Netflix's 'Dark' sheds light on global TV wave

Posted November 30, 2017 3:12 p.m. EST

— Thanks to Netflix, other streaming services and cable networks with a huge appetite for scripted programming on a budget, the TV world keeps getting a little smaller.

"Dark," a 10-part German drama that has drawn comparisons to "Stranger Things," is the latest subtitled series that will ask English-speaking audiences for their undivided attention, premiering December 1 on Netflix.

The "Stranger Things" label is, frankly, a little reductive. Yes, "Dark" involves a supernatural component and children going missing in a small town, but it also has larger, more existential themes on its mind, with a time-bending premise that links what's happening in the present back to events 30 years before; and a soap-opera aspect, with plenty of complicated relationships in a community that, not incidentally, lives in the shadow of a nuclear power plant.

In that regard, the program has almost as much in common, in varying degrees, with Stephen King's "It," "Back to the Future" and the first season of "True Detective." (As an aside, while the dialogue is in German, many of the more familiar curse words uttered are in thickly accented English.)

"Dark" is just the latest German series to receive a prominent U.S. showcase, following the espionage thriller "Deutschland 83," which aired on SundanceTV. They join a growing list of available dramas that have found shelf space that didn't previously exist, including the eerie French series "Les Revenants," Italy's "Gomorrah" and a number of Danish shows, among them "Borgen" and "Bron/Broen."

Notably, several of those programs were also adapted into English-language versions, usually with mixed to disappointing results. "Les Revenants" (which also played on SundanceTV) became A&E's The Returned," "Broen/Bron" begat FX's "The Bridge" and in one of the earlier examples, the Danish series "Forbrydelsen" became AMC's "The Killing."

Although subtitled fare was once the near-exclusive province of the art-house movie circuit, the prestige niche has found a fertile home in television. While the principal beneficiaries have been producers of English-language fare in the U.K. and Australia, the market for relatively inexpensive programming -- and reduced resistance to subtitles, which includes such shows as "Narcos" and "Jane the Virgin" -- has created additional openings for international fare.

The producers of "Dark" have welcomed the "Stranger Things" comparison largely as a selling point, but the series pretty quickly establishes its own distinctive rhythms, while planting the seeds of an ambitious, densely woven mystery.

At its core, though, a project like "Dark" sheds light on the commonality of themes that fascinate and perplex, frighten and entertain. And even if American TV's increased openness to such imports says as much about business necessity as global harmony, it's a reminder that the appetite for good storytelling crosses borders.

"Dark" premieres Dec. 1 on Netflix.