On December 6, the television nominees for the 27th Critics Choice Awards were announced. The ceremony will take place January 9, 2022, and will be broadcast live by TBS and The CW, giving out trophies to the crème de la crème of television and film — at least according to the Critics Choice Association, a relatively young organization that arose from the merger of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and the Broadcast Television Journalists Association. Over the past few years, the Critics Choice Association has awarded many audience and critical darlings, such as Apple TV+’s Ted Lasso, HBO’s Succession, and Netflix’s The Crown, with its starry trophy. This years’ list of nominees is equally packed with beloved, critically acclaimed shows. However, a surprise awaited viewers and journalists in the Best Drama Series category: alongside HBO’s Succession, Apple TV+’s For All Mankind, and Showtime’s Yellowjackets, was Netflix’s South Korean hit show Squid Game.
Awards season is never short on surprises. However, this nod to Squid Game rings a little different. It’s the first time a non-English speaking, non-American produced show is nominated for a Critics Choice Award. Lee Jung-jae, who plays lead character Seong Gi-hun, is also running Best Actor in a Drama Series, up against Sterling K. Brown (This is Us), Mike Colter (Evil), Brian Cox (Succession), Billy Porter (Pose), and Jeremy Strong (Succession). Last, but not least, the series has earned a spot in a brand new category: Best Foreign Language Series. Besides the South Korean death game drama, the nominees are French comedy Call My Agent!, French crime drama Lupin, Spanish caper Money Heist, and two American-produced Spanish-speaking shows: romantic comedy Acapulco and crime drama Narcos: Mexico.
The introduction of the Best Foreign Language Series category, as well the nods to Squid Game, begs the question: is international television finally coming to awards shows?
For a very long time, there was a barrier between American television and foreign productions. This barrier wasn’t foolproof, of course, especially when it came to cartoons and children’s programming. The 2000s animated action-comedy Totally Spies! hailed from France, and fantasy show Winx Club, that recently got a Netflix live-action remake, crossed the Atlantic Ocean from Italy. Likewise, British and Canadian productions from Doctor Who to Degrassi have always managed to squeeze themselves into American broadcast programming. However, more often than not, non-English-speaking hit shows coming from abroad weren’t aired to a large audience in the US. Instead, they served as inspiration for American remakes. This was the case of HBO’s In Treatment, based on the Israeli drama BeTipul, as well as of ABC’s Ugly Betty, adapted from the Colombian telenovela Yo Soy Betty, la Fea, among other shows.
The scenario was quite similar worldwide. Though foreign shows did garner a significant audience in their home countries and were even syndicated regionally, the economic and political power of the United States, alongside the English language’s status as a global language, created an environment in which American shows were much more prone to receiving international attention. In order to circumvent this language barrier, many production companies from abroad took to producing TV shows in English. In 2015, French television channel Canal+ released the period drama Versailles, with British actors in the roles of King Louis XIV (George Blagden) and the members of his court. The goal was to make the show more marketable internationally, both increasing the price for which it could be sold to other broadcasting companies and making it fit in more seamlessly in the television environment of English-speaking countries. More recently, Brazilian broadcasting network Globo struck a deal with Sony Pictures Television to produce two English-speaking shows for the international market. The first of the two series, Passport to Freedom (formerly titled The Angel of Hamburg), has caused some confusion among Brazilian viewers when the trailer came out, and lead actress Sophie Charlotte wasn’t speaking with her own voice, but with that of voice-actress Carol Valença.
However, the tides have begun to change, especially with the advent of streaming platforms. Netflix, in particular, has contributed a lot to weaken the wall that stood between American viewers and international productions. It’s no coincidence that five of the six Best Foreign Language Series nominees – Squid Game, Call My Agent!, Lupin, Narcos: Mexico, and Money Heist – are Netflix originals. (Acapulco is from Apple TV+.)
In a 2020 interview with Deadline, the company’s head of Global TV, Bela Bajaria, said, “One of the first things I did when I came into my role overseeing non-English language content in the last year was banish the word ‘international’ – because I wanted to erase this idea that there is US content and ‘international’ content. All content is local for our members, and sometimes they want to watch in a language other than their own, which Netflix makes incredibly easy and satisfying.”
This commitment to erasing the divide between American and international content is evidenced by Netflix’s current most-watched list — the number one show on the platform is Squid Game, while the fourth season of Money Heist comes in third. Other shows, like the German sci-fi series Dark, the Spanish teen drama Elite, and the Korean zombie period piece Kingdom have also managed to not only break but obliterate the language barrier. Now, it’s time to see if this viewership will translate into award recognition.
Television shows spoken in foreign languages receiving attention from academies and associations are nothing new. In 2021, the Critics Choice Association nominated Netflix’s largely Yiddish-speaking miniseries Unorthodox both for a Best Limited Series and a Best Actress in a Limited Series or TV Movie (Shira Haas) award. The series was also nominated in various categories at the Emmys, in which it won Outstanding Directing for a Limited Series, Movie or Dramatic Special, and at the Golden Globes. Besides being a contender for this years’ Best Foreign Language Series award, Narcos: Mexico also earned a nomination in 2019 in the Best Actor in a Drama Series category for its lead Diego Luna. The show was also nominated for Best Episodic Drama in the Writer’s Guild of America Awards. Its parent series, Narcos, received various nominations for the People’s Choice Awards, the Golden Globes, and the Emmys throughout its three-year run, from 2015 to 2017.
Still, although not spoken in English, all of these shows are American productions and center around American points of view — even if these points of view aren’t always hegemonic. Unorthodox’s Esther Shapiro comes from an ultraorthodox Jewish community, but she also comes from New York. Both Narcos and Narcos: Mexico tackle the rise of drug cartels in Latin American countries, but their narrators are DEA agents. This change in perspective is what makes the Critics Choice Awards nod to Squid Game so unique.
The Critics Choice Association wasn’t the only one to sense this shift in the tide and try to keep up with it. A week after they announced their nominees, the scandal-ridden Hollywood Foreign Press Association revealed the contenders for the 79th Golden Globes in a disappointing, untelevised ceremony. Squid Game was once again nominated for Best Drama Series, and Lee Jung-jae got another Best Actor in a Drama Series nod. This time, however, the show got some non-American competition in both categories with Lupin in the running for Best Drama Series and its lead Omar Sy is in the running for the acting award.
The Golden Globes will announce its winners at an equally untelevised ceremony that will take place on the same day as the Critics Choice Awards. This doesn’t seem to be the smartest of choices, considering the Globes’ downfall and the Critics Choice current rise in prominence. Nonetheless, given that the HFPA award still has some traction among general audiences — particularly in countries in which the association’s scandals didn’t get as much media coverage as they did in the US — the possibility of a French or South Korean show taking home an award isn’t something that should be overlooked.
But what about other, more prestigious television awards? In July 2021, an article on Time pointed out numerous issues with the Television Academy’s Emmy Awards including the Academy’s aversion to foreign-language and even foreign anglophone television as one of its main issues. To be considered for an Emmy, a show has to be an American financial and creative co-production. Thus, while Shira Haas was up for an acting Emmy in 2020 for Unorthodox, she couldn’t even be considered for her role in Israeli drama Shitsel. A solution for this problem proposed by IndieWire is to make the International Emmys, given out by the International Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, more known in the US.
This once more raises the question of the US-International content divide mentioned by Bajaria, but if the Emmys only accept American productions and co-productions, making their international version more popular and prestigious doesn’t sound like a bad idea. But what about awards from associations that don’t have an international branch? A Best Foreign Language Series category, like the one introduced by the Critics Choice Awards, sounds like the most obvious and safest bet. After all, film awards have had foreign language categories for a long time. The Oscar’s International Feature Film award dates back to 1956, and the Critics Choice Award has had a category for Best Foreign Language film ever since its first season. However, this language-based categorization has issues of its own. One of them is the perceived perpetuation of the barrier separating English speaking and non-English speaking content, as evidenced in director Bong Joon-ho‘s famous 2020 Golden Globe speech, “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”
Another issue is that categorizing films and TV shows by language allows non-English speaking American productions to compete side-by-side with foreign production companies. This was the case with Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari, a US-made film largely spoken in Korean, during the 2021 Golden Globes, and is now the case of Narcos: Mexico and Acapulco in the Critics Choice Awards. Furthermore, this raises the question of what exactly is a foreign language. The United States has no official language, therefore, it is only because English is spoken by the majority of the population that makes it the primary language. However, the US has one of the largest Spanish-speaking populations in the world. In 2018, it was the second-largest Spanish-speaking country in the world, ahead of Spain itself. What is it that makes Spanish, but not English, a foreign language?
Things get even more complicated when we consider languages like Unorthodox’s Yiddish. Historically spoken by Ashkenazi Jews from Central and Eastern Europe, Yiddish isn’t currently attached to any single territory, and, according to the Department of Jewish Studies of Rutgers University, “it is estimated that there are a quarter-million Yiddish speakers in the United States, about the same number in Israel.” Should it be considered a foreign language?
These questions have no easy answer. However, they do pop up when we consider how to best honor international productions with awards. Perhaps the best choice would be to nominate them in regular categories, like Lee Jung-jae in the Critics Choice Awards Best Actor in a Drama Series. American audiences’ relationship with global TV has changed irrevocably, and, from the looks of it, TV awards are about to go down the same road.