I’m not going to lie to you: some days I am just sitting around watching TV. What can you do? I am only human, and TV’s hold on me is strong. Especially German TV! It is a fantastic combination of things I have never seen before AND all my favorite TV shows for hours on end. The original plan was to watch familiar things in German so that I could pick up the language better. Well, as it turns out, that is more or less useless. As those of you who may know other languages already know, there is no 1:1 translation between the two languages. I keep watching shows where I know just about all the words, hoping that will make it easier to learn their German equivalents, only to find that the German translations are saying other things entirely, because the different languages have different colloquialisms and references and such. Which, when you spend two seconds thinking about it, makes total sense and it’s a little embarrassing that I thought it would be otherwise.
Take Oklahoma for example. There is a local outdoor theater, called Waldbühne Heessen that does a summer show every year, and this year it is Oklahoma.
Germans LOVE Oklahoma (well, my German family does anyway). It is a play I am relatively familiar with, I know a lot of the words (mainly because of the English revival from a few years ago starring Hugh Jackman, which you should watch because it’s really good), so we went to see it. The most fun thing about it was the fact that all the familiar phrases from the original English text had been replaced with German sayings.
There’s a song where Curly and Laurey are arguing about who is to blame for people always saying the two of them are in love. Curly gives her a list of reasons why she is the culprit, “Why did you take the trouble to bake my favorite pie? Granting your wish I carved our initials on a tree. Just keep a slice of all the advice you give so free.” Germans don’t know the phrase “slice of advice” and even if they did, the German word for tree (Baum) would not rhyme with the word for free (frei, pronounced fry as in “today is Freitag!”!). So, instead, they translated the line to rhyme baum with zaum or “horse’s bridle.” So Curly essentially tells Laurie to stuff a bit in her mouth, like a horse, and not talk so much. It doesn’t sound quite so mean when he sings it.
So, such is the adventure of watching American popculture via German translations. Sometimes it helps me pick up little coloquialisms, small words, and the rhythms of conversational German. But usually, it is most interesting for other reasons. Namely this: I watch characters I know in situations I recognize; BUT even if I know what they are saying in English, I usually don’t know exactly what they are saying as the scene plays out in German. So most of the time I am JUST watching TV, and just watching familar shows sans narrative, has given me a new incite into a lot of shows:
Ted Mosby is one of the most miserable characters in popculture. I kind of knew this before, but when you watch this show in another language, you see that most of the time Ted is either moping, being yelled at by his friends, doing incredibly hurtful and inconsiderate things to others, or ALL THREE of those things at the same time! To be fair, I didn’t like him much in English either, and that may be the point of the show, him telling his kids about his journey towards, not just meeting their mom, but becoming a decent human being. Maybe there is an existential bent to the show that I never appreciated until now, a kind of Kafka-esque desperation to BECOME something better over time. But, man, he has a long way to go. Also: Barney is hilarious in any language, and Marshall is always super cute.
When I thought about watching this show in another language, I figured it would be a long stream of words I don’t understand, frequently interrupted by popculture references. This is actually not the case most of the time. Entire scenes with Lorelie and Rory will pass by and I never hear the names of any filmmakers or obscure one-hit wonders. This means one of two things: either they have replaced these references with their German equivalents (which would be an insanely fun job, I think. What is the German equivalent of Sophia Coppola’s performance in Godfather 3?), OR the German viewing audience is missing out on a key part of these characters’ psyches. The part that is littered with an encylopedic knowledge of American popculture and makes them bad at interpersonal relationships.
Everyone on this show is bored. All the time. If you ever read or hear anything about the cast of this show “having so much fun on set,” they are lying.
Scrubs is Scrubs. It seems to translate extremely well, maybe because of the extremely visual nature of the main character’s imagination sequences? Doctor shows about sex, in general, seem to translate well. I don’t like Grey’s Anatomy, but I have it from reliable sources that it is about exactly the same in both America and Germany. Apparently this is where America and Germany are most similar, doctors and sex.
As far as I am concerned, Malcolm in the Middle might be the most underrated comedy…maybe ever. It is brilliant, primarily because of the performances. Every person on that show, from the oldest actors to little Dewey, is giving 100% all the time. You don’t need language to understand this show at all. If you have a basic understanding of family dynamics, you are solid. It may as well be a silent movie, Bryan Cranston might be the Charlie Chaplin of our time. Don’t believe me? Find it, watch it, turn the sound down. Actually, it might even be more enjoyable that way, because I did not enjoy this show nearly as much when I could hear it.
(Side note: Ok, I overstated it a bit. I just tried it, and that show is completely boring with no sound. So you need the sound, but not words. Seriously, I am floored by these performances. I always thought it was weird that this show got so many awards, but now I don’t think it got enough. I don’t know if I have seen any ensemble so consistently good, let alone one with such a wide range of age and experience.)
So I have found myself watching not one, not two, but three clip shows…without realizing they are clip shows. For those not aware, most American series have a clip show about once a year, where they attempt to save money by shooting one or two original scenes in which the main characters have some reason to reminisce about all the crazy times they have had and we see sort of a “best of” set of scenes from previous episodes. I think I have seen a Brady Bunch clip show before, so it is not a new concept by any means. It is, however, always lame.
But, there is something that didn’t occur to me until coming to Germany, where I sat three times in the last two weeks watching a show and saying after about 10 or 15 minutes, “Hey, this is a clip show!” I have always disliked Clip Shows because I feel cheated. If there is a show I like, and I know I only get to see 21 or 22 new episodes of that show a year, and one of those is a clip show, then i am getting even less new show than I signed up for. I really see it as being equivalent to opening a new bag of cookies and finding that someone already ate five of them…and then put the crumbs back in the bag. BUT, I have spent so much time avoiding them that I didn’t appreciate what an advanced, interesting way it is of telling a story. For the most part, TV has not done a lot to advance the art of storytelling. For the most part, you could sit around a campfire and have a couple people tell you the story of your favorite shows, and NOT SEEING the show would matter very little, just from a storytelling point of view. That is not true with clip shows. Because in a clip show, you are actually watching visual representations of the characters’ memories. The story isn’t just “the characters sit around and remember stuff” and then you list all the scenes they are remembering. The story is actually, “the characters sit around and remember stuff…and they all remember it in the exact same way, from the exact same point of view (which is the point of view of a camera that they aren’t supposed to know exists!).” That is actually a much more complex and interesting idea than anything else these shows accomplish. What I discovered this week is that if you don’t possess enough info about a show to know that you are watching a collection of previously viewed scenes, and you just have to deal with the narrative as it unfolds in front of you, then you are actually watching a fascinating story about collective conciousness, memory, and identity. Maybe I have been too cynical to see these episodes as just the negative result of budget constraints. Maybe these are the shows where you learn the most about characters that are otherwise uncomplicated and one dimensional. And also some challenging questions about the nature of reality. But…probably they are still boring and stupid to watch.
However, lest you think that I am only saturating myself in American popculture, here are the top five German shows that I am most looking forward to understanding and appreciating better as I learn the language:
5. Tagesschau! The news. This comes on a few times a day in fifteen minute sessions. It is genuinely excellent news coverage and it covers local, global, and everything in between. Real news! If only I could understand it.
4. Eins, Zwei, Oder Drei! A popular kids’ game show on Saturday mornings. Extremely fun, even without knowing what is happening. Maybe because of the nifty mascots and chanting.
My understanding is that this show runs every week night, and 5 strangers who live near each other are selected to take turns throughout the week making dinner for each other. Throughout the week they get to know one another and comment on everyone’s cooking. This seems exciting on many levels.
2. The German version of The Office, Stromberg is the Michael Scott\David Brent character. The new season is about to begin and I am very excited.
And, of course, my favorite is the one that I actually follow pretty well already. Germany’s original action show about cops on the autobahn. Genuinely interesting and original action sequences, decent to powerful acting, and probably more car crashes per episode than any other show in the history of the world. Fantastisch!