The Rise of Bilingual Families on Broadcast Television

TV Features Jane the Virgin
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The Rise of Bilingual Families on Broadcast Television

A 2015 report from the United States Census Bureau showed that more than 350 different languages are spoken in American homes, with the fifteen largest metro areas playing host to at minimum 125 different languages each. More than 3,000 people in Phoenix reported speaking Pima at home. 2,425 in Riverside, Calif. speak Dutch. Telugu is starting to have a real moment down in Texas.

Meanwhile, this year’s Hollywood Diversity Report shows that, despite a dispiriting downturn in racial and gender representation both in front of and behind the camera in the 2017-2018 season (the stats in the creator column alone are 91% white and 84% male), overall data trends indicate that American audiences across the demographic spectrum consistently rate shows with diverse casts (21-30% minority representation the sweet spot for broadcast, 31-40% the sweet spot for cable) higher than those without.

All this is to say: The recent rise of American series not just featuring but seamlessly incorporating the full linguistic flex of bilingual families into the heart of their storytelling—and not just on cable or streaming but on mainstream, primetime broadcast—is more than a quirk of fate. It is a pattern, at once a reflection of and a savvy reaction to a shifting in the cultural landscape.

Of course, “rise” doesn’t mean “tidal wave.” As Manuel Betancourt discussed here at Paste last year, Netflix’s bid to single-handedly produce more television than, it seems, all traditional studios combined—the company reportedly spent $5 billion on content in 2016, when, as Manuel reported, it produced 126 new shows; in 2017 it spent $6 billion, and in 2018 it’s planning to spend $7 billion—has made the streamer the natural leader in envelope-pushing, subtitle-friendly programming like Sense8 and Narcos. They have the range! They have so much range. They also have the platform flexibility to partner with international markets to option “local” shows like Brazil’s 3% and Germany’s Babylon Berlin—17 series in 2017, with plans to grow that number to “70 to 100” in the next couple years. So, duh, Netflix is where the “tidal wave” of bilingual/multilingual/zero-English shows is.

And yet, traditional broadcast television—with Jane the Virgin (Spanish), Fresh Off the Boat (Mandarin) and Speechless (assisted English) all firmly in place as critically beloved cornerstone programming on their respective nights and networks (and FX’s The Americans and Freeform’s Switched at Birth watching from cable’s windows like proud, multilingual parents)—is making a more impressively multilingual showing than one might have stopped to notice.

That not stopping to notice is important. Not just important, but key. Because while Netflix may be able to go all in with flash and volume to shift the cultural conversation, commercial networks like ABC and The CW adhere to a different kind of mandate. Creative stretching on broadcast television is great, but broad appeal is still necessary in order for a show to continue to earn its coveted primetime keep.

For too long, this balancing act meant that stories featuring any regular element of non-English, non science-fiction alien language were ignored, or that the speech—and thus, the multi-dimensional humanity—of non-English speakers was treated as either a lazy punchline (bad) or a xenophobic shorthand for villainy (worse). It wasn’t until The CW launched Jennie Snyder Urman’s hilarious, emotionally resonant, formally audacious Jane the Virgin in 2014, featuring Ivonne Coll as Jane’s undocumented Spanish-speaking abuela, Alba, and Jaime Camil as Jane’s Spanish-speaking dad/telenovela star, Rogelio, that a broadcast network hit on a smart, compelling, dramatically productive approach that accurately reflects bilingual American families’ messy and loving lived realities. (Of course, with Dora the Explorer and Go, Diego, Go!, kids’ shows took the leap into positive bilingual programming ages ago, but few adults take the progressive, high quality of kids programming as seriously as they should.)

Since its premiere, Jane has stuck to the bilingual balancing act script: developing the Villanueva family’s emotional arc in English and Spanish in equal measure; understanding why the various characters communicate to each other in one language or the other, then communicating that to the audience in turn; using Alba’s and Rogelio’s and every side character’s Spanish to make great jokes that land because they are funny and true to the character, and never because of the foreign-ness of Spanish as a language. This consistent degree of work and care with the Villanuevas’ Spanish has made it possible for the show to include an entirely different bilingual family experience—Petra’s (Yael Grobglas) sprinkling in of her native Czech whenever she is feeling particularly salty about her family (and/or when she is scheming)—without having to go out of its way to make the audience buy in. Petra’s established history as a native Czech speaker, in turn, combined with Rogelio’s established machine-gun Spanish, made it possible for the show to sit the two characters down together for the first time in Season Thre and have them believably turn out the next generation of “Who’s on First?” without making either’s English-speaking abilities the butt of the joke.

Over on ABC, Fresh Off the Boat has made similar use of the balancing act long game with Grandma Huang (Lucille Soong), whose use of Mandarin in the Huangs’ family dynamic strongly mirrors Alba’s use of Spanish on Jane. That is, she’s an immigrant grandmother who speaks solely in Mandarin, while, except on special occasions or holidays, the rest of the family responds in English. But while Alba never uses her Spanish to exclude, Grandma Huang rolls her Rascal gleefully in the opposite direction, putting as many non-Mandarin-speaking interlopers as she can on their back foot. Like Jessica (Constance Wu), she has a gleefully competitive, vengeful streak; like Eddie (Hudson Yang), she milks joy out of pranking others. So rather than making her life more difficult or isolating, her Mandarin opens up possibilities for her to indulge in her worst (or at least most Grandma Huang-like) habits, just as Eddie’s age and oblivious boy-ness does for his, or as Jessica’s single-minded zealotry does for hers.

Like Jane, too, Fresh Off the Boat’s careful laying of thoughtful, realistic linguistic groundwork has made it possible for the show to test its creative boundaries without simultaneously testing its audience’s patience. Having been trained to watch the screen for Grandma Huang’s regular subtitles, for example, the audience was more than ready to handle the alt-subtitle experiment that was Season Three’s “Sisters Without Subtext,” in which yellow subtitles (as opposed to Grandma Huang’s white) are used to translate the subtext of Jessica and her sister’s passive aggressive jibes at each other during the sister’s extended visit.

Similarly, this season’s annual Chinese New Year episode saw the we’re all speaking Mandarin as a New Year’s feast game! cold open gag morph into the episode’s A-plot, as Jessica and Evan (Ian Chen) each leaned hard into their respective ruthlessly competitive corners and kept the subtitled game up for days, engaging in ever more extreme acts of sabotage as time wore on, and which viewers could only fully appreciate by keeping their eyes trained on the screen—an experiment a mainstream, primetime sitcom audience was unlikely to have been able to fully appreciate or commit to in the series’ first or second season.

It’s not just spoken language that has been woven in as an integral part of American television shows, either. Freeform’s family drama, Switched at Birth, which concluded last spring, featured American Sign Language as a regular means of communication between characters that held just as much importance as spoken English. ABC’s Speechless, meanwhile, has accustomed its viewers to keep their eyes trained on the screen in order to more fully appreciate the ways in which the various alphabet boards and emotive body language JJ (Micah Fowler) uses to communicate give us more insight into the fullness of his multi-dimensional, flawed teenage character than any translating by his aide, siblings, or parents could on their own. This audience training, in turn, has allowed Speechless, in just its second season to follow Jane and Fresh Off the Boat in creative experimentation, most notably in this year’s Christmas episode, in which JJ uses a video camera and a friend to make a narrated first-person movie for his family explaining to them, who know him and his communication style best of anyone in the world, how different he sounds in his own head from what even they know.

This twist on the show’s bilingual conceit differs from the other two series’ in that it ultimately requires less effort on the part of the audience, as JJ is communicating in what is closer to the standard English we are used to half-ignoring on more traditional series with second- and third-screen multitasking. Its emotional impact, though, played out on the faces of his silently watching family, doesn’t let the audience off the hook: The clearer JJ is communicating, the harder, now, you need to pay attention. And because you like sitcoms, and it’s Wednesday, and you’re home, and you have ABC already turned on, you, in the audience, are ready to do just that.

So what, maybe Netflix has the seemingly endless muscle, capacity, and budget to fill the streaming landscape with the biggest and brashest and most numerous multilingual shows. That’s cool, and a good outcome of peak TV’s mounting excesses. But even more interesting, for my money, is the slow and steady race that family-oriented broadcast television is running, getting mainstream American audiences in 2018 to fall in casual love with the warm, funny, eminently relatable lives of bilingual families whose specific experiences with immigration or the broken American health care and education systems, not incidentally, are central to many of the biggest political fights we are facing now, and will be facing at least as long as these series run their natural course. Watching for the rest of the broadcast networks to pick up what ABC and The CW are throwing down, and for the cultural needle to just keep shifting ahead to match what demographics and the Hollywood Diversity Report both predict—that is appointment viewing.

Jane the Virgin resumes its fourth season Friday, March 2 at 9 p.m. on The CW. Fresh Off the Boat airs Tuesdays at 8:30 p.m. on ABC. Speechless airs Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m. on ABC.



Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic whose writing has appeared on Forever Young Adult, Screener, and Birth.Movies.Death. She’ll go ten rounds fighting for teens and intelligently executed genre fare to be taken seriously by pop culture. She can be found @AlexisKG.

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