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HBO’s emotionally gutting coming-of-age drama My Brilliant Friend, based on the best-selling novels by Italian author Elena Ferrante, is currently one of the best TV series on air, period. The post-World War II Naples-set drama, now in production on its third season, tells the story of two friends who grow from impoverished young girls during the 1950s to restless elderly women at the turn of the 20th century. The two are constantly pulled apart and smashed together again, constrained by their class, gender, geography and violent neighborhood culture.
My Brilliant Friend soars in part thanks to linguistic naturalism: The story marinates in the native vernaculars of its setting, including Neapolitan and Italian, and would have lost both its authenticity and lyricism if showrunner Saverio Costanzo had chosen to film it in English to cater to international audiences. Unfortunately, My Brilliant Friend doesn’t attract the reverberating buzz of midcentury costume dramas like The Queen’s Gambit or The Crown, which also study the depths of female ambition. Had it been produced in English, My Brilliant Friend may have been dripping in Emmy Awards and nominations like these other high-quality series.
That such a compelling series is ignored completely leads me to believe that Emmy voters still have a “1-inch” problem. This is how South Korean director Bong Joon Ho gently ribbed American audiences during one of his three Oscar acceptance speeches for Parasite: “Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” Although an important industry voting body does exist to honor achievements in global television — the International Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, which hosts the International Emmy Awards — this group doesn’t have much mainstream sway. Broad audiences need a more visible beacon to shed light on the best television from around the world: We need a special Primetime Emmy category specifically dedicated to international TV series.
The Academy Awards and all other major American and British film organizations present a foreign-language or international category to venerate worldwide cinema that might not otherwise compete alongside English-language offerings. With the rise in streaming options, more non-English-language TV shows are reaching American audiences: France’s entertainment industry satire Call My Agent! and mystery series Lupin, Israel’s family saga Shtisel and political thriller Fauda, Spain’s crime drama Money Heist, Germany’s sci-fi cryptex Dark and Japan’s comedic anthology Midnight Diner, not to mention innumerable Nordic noir series and South Korean soap operas known as K-dramas.
The International Emmys exist to promote television throughout the world, honoring individual achievements in production. A single best international series category at the Primetime Emmy Awards would serve a different set of purposes. Not only would it recognize the diversifying taste of American audiences, but it would also remind the rest of the world that Americans do, in fact, appreciate overseas television. Simply put, the Emmys could be using its power and prestige to flip attitudes about the unfamiliar.
I’ll admit I groan when a television show I want to watch is in a language other than English. It’s part Ugly American, part honest recognition that there’s just more labor involved when following a story that doesn’t originate in one’s native tongue. I heartily enjoy foreign cinema and American movies filmed in non-English languages, but TV series are investments of time and energy — they require different cognitive processes that can fatigue you more easily than if you are listening and watching something presented in your first language. Decry the watching habits of younger generations and neurodivergent people all you want, but it’s completely normal for people to watch a film or a movie while scrolling on their phones. Subtitles are a barrier in these cases.
For people like me, it’s helpful when an authoritative body can point me to some of the best films and television series I wouldn’t otherwise have known about — this is why I rely on awards to pinpoint the best among kids entertainment, reality programming and, yes, global cinema. It’s already hard enough to balance one’s schedule out here in the attention economy. I’m asking for the TV Academy’s help in identifying how I should be spending my precious time.
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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