By Keidra Chaney
The past couple of weeks I’ve been obsessed with this Taiwanese drama called Bromance. It’s the kind of gender-bending romantic comedy — girl dresses as boy and awkward attraction ensues– that has been a thing in literature since Shakespeare, but blessedly free of the kind of “gay panic” humor that tends to bring those kinds of shows down. (I’ll review it eventually, but the show’s not done yet and it could go south at any moment, if you know what I mean.)
The main point is, the show is available with subtitles on DramaFever, and though it’s several weeks behind the original airdate in Taiwan, it’s a far cry from the days when I watched anime fansubs and had to wait months for someone to a.) translate the show, b.) copy the show to VHS, c.) send me the tape. Yes, young’uns, this was a thing that happened, it was agonizing.
Another English-language, non-U.S. series I got into this past year was An African City, which has been billed an “African Sex in The City”and follows the romantic lives of 5 friends in Accra, Ghana. It’s technically a webseries, but the hair and outfits alone are nothing less than aspirational, so I sometimes forget this. The first season of the series was available for free on YouTube, but the latest season is only available by subscription. It’s $20, which is about as much as I paid to watch a season of a cable show, like say Halt and Catch Fire, on Google Play (I don’t have cable.)
I haven’t heard much commentary or complaint about the move to a subscription model for An African City (I guess it’s the hazard of being into a show with a small, “niche” fandom), but I think it’s smart: hook in fans with a high quality first season and then move to a subscription model after a healthy fanbase is built. It’s a good potential model for a webseries, period, but especially a series that Western networks would be reluctant to eventually adapt to television.
Even the most ostensibly “progressive” and “edgy” of U.S. networks are reluctant to take a chance on a non-U.S. show that’s not Canadian or British, and especially one with people of color.
YouTube has become a way into the back door of the TV industry, but projects focused on YouTube stars who are people of color seem to languish when networks get involved. Think of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend star Rachel Bloom’s journey to network TV (and a Golden Globe!) versus the still untitled and shrouded in ambiguity Issa Rae project. (To be fair, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend does feature people of color in the cast, but not the title character.)
All that said, the evolution of DramaFever into a Netflix for non-U.S. drama (they’ve recently started to add Canadian and British shows), and An African City‘s move to streaming convinces me that niche streaming is the future of diverse TV programming for creators and fans alike. Rather than watching a U.S. remake of Bromance with white people in it (this isn’t actually happening) or a watered-down version of An African City that gets cancelled after two episodes (not that it would even get greenlit), through niche streaming sites we have access to the original series and have the added perk of being able to connect with fans of the series for reasons other than campaigning to keep the show alive. (Yeah, CW and Jane The Virgin, looking right at you.)
Of course, I’m not saying that efforts to advocate for diverse representation on network TV and cable aren’t worth the effort, but as a fan, having access to diverse, global representation in drama without having to plead and fight for it is a wonderful thing.
The more that viewers collectively rely on niche streaming sites as a preferred model for distribution, the more we can push the U.S. TV industry to bring the racial and global diversity that should have been accessible on TV in the first place.