Sunday, October 9, 2011

American Re-Runs in Bulgaria

I don't own a television set. I haven't even lived somewhere with a working television in at least two years. It's just not something I think about. Okay, I do watch television online. Back in the States I used Netflix instant for just about everything. At one point, my two roommates and I were using the same account (which actually belonged to another friend) and this resulted in the four of us accumulating close to 18 hours of TV per day. This average was probably significantly higher during finals week. Oh, college days...

My point is that because I never watch Bulgarian TV, I am usually unaware of the shows available and popular at any given moment unless I go to a friend's house, like last week when I was eating dinner with some friends and the television was switched on to the comedy channel. And I noticed something funny: the program, being shown at prime-time dinner hour, was Taxi. This was an American show that ran in the late 1970s. If you do the math, this was about ten years before I was born, so I didn't grow up with the show, however, I knew about it because it was the most famous role for the iconic late Andy Kaufman. His character was an Eastern European immigrant and car mechanic named Latka Gravas who wanted to live out the American dream. My impression is that he represented a stereotype of people from the socialist bloc that was popular in the American imagination during the Cold War years. My grandfather, who was a Polish immigrant, certainly experienced prejudice because of his background and heavily-accented English.

Here's one scene (although not the one that I watched):

The scene that really got my attention was a "flashback" from Latka's past with his mother in his fictional home country. Because American TV shows are usually dubbed in Bulgarian, this scene was the only one where I was able to understand the dialogue with English subtitles (the Gravas family were speaking in their made-up native language, dubbed over in Bulgarian). In a tearful farewell, Latka explains to his mother that he wants to go to America to live out his dreams. She worries that he won't find a woman there who can plow the fields and bear children, based on the images of thin supermodels she sees in a magazine. Of course, this plays into the same stereotype of the uncultured and agricultural lifestyles supposedly led by people under communist regimes, which begs the question: how does this really translate to a Bulgarian audience today?

Is Latka's character funny because it's vaguely nostalgic? Or is it because his aspirations to leave his home country for better opportunities in America are portrayed as naive and misguided? I would really like to know the reason why certain shows now off the air in the States, such as Taxi and Cheers, are being re-run in Bulgaria today while other comedies, namely Seinfeld, aren't. Obviously not every script can be translated well, especially when many jokes are very dated or culture-specific. But it is interesting how some of the most popular American shows that were broadcast during the socialist era are now becoming popular here. Maybe there is no reason. But it is something I think about whenever I find myself watching TV in Bulgaria, apart from the ridiculousness of reality television and Slavi's Show... 

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