Have you seen the Brazilian sci-fi thriller 3%? According to Netflix, there’s a good chance you not only saw it, but binged it. The streaming behemoth’s 2017 statistics (at least, the ones it released to the public) included a list of the most-binged shows globally, and coming in at number two—ahead of The OA, Riverdale, even buzzy YA addiction 13 Reasons Why—was the Portuguese-language series, the first Netflix original in that tongue and only the second non-English original.
3%—the second season of which debuts on Netflix Friday, April 27—isn’t great television, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun, the kind of program tailor-made for bingeing—breezy yet smart enough to avoid sudsy operatics, the equivalent of a page-turning beach read you don’t feel guilty about downing in one sitting afterwards. (Like most books people actually read these days, it’d probably be categorized as “YA.”) It tells the story of a near-future earth devastated by climate change and overpopulation, where most people live in squalor. However, every year, all the 20-year-olds on the planet have the opportunity to participate in a series of tests, only 3 percent of whom pass. The winners get a chance at a virtual paradise of a life, moving by submersible to live on an elite outpost called The Offshore, where there are sufficient resources for a small population of the earth’s best and brightest, the ostensible beacon of humanity.
The first season followed one city’s contenders through the days-long Process, designed to whittle them down to the correct percentage of only a few people. As allegiances form and hostilities bloom among the various candidates, each new stage represents a challenge some will overcome, and some will fail, like a non-fatal Hunger Games. From the Machiavellian overseer of the Process, Ezekiel (João Miguel), to the plucky young protagonist Michele (Bianca Comparato) just trying to make it through, to the various other personalities and planners on either side of the Offshore/Candidate divide, it’s full of charismatic actors and compelling characters, all of which goes a long way to selling the material, which occasionally suffers from over-the-top hamminess. The second season will likely be a tough watch without first seeing season one—imagine starting Lost on season two—but at only eight episodes per season, it’s a quick and pleasurable binge.
That 3% is a good show is a welcome sign, but the more interesting element to its streaming success is what it portends for the diversification of entertainment in the U.S.—in particular, the opportunity to get this type of programming in front of notoriously reading-while-watching-averse English-speaking Americans. Despite a robust market for programming targeted to Spanish-language immigrant and diaspora populations in the country, the general market for what we’ll broadly identify as “subtitle entertainment” was already small, and for a long time seemed to be getting worse, at least when it came to cinema, the primary access point for many people’s exposure to imported entertainment in years past.
Throughout the 2000s and 2010s, the market for foreign films shrank brutally: Between 2007 and 2014, the U.S. box office for the top foreign-language films dropped by 61 percent. Distributors that once championed international cinema downsized or cut support, the newfound blitz of VOD content pushed out foreign films that once found a welcoming home—and audience—online, and even Netflix and other streaming sites have been reducing their catalogues of non-English movies. For a population that was already hostile to movies in other languages, less opportunities to watch these films means an even smaller slice of the viewing population will even be exposed to such options, let alone give one a shot.
But even as the film market was shrinking, companies were beginning to notice the increase in digital viewing of foreign-language TV. The same article from 2014 that bemoans the collapse of foreign cinema notes that television is a bright spot amid the gloom. Pointing to the modest success of Sundance’s French-language thriller The Returned, it posits optimism for small-screen transplants to the U.S. And a Vox article that same year notes the takeoff of Korean dramas with an U.S. audience that doesn’t speak the language, as streaming service DramaFever, which said its audience for the Asian programming is 45 percent Caucasian in the States (and another 25 percent Latino), has seen its subscriber base grow tenfold to more than 20 million. That’s a lot of reading while watching TV.
Since then, the trend has only increased. Part of it is the nature of the accessibility: Log on to Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon, and while you’ll still see these programs tagged with a designation that includes “foreign” (foreign arthouse, foreign Oscar winners, etc.), you’ll also—and more importantly—see these programs filed away under their respective genres, right alongside English-language series. 3% and the fascinating German time-travel series Dark are listed as “sci-fi.” The thrilling Spanish robbery miniseries Money Heist (La Casa de Papel) can be found under “Suspenseful.” (It’s also in the “Trending Now” category at the time of this writing.) And the Italian organized-crime drama Suburra gets placed alongside other “Exciting” series such as The Shannara Chronicles and Arrow. More people are giving these shows a chance because they haven’t been ghettoized under a blinking neon sign conveying, “Get ready to read, yawn.” Instead, people are tuning in, discovering that subtitles don’t lessen the intensity or drama in the slightest, and sticking around, several episodes at a time. There’s a literal world of great TV out there, and we’re finally starting to catch up to it in a significant way.