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The Guardian - Lighten up! Will our appetite for foreign language drama extend to comedy?

While gloomy Nordic noir has been a huge hit in the UK, foreign language comedy hasn’t quite taken off. Could a Norwegian series about a misanthropic marriage counsellor change things?

In recent years, UK broadcasters have been buying up foreign language drama in bulk: from Nordic noir – Scandinavian thrillers like The Killing, Borgen and The Bridge – to Channel 4’s airing of French drama The Returned. BBC4 even went so far as to purchase the rights to 1864, a subtitled Danish drama about the Second Schleswig War, which sounds like an alienating, dull proposition even for that channel. Subtitles superimposed over sullen faces had long been shorthand for attempted profundity, but now it also means masterful story arcs, rave reviews, and, most importantly, ratings.

But what if those faces weren’t sullen? What if they were smiling, gurning of pratfalling in a busy communal area? Will we ever see a day when subtitled comedies enjoy similar levels of success in the UK as their dramatic counterparts?

Sky clearly hopes so. Last month the broadcaster begun airing Dag, a Norwegian comedy starring Atle Antonsen as the titular character, a misanthropic relationship counsellor who treats warring couples. Usually by advising them to split up.

As premises go, it’s not a bad one. Yet, while subtitles might be on-trend, they are quite clearly not a gimmick. For that reason, any programme that is burdened with them must have a clear appeal; there’s no room for your tranquilising, middle-of-the road PhoneShops or Job Lots here. In 2011, BBC4 aired Icelandic comedy The Night Shift, which followed three men working at a Reykjavik petrol station. Although it was a huge hit in Iceland, it was heavily indebted to The Office, and as gaps in the market go, the one for a pale imitation of The Office in Icelandic doesn’t seem particularly cavernous.

There are aspects of Dag, though, that do make it seem worth the extra effort. It deals in a casually black humour, similar in shade to Nighty Night or The League of Gentlemen. Yet while the dark recesses probed in those British shows are shrouded in the context of a goofy, surreal nightmare, Dag is played naturalistically, which means people are just behaving extraordinarily badly in normal life. The primary example being Dag’s best friend, Benedikt, who breaks up with his girlfriend while she is in the middle of giving birth to his child. “I just think we want different things”, he tells her self-pityingly, “for instance, you want to have kids”.

Dag probably has earned a place on British television, but does it have enough appeal to open the floodgates for subtitled comedy? If comic genius is to be found in the consciousness-bypassing alchemy of perfect content, timing and intonation, you’d think that having to read words off the screen – and engaging in an exhausting round of eyeball-acrobatics as you flicker from reading words to reading a face and then back again – would seriously disrupt the magic. In reality, despite the extra effort, I didn’t find the subtitles made that much difference, and I probably laughed out loud as much as I would have when watching a British comedy. In fact, when I conducted a quick control experiment in the gym over a subtitled episode of decidedly uninspired Melissa Joan Hart vehicle Melissa & Joey, I found its jokes a lot cleverer and funnier than they usually seemed with the sound on. Delivery, clearly, is overrated.

Yet there was something else about Dag that made it slightly more difficult to enjoy. Life in Norway is clearly not hugely different to life in the UK. But it is a bit different, and comedy is often most appealing when it deals in subtleties, and for those subtleties to be appreciated, the audience must know what is ordinary and what is strange. It’s why it doesn’t often age very well. We are so familiar with the mores of American society (or its sitcom shorthand) that processing US comedy is second nature – or for some people possibly even more natural than watching a British show.

In Dag, I was never quite sure how strangely the characters were behaving, if they were meant to be weird or mean or blunt, or if something was usual or completely bizarre. In one scene in an upcoming episode, Dag is presented at his practice with a 15-year-old girl whose mother complains that her boyfriend won’t have sex with her. He is 13, and looks 10. Which is the joke – but a rather alarming one to me and, probably, much of Sky’s British audience.

Moments like that throw you off course, and once you lose your bearings in the world of comedy it becomes far harder to know what is meant to be grossly funny and what is just gross. Yet I hope that broadcasters do import more subtitled sitcoms for that very reason. With comedy, you either get the joke or you don’t, it’s a direct and unforgiving form of cultural exchange – one that is far more profound than just a sullen face with a subtitle on top.

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