As adapted from my post for blog.brain-scape.com
When we got cable in my housemy life changed forever. In Venezuela, this means going from watching old TV shows in syndication dubbed in Colombian Spanish; to watching the same shows and more in their original language with Spanish subtitles. At first, I was somewhat apprehensive and complained loudly to my mom my genuine fear that Fran Drescher’s voice would not stay true to the nasal, whiny tone of the Spanish audio on Venezuelan national television. Hold back the vicious criticism, I was only nine years old at the time. It was important to me. But soon I came to appreciate the benefits of watching the Nanny in its original Queens English with somewhat mistranslated subtitles.
Finally all the puns and language jokes made sense (like the one I just made with the Queen as a person and Queens the borough), but other than that nothing really changed as far as humor and content were concerned. The issues had the same cultural impact and the jokes required only basic human experiences to understand.
Television in the 20th Century meant laugh tracks, valuable learned lessons, live studio audiences, and catchy punchlines. It isn’t hard for people from all walks of life to follow the cheap laughs when you’re audibly being told when something is meant to be funny. Thankfully, audiences in the United States have evolved and become more sophisticated, partly due to the recent decline in the quality of movie production. This has made the television industry realize that viewers are usually underestimated and always ahead of the writers in terms of plot twists and character development.
TV writers are the gods of their medium and they’ve learned to keep their viewers guessing. If you can guess what the next unlikely awkward pairing of the Glee kids will be, they won’t have done their job. Glee aside, the comedy and drama in shows is now much more subtle, intelligent and culturally significant. This progress is unfortunately bad news for major network executives that want to reach the highest number of viewers possible to make the most profit. They’ve realized that in order to increase the Nielsen ratings, they have to make television relatable to a broader audience, therefore generalizing comedic situations to have them apply to people in Latin America with little English skills and very little familiarity with the North American culture; as well as to the organic string bean farmer from Vermont. It’s a communist tactic used for capitalist purposes. The result is a lightly condescending, hugely dumbed-down crap fest that gets 20 million viewers to tune in worldwide.
Compare Full House and Arrested Development. Both deal with the internal and external conflicts of less than traditional families who have lost the motherly figure in their unit and have to learn to deal with the cards they’ve been dealt. One would be comprehensible to a deaf monkey and lasted eight seasons while the other is a critically acclaimed comedic masterpiece and barely held on for three years on the air.
It is a sad truth that has all kinds of cultural, racial, and socioeconomic implications that contribute to the image most foreigners have of American culture. For a huge chunk of the population, television is the only way for them to experience it. That’s why many people in Caracas think of New York City as this dangerous place because of how film has portrayed it, even though Caracas is one of the most dangerous cities in the world.
A perfect example of this is high school movies, like the American Pie franchise. When one of my friends did a year abroad at a small high school in Montana, everyone immediately asked her whether she was a cheerleader or a nerd, if she dated the attractive blond quarterback and became prom queen. And every time without fail, right on the tail end of that stream of questions, someone would ask if her American friends asked really ignorant questions like where Venezuela was exactly, or if the classes she had to take were extremely easy for her. If the media output is utterly bland and no importance is given to the content that has genuine value for society, series like Two and a Half Men, with its enhanced coloring and bombastic budgets, have a much bigger impact on those observing from the outside. There is a huge connection between American media and the widespread international belief in American ignorance. It is actually the reversal of the entertainment industry’s attempts to reach larger audiences. If you simplify the majority of content to match the fluency levels of second language speakers, people whose English is learned will think that it’s the only media output. Naturally and possibly subconsciously, they will conclude that the show was created for native speakers and the limiting of content is for the sake of the American audiences. It’s a cycle of our own doing.
At the same time, I am fortunate enough to have become entirely fluent in English fairly quickly, so I have developed a mildly snobbish attitude toward less linguistically challenging distractions. Most people in Latin America did not grow up with the same multilingual advantages that I did. For the majority, coming home from living your life in Spanish (or whatever language you speak in your day to day) to decompress by watching some TV usually implies some mental effort required to switch to English.
It’s as if you came home to find that all entertainment and media were in the language you learned at school. Like I mentioned in my other blog post, understanding humor in a foreign language requires a certain level of proficiency. While it is somewhat insulting that the shows written for my demographic are purposely dumbed down, it is a necessity. The majority doesn’t have the energy or stamina to try to keep up with the quick wit and fast pace of Arrested Development, not because they are intellectually inferior in any way, but because they face the added challenge of translating every single phrase in their minds while still listening for the next lines, for 22 minutes. Some even add reading the subtitles into the mix. It’s very exhausting and I find it hard just trying to create a clear picture of what the process is like. A lot gets lost in that stage of bilingual multitasking.
It’s not that the more subtle sitcoms aren’t available in Latin America - they are, both dubbed and subtitled - but their audience is small in contrast. The people that enjoy those shows, myself included, are in the smallest percentile. Insignificant to South American networks, if you will.
Media is the greatest export of the United States. One could argue many things against this decree, but if you think about it, the whole world watches American TV and is entertained by Hollywood. Other countries may produce their own national programs and films independently, but they will always be competing and overshadowed by the Seinelds, Friends, and Trasformers. TV and movie writers have to walk a fine line between comedic sophistication and international appeal, which might one day lead to a bigger divide in the entertainment industry. Some sacrifice quality for relatability and a higher success rate, while others choose to be eternally antagonized by their networks.
In any case, with all the TV shows and movies available to us anywhere at any time of day on several devices for free*, don’t waste your precious time watching things you don’t appreciate. Watch what makes you happy and don’t obsess over the intentions of the entertainment powers that be (like I just did in my eternal rant).
*depending on your moral flexibility
Here is the Nanny as i knew it: