Study Abroad: 5 TV Shows that Provide Real Insight into Another Culture

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We all seem to think we know a little something about other countries and cities, but more often than not our so-called knowledge is based on stereotypes we’ve picked up somewhere. The German’s all live on beer and Bratwursts, the English gather around for posh tea parties, the Dutch are stoners and the Spanish are lazy. These are mostly exaggerated versions of some cultural fact, but, as long as we haven’t visited these countries, what do we know? We seem to be quite happy to trust in the opinions of others. But there’s at least one thing we can do to change that today.

We’d like to introduce you to five TV shows that will grant you real cultural sagacities. Fasten your seatbelts and let’s explore Seville, Amsterdam, Berlin, Manchester and Baltimore (which is culturally unique to much of America, and to those of us outside of the States)!

1. Malviviendo (Bad Living)—Spain 2008-2014

Ever wondered why your excellent high school Spanish failed you while on holiday in Andalusia? It may have something to do with the fact that the sun seems to burn away certain letters. Depending on where you are, the heat may even confuse the letters C and Z. If you love deciphering different Spanish accents and have always amused yourself by imitating “el español callejero,” you’re going to love Malviviendo!

Directed by David Sainz, Malviviendo gives us a glimpse into the lives of some badly living people of Seville and their daily habits. Sainz plays the main character, El Negro, who is in his seventh year of a three-year college course. He admits to having found “el gusto” for the first year, and spends a lot more time studying the bottle than his books. He takes his job as a “gorrilla” (or, unlicensed park attendant) very seriously and believes he is offering a social service rather than ripping people off. He learned everything he knows from the master of masters: an ex-prima ballerina who traded his ballet shoes for heroin. His friends share El Negro’s mentality and join him in his daily mischief. El Zurdo (David Valderrama) is one of the barrio’s best drug dealers—despite his unfortunate ineptitude (hence his nickname El Zurdo, “The Leftie”). El Kaki (Tomás Moreno) is a food fetishist who always dresses in military clothes and makes abundantly clear his love for melons (in every episode…). Maria (Amanda Mora) is Zurdo’s sister and tends to play the lead role in El Negro’s sexual fantasies.

Each episode opens with a parody of an intro from a famous series such as Dexter, Sex and the City, The Sopranos and My Name is Earl. They are of such great quality, you’d almost expect the backing of a major channel, but no: Malviviendo was born on the ’net and is funded by Sainz’ production label Diffferent.

If you’ve ever spent more than a few months in the south of Spain, and got to experience the people of the pueblos, the chatty grannies and the innovative junkies, you will recognize the down-to-earth, it-is-how-it-is humour, and the tendency to come up with funny nicknames for one another. (As if having a zillion middle and last names isn’t enough.) The cast is made up of amateur actors and friends, all of whom seem to be natural talents. David Sainz’ directorial style shows perfectionism and strong urban authenticity. He understands different cultures and even explores a foreign perspective of Spain in his TV series El Viaje de Peter McDowell (Peter McDowell’s Journey).

2. Spuiten en Slikken (Shoot and Swallow)—Holland 2005-Present

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The first things that spring to mind when we think of Holland are coffee shops, the red light district and cheese. The Dutch are known the world over for their open mindedness in regards to sex and drugs, and it is hardly surprising The Netherlands attracted more than 12 million visitors last year alone! Obviously everyone comes to get high or get laid, but we’re willing to bet these key factors play a big role in the intrigue. The open availabilities in Holland in terms of Smart Shops, Coffee Shops and the blatantly obvious sex industry make for an interesting place to live, all right. If you haven’t yet had the chance to experience this country, you can familiarize yourself with their honest and experimentation-friendly ways by watching Spuiten en Slikken.

The talk/report show was first introduced by the Dutch channel Bart’s Neverending Network (BNN) in 2005. The talk-show part of each episode invites different guests—often experts in the chosen field—to discuss sex and drugs. That in itself doesn’t seem too weird. But the reports, or better said, experimentations? Now that’s where things get really fun. Known presenters like Filemon Wesselink slip into the role of lab rat, and test drugs like cocaine, LSD and magic mushrooms in front of the camera. Before taking off on their mad trips, they spend some time discussing the ins and outs of the drug in question with respected experts who also act as trip-sitters throughout the duration of their stay on the dark side of the moon. A medic team is always onsite, and generally the presenters seem to enjoy their adventures.

Episodes focused on sex take the viewer on a quirky journey through the most eccentric and darkest corners of the sex industry, where the focus often reaches far beyond the borders of The Netherlands. We learn more about the women behind the red-lit windows of Amsterdam, and are introduced to health and safety precautions that are necessary yet often laughably off-putting. Presenters try putting themselves in kooky Kama Sutra positions and explore creepy, sometimes disturbing fetishes. It’s not all about the giggles in Spuiten en Slikken; while the show is entertaining and of a light-hearted feel, its overall purpose is to offer “Drugsvoorlichting”—education about the usage and dangers of drugs. The experts make the risks of drug use very clear, but that doesn’t really stop the viewer from at least considering signing up as a volunteer, after seeing the presenters laugh their heads off whilst tripping balls in a safe environment.

3. Türkisch für Anfänger (Turkish for Beginners)—Germany 2005-2008

When we first heard of the ARD show Türkish for Anfänger, we figured this could be a pretty tricky storyline to work with. However, upon watching it, it’s clear that both the stereotypical traits of the Germans as well as the Turkish are proudly portrayed; this makes it not only funny, but realistic without being mean-spirited towards either nationality. The show concentrates on the main character Lena Schneider (Josefine Preuß), who is far from impressed by her mother’s relationship with Metin Öztürk (Adnan Maral). Lena is sixteen and revels in her freedom; she does what she wants and doesn’t suffer any consequences at the hands of her mother, Doris (Anna Stieblich), who believes in the anti-authoritarian education of her children.

When Doris and Metin decide to move in together, their kids are appalled. Metin’s daughter, Ya?mur (Pegah Ferydoni), is a strict Muslim and Lena’s fashion sense and overall lifestyle is an affront. Her brother, Cem (Elyas M’Barek), is a typical “Macho-Turk” who is deep into the world of rap and considers himself a bit of a ladies man. He speaks a perfected type of “Turkish-German” that comes across as rather aggressive and working-class. His best friend, Costa, is a Greek with a serious stutter, who idolizes Cem. Lena, Cem and Ya?mur clash constantly; throughout the first season, everything from religion, parenting styles and family honor are pulled up for judgement, and the only one who seems to remain neutral in the whole ordeal is Lena’s brother, Nils (Emil Reinke).

Doris is a psychotherapist who employs strange, often ritualistic practices with her children, rather than restricting them with rules. Although she has a big heart and is a loving if not slightly doolally mother, her desperation for eternal youth is a bit embarrassing. Metin, on the other hand, is as straight as it gets. As a police man and son of a devoted Muslim, he does not always see eye to eye with Doris’ child-rearing techniques and flighty personality. This show offers a hilarious account of cultural clashes between the eco-conscious, feminist, open-minded and yet tragically German side of the household and the hot-headed, hypocritically devoted and family-orientated side of the Öztürk clan.

4. (The Original) Shameless—England 2004-2013

Most of you are probably already familiar with the U.S. version of Shameless, but if you want the real deal, you should watch the original. Set in the fictional town of Chatsworth in Manchester, you will be introduced to Britain’s finest: the chavs, the Irish thugs, the village bicycles, the drunks and their offspring. Meet Frank Gallagher (David Threlfall), who is at his happiest on giro day. He often fails to remember that his children—Fiona, Lip, Ian, Carl, Debbie and Liam—might like to be fed, and spends his “earnings” at the pub instead. Fiona (Anne-Marie Duff) is the eldest and has taken on the mother role. Unfortunately for Frank, she decides—heavy heartedly—to leave when she marries Steve.

David Threlfall’s performance is absolutely brilliant. Watching him stumble through the streets of Chatsworth, yellow-toothed, greasy-haired and always wearing the same old army jacket, we really get the eeugh-factor. It is almost impossible to imagine that this man could ever look clean and proper. He goes through his fair share of weird women, including Sheila Jackson (Maggie O’Neill) and Libby Crocker (Pauline McLynn). Sheila is a kinky, agoraphobic who lives in Lalaland; Father Ted’s Pauline McLynn plays the narcoleptic Libby, who tends to conk out at the most inappropriate moments. Another prominent character is the Irish gangster wife (Tina Malone), who’s probably one of the most intimidating women we’ve ever seen on TV.

The show runs for eleven seasons and keeps surprising us with “mingin” females (Monica Gallagher) and “bobbins” situations (anything to do with the Maguires), and dead funny—often intoxicated—dialogues (Frank!). We laugh at their audacity, their troubles and crazy lifestyles, without ever doubting the underlying reality of it all. Throughout the seasons, it becomes increasingly clear that a lot of Paul Abbott himself went into the creation of Shameless. His mother left when he was nine-years-old, and he continued to live with his “bone idle” father who seemingly resembled Frank Gallagher. He was the seventh of eight children, and was practically raised by his pregnant seventeen-year-old sister. This is a common example of your classic council-estate upbringing, and thanks to Abbott’s personal experiences we really get an understanding of it.

5. The Wire —USA 2002-2008

For some of us, watching The Wire required subtitles; while most of us know what the “5-0” or a “corner boy” is, not all of us are familiar with “burners” and “G-packs.” Written by former police reporter David Simon and former homicide detective Ed Burns, The Wire offers a realistic account of the inner-workings of Baltimore, with each season focusing on a different angle: the illegal drug trade (Season One), the seaport system (Season Two), the city government and bureaucracy (Season Three), the school system (Season Four) and the print media (Season Five). The show is loosely based on Simon and Burns’ respective experiences, and lets the viewer in on the city’s weaknesses. The amount of detail that went into each and every aspect of this show is remarkable—everything from the music to the back drop was carefully considered. Opening to a different version of Tom Waits’ “Way Down in the Hole” every season, we sit prepared, waiting to distinguish the good from the bad and the unfortunate. The intro presents us with snapshots of “Balmer” life and business, thus offering a vague synopsis of what to expect from run-down project settings and appalling make-shift police offices. The chronological order of the series’ set up was well thought-out. With the first season concentrating on the big players of the drug trade and the dim futures of their juvenile runners, we are thrown straight into the deep end. The following seasons can be seen as a learning guide— a means of comprehending why a solution to the city’s drug, crime and violence rate is by no means nigh.

The Wire sets itself apart from other police dramas in that its actors weren’t widely known at the time, and therefore had a lot more freedom to explore and eventually slip into their roles almost naturally. Various characters are actually based on real-life Baltimore personalities. Michael K. Williams became an all-time favorite, with his depiction of the character Omar Little, who is based on former stickup artist turned anti-crime advocate, Donnie Andrews. The show also pleasantly surprised us with amateur actors. Felicia “Snoop” Pearson had everyone intrigued with her deceptively slight build and dangerous being; she also had our ears glued to the screens trying to decipher her lingo. You’d think it would take a seasoned actress for this role, but Snoop was so brilliant because she was merely playing an exaggerated version of her pre-incarcerated self. Listening to real Balmer folk and their slang, the viewer actually feels a sense of involvement, as opposed to watching it with the detachment usually provoked by non-ambitious police line-ups.

Having previously worked together on the HBO mini-series The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood, Simon and Burns manage to further explore the very drive behind the pulsing heart of Baltimore: its people. The Wire allows us to view the city’s dire situations from several perspectives and encourages us to walk away understanding that it’s not always about choice; more often than not it’s about circumstance.

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