Why is Turkish Drama captivating audiences across the globe? What makes it different from American TV?
My friend mh has written the wonderful article below adeptly articulating many of the factors that make Turkish Drama so appealing to me as well. Welcome mh!
In the past year alone, much has been written about the growing popularity of Turkish drama series, known in Turkey as dizileri (or dizi in English), and how in a few short years, the industry is now only second to Hollywood in exports of its shows. Many renowned global newspapers such as the New York Times, The Guardian have provided coverage on the topic, each positing its theory to explain the meteoric rise of these shows worldwide.
Pakistani writer Fatima Bhutto, a member of the illustrious political family of her land, also talks about it in her book “New Kings of the World: Dispatches from Bollywood, Dizi and K-Pop”. Bhutto suggests that as demographics of societies have changed through migration, either from the East to West or from the rural to urban areas, the coinciding decline in the soft power born of American military presence have altered the kinds of stories the changing audience can relate to. As the migrants still struggle to build a better life, they find more resonance with the traditional, conservative, family friendly plots essayed by Turkish dramas. When discussing the decline of American TV/Hollywood, in a New York Times article, she says, "There isn’t one moment we can point to, rather it’s a perfect storm of factors including plummeting American prestige, the belated rediscovery that local cultures are valuable in and of themselves, and the rise of classes with different tastes and backgrounds emerging out of the turbulence of globalization, migration and urbanization."
Magnificent Century, one of the most successful dizis
The rise of the Turkish dizi industry is nothing short of phenomenal, which went from having exports of ~ $10,000 in 2004 to ~ $500M as reported in November 2019. The viewership is extraordinary - Magnificent Century (2011-2014; 139 episodes) is said to have reached a global audience of 500M+. Audiences all across the globe where Turkish drama can be accessed are embracing the storytelling, with unexpected success stories out of Latin America and South Asia. Interestingly, the English speaking countries remain a relatively unexplored territory for Turkish drama. In 2016, Netflix’s decision to start streaming Turkish drama, quickly followed by investments in local productions, is leading the charge in recreating the same kind of popularity for the genre that it enjoys in other global markets.
As an active participant in the thriving and growing English speaking fan base for Turkish Drama, I wanted to share my theories about why we gravitate towards these tales coming out of a land most of us have no connection to through ancestry, culture or language.
Finding my way to Diziland
Mevalana Rumi, mystic and poet; died in Konya, Turkey
An enthusiast of the global world of the literary/visual arts, I found Turkish dizis on Netflix in 2017. With little prior exposure or direct contact with Turkey or her culture, except for being familiar with Mevlana Rumi’s poetry, I fell in love with the Turkish pace of unfolding a layered narrative. Even though many Turkish shows are remakes of originals from other countries, the dizis give the same story a life of its own. Intricate human relationships steeped in family values and traditions are portrayed through evocative imagery and music that stoke the senses, while powers of intentions are masterfully woven into the fabric of the story.
There is a spiritual realism in how the characters are brought to life, almost always pervaded with themes of slow burning, epic love. Productions are set against visually appealing cinematography showcasing the best of historic Istanbul or other locales. As much as the story is about the characters, it also feels as though it is about the land that houses the inner fabric of Turkey and her society. With most scenes shot on location as opposed to within manufactured sets and studios, accentuated by melodious tunes by brilliant composers, all the elements in a given shot tell a story. From the gritty neighborhood streets to the immaculately furnished mansions, the lavish fashions to the simple ones, from traditional values to the modern ones, with each portrayal one begins to appreciate the various social layers that exist and how that affects the interactions and choices in a hierarchical society.
Since Turkey is a melting pot of different ethnic groups, united through the Turkic languages and also through their practice of Islam, the actors and actresses are not homogeneous in their facial structures, features, colors or physical attributes. Their near Caucasian features and physique appeal to Western sensibilities, and their strong family values speak to those with Eastern sensibilities. Many of the celebrities have athletic backgrounds, many are highly educated, they bear their facial imperfections as badges of honor, they are articulate, seem accessible, and seem very open to sharing their family and real life interactions through social media channels on Instagram or Twitter. When these ‘real’ people play the characters on screen, there is an added layer of authenticity that seems infused into their performance.
As a South Asian immigrant to the United States, I resonate deeply with the modernism embedded in the traditional values depicted in the shows. The natural fusion of values between the East and the West, with deep roots in spirituality, seems an extension of who I am as a person today and my love for Turkish drama gives credence to Ms. Bhutto’s theory of migrants finding resonance in the family centered tales. Where my own theory takes it a few steps forward lies in how the fans for this genre engage as fans.
Convergence of Values
For the most part, my movie watching had been an individual pursuit, enjoyed at my own curation and pace. For the first time, after watching Kurt Seyit ve Sura on Netflix (no longer available), I came upon a thriving online community of fellow English speaking Turkish drama enthusiasts, including those from foreign markets already familiar with Turkish drama. Thousands of members seek social media platforms to discuss the shows, plots, actors, indigenous customs and much more. Of the many discussion forums I visit for various news channels, academic or professional forums, I have not come across another where I made as many virtual friends across the globe, all united in our love for the thought provoking themes portrayed in the dizis and in our desire to expand our knowledge horizons.
The stories are told through characters making fluid decisions within fluid life scenarios. Much like any average mortal regardless of culture or creed, the lives in the stories often move at a glacial pace, with no hope for instant gratification (each dizi episode is 2+ hours long; even though recent series' are shorter, some have more than 100 episodes). Many outcomes remain open to interpretation, leading to deep discussions among the viewers. There is no given formula in how a story will end. There is no obligation to provide a happy ending and stories that may have started as a light-hearted family drama or romantic comedy may turn towards a heart-wrenching finale. Unlikely love stories survive the tests of time whereas ones that are expected to flourish may have a tragic end. Due to abrupt show cancellations in a highly competitive industry, some have no closure at all. Seemingly, presenting a dramatized version of real life, in the shows and in how the industry operates.
I find the underlying theme to many of these unexpected twists to be what the Turkish call kismet i.e. fate. One’s faith will be tested repeatedly, and we become witness to the journey as some fight through it all without compromising on their principles, while lesser characters waiver. This lends to the strain of spirituality in how the stories are told. The powers of intention matter and actions can morph over time as circumstances and stimulus change. The human experience is treated with compassion and reverence, which translates into an interwoven fabric of relationships where joys and sorrows are dependent on each other’s choices. It is not only the hero who evolves, but also supporting characters whose lives impact each other. Many of the stories I have watched remind me of Rumi’s profound words, “You are a mirror reflecting a noble face. This universe is not outside of you. Look inside yourself; everything that you want, you are already that.”
For part 2 of her article, which includes a survey of 100 Turkish Drama fans and further analysis of its appeal, visit her blog MH-Musings here.
mh is a tech entrepreneur and philanthropist, who seeks to leave the world better than she found it. She stumbled upon Turkish drama in 2017 and fell in love with the human stories that come to life in the meandering narratives. With a knack for branding and a love for writing, in her spare time mh. finds joy in literary analysis of various shows and other writing projects. She publishes her written work through her account on twitter @entrespire and website www.mh-musings.com.
mh, her husband of 20 years, and two young children enjoy being in nature and head out to the rustic coast of California whenever they can. Through her life’s journey, she is learning the art of living in the present, as waiting for the future to happen is exhausting at best.
-Special thanks to mh for permission to share her article!
-More reasons why women are loving Turkish Drama!