By Ilgin Yorulmaz
It all started one evening last September when we were sheltering at home in Tokyo during the state of emergency due to the pandemic.
Sitting in my living room and frustrated with my family members fighting over what to watch among hundreds of movies and TV shows on Netflix and Amazon, I kicked all three of them out of the room. Remote control in hand, I began searching for something to watch.
Suddenly, a segment on Netflix titled “Turkish TV dramas”, or “dizi” in Turkish, tucked between Martin Scorcese and Coen brothers segments, blinked at me and I pressed the button on something called “Diriliş: Ertuğrul” (Resurrection: Ertuğrul).
After watching 450 episodes spanning five seasons of Ertuğrul Bey and his alps (warriors) galloping in Central Asian steppes to the tune of dombra music, and soaking up dozens of history book pages on Mongols and Turcic tribes, I’ve reached a conclusion: Turkish TV dramas are absolutely addictive!
Since the beginning of last year, more people have been watching TV, streaming services and digital platforms like Netflix, Amazon, BluTV, YouTube and others in many countries.
Turkish TV series were in the past considered to be pop culture products with light, soap-like topics. Now, they stand out with their high level of aesthetics and production richness reflecting sensitivities of Turkish people.
Among the top 100 in Netflix’s world rankings in 190 countries from Argentina to South Africa, from Japan to Israel are Turkish dramas like “Aşk 101“, “Bir Başkadır“, “Diriliş: Ertuğrul“, “Şahsiyet” and “Behçet Ç“.
Even Vogue India could not remain indifferent to the Ertuğrul storm that engulfed neighboring Pakistan and praised in its September issue “Kara Para Aşk” and “Masum” among the 12 most watched Turkish TV series.
Finally, one of the world’s most influential entertainment media publication, Variety, has included in the list of 2020’s best 15 foreign languages, “Alef“, a mystical Turkish detective story with an incredible 8.1 rating from IMDB and starring Kenan İmirzalıoğlu and Melisa Sözen.
I admit that my newfound love for Turkish dramas stems from my longing for my home country, which I’ve been unable to visit last year due to the pandemic (I’ve been living in Japan for the past four years).
But how come those non-Turkish viewers, most of whom don’t speak a word of Turkish and can only read the subtitles, comprehend the main message of these Turkish dramas and even become addicted to them? Or is this the result of another mysterious viewer algorithm by Netflix and other platforms?
Viewers agree that some of the best Turkish TV series like those listed in foreign rankings have aesthetic qualities competing with Hollywood movies, and follow multi-layered storylines that are real and authentic to Turkey, not borrowed from abroad.
In that sense, they differ from stereotypical Brazilian telenovelas, which are extremely emotional affairs, where betrayals are a plenty and a scandal occurs every minute. (This is also why Turkish producers prefer to call their series “drama”, which is used for all quality work in English instead of “telenovela” or “soap opera”.)
Actress Nazan Kesal played the titular matriarch in “Fazilet Hanım ve Kızları“, which was shown in 86 countries, including Brazil, the birthplace of telenovelas (“Brezilya dizileri” in Turkish). She is now cast as Sevda, a former singer and ex-lover in the popular drama “Bir Zamanlar Çukurova“.
“The language of poverty is the same on a world scale. The poor are poor everywhere… So is the rich. Turkish TV dramas explain the class difference very well,” she told me.
Nobody knows more about Turkish “dizi” than its die-hard fans. Turkish Drama Appreciation Facebook group has more than 11,000 (mostly) women members from around the world. They have a deep understanding of even miniscule details, such as the fire in “Alev Alev”, a recent drama with four women leads, as a symbol depicting the oppression and domestic violence of upper class female characters. They are also up-to-date about the latest releases.
Amaryllis Sheen, one of the group administrators, explains Turkish dramas’ popularity: “Turkish TV dramas … have very good stories, beautifully told with beautiful actors … [They] give us escapism, which Western shows don’t.”
Sheen says there is more romance and much less sex in dizis which women like her definitely like. She’s currently watching “Masumlar Apartmanı” and “Sen Çal Kapımı” but her all-time favorite TV series are “Bulut Olsam” and “Kiralık Aşk“.
Özge Bulut Maraşlı is a producer of “Alef“, the so-called “Islamic noir style” mini series written by Emre Kayış, which airs on Turkish streaming service BluTV, and tells about the murders associated with a secret sect in Istanbul. According to Maraşlı, the common point behind the success of local Turkish productions in different genres is that they satisfy “the sense of reality”.
“Our stories sit on a much better backbone and require deep insight,” she says.
Perhaps the only exception to the realistic stories are period dramas and fantasy productions. “Magnificent Century”, “Resurrection: Ertuğrul”, “Foundation: Osman” and the upcoming “Barbaros” and “Altay”, all achieve success by creating an illusion rather than a realistic storyline. Ebru Thwaites, a Communications professor from Bilgi University, explains this phenomenon as the “post-truth of nostalgia, or the nostalgia of a past that did not exist as historically represented.
Emin Alper, the director of “Alef“, says that he likes the way high quality dramas give a director the opportunity to tell a detailed story in a longer period of time — unlike the movie.
Alper thinks Turkey’s position as the east-west synthesis and a rich multicultural society is reflected in the scenarios. Explaining how he created an immaculate underground world of mysticism for “Alef”, Alper says, “We should never lower our standards in certain scenes and qualities [pertaining to the dizi]. Otherwise we will only look silly.”
Istanbul acts as a natural set in dramas like “Alef”, “Hakan: Muhafız” and “Atiye”. From the original music that captures the atmosphere of period dramas to the plastic makeup and costumes, everything meets the expectations of the world audience.
Then there is the acting, of course. Majority of Turkish actors are trained and can act very well compared to some of their Latin American counterparts. They also have a passionate fan base: It’s not unusual for an Instagram post by Engin Altan Düzyatan, the star of “Ertuğrul“, which some fans think is the Muslim version of “Game of Thrones”, to break a record by receiving from his South Asian fans 700 “likes” in just 24 seconds.
Pakistani journalist Fatima Bhutto studies popular cultures in the world. She describes Bollywood, Korean pop music (K-pop) and Turkish “dizi” as “the new kings of the world”, and argues that they have already started to replace Western pop culture and Hollywood, which, for a long time, had been seeing itself as the center of the world.
Bhutto mentions “Fatmagül’ün Suçu Ne?”, a 2010 drama about a young girl’s pursuit of justice against the powerful and rich after a sexual assault, as a story opposing the macho culture in today’s #MeToo age that “everyone, from Peru to Lebanon, can identify with themselves.”
But can Turkish dramas remain popular for years or will this popularity wind down like in the case of Brazilian soap operas or South American telenovelas?
Industry experts like Netflix Turkey content director Pelin Diştaş believe that the streaming wars between foreign and Tukish platforms will likely influence the fate of Turkish dramas in the future.
The argument is that the more Turkish drama producers, directors and screenwriters compete to do business on Netflix, Amazon, BluTV, and other digital platforms, the more experience they will gain in the international storytelling language.
Diştaş sees this as “an important opportunity for the Turkish creative sector to properly introduce itself to the world” and for the quality of the final product to keep increasing. For example, a special effects team that worked on “Titanic” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” was recruited for the new Netflix series with the code name ”Submarine” starring Kıvanç Tatlıtuğ.
While the competition is always healthy, financial strength of a platform like Netflix undeniable, and the experience in international storytelling desirable, some fans worry that Turkish dramas will fail to maintain their unique “Turkish” identity if they give in to Netflix and others.
Among the Turkish dramas already released in 2021 are “50m2“, a story about the life of a hitman, and “Fatma“, a thriller in which a nondescript housecleaner played by Burcu Biricik embarks on a murderous streak to find her missing husband. Dramas like these focus on people trying to live a dignified, real and principled life. They skillfully handle timeless and geographically independent concepts such as women’s rights, violence, honor and justice.
Yet there is one common thread that is embedded in the DNA of almost all Turkish dramas: love. We see it in every shape and form — at the center of power, goodness and evil.
Or as Ertuğrul once said: “There is only one trouble that scares an otherwise brave man the most, and that is love.”
Adapted from the original Turkish version which first appeared in Vogue Türkiye’s February 2021 issue under the headline “Kings of the New World Order”.
Shared on North America TEN with permission of original publication and author.
Ilgin Yorulmaz has worked for many years as a researcher and reporter based in Tokyo, London, Istanbul, and New York. She is a 2017 East West Center Fellow and a 2016 White House Correspondents Association Scholar. As a foreign correspondent, she has reported from Turkey, India, Nepal, Philippines, China and Japan for BBC World Service, The Huff Post, VICE, The Guardian, Vogue, Condé Nast Traveller UK, and Maison Française, among others. She is the author of three books focused on small businesses in Istanbul — a spin-off of her critically-acclaimed online publication Pukka Living, which she founded and edited until her move to New York in 2015 to study for her master’s degree at Columbia University Journalism School. Ilgin is currently based in Tokyo freelancing for digital publications. She loves to explore and talk about the beauty of Japanese aesthetics, Eastern mysticism, and Turkish dramas. See her work at ilginyorulmaz.com.