When Sundance Channel acquired the French-language zombie series The Returned, network president Sarah Barnett was concerned about how viewers might react. Not about the subject matter — the show came with high critical acclaim, and the success of The Walking Dead proved that audiences could stomach undead antics.
Nope, Barnett feared a backlash over the show's subtitles. The Returned is entirely in French, which means it's also fully subtitled in English. "It seemed like a bit of a nuts proposition," she says. "Who airs subtitled original programming in primetime? Nobody. But then we watched this show and we couldn't get enough of it."
True to Barnett's fears, some viewers balked. "They should have warned that it had subtitles," one viewer wrote on Sundance's Facebook page. "It may be an amazing show. But I could not even get through the first episode because of them." Wrote another: "I can't stand subtitles. I want to watch the show, not read it."
But as Sundance stayed out of the fray, other viewers defended the practice: "Americans really do expect to have everything hand-fed to them," wrote one fan. "You are missing out on a great show if you let the subtitles dissuade you from watching." By Week 2, most of the naysayers were gone.
Barnett was intrigued by the reaction. "It was fascinating to monitor the social media conversation," she says. "We just let the conversation happen." Ultimately, Barnett believes The Returned's foreign dialogue adds to the show's mystery. "I do think you end up feeling rewarded," she says.
In television's current global landscape, more foreign series are arriving in the U.S. with greater notice, such as the Danish series Borgen. And as studios and networks pursue more international co-productions and series with stories that extend beyond the U.S. border, translated and bilingual storytelling is here to stay, so viewers had better brush up on their reading.
"I watch a lot of foreign movies, so I don't even think twice about it," says Elwood Reid, an executive producer on FX's The Bridge, about 30 percent of whose dialogue is in Spanish. "I think audiences have gotten more savvy. The world has shrunk because of the Internet. If you're doing worldwide television, different languages are spoken all over the place."
Reid says he uses Spanish as a story device on The Bridge. If there's an American in a scene, the Spanish-speaking Mexican characters may turn to the side and curse or plot in their native language. "We do that a lot," he says. "When I'm watching a bilingual show and someone switches into another language, I lean forward. Something important is being discussed here. It creates a cool dynamic and interactive viewing experience, when we're using Spanish as the language of secrets."
Then there are times when foreign languages are spoken but producers don't include subtitles, purposely keeping viewers as clueless as the English-speaking characters on screen. "Homeland does it very well," Reid says. "Sometimes they subtitle and sometimes they don't. And when you don't subtitle, there's an anxiety from the audience."
Reid says he'll write the dialogue in English before it's turned into Spanish. He then relies on star Demian Bichir to make sure the words are translated correctly and close to how someone might speak on the street. "I've grown to rely and trust him with it," Reid says.
For Season 2, Reid has also added a writer from Mexico City, Mauricio Katz (Miss Bala), to help him get even deeper into the nuances of the Spanish language. And because several multinational corporations operate factories in Ciudad Juarez, he plans to incorporate more foreign languages into the show.
FX, which also airs the Russian-infused thriller The Americans, has been supportive of The Bridge's reliance on Spanish and subtitles. "The only time it ever came up was the pilot," Reid says. "They wanted the first half of the show to not be so heavily subtitled [so we toned it down]. But after that, we never got one note about it."
Fox's Sleepy Hollow employed subtitles on the Nov. 18 episode for scenes featuring German bad guys who are part of the series' mythology. It wasn't the first time; the show has also translated some of its demons' dialogue.
In terms of broadcast TV, "I think Lost broke the barrier a little bit," Reid says. But he doesn't think the networks are as comfortable with the practice as cable channels. "I do know they're still worried, 'What will people in Ohio think if there are subtitles. They won't understand it.'"
Lost made waves during its first season with an episode that delivered the backstory of Jin and Sun, told mostly in Korean, with English subtitles. As recently as 2012, a fan at a Comic-Con panel told co-creator Damon Lindelof that he felt as if he were "watching a foreign film, and it's kind of frustrating."
Lindelof responded that the Korean dialogue was critical in explaining the dynamic between the two characters. "When we wrote that script, the network was like, 'We're a little bit concerned about all the subtitles.' And we were like, 'We're a little bit concerned about it too.' But concern can be a good thing."