Turkish TV dramas are a thing in the Arab world. Aside from Turkish delight, they are arguably the country’s biggest export to the region and they all check more or less the same boxes; they are often long, rambling affairs, mired in melodrama, with hundreds upon hundreds of episodes which can each last for up to two hours. They are, to put it most succinctly, soap operas, and if you haven’t experienced one, they can possibly be most closely likened to the 90s never-ending sensation The Bold and the Beautiful.
This is the first time that this specific genre [fantasy] is being tried out here in Turkey
But Netflix’s debut Turkish production, The Protector, is galaxies away from the tried-and-true formula of the country’s television industry and could potentially open the door for change across its entire landscape. The Protector, which just dropped this month, is a fantasy drama which follows the life of a young shopkeeper (Hakan) who discovers he is part of a secret, ancient order tasked with protecting the city from dark mysterious forces who call themselves The Immortals. He must now either refuse his responsibilities and risk the ruin of his entire city, or embrace his destiny.
Now the plotline is not exactly revolutionary – the omg-I-must-rise-to-become-a-hero story has been told countless times – but, aside from the argument that there are no new stories anyway, only new ways to tell them, what is groundbreaking about this, is that it is a first for Turkey.
“It is a novelty,” Çagatay Ulusoy, the young Turkish heartthrob who plays the lead role, tells us as we sit down to talk after he completes filming a scene in a cistern in Turkey. “This is the first time that this specific genre [fantasy] is being tried out here in Turkey it’s almost like a gate opening up a whole new path, not only for us [on the show] but for the entire industry.”
Netflix disturbs the status quo
The young star, like much of the cast, which includes Ayça Aysin Turan, Hazar Ergüçlü, Okan Yalabik, and Mehmet Kurtulus, is an established name in Turkey. But most of them made their bones in traditional Turkish TV dramas and this new show is a big transition for the actors. However, what Netflix has managed to do rather cleverly is create a balance; they selected big commercial names when it came to the actors, but the four main directors were purposely and very precisely selected to not have the same background. “We were looking for directors that were not from a Turkish TV background because that wasn’t the type of work we were looking for in this series,” elaborates producer Alex Sutherland, a power player in his own right who has worked on films such as Argo and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. “It was much harder to find that type of person in Turkey but we did, and the people we got for the show are young fresh directors with some experience – mainly indie films and helping out in feature films – under their belts.”
Mehmet Kurtulus, who plays the part of Hakan's (the lead) best friend.
Can Evrenol, one of the four directors and an acclaimed young Turkish indie filmmaker, emphasises how change is already upon them in the country thanks to fresh blood in the TV and movie industry. “Because the mainstream is dominated by some set formulas, it's going to take some time for change to happen. But we [The Protector directors] all kind of come from this new generation of filmmakers who do things slightly differently, and I think slowly we will be seeing this new kind of generation coming into the industry, with or without Netflix.”
We were looking for directors that were not from a Turkish TV background
But backed by a global giant like Netflix, this new wave of directors has been given a degree of support nonexistent previously, and an unprecedented platform. And this show, the first of its kind for the country, could potentially be the primary catalyst that kickstarts – and fast-tracks – change in the industry. The mere fact that the episodes are capped at 50 minutes and there are a grand total of 10 of them, is a drastic departure from the norm of Turkish TV.
Actress Ayça Aysin Turan plays Hakan's love interest in the new show.
“Netflix disturbs the status quo,” says producer Sutherland simply. And this is true in more than one sense as the potential impact of this show is twofold; not only could it change the entire landscape of Turkish television, but it will also essentially be exporting Turkish TV to the world as opposed to only the region. While Turkish dramas are a fixture in homes across the Gulf, and many other countries in the Middle East, they have yet to be exported beyond MENA borders. “Netflix is offering us an opportunity to go to the world, which hasn't really been done before, it's only been in our surrounding region,” explains actor Yurdaer Okur, who on the show portrays a sort of fatherly mentor to Hakan.
the west has always had an interest in the east, the so-called ‘oriental’, so I expect it will be interesting to a western audience to see the kind of life that we live here
Yurdaer Okur portrays a sort of fatherly mentor to Hakan.
For years, American, and to some extent, British shows, have filtered into the cultural consciousness of people across the globe. Shows that may not necessarily be award-winning sensations, but are cultural phenomenons that give an insight into coming of age teenage or young adult life, like Vampire Diaries, Gossip Girl, Skins, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Yes, they may not be the critically acclaimed TV that The Sopranos was but they did – and still do – show people what life looks like in an entirely different country and culture. But the reverse has rarely occurred, the irony of course being that the US for instance, has far fewer years of history than countries like Turkey. “Our shooting venue, which you saw today, the cistern, I believe is older age-wise than the United States,” says Sutherland with a laugh. But The Protector may well play that role of cultural exporter, giving the west an insight into Turkish culture and idiosyncrasies the same way that shows that come out of the States or England have done in the past.
Istanbul is kind of like a bridge; it’s a synthesis of Europe and the Middle East
Renowned Turkish actor Okan Yalabik plays the role of a respected businessman who Hakan looks up to.
“I would say that this show will absolutely help to do that, especially because Istanbul itself serves as one of the protagonists in the story; the city itself is really a main character that people can get to know,” elaborates Hazar Ergüçlü, the young actress who portrays the badass female sidekick-trainer-overall-mentor to the lead. “Plus, the west has always had an interest in the east, the so-called ‘oriental’, so I expect it will be interesting to a western audience to see the kind of life that we live here, which is also pertinent because Istanbul is kind of like a bridge; it’s a synthesis of Europe and the Middle East.”
How far The Protector will go in changing the local TV landscape in Turkey, and helping more of their shows to reach a global audience, is yet to be seen, but just a few days after its release on Netflix, the show is already slated to have a second season, which may well be a sign of things to come.