Must-Read TV: Subtitles Aren’t Just for Foreign Films Anymore

From "Switched at Birth" to "Game of Thrones," TV’s not afraid of losing you in translation

As I was watching Tyrant, fx’s new drama about the Americanized son of a Middle Eastern dictator returning to his homeland, I noticed something strange about the characters: I could understand them. That is, all the characters–American and native-born Arabs alike–spoke nothing but English.

A few years ago, this would have been unremarkable. Tyrant, though shot in Israel with many Middle Eastern actors, is made by a U.S. network for U.S. audiences, who once expected foreign characters visiting their screens to have the common decency to talk American like God intended.

That all began to change with Lost, with its flashbacks in subtitled Korean. And in the past few years, American TV has become positively Babelized: NBC’s new sitcom Welcome to Sweden has dialogue in Swedish, ABC Family’s Switched at Birth in American Sign Language, HBO’s Game of Thrones in invented languages Dothraki and Valyrian. This season, the protagonist of Louie pursued a woman who spoke only Hungarian, presented without subtitles so the audience shared his disorientation.

Most dramatically, FX’s The Bridge (beginning Season 2) has been telling a sprawling story of life and crime on the border of El Paso, Texas, and Juárez, Mexico, with huge chunks of each episode in subtitled Spanish. It’s a defining choice, the difference between having dual citizenship and being a tourist; it gives both sides of the border equal verbal standing and dignity.

In The Bridge, language defines the setting and expresses character. Mexican cop Marco Ruiz (Demian Bichir) is wily and assertive in dealing with corrupt officials in Juárez, wary and reserved with suspicious Anglos in Texas. The difference is embedded in his speech: he’s assured in Spanish, cautious in English. Co–executive producer and writer Elwood Reid says it allows dramatic possibilities an English-only script couldn’t. “If two people are speaking and there’s a gringo there and they switch over to Spanish, it creates this cool narrative tension,” Reid says. “You lean in to the screen: ‘What’s going on?'”

FX’s Cold War drama The Americans, about a Russian husband and wife posing as suburban Yankees in the 1980s, uses bilingualism to create a world within a world. Its Russian-language scenes set in the Soviet embassy convey the sense of walking into another nation within our own. The dialogue develops the cultural specificity of the Soviet characters, giving music and lyrics to their Russian sadness and history. Speaking their own language, our enemies become fully realized people; without it, they’d be so many Borises and Natashas. (Contrast that with Tyrant, whose Arab characters’ thickly accented English makes them appear “foreign” even on their own turf.)

The Berlitzification of TV is partly a sign of the medium’s elevated ambitions. Before the HBO era, no show would presume that kind of art-house-level attention from viewers. But it also reflects how the TV business and audience have grown more multicultural. Imported shows are now easily accessible, like the eerie French drama The Returned and the Danish politics series Borgen. And for a diverse young demographic raised on Dora the Explorer, the teen-oriented CW will air this fall Jane the Virgin, a dramedy based on a Venezuelan telenovela, that mixes subtitled Spanish with English.

Maybe the most striking effect of subtitles, though, is simply that they require undivided focus, a precious thing in this multitasking era. TV shows today don’t just compete with each other; they also compete with the iPad on your lap, the social media on your smartphone, the laundry you’re folding with the tube on–distractions that threaten to turn TV into radio, one more data input to skim for the gist.

Subtitles in a series represent a kind of slow-food-movement approach to TV; they demand your time, and in return they offer total absorption. It’s more work, but it offers the kind of thing we ask of the best stories: immersion in another world. If you want that, you need to listen. And sometimes, if you really want to listen, you also need to watch.

This appears in the July 21, 2014 issue of TIME.
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