There’s a moment in the first episode of Netflix’s Élite when Marina calls after her brother Guzmán. He’d been giving her a hard time while she was befriending the new kid, Samuel. “Toma,” she says, while flipping him off.
I recognize the nonchalant taunting in the command. “Here, take this,” is the kind of thing my older brothers would have said when they were tricking me into getting the middle finger. It’s not meant to be nice, but it’s also not vindictive. It’s almost loving.
Even though the siblings in Élite are growing up in a rich Spanish community a decade apart and thousands of miles from my middle-class American upbringing, watching that off-hand moment between two siblings made their lives feel a little bit closer to mine. There’s a universality to sibling torment.
That’s the nice thing about consuming entertainment from other parts of the world: seeing how we’re similar, despite our physical and cultural separation, and finding out what we can learn from one another. It’s the same idea behind sending the Queer Eye guys to Japan and inviting Marie Kondo stateside to organize our homes (and lives). In this decade of streaming, we’re able to interact with other cultures more intimately than ever before — in our own homes. And as Netflix, the streamer with the biggest footprint, becomes increasingly global, so can we.
The Great British Baking Show zooms in on British traits and treats.
Looking back, the globalization of television seems inevitable. Music was radically revolutionized with the swift rise of Napster in 1999, the pioneering software that allowed users to digitally share music files. For the first time, anyone with an internet connection had virtually any music they wanted right at their fingertips for free. Of course, once people realized that this format was exploiting artists’ work, this form of sharing quickly became illegal — but it did change the way we’d consume music forever, paving the way toward paid iTunes downloads and streaming services like Spotify. And with that easy-to-share format, we’ve been exposed to acts and genres from other parts of the world that we may never have gotten to enjoy had we just stuck to our localized talent bucket organized by anonymous music execs. Now, we can wake up to modern flamenco and energize our post-lunch slump with K-pop.
Similarly, over the past decade, we’ve seen popular TV move from a localized cable model to globalized streaming, and that has meant we can start our day in America and end it on the English countryside as we laugh at the distinctly British personality quirks on The Great British Baking Show. Or we can turn our attention to Tokyo, where a set of strangers move into a house together and try to find love on the Japanese series, Terrace House.
These cultural exports not only broaden our media diets, but also our minds. American entertainment tends to hold extremely limited viewpoints, having maintained onscreen stereotypes of various cultures for decades. Only recently have we begun to see mainstream stories with non-white leads, LGBTQ+ people front and center, and in which other cultures are actively celebrated. The surge of international offerings now streaming allows people of all cultures to tell their stories in ways that are authentic to them and their experiences.
And compared to the mindless binging we’ve gotten so used to, venturing into Netflix’s global neighborhood feels like genuine brain activity — especially when there’s a language barrier demanding you read the translated dialogue. As you watch TV, you’re also being immersed in another cult