Giancarlo Lombardi: The Rewarding Allure of Watching International TV Series

In the past year and a half, streaming services have experienced an enormous surge in the number of subscriptions, surpassing one billion worldwide in 2020 (L.A. Times, 3/18/21). During the pandemic, many viewers began exploring shows from different countries, increasing American subscribers’ viewership of foreign television series and films by 50 percent (The Washington Post, 6/18/21). Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with film and television expert and scholar Giancarlo Lombardi about the television universe, the appeal of international series, upcoming premieres, and more. Lombardi is currently the Executive Officer of the Comparative Literature program at The Graduate Center. He is also a professor of cinema and television studies, and comparative literature at The Graduate Center and The College of Staten Island. 

You specialize in film and television studies. Is this what you have always dreamed of doing? 

I’ve been an avid television watcher since I was a kid. But as an academic, I never thought I would end up focusing on television. My PhD in the States was in Italian, French, and English literature. My first job, while still in graduate school actually, was a part-time position at the University of Rochester where they had told me point-blank: “If we hire you, you have to teach film.” I was an ardent film goer and knew a lot about cinema. So, I was going to school at Cornell, and I would spend the five-hour bus trip from Ithaca to Rochester reading film theory. And soon I started to write about cinema. In my first full-time job at Smith College, I began teaching television alongside film. That was immediately mediated by my passion for critical theory and my encounter with John Fiske, one of the biggest names in television studies. After many years of doing research in film, I shifted towards doing research in television. 

Giancarlo Lombardi at a conference on “The Sopranos” in 2014

Tell us about your experience with “The Sopranos.”

The Sopranos was the most loved and hated show in Staten Island where I both lived and taught at the time. I remember teaching it at the College of Staten Island when the last season was airing, and there were lots of weekly discussions in class around how The Sopranos would resolve. I taught The Sopranos several times and eventually I wrote a piece on it, on how David Chase played with viewer anticipation. After The Sopranos and Lost, I became fixated on endings in television. Endings are never a given in television because so many shows are interrupted for many reasons. It’s a luxury for a series to end.

How did you see the interest in international television series grow in the States?

With Netflix came an influx of television with subtitles. One of the very first was Les Revenants (The Returned) by Canal+. What we have to bear in mind is the role of cultural mediators. Merit goes to Alessandra Stanley, a polarizing figure in television journalism and former television critic for The New York Times. She wrote a really important piece about the television we couldn’t see in the States that then became available, like Les Revenants, Un village français (A French Village) Spiral (Engrenages). Soon, Scandinavian noir, also known as Scandi noir or Nordic noir, became really important. That had to do with the fact that American cable channels, still resisting television with subtitles, had no problem adapting formats. So, AMC had The Killing, a retelling of the Danish original, Forbrydelsen, now available on Topic and Amazon Prime. Shortly thereafter, FX adapted The Bridge. Then, of course, the phenomenon of Borgen came and received considerable attention from important cultural mediators. The New Yorker wrote a really important piece on Borgen and Scandinavian television. 

You’ve talked about how TV series are a form of literature. In the 19th and early 20th centuries we had serialized novels, such as “The Count of Monte Cristo,” “Madame Bovary,” “Anna Karenina,” “Tender is the Night” to name a few. And then radio offered daily short programs called “soap operas” because they were sponsored by soap companies, like Palmolive. “Guiding Light” first aired on the radio and then transferred to TV in the 50s. Is that how serial television was born? 

Yes. It goes back to the French “feuilleton” and the U.K. equivalent: Dickens’ serialized novels… And the passage from radio to television is certainly my beloved Guiding Light which started in 1937, moved to television in 1952, and by the time it went off the air in the 2000s, it was the longest television program ever aired. Of course, there’s a stretch between that kind of television and the television we’re talking about now. In serialized television, you go from long serialization of soap operas to short serialization. In the serialization we’re discussing, there are key terms that one can use. You could see it as prestige or quality television, but that’s a value judgment; it’s a judgment about taste and that’s a problem.

Giancarlo Lombardi at the 2013 Nuovo Cinema Italiano Film Festival (photographer Lia Pasqualino and film director Luca Ragazzi in the background) – Photo by Stan Foxworthy

Who determines that?

Cultural mediators. That is where, to go back to critical theory, you are invoking interpretive communities—as per Stanley Fish. Some say: “If you don’t belong in my interpretive community, you don’t understand anything.” I think Jason Mittell has done a real service to the field by switching towards the idea of “complex television.” The word “complexity” fits better because there’s complexity even in series that are not necessarily associated with “quality television,” like 24, Alias, Lost, because, let’s face it, there is good and bad quality television. But is the narrative complex? 

When we’re talking about narrative complexity, we’re really looking at Genette, we’re looking at narratology and how it applies to television. My own way of complicating this concept is not that of complexity and quality but plurality: the ability of television to speak to different viewers in different times, places, and ways. When I talk about plurality, I’m thinking about Roland Barthes, and about S/Z in particular. He talks about the plural text and the fact that you pick up a text at different points of your life and it will tell you different things. And if you pick up a text with different cultural repertoires, you will be able to activate certain codes and won’t be able to activate others. This is where I stand in terms of television theory, and this is why I am so interested in non-U.S.-based and non-anglophone television.

What appeals to you most about non-anglophone television?

That it basically puts in the foreground the question of activation of codes and the question of a double reading. If you think about it, watching television with subtitles requires a double set of readings. It requires a slower reading; there are so many levels. And the mere fact that this television is not made for the viewer in question opens the issue of different decodings. How do I decode the series that is probably, next to Borgen, one of the most complex and riveting series I have seen in the last ten years—a Croatian series on Netflix called The Paper? It’s about freedom of speech and political corruption, questions that are central to Borgen but applied in a very different way. Just as I knew nothing about Danish politics, I know nothing about questions of freedom of speech in Croatia nor do I know anything about Croatian local and national politics. Both play a huge role in the series: mayoral and presidential elections. But if the series still hits you as a viewer, if it still captures you, then there’s something absolutely special there. So, what kind of codes are you activating then? Narrative and non-narrative. I think that one of the biggest limits of Mittel’s thinking is concentration on the narrative aspect, but television is an audio-visual medium so to me, the visual component is essential. That is where The Paper is particularly stunning.

Which international TV series do you recommend for this fall?

The Chestnut Man on Netflix is what I wait for the most; it starts on September 29. It is one of the most interesting upcoming series. It’s Danish, by the creator of The Killing, based on a prize-winning novel he wrote. Gomorrah (Gomorra) is coming back in November. You know, Gomorra is now becoming a narrative eco-system as some of my colleagues, Guglielmo Pescatore, Veronica Innocenti, and later Giuliana Benvenuti, have said. As a narrative eco-system, it also follows Henry Jenkins’ idea of the spreadable media; it’s a galaxy. After the fourth season, a film was released, supposedly giving the back story of Ciro, L’Immortale (The Immortal). The film turns out to be a very important bridge into Season 5, the concluding season. In the U.S. if you have HBO Max, you can get the all the seasons including The Immortal

There is another Italian series coming, starting on November 18 on AMC+, that might be a really difficult watch because it is set in the aftermath of a pandemic that has left only children alive and they all have an expiration date; they will all die after puberty. It’s called Anna and is written by a very important writer and director Niccolò Ammaniti. These children navigate Sicily with the help of a “Bible” of instructions that their mother left them when she was dying. 

I hope that this fall will also bring the release of what I think is the most interesting series that came out last year in Italy, a series that retells the founding myth of Rome, called Romulus. It’s a retelling all together because there’s no Romulus in the cast. In Europe it aired on Sky and HBO depending on the country; here we’ll have to see where it will land, likely on HBO. It is certainly made in the spirit of Game of Thrones and Vikings, an attempt at period and action drama by a national industry that is not necessarily accustomed to it. On the other hand, it’s fascinating to see how Romulus also fits the mold of Gomorra and Suburra

Giancarlo Lombardi with Cosetta Gaudenzi (University of Memphis) and Simona Bondavalli (Vassar) at the opening reception of the MLA International Symposium 2019 in Lisbon

Why do you think American viewers have been increasingly drawn to international TV series?

I think that the international success of series like Gomorra, Lupin, La casa de papel (The House of Paper, a.k.a. Money Heist) were such that they managed to reach a very wide viewership. Netflix was very smart about it because they dubbed the foreign shows. Dark is another one, the most important German international series. I think dubbed series are more palatable to the general viewership, but I hope that at some point everyone will say “let me see what the original sounds like.” The three streaming platforms that have the most European television are MHz Choice, PBS Masterpiece, and Topic. And some series go to AMC+. All of these channels have trial subscriptions, and they should be tried. 

At a time when it is so difficult to travel, it is also thanks to global television drama that we’re able to be all over the world. If you look at the statistics of the membership, say for Topic, and how much they increased during Covid, that tells you there’s certainly a need for it. There’s also a real crisis in the sector in the States. Network drama is dying. American television is suffering right now. Once Shonda Rhimes abandons ABC for good, once Grey’s Anatomy is done, things are going to change. Grey’s Anatomy remains the most watched television series in the States on network TV. That shows not just how good Grey’s Anatomy is, but also that nothing else has been able to attract as much. 

HBO is still putting out some incredible content: Mare of Easttown and Hacks are examples. Better Call Saul on AMC is also one of the series that has delivered year after year. And I’m still watching stuff like Law & Order. Law & Order: Organized Crime, which brought back Chris Meloni, completely revitalized the Law & Order franchise. And, since to me the pleasure is in long arcs, I enjoy what Michelle and Robert King do. The Good Wife led the way and now their stuff is only on Paramount Plus; The Good Fight and Evil are absolutely excellent. 

As for Netflix, it has not been so successful in terms of its own original productions. So much has been said recently about The Chair

(“The Chair” is the Netflix series starring Sandra Oh as the first woman of color to chair the English department at a major university.) How do you feel about this series?

Well, I’m a Chair and I hated every minute of The Chair! Because it hits a lot of things that are close to home. To some of us it’s really not funny at all and it’s also oversimplistic. It plays into an idea of redundancy, it makes us look out of touch with the world, it confirms stereotypes about our profession that are not necessarily true. I mean, it touches on a number of important things, but it also does it very superficially. Ultimately, it is extremely ageist and not that incredibly flattering in terms of representations of diversity and inclusion even though it really tries. To me, it’s extremely problematic. It might speak differently outside of the States but for those of us in the profession: some loved it and others, like me, hated it. 

Let’s go back to Nordic or Scandinavian noirs: what do you believe makes them so special? 

I think it’s the ability to tell a story at a slower pace and to access characters in a different way, so to be character driven versus story driven, which is a big debate in television. But it’s about the setting and the tone as well. There’s also not an enormous output. These are projects that are really thought out and go through scaffolded financing from a number of sources. Any Scandinavian show is usually co-funded by all of Scandinavia. Which is why you should never just stop at Danish television, you should always make sure you take a look at what’s hot in Swedish, Finnish, Norwegian, Icelandic television because there’s really great stuff. Trapped is the standard for Icelandic television. In Swedish television, Modus is one of the most important series. In Norwegian television, there are Mammon, Beforeigners, Occupied, and in Finnish television, Peacemaker, Deadwind, All the Sins… I mean, there is so much. And Danish television we’ve already talked about.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’ve been working on Romulus. I just finished a piece and I’m about to start writing another one. I’m also going back to writing more about Italian television of the 60s and 70s. In Spring 2022, I go back to teaching; it will be a course called Television Aesthetics.

Read some of Giancarlo Lombardi’s pieces on cinema and television.

Top photo: Giancarlo Lombardi at CUNY Cinematheque
All photos courtesy Giancarlo Lombardi

About Maria-Cristina Necula (104 Articles)
Maria-Cristina Necula’s published work includes the books "The Don Carlos Enigma: Variations of Historical Fictions" and "Life in Opera: Truth, Tempo and Soul," and two translations: "Europe à la carte" and Molière’s "The School for Wives." Her articles and interviews have appeared in "Classical Singer" Magazine, "Das Opernglas," "Studies in European Cinema," and "Opera News." As a classically-trained singer she has performed in the New York City area at Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, Merkin Hall, Florence Gould Hall, and the Westchester Broadway Theatre, and has presented on opera at The Graduate Center, Baruch, The City College of New York, and UCLA Southland. She speaks six languages, two of which she honed at the Sorbonne University in Paris and the University of Vienna, and she holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from The Graduate Center. Discover more at www.mariacristinanecula.com.