by Paola Cesarini
Summer is Turkey’s high rom-com season. But only a very few, very special series manage to last beyond Fall when the advent of the regular dizi schedule forces them into strong competition with big-budget, all-star dramas. The appeal of those survivors is often bewildering. Indeed, there appears to be a “secret recipe” for the best Turkish rom-coms that not only allows them to defy the genre’s stereotypes but also manages to attract scores of fans from across the globe. In the wake of the recent phenomenal success of shows such as “Kiralik Aşk” and “Erkenci Kuş”, this article seeks to account for the remarkable popularity of Turkish rom-coms around the world. It is based on a comparative analysis of a representative sample of recent series, and on an informal survey of the genre’s fans on Facebook.
Let us start with a caveat. Until recently, the last TV rom-com this author watched on a somewhat regular basis was “Friends” back in the 1990s. Notwithstanding a fondness for the occasional romantic film, I found most rom-coms cliché, trite, predictable, repetitious, over-the-top and somewhat alienating. With shows increasingly replacing romance with schmalz and humor with slapstick, I considered the endless combination of unimaginative sentimentalism, clumsy action, and embarrassing events boring — when not downright irritating. In short, I became convinced that the rom-com genre constituted by definition the antithesis to an engrossing and stimulating viewing experience.
Then, one day, “Kiralik Aşk” appeared on my computer screen. Since then, my appreciation for the genre has evolved and — to my immense surprise — I have repeatedly succumbed to the appeal of select Turkish rom-coms. As tempting as it is to relate this curious newly-acquired taste to impending middle-age blues, there is undeniably something about the finest rom-com dizis that is not only unique but unpredictably appealing. Even to those who have never been (and never expected to become) particularly fond of the genre. While hard to define, this “something” entails varying combinations of at least ten distinct characteristics.
#1 The best Turkish series alternate comedy with intense romance in a balance that is not only clever and refreshing but also surprisingly captivating.
For instance, a typical dizi takes at least ten episodes before allowing the lead characters finally to start a relationship. Their bliss is usually short-lived as the couple experiences recurring emotional rollercoaster until the final resolution. The beautiful, slow-burning and seemingly interminable courtship and reconciliation phases necessarily imply that, in Turkish series, romance occupies at least as much screen time as comedy. The love story is usually a complicated affair, but the best dizis rarely lose their original comedic flavor. Differently put, while a Western-produced rom-com aspires first and foremost to be funny at the expense of romance, the best Turkish series take romance comparatively more seriously.
#2 A significant component of the most successful Turkish rom-coms lies in their remarkable ability to evoke both empathy and laughter from viewers, at the same time.
These series often originate from a mixed set of premises. In “Kiralik Aşk,” Aunt Neriman’s comically bizarre plot to marry off Ömer is possible thanks only to the severe predicament of Defne’s brother (i.e. a crippling financial debt with dangerous money-lenders). In “Erkenci Kuş,” Can and Sanem meet only because they are forced to work at the Fikri Harika advertising agency against their will. In “Tatli Intikam,” Pelin and Sinan find each other again several years after she involuntarily caused his near-suicide attempt. In “Her Yerde Sen,” Demir and Selin’s humorous romance develops against the background of corporate downsizing, mafia threats, betrayal and child abandonment. And in “Hayat Şarkısı”, viewers can put up with Hülya’s endless dark-comedic machinations only because of her tragic past.
In short, the best Turkish rom-coms provide characters with interesting, substantive and often challenging background stories, which viewers can empathize with, notwithstanding the general humorous quality of the series.
#3 The lead protagonists of Turkish rom-coms are not only gorgeous but, in the best series, they appeal above and beyond the visual dimension.
They are multidimensional and constantly evolving characters, who are funny, witty and sarcastic. Smart, talented and disciplined. Fashionable, elegant, and sexy with a capital “S”. Conversely, the main protagonists in the best Turkish rom-coms are often realistically flawed. They are traumatized, vulnerable and thin-skinned. Stubborn, opinionated and irascible. Self-absorbed; controlling, neurotic and sometimes downright arrogant. The best comedy often results from these glaring contradictions.
For instance, it is delightful to watch principled, stiff and disciplined Ömer in “Kiralik Aşk” progressively succumb to Defne’s exuberance or Koray’s antics. Even more enjoyable, is to watch him turn from a picture-perfect manager, into a street artist complete with rugged attire, impressive motorbike, and a full array of spray cans. In the same vein, the evolution of Defne’s character is inspiring as she grows from a lost unsophisticated girl into a mature woman, who becomes progressively more confident in all aspects of her life.
Similarly, in “Erkenci Kuş,” Sanem constantly alternates between clumsy, naive and submissive mahalle daughter and talented author/marketing prodigy/cosmetics entrepreneur. In “Tatli Intikam,” Tankut/Sinan transforms from an ugly, goofy and terrifyingly shy medical student into a handsome, classy and confident Master Chef. In “Her Yerde Sen”, control-freak and semi-obsessive compulsive Demir delightfully evolves into the goat-loving boyfriend of the free-spirited Selin. Finally, even unrepentant playboy Kerem in “Afili Aşk” eventually grows a backbone and starts pursuing his goals with surprising determination.
#4 In the finest Turkish rom-coms, the couple is not only the focal point of the narrative but a protagonist in its own right, whose significance is far greater than the sum of its parts.
Consequently, the best Turkish rom-coms focus sharply and honestly on the dynamic interaction among the lead protagonists. In so doing, they transmit a great deal of magic and romance while, at the same time, delivering relationships that are honest, realistic and engaging. “Her Yerde Sen” offers a particularly brilliant illustration of this point. Broadcast in Summer/Fall of 2019, it offered a candid and vivid portrayal of a couple’s collective struggle to achieve progress and stay together in the face of several obstacles. In virtually no time, viewers became so involved with the Seldem “ship” that feeling allegiance to either Selin or Demir as separate characters became impracticable.
Similarly, “Kiralik Aşk” showcased the wide range of emotions that Defne and Ömer live in both intimate and authentic fashion — even when the storyline verged on the absurd. It was not only their romance that deeply resonated with viewers but also the hardship, disappointment, and regrets they experienced as a couple. The script of “Erkenci Kuş” initially focused much more on Sanem’s inner life than on that of Can Divit’s. Yet, very soon into the story, viewers realized that it was the magic they created together, which allowed them to evolve as individuals. Finally, the best scenes of “Afili Aşk”, possibly the funniest series of those mentioned, are those in which Ayşe and Kerem squarely confront the social differences and reciprocal prejudices that provide the greatest obstacles to their relationship.
#5 In successful rom-coms, the lead characters convey natural, harmonious and palpable chemistry while, at the same time, they provide healthy models of romantic relationships.
To this end, directors often choreograph every detail of the lovers’ physical interaction with the utmost care, as Ender Mihlar did in “Her Yerde Sen”. Still other directors, like Çağrı Bayrak of “Erkenci Kus,” leave a lot of room for improvisation by the actors. In so doing, they capitalize brilliantly on the natural talent of their leads to create magic on their own.
The result is often a miraculous paradox. Even in the face of the government-mandated scarcity of physical displays of affection that is typical in a Turkish dizi, audiences are still able to experience romance and passion to rare levels of intensity. Moreover, the best of Turkish rom-coms set their love stories against a background of genuine respect for the values of each character. And they illustrate in detail their sincere and emotionally intelligent efforts to handle reciprocal vulnerabilities and meet each other halfway in between their differences. In so doing, Turkish series often provide their audiences with excellent role models for healthy relationships between the opposite sexes.
#6 The best Turkish rom-coms offer complex scenarios full of clever plot twists that defy the genre’s typical characteristics.
For example, in “Kiralik Aşk,” Defne and Ömer’s first reconciliation is triggered by a crisis within Passionis — the shoe fashion company in which they work. Through her brilliant handling of the difficult situation, Defne discovers her leadership potential while Ömer comes to admire a hidden and completely different facet of her personality.
In addition, the finest Turkish rom-coms cleverly weave substantive sub-plots in the main narrative in a respectful and intelligent fashion. Socio-economic disparity, trauma, cultural differences, and generational conflict, for example, often appear as recurring sub-themes, which are treated with consideration and sensitivity.
For instance, when in “Kiralik Aşk” Ömer buys Defne’s family home to prevent their eviction, he tries to do so in a way that will not hurt their dignity. The conversation on the topic between Defne’s brother Serdar and Ömer is nothing short of brilliant in this respect. Again, in “Erkenci Kuş,” Can is completely respectful of Sanem’s family, even when their tradition-induced fixations verge on the preposterous. The scene between Can and Sanem’s mother in the kitchen while they prepare coffee on the occasion of Leyla’s engagement is a perfect illustration of this point. In “Her Yerde Sen”, the protagonists’ exchange about Demir’s overzealous chivalry following a potential client’s attempt to molest Selin offers valuable lessons on gender roles, workplace harassment, and conflict resolution.
#7 The best Turkish rom-coms do not shy away from including erudite artistic, cultural and historical references.
The rom-com genre is often synonymous with superficial, when not downright dumbed-down entertainment. Refreshingly, the finest Turkish rom-coms do the exact opposite. “Kiralik Aşk” was particularly rich with extensive citations from Rossini, Schubert, Kafka, Proust, Cemal Süreya, Fellini and others. In a similar fashion, “Erkenci Kuş,” “Her Yerde Sen,” “Dolunay” and “Tatli Intikam” also displayed numerous references to Turkish literature and foreign cultures. These quotations, however, are never condescending. Rather, they naturally flow from the dizi’s narrative and complement it in a subtle fashion. Highly educated audiences draw substantial delight from such references. Others have the chance of becoming exposed to something new.
#8 The most successful Turkish rom-coms rely on exceptional ensemble cast performances.
Turkish rom-coms are only as good as their ensemble cast performance. While at times some supporting characters are either over-the-top or downright annoying (like Neriman Teyze and Koray in “Kiralik Aşk”,) in other instances they make a significant contribution to the richness of the narrative (like Sinan in “Kiralik Aşk,” Vedat in “Her Yerde Sen,” and Cey Cey in “Erkenci Kuş.”) The finest Turkish rom-coms are thus the result of a concentrated team effort, where everyone’s contribution receives similar consideration in terms of script and visual representation.
#9 The best Turkish rom-coms invest a great deal in painting a detailed, distinct and consistent visual tableau in support of their narrative.
In “Her Yerde Sen”, the house that Selin and Demir are forced to share provides an evolving canvas, which mirrors the development of their relationship. At first, Selin’s colorful interior design innovations are juxtaposed to Demir’s childhood memories of the house as a cozy but not necessarily colorful residence. Later on, their progress as a couple is cleverly illustrated through various remodeling sprees that set Demir’s minimalism in competition with Selin’s originality. Towards the end, their styles progressively blend into each other to create a harmonious balance.
“Erkenci Kuş” narrates a love story against the backdrop of a creative advertising firm, a colorful traditional Istanbul neighborhood, and several attractive residences characterized by starkly different interior designs. All of them cleverly complement and support the narrative’s evolution. However, the visual brilliance of “Erkenci Kuş” is particularly reflected in the protagonists’ individual styles, which undergo a considerable transformation as the show progresses, and make a critical contribution to the development of the characters.
Defne’s wardrobe in “Kiralik Aşk” also experiences a parallel evolution to her personality. What is more, the stark differences between her quirky style and Ömer’s elegant professional attires are often juxtaposed in situations of conflict, only to dissolve suddenly during periods of harmony and bliss.
#10 The finest Turkish rom-coms inspire unparalleled enthusiasm and help viewers find relief from personal sorrows.
The informal survey, which I conducted among the Facebook fans of some of the most successful Turkish rom-coms, reveals that viewers describe these shows in enthusiastic terms, such as unique, extraordinary, intense, powerful, brilliant, dazzling, appealing, exciting, captivating, engrossing, entertaining, moving, passionate, surprising and all-consuming, etc. In the words of one respondent:
“I have never felt this way about any TV show. I have never stayed up all night watching anything but this one (Erkenci Kuş.) I have never fallen in love with the characters in a series until now. I have laughed out loud and I have cried my eyes out so many times. I went to bed but could not sleep waiting for the next episode. I have felt this love and wondered if it could ever really exist. I wanted to have this kind of love. [The protagonists] made me experience everything they were going through. It is hard to explain. All I can say is that it will always be the best thing I have ever watched in my life.”
Most importantly, the survey also showed that these rom-coms have consistently helped viewers to find relief from personal grief and, in several cases, facilitated healing:
“I cried for Sanem and Can, but also with them. After experiencing a deep personal loss, my tears were often shed not just for the story, but also for my sorrows hidden away from the rest of the world. Because the show ended on a good note, it inspired me to heal, to be kinder, and create my versions of fanfiction, which gave me comfort and shook me from my apathy. Those stories would never have seen the light of day were not for Erkenci Kuş. This was Erkenci Kuş Magic.”
“I was so numb and depressed, that I thought I could never feel again. Then, Kiralik Aşk caused me to experience a wide range of emotions I thought forever lost. Suddenly, I was Defne, I became Ömer. I laughed, I cried, I became angry, and I got butterflies in my belly. The show helped me remember that I could experience strong and beautiful feelings. And suddenly, I wanted to get out there and experience them once more.”
“Following a bitter break-up, I resented men and lost faith in relationships. Perhaps, I figured, romantic love is just one giant scam. Watching Turkish romantic series helped me get over my bitterness and cynicism. I am now starting to believe in love all over again.”
There is no indication that the various professionals behind the best Turkish rom-coms are aware of the therapeutic impact of their work, let alone intentionally design them for this purpose. And yet, perhaps they should since the ability of these shows to trigger a strong, positive emotional response is what distinguishes them the most from current mainstream Western TV fare.
In conclusion, it would be erroneous to infer that all Turkish rom-coms are amazing, as only a few truly qualify as great. What these shows do appear to have in common, however, is an incredible level of professionalism and painstaking dedication to detail. Far from being accidental, their success is based on a remarkably complex array of characteristics, which this article sought to detail. Western productions should take note. Rom-Coms are serious business in Turkey and there is much to learn from the “secret recipe” that makes them so remarkably appealing on a global scale.
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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