Do you know what they call really good TV in America? TV.
Do you know what they call it in Germany? Qualitätsfernsehen. Quality TV. Already it sounds uninteresting. But don’t worry, there isn’t much of it, which is something worrying Germany’s television producers.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s some great German TV. Most of it Scandinavian: The Killing. The Bridge. And that tubby Wallander guy.
Part of it’s the country’s creatively stagnant public TV infrastructure, which skews toward retirees, but it’s also because of the country’s taste for character (Klaus Kinski anyone?) over story.
When The Wire got huge in the U.S., suddenly a mini-series called Im Angesicht des Verbrechens (The Face of the Crime) appeared and it was pretty great, if only because it showcased neighborhoods and a corner of Berlin rarely acknowledged.
But with the success of things like Breaking Bad, House of Cards and Girls, Germany’s TV production companies are trying to bring out more Qualitätsfernsehen – and snag some of that production $$$. And they’re succeeding, sort of. Im Angesicht des Verbrechens was a good start. Then there’s Weissensee, about a sometimes-ignored suburb of Berlin (and the former East Berlin). And now Deutschland 83.
What’s it about (for anyone who hasn’t seen it)? Germany in 1983, dummkopf. More specifically, an East German spy in Bonn for a couple of key days.
And it’s pretty great. We binge-watched it over Christmas and it’s got everything I love about Cold War Germany: the Stasi. American generals. Mean Russians and clownish East German officials. Deutschland 83 even picked up the American Qualitätsfernsehen habit of ending on a tune – usually some New Wave ditty.
But just like how much of the best German TV is Scandinavian, Deutschland 83 is conceived pretty much by an American: Berlin novelist Anna Winger and her German husband. Acquaintance and fellow American journalist Ralph Martin even wrote an episode (private to Ralph: nice job on the brothel!).
It’s like the executives at broadcaster RTL were so panicked by the American TV invasion they couldn’t even trust their local heroes. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
The show is a hit abroad and a yawner at home.
I’m not surprised. RTL’s audience rarely has an attention span longer than the word Qualitätsfernsehen. And, anyway, everything us aging Americans and Brits love about Cold War Germany has been done more times than a Hasselhoff gag in Germany. They lived it. Some subtleties are bound to go missing.
But the question now is, will there be a Deutschland 1984? I hope so! And hats off to RTL for making it easy to watch the German-language version from rainy Portland, Oregon for a laughable $0.99 an episode (otherwise I would have just stolen it from some dodgy Russian site).
I’d love if Qualitätsfernsehen became Fernsehen.