by Paola Cesarini
On the surface, Dogdugun Ev Kaderindir (DEK) is a reverse-Cinderella story involving a smart, beautiful, and refined lawyer-to-be who marries a rugged, introvert mahalle mechanic. In reality, the series is a complex and nuanced exploration of human vulnerability and resilience through a young woman’s efforts to define her identity on her own terms. In the current dizi season, DEK stands out above other shows in terms of substance, acting, quality of production and originality. This article will explain why.
Starring Demet Özdemir and Ibrahim Çelikkol, DEK narrates the story of Zeynep, a gifted girl born in poverty, abuse and squalor, who is subsequently adopted by a wealthy family. The series starts with a depiction of Zeynep’s current gilded life amidst flashbacks of her previous miserable childhood. However, the series soon provides an unexpected turn of events. Upon the insistence of her biological mother, she suddenly marries Mehdi. He is a humble but well-respected auto-mechanic from her former neighborhood. The show then proceeds to focus on the evolution of their relationship amidst a growing set of challenges.
Zeynep’s character is based on a real person’s story, as recounted by Dr. Gülseren Budayıcıoğlu in the book Camdaki Kız (“The Girl in the Mirror”). Dr. Budayıcıoğlu is a renowned author/psychiatrist. She has written a number of popular novels based on her patients’ experiences that have fared well as TV series (e.g. Istanbulu Gelin.) Interestingly, Zeynep’s story is only briefly sketched in the book. The show is, therefore, as much the brainchild of the screenwriters (Eylem Canpolat and Ayşenur Sıı) as it is of Dr. Budayıcıoğlu. Indeed, in addition to filling in the blanks, the series contains several key differences with Camdaki Kız, especially as far as the character of Mehdi is concerned.
In the first episode, we meet Zeynep’s two families. Her erratic biological mother (Sakine) and alcoholic father (Bayram) are cringe-worthy characters, whose demeanor is both pitiful and unsympathetic. Her wealthy, neurotic adoptive parents (Erkan and Nermin) are equally despicable but for different reasons. Unfortunately, the list of reprehensible individuals, who populate Zeynep’s life continues. There are also her witless, untrustworthy childhood friend from her old neighborhood (Emine) and her narcissistic, high-society boyfriend (Faruk). Caught in between these detestable human beings, it is no wonder why Zeynep initially appears as weak, insecure and almost devoid of personality.
In due course, we meet Mehdi. He is the older man, who becomes Zeynep’s husband in episode two. He also comes with family baggage in the form of a meddling mother and two extremely needy sisters. A kind-hearted but somewhat clueless cousin/best friend (Nuh) and two lively street adolescents in his care (Kibrit and Yaldiz) represent the brightest lights in his life. Mehdi is somewhat of a riddle. He works successfully as an auto mechanic, but also reads poetry. He was smart enough to gain a full scholarship to study mechanical engineering at the university but ended up not pursuing his dreams. Not one to cry over spilled milk, he now dedicates himself to his family, his friends and his mahalle where he has become somewhat of an institution.
Zeynep and Mehdi meet each other by chance and experience an instant mutual attraction. Later on, they are serendipitously reintroduced through a marriage broker, who enthusiastically suggests the match to their respective mothers. This unlikely coincidence has a significant impact on the protagonists. Submitting to what appears to be an inescapable destiny, they surprisingly agree to marry. Unfortunately, all hell breaks loose immediately after the wedding ceremony, when Zeynep’s adoptive parents and Faruk show up uninvited only to find her in a bridal dress.
Episode three and onwards narrate the difficult aftermath of Zeynep and Mehdi’s marriage. As viewers braced for the period of incomprehension, mishaps, and conflict between the protagonists (which in most Turkish dizi inevitably follows an early wedding,) they were treated instead to a subtle but constant progression in their relationship. As the story stands thus far (at episode nine,) Mehdi and Zeynep are facing multiple challenges. Among them, a pregnant former lover, a revengeful ex-boyfriend, significant social and cultural differences, and the constant meddling by several objectionable characters. The most significant obstacle, however, remains the protagonists’ limited ability to communicate in a fashion that allows them to overcome their traumas, insecurities, and preconceptions.
DEK is faring relatively well in the ratings, despite the notoriously challenging Turkish TV market. This is good news, especially since the series did not start under the most favorable of auspices. In addition to some confusion regarding where the show would be broadcast, many discounted in advance Demet Özdemir’s ability to perform in a dramatic role and questioned the credibility of Demet & Ibo as a romantic pair. Just over two months later, however, DEK appears safe enough to last until the end of the season. And, should the ratings remain at current levels, there is strong hope for a renewal.
While the factors that determine a dizi’s domestic fate remain obscure, especially to non-Turkish observers, there are several reasons why DEK’s success was predictable. First and foremost the series is incredibly original. Like other shows based on a true story (e.g. Fatmagül, Kurt Seyit ve Sura, Istanbulu Gelin, etc.), DEK’s script thankfully avoids worn-out clichés — e.g. extreme good vs. evil, revenge, obsession, betrayal, etc. — and caricatured characters. It would thus appear that, even when edited to fit the required dizi format, a series based on reality does consistently attract a dedicated following.
In addition, DEK’s characters are not only interesting but also uncommonly nuanced, dynamic and multidimensional. Only Zeynep’s adoptive parents and Mehdi’s older sister appear thus far as relatively one-dimensional, while Bayram looks hopelessly unable to change.
DEK succeeds admirably in illustrating the main protagonists’ psychology with thoughtfulness and detail. In her frequent monologues, Zeynep is an open book, sharing directly with viewers her path to self-awareness. Conversely, Mehdi rarely talks in the first person. He remains somewhat of a mystery, which is being slowly unveiled episode by episode. However, during several conversations with Nuh, Zeynep, Kibrit and the members of his immediate family, Mehdi is surprisingly candid about his feelings. Along with Zeynep, the more we learn about Mehdi, the more we fall in love with his character.
As viewers patiently wait for the story to unfold, it is Mehdi and Zeynep’s inner turmoil that provides the most interesting part of the series. In contrast to other dizis, DEK is not a macro-story about revenge, greed or power, or a sweeping family or historical saga. It is a nuanced exploration of the inner journey of two very different people who, when thrown together under bizarre circumstances, end up complementing each other in the most unexpected fashion.
DEK is also an exploration of the terrifying power of hope. It has been said that desperation begins when all hope is lost. However, we should not forget that for the depressed, discouraged, disheartened and resigned hope can also be daunting. Because to hope means to nurture expectations and, in turn, open oneself to fatal disappointment. As Zeynep and Mehdi progressively grow to become each other’s beacon of hope, they must also inevitably confront their deep-seated fear of failure.
DEK’s script offers many opportunities for reflection on Turkish society and its many contradictions. Mehdi and Zeynep face each other across multiple social, class, cultural and gender divides. Zeynep is used to wealth, while Mehdi is more accustomed to economic restrictions. She was partly brought up among the educated, secular and western-oriented Turkish urban elite. He is the poster child of a traditional popular Istanbul mahalle. Zeynep envisages herself as a future independent, high-level professional. Mehdi is surrounded by women who are stay-at-home mothers, dependent relatives, and low-skilled workers. Because she never forgot her origins, Zeynep appears better able to navigate their differences. Conversely, Mehdi’s learning curve is steeper and tensions inevitably emerge despite their best intentions. The greatest challenge for the screenwriters is to enable the series’ main characters to negotiate their contrasts in a realistic but caring fashion, while at the same time avoid easy or superficial resolutions.
DEK contains a fundamental message. Namely that virtue, morality and generosity — and conversely evil, cruelty, and selfishness — are not the purview of a particular social, economic or cultural milieu, but constitute choices that transcend one’s environment. Zeynep is erudite and refined but also proud, vulnerable and kind-hearted. On the other hand, Mehdi is an exceptionally sensitive, caring and well-educated specimen of the working class. While neither fits comfortably in their natural environment, they don’t necessarily question it. This is perhaps why they appear to understand each other well beyond their spoken communication. And this is also why, their considerable differences notwithstanding, there is still hope for them at the end of the journey.
DEK focuses closely on the main protagonists, without unnecessary side plots to distract viewers from the main story. The series is packed with intense dialogue and relevant flashbacks, with little or no opportunity to fast forward through filler scenes. This undoubtedly constitutes a great burden for the lead actors, which they have thus far met brilliantly. While Mehdi’s character bears some similarities to Ferhat in Siyah Beyaz Aşk, it lacks the latter’s extremes and, in turn, is more challenging to interpret. Needless to say, the skilled and experienced Ibrahim Çelikkol is absolutely fabulous in the part.
On the other hand, Zeynep is unlike any character that Demet Özdemir has previously portrayed. For her, the challenge is to show the same considerable range as a dramatic interpreter that she has exhibited as a rom-com actress. In the first several episodes, Demet portrays Zeynep as a confused, almost bewildered individual, who reacts in slow motion to the bizarre situation in which she finds herself. As Zeynep progressively comes into her own, Demet’s interpretation displays an ever-increasing range of emotions. With psychotherapy on the horizon, viewers may expect further evolution in Zeynep’s character and many more occasions for Demet to showcase her considerable talent.
As a matter of fact, everyone’s acting in DEK is amazing. In addition to a solid cast performance, also the young Helin Kandemir (who was fabulous as Ceylan in season 1 & 2 of “The Protector”) and Fatih Koyunoğlu deliver exceptional interpretations as Kibrit and Nuh Karaca, respectively.
Last, but not least, DEK is an ode to a different kind of love than what most dizis illustrate. To begin with, it is a tale of mature love, the sort that grows out of mutual awareness, trust, and respect. Clearly, Mehdi and Zeynep do not consider their mutual infatuation as enough to sustain a relationship. Especially in light of the adverse circumstances they face, they are fully aware that their love is predicated on reciprocal trust, and they set their priorities accordingly. Their love story is both realistic and pragmatic. It resembles what most people experience, rather than what romantic dreams are made of. Yet, the most valuable gift of the series is to render an apparently mundane love magical and, in so doing, perhaps intentionally inspire viewers to find magic in their own romantic experiences with the benefit of hindsight.
DEK offers neither high drama nor deep laughter. It lacks special effects, psychopaths or crazy relatives. It is a story about relatively ordinary people thrust into an exceptional set of circumstances. It is a slow-moving, introspective series more reminiscent of an Ingmar Bergman’s movie than of a Martin Scorsese film. Nevertheless, the well thought out and brilliantly written dialogues, the exceptional individual and cast performances, and the original true story make DEK the best that the current Turkish dizi season has to offer.
*Heartfelt thanks to Irma Carpino Morrison and Mary Bloyd for their invaluable support in writing this article.
A native of Italy, Paola Cesarini has a Ph.D. in Political Science and worked as an international civil servant, a university professor, and a leader in higher education for many years. She is fluent in six languages and is currently learning Turkish. She lives in Denver, CO with her husband and two children. In her free time, she enjoys reading, cooking, classical music, swimming, skiing and exploring other cultures.
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