Lessons from Italian Media
Lessons from Italian Media
Back in 1993, I got my first passport and moved to Italy for my junior year abroad. One of the things I was most excited about was getting to see the culture and art of an entirely different country. The internet was in its infancy then, so going places was really the only way to see what other nations were making. I was hungry for Italian pop, Italian TV, Italian cinema, Italian theatre, whatever I could get my eyes and ears on. I understood, too, that watching and listening to these things would help me improve my language skills. I listened to the radio but the pop music was pretty lousy. I watched TV and the shows all seemed to be tacky variety shows full of show girls. I went to Italian theatre and mostly found translations of works in English. Only the cinema managed to deliver high quality contemporary art.
Meanwhile, I was studying the old stuff, too. I learned incisione (metal engraving), solfeggio and read incredible works from Italy’s past. In 1993, the great works were the old works, the Renaissance works, the great art of the past. I don’t regret a moment of it. I’m built for the classics.
However, I was baffled by how a people who were raised at the feet of such classical greatness could be inclined to make such trashy art. I found it very confusing.
Recently, I learned a lot more about Berlusconi, who was not yet in charge of the country when I moved there, but who WAS in charge of the media. I suspect there were a lot of tits on TV because Berlusconi was a fan of tits on TV. There was a lot of trashy pop on the radio because Berlusconi was pretty trashy and he had tremendous broadcast power. I mean, imagine if Trump were in charge of every single TV station and most of the radio. Now imagine what he’d put on those stations. That’s what Italian media was like in 1993–1994.
I’ve been thinking about this because I’ve been watching Italian TV shows lately and they are a world away from what I saw while I was there. They are artful. They are thoughtful and some of them feature really good Italian pop, which I’m delighted to discover has also radically improved in the last few decades.
I watched my first current Italian show by accident. Honestly, if I’d known it was Italian at the start, I’d have been a little wary. However, Netflix has worked out that I love a show about witches so it was selling me pretty hard on Luna Nera, which featured gorgeous production design in the trailer and was very thoroughly witchy. As I watched the opening scene, I realized that the sound was not matching their mouths and so I clicked around to see about turning off dubbing and — ecco — non ci credo — it’s in Italian. And it was great. It’s like a medieval Charmed with a power-hungry, witch-hunting bishop and a witch-hunting club. The design was glorious. The performances were excellent. The premise and the writing were very engaging. They left us on a cliffhanger and there is still no word on a Season 2. It may be cancelled? Or not? Anyway, I would like to see more Italian witches.
And then my friend wrote an article about another Italian show — one I’d put on my list and forgotten about — called Zero. You should, for sure, read her piece about it. It places the show in context and lays out why it’s so innovative. I’m generally a sucker for a show where someone has powers of some kind but the fact that this one is also about the real estate take-over of a poor immigrant community makes it all the more powerful. There were immigrants from Senegal living in Florence when I was there but most Italians and tourists behaved as though they weren’t there, as if they were invisible — except when it rained and you needed an umbrella, as they were often on the street selling them then. It’s telling that this show is about a young Senegalese immigrant who can turn invisible.
I feel like this show makes the best argument for why diversity in the arts matters. It’s not just that we get to see a story about a community we rarely get to hear stories about — but the immigrant influence feeds all strands of the artistic experience. The Italian music in the show seems to have an African influence and it makes for the best Italian pop I’ve ever heard. Also, it’s just really well done. Beautifully shot, engagingly written, surprising and exciting. This show, by the way, also ended in a cliffhanger and is also, as yet, not renewed.
And now that Netflix has my Italian TV number, they sold me immediately on Luna Park, which just came out. It’s a fun period drama that owes a lot to Italy’s Fellini past. I mean, you can’t watch a show about a carnival in Italy and not think of La Strada or even I Clown. I enjoyed so much of this show (aside from the contemporary music moments. Whyyyyyyyyy?!?!) and could feel my language skills seeping back into my brain as I watched my third Italian drama. And then, for the third time, the show ended on a cliffhanger, almost literally. The show only just came out, so it has not been renewed. But it’s good, you know? All three of these shows that Netflix has made happen, are good. They’re not in the least bit trashy. There were some boobs but they were in good taste, in that they weren’t on showgirls and they made sense in context.
So why am I telling you about all this Italian media? Do I just want you to watch these shows so Netflix will make more? Sure. Maybe. But really, I am not here to pat Netflix on the back. (This is definitely not the moment for that.) The cultural skill was clearly already there in the people who made these shows. Italian cinema is evidence of that. Italian artists know how to tell a story — it’s just that the media landscape was controlled by a buffoon and so they got buffoon art, for years. They needed the resources to make better art. Diversity matters, not just in the stories we tell but in the places we get to tell them. When you only have RAI 1, 2, 3 and so on and they’re all the same network, run by the same guy, it is very hard to get any interesting variety going.
I’m thrilled by the way Netflix is opening storytelling doors for Italian TV but I also worry, that as time goes by and Netflix begins to dominate the world’s watching experience, will it also lose the incredible global diversity that it’s currently tapping into? Will it become one of only a handful of places we can watch something? Will they control the narrative? Will they cancel all these shows that they left on a cliffhanger? And will they make any more or is it just these three and then they’re done investing in Italy?
Italian pop was terrible in the 90s in part because it was controlled by the same powers that controlled TV. It created a same-i-ness of sound and quality. Italians in the 90s mostly listened to pop in English. My Italian friends found my affection for Italian rapper, Jovanotti, kind of hilarious. I can still sing/rap along to large swaths of “ Penso, Positivo” and “ Serenata Rap.” So you know, I enjoyed some Italian pop but we couldn’t call it good, really. Now, here in the US, we have just three record companies and so much of American pop sounds the same. I fear we are headed toward an Italy in the 90s kind of world and I’m here to tell you that was not a good time for music or TV there.
But it is an exciting time for Italian TV and music now — diversity is coming in and making things cool and interesting. Though, there are way too many cliffhangers.
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