore: viewers like me, who grew up speaking more than one language. Another success is Jane the Virgin, an Anglicised telenovela (a distinctive form of Latin American soap opera full of ridiculous twists). Its appeal doesn’t just lie in the superb emotional range of its star, Gina Rodriguez, but in its authentic portrayal of the immigrant experience. For four seasons, Jane the Virgin gives its audience agency and trusts them to understand the distinctions between the warm multigenerational Latin American Villanueva family.

The same is true of the Netflix original sitcom One Day at a Time, centred around a Cuban-American family in Los Angeles. Both shows veer away from the need to pander to monolinguals, instead welcoming the millions who come from a dual-language speaking background, even if it’s not a Spanish one. They manage to be relatable to so many fans (in Jane the Virgin’s case, despite a rollercoaster plot) due to their attention to detail.

Not all Netflix shows get it so right. Narcos was one of Netflix’s first ventures, and it set a standard other companies suddenly became desperate to keep up with. But the Columbian-set crime drama wasn’t without its criticisms. While its use of Spanish was applauded, its authenticity was questioned by Colombians. Accusations of sloppy accents and exploitation of the stereotypical association of Colombians with drugs and cartels were hard to ignore. It remains a popular programme, but it goes to show that creating an authentic experience is more than casting from a Latinx pool of actors – especially if that means ending up with Pablo Escobar having an accent equivalent to William Wallace being played by an actor with an inescapable Australian twang.

Yet even if Netflix's linguistic gambles do not always pay off, it shows a healthy appetite to produce content for a wider demographic than the average TV network. For instance, Japan is a country renowned for innovation, but this has been mainly been channelled into anime, rather than live action television. Yet Netflix is producing Japanese originals such as Switched, an intensely teenage caper that highlights its willingness to experiment. Again, international viewers can watch with subtitles.

Indeed, on Netflix, you can lose hours just deciding which foreign-language film to watch, from Call My Agent (in French and subtitled for the non-French speakers’ pleasure) to the bountiful selection of Bollywood movies. Netflix has simply made foreign films and TV shows accessible in a way that didn’t exist before.

Where Netflix gets this most right is in its new original show Rishta.com, which revolves around an Indian matrimony agency. India is home to numerous languages and Rishta.com highlights the Hinglish (Hindi and English) in which many speak. It’s common for most dual-language speakers to create a hybrid language that becomes a language of its own. Those not familiar with this phenomenon can get a glimpse into cultures they may not have otherwise accessed, and those who grew up this way feel represented.

Netflix is slowly but surely changing the game when it comes to diversity. It’s clearly aware that being diverse requires more than including more non-white faces and it’s clear to see that its producers are learning to value and portray other cultures without whitewashing them for the sake of convenience.