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Second Take: International series outpace Hollywood productions with creative stories, themes

(Katelyn Dang/Illustrations Director)

By Vivian Xu

Dec. 2, 2021 9:12 p.m.

Say goodbye to Hollywood and bienvenidos to a new era of cinema.

The final few episodes of the Spanish television series “Money Heist” premieres Friday, marking the end of a Netflix show celebrated by fans and critics alike. While the finale draws the curtains on the saga, it also cements the series’s legacy as one of the most popular Netflix shows in the world, a feat that is particularly of note because of its status as a foreign language television series. However, “Money Heist” is certainly not the only non-English series that has achieved global acclaim in the era of streaming – and it won’t be the last.

Since their inception, Hollywood and American cinema have dominated global media. Major American film studios, such as Paramount Pictures and Twentieth Century Fox, have been responsible for the most commercially successful and highest grossing films in the world, such as “Avatar” and “Titanic.” The evidence of their cultural impact manifests itself both intangibly in the fabric of the film landscape and quite literally, from a Disneyland in Shanghai to an imitation Hollywood sign in New Zealand.

With a reputation as an international powerhouse for movies and television, American cinema has managed to keep the crown for several decades without serious threat. But in recent years, the American film industry has been indubitably grasping at straws to maintain its throne and keep audiences hooked. As international viewers – Americans included – gravitate outside the world that Hollywood offers, it is clear that modern-day American cinema certainly does not deserve the pedestal that it was once placed on when compared to the fresh creations originating outside the United States.

[Related: Second Take: Netflix’s ‘Sex Education’ offers what many schools fail to]

The cultlike popularity of foreign language shows, such as “Money Heist,” is one of the most notable indicators of this monumental shift. Following a robbery led by a motley crew of misfits, “Money Heist” has received praise for its emotionally rich storyline, complex plot twists and patriotic references to Spain. By humanizing each member of the heist and elucidating their quotidian motives for taking part in the robbery, the show’s messages of everyday citizens resisting oppressive powers has resonated with viewers around the globe, resulting in large murals of its characters in Germany and flags of the show’s now-iconic red jumpsuit and Salvador Dalí mask in Saudi Arabia.

Other foreign language series such as South Korea’s “Squid Game” and France’s “Lupin” have also achieved similar levels of success with international audiences. The former show, which comments on socioeconomic class stratification, garnered views from more than 142 million households, while the latter series’s tale of dismantling the structures that uphold systemic racism was streamed by more than 76 million households. With an appearance of “Lupin” star Omar Sy on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and “Saturday Night Live” parodies of “Squid Game,” the cultural footprint of both shows in America is undeniable.

Aside from the rudimentary ingredients that compose good television, such as impeccable writing and engaging performances, what truly sets apart these foreign language shows is the relatability of their themes, as well as the prolific ways such messages are framed. Rather than blatantly delivering a didactic lesson, insightful critiques of class hierarchy, structural racism and political powers are delivered in the thrilling context of a dystopian survival game or a meticulously planned heist.

[Related: Q&A: Halle Berry discusses artistic choices, acting in directorial debut ‘Bruised’]

In comparison to the dull and drab productions Hollywood has been churning out recently, it is no wonder that foreign language series have captivated global audiences. The constant and simply unnecessary remakes and revivals, coupled with desperate attempts to milk every last drop from tired franchises, are an obvious indicator of American cinema’s inability to produce novel storytelling in the 21st century.

As of late, it seems that every single remotely relevant character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe obtains their own spinoff show, and even teen soap operas like “Gossip Girl” can’t rest in peace. Simply sprinkling a new twist on old classics is insufficient to generate innovative storytelling that pushes the bounds of cinema. And currently, that is all American television is capable of, forcing it to remain perpetually trapped in a rut with its sole goal as achieving the bare minimum of profit and entertainment value.

Moving outside borders, foreign language series such as “Money Heist,” “Squid Game” and “Lupin” are able to swimmingly satiate more than just the desire for escapism that many search for when consuming television. Universal themes regarding the human experience that resonate with audiences, regardless of demographic background, have been the hook that reels in viewers, keeping them around for season after season.

In the modern age, Hollywood no longer occupies the top of the pyramid. As the US increasingly relies on its international counterparts for other cultural imports, from music to cuisine, it is unsurprising that foreign language television is another form of media that Americans are eager to consume. And frankly, this change is rightfully deserved, as foreign language shows like “Money Heist” are fresh, insightful and creative television that are ripe for viewing.

The landscape of cinema is shifting – and it’s time for Hollywood to take a backseat.

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Vivian Xu | Daily Bruin senior staff
Xu is a senior staff writer for Arts & Entertainment. She previously served as the Arts editor from 2021-2022, the Music | Fine Arts editor from 2020-2021 and an Arts reporter from 2019-2020. She is a fourth-year neuroscience and anthropology student from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Xu is a senior staff writer for Arts & Entertainment. She previously served as the Arts editor from 2021-2022, the Music | Fine Arts editor from 2020-2021 and an Arts reporter from 2019-2020. She is a fourth-year neuroscience and anthropology student from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
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