Switching on Italian TV

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Once the holidays were over and life went back to normal, I decided to face the one thing I’d been avoiding: Italian television.

I avoided watching TV in the evenings for three main reasons.  First, it was incredibly exhausting and frustrating to watch something you didn’t really understand.  Second, the dubbing drove me a little crazy; that is, having every character, whether Mexican, American or Australian, say “ciao come stai?’’ in exactly the same way was both mildly irritating and somewhat hilarious.  And third, the quality of the TV shows was, um, how I can I put it politely? … Vintage? Retro? Not quite.  Ok… it was Bad!

Watching evening television in Italy was like being sucked into a porthole to the 80s and 90s.  Here they were—Knight Rider, Miami Vice, Magnum, P.I., and Touched by an Angel— all gloriously occupying Italian primetime.  I was told that as the crisis in Italy deepens, the standard of TV across the nation proportionally decreases.

Over the decades, Italians have been able to mark major life events according to what season of Walker Texas Ranger was showing.  Entire generations have grown up watching Chuck Norris because at the end of a series, the staff at Rai press the rewind button and restart the series from the beginning. (It’s probably fair to say that Silvio Berlusconi doesn’t spend too much time watching his own TV stations!)

I became reacquainted with all the old characters—probably a little too much! I’d change nappies and clean the house with Della Reese’s voice singing the theme song from Touched by an Angel in my head. And I knew which show Kurt Russell was in when he was wearing an eye-patch…

In addition to reruns and old action movies, prime time slots were also occupied by Italian game shows.  I became addicted to two of them. The first was Gira la Ruota (Wheel of Fortune), whose hostess happened to have breasts that looked as if they could bounce straight out and hit a home run. The camera always managed to pan her cleavage every time she spoke.

I also loved watching I Soliti Ignoti (The Usual Suspects), in which contestants had to guess each other’s occupations.  However, my love for this show became tainted after someone told me that often the winning contestants were a friend of a friend who happened to know the producer, or maybe even Silvio himself!  This was actually true, as it had been reported in the papers!

But I didn’t let a few game show scandals stand in my way because, as the weeks went by, I noticed my Italian started to improve. I could actually understand what the emcees and contestants were saying (although, admittedly, game show contestants do tend to say the same things over and over, such as ‘Please, please, please’, ‘Come on, come on…’).

Game shows also taught me a new tense: speaking in the conditional.  Instead of saying things like ‘io scelgo’ (I’ll choose), I learnt to say ‘io sceglierei’ (I would choose), which somehow added an element of intrigue and interest to my conversations.  (At least that’s what I thought it did!  Always speaking in the present tense can get a little boring).

But my absolutely favourite show was probably Il Posto Al Sole (A Place In the Sun), which was a Neapolitan soap opera.  I had NO chance of understanding the Napoli accent, so whenever I watched, I put the Italian subtitles on … and read, read, read like crazy! It was tough at first, but eventually I could easily follow the unfolding drama.  It was great!

Even today, I’m able to read Italian quite well, and I owe it all to a soapy!  And, yes, as frustrating as it is that all Italian film and television programs are dubbed, it forces you to learn the language.

If Walker Texas Ranger had been played in English, I probably wouldn’t have watched it anyway.

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