Turkish RomComs, A New Breed Of Entertainment
Updated: Apr 2
When I started watching the Turkish summer RomComs in 2018, I could not have imagined that something as benign as a romantic comedy could lead to angst, heartache and heated debates. Erkenci Kus (“EK”), Her Yerde Sen (“HYS”) and Sen Cal Kapimi (“SCK”) all became very popular with international fans, with varying levels of success along different metrics.This explores how these three shows compare with each other in terms of audience engagement, what are the primary elements for their popularity and what are potential long-term success criteria for the Turkish RomComs within international markets.
Even though there are many other worthy RomComs that could have been included in this study, I picked ones that were the most popular in the summers they debuted, with a thriving international fandom very active on social media.
ROMCOMS, TURKISH STYLE
Romantic comedies remain the most popular genre of entertainment for a primarily female audience. Under expected circumstances, boy meets girl, sparks fly, they get into funny predicaments, and eventually realize they cannot live without each other.
This tried and tested formula takes new dimensions in the Turkish dizi world. Here’s my summary:
Boy encounters girl in the most memorable fashion (Kiss in the dark for EK, Demir walking in on a half-naked Selin in HYS, Serkan being handcuffed by Eda in the currently running SCK) and this is designed to draw the audience into the narrative immediately.
They have contrived or valid reasons to repel each other (Sanem being enlisted to spy on Can in EK, Demir trying to evict Selin from her home in HYS, Serkan responsible for Eda’s ruined academic career in SCK)
They get into several romantic and/or funny scenarios that bring them closer together.
They realize they cannot live without each other.
AND THEN, Turkish drama takes the story into lands no (wo)man has traversed before. The meandering narrative usually takes 11 – 14 episodes for this epic union, and in less than two episodes they are torn apart for some reason or another. The belief is that without “conflict” the story does not move forward. And once the conflict has started, it seems as though the writers lose creativity around how to resolve the conflict such that the couple can make meaningful progress in their relationship. The length of the separation, the absurdity of characters and outlandish plot arcs introduced are all positively correlated with how long the show is allowed to stay on air. Often, with change of writers over the longer shows, the creators also lose sight of an organic progression of the original characters, and we lose cohesion in how the characters and their stories evolve. And thus, we get long tales being spun, but not all of it is gold.
In this show, which finally cancelled after Episode 51, Can and Sanem are really together as a functioning couple for less than 30% of the show. Their multiple separations are a result of lies, misunderstanding and stubbornness from the lies, abandonment, and eventually an amnesia plot as well. Within the angst, their love for each other was not in doubt but got tested by some peculiar side characters. One of these is a delusional man (Yigit) who pursues his one-sided love for Sanem, but eventually gets written out of the story with minimal and unsatisfying fanfare, with no punishment for the havoc he wreaked. Once the cancellation is announced on July 17th with three more episodes to go, two episodes are used to drag out the amnesia plot and then Can miraculously recovers his memory, decides to propose to Sanem and they actually get married – all in ONE FINAL EPISODE.
Her Yerde Sen
Selin and Demir have much healthier relationship dynamics but still spend some time apart due to misunderstanding rooted in hidden truths. Their choice to stay apart does not last long nor have too many dramatic turns, and the couple is brought back together when the show gets cancelled with a two week notice. At 23 episodes, it remains a fan favorite because of the focus on building a healthy relationship with minimal interference from weird and incomplete characters, coupled with several positive male characterizations that upend gender stereotypes. It is deservedly included in a recent global list of top 52 romantic comedies worthy of binge watching. It is the only Turkish dizi to make the list.
Sen Cal Kapimi
For the show to date, the record for Serkan and Eda being in a functional relationship is an abysmal 12% (as a best guess; some fans suggest it is 6%) and their separation is mired with life-altering breaking points such as his family being responsible for the death of hers, inability to forgive white lies (a record-breaking 11 episodes of separation from this one plot choice), and now 4 episodes (and counting) of separation because of a glitching amnesia plot where Serkan is back to his old self in selective ways. Some of these latter episodes even managed to get higher local ratings than the ones where they are together, leading us international fans to assume that local fans prefer the main couple being apart and that is why Turkish drama takes this circuitous road to avoid the moonlighting curse (how a show can fall apart when unresolved sexual tension is resolved).
Winner: HYS. This show never loses sight of its primary identity as a romantic comedy. Even when Selin and Demir reach an impasse in their relationship, there is humor in how they try to come back together, with either or both taking steps towards a reconciliation.
PLOT MOVEMENT & CREATIVITY
Both EK and SCK are conceived by Ayse Kutlu Uner, known for her poetic pen. The first 12-13 episodes of both the series are excellent in its pacing, creativity, literary references, distinctive character sketch, unusual but strong characterizations for lead male and female roles, and all the while the narrative builds on the prototypical premise of a romantic comedy.
The most common romcom trope is that of a rich boy meets poor girl and they fall in love with each other’s strong personalities despite their differences, and both of Ayse’s stories fit this description. Where she stands out is in the ingenuity in her plot choices with a strain of understated comedy that keeps the storytelling light-hearted but meaningful. However, in both these tales, Ayse seems to run out of story once the couple has their first union.
This show was at the capable hands of producer Faruk Tugut of Gold Film, who has been a producer since the beginning of the modern dizi era from the mid-90s. He understood the value of an international fandom for the lead pair, spread across the various social media platforms. For a while, one of the Facebook forums I was a part of had cast and crew as members, and even hosted a live session with Can Yaman and Ozgur Ozberk, who played the role of Fabri. Mr. Turgut was quick to foresee the falling ratings as the end of the summer season coincided with a stalled story pattern post-union, and changed the team of writers 4 episodes after Ayse’s first, very romantic union in Episode 13.
New lead writer Asli Zengin lacks the poetic symbolism of Ayse but is a far more experienced dizi writer. She knows how to extend the plot with multiple cycles of make-ups and break-ups, and she has competence in writing her stories, which tend to be far more literal in its interpretations of events and emotions. Vested viewers who had been seduced by Ayse’s storytelling could immediately feel the change and remained dissatisfied without being able to fully articulate why.
Ayse comes back for episodes 39 – 46 and reintroduces literary elements from the Conference of Birds by twelfth century Persian poet Farid Ud-Din Attar, where the protagonist has to go through a personal journey across the seven valleys of wisdom to reach his/ her ultimate prize. In this case, Ayse draws a parallel to the ultimate union between Can and Sanem. Each episode explores the trials and tribulations of each of the valleys.
However, much of the audience have tired of the lack of communication between the lead pair and ratings fall sharply after 3 episodes of this plot arc. Ayse leaves again, to be replaced by a third set of writers who are best known for their comic writing. They introduce a life altering accident in their first episode (47), followed by an amnesia plot. The series receives its cancellation at the end of episode 48 and even then the writers only bring the pair for their final union in the latter half of the finale.
Her Yerde Sen
The series had the same great writers, Esra Cetek Yilmazer and Deniz Yesilgun, from the beginning till end. Adapted from a Taiwanese original called Only You, the plot premise is not as original as EK or SCK, but the embedded details of gender equality, lack of economic disparity between the pair, and several other thematic choices make the story a pleasing watch. No new episode starts with the apprehension of what new disaster will befall the couple today? The elements of dissent were introduced early and nurtured throughout the story and as such none of the characters seemed alien either as they grew nor when new ones came in.
When the cancellation was announced two weeks prior to the finale, the writers were able to neatly tie off all the loose ends, with a satisfactory amount of together time for the lead pair as a couple. Their final scenes are symbolically tied to dreams they had shared throughout the series, leading to a satisfying conclusion for its ardent fans. You can read a series analysis here and here.
HYS is one of those stories that on the surface is mild but still manages to hide some welcome surprises in way of several important statements about gender equality and healthy relationship goals. In the able hands of producer Ummu Burhan and backed by Karga Seven Pictures, a Los Angeles based production company with offices in Turkey, it seems a well managed production put together by a tight knit team.
Sen Cal Kapimi
Currently running SCK is another one of Ayse’s brainchildren and she brings her trademark details of literary references, symbolism and heated characters, who share a lot of romantic, passionate, sensual and comic moments together as they fall for each other. Perhaps with a desire to focus away from basic communication issues between a couple that seems to engulf Can and Sanem in EK, Ayse introduces an ‘impossible love’ akin to classic tragedies. With Serkan’s family responsible for the death of Eda’s parents, a life event that defines her in present day, there is an implied rivalry between the families that make it challenging for the youngsters to survive the relationship.
Collage by @smoakisin | twitter
Once this arc is introduced, it feels as though Ayse paints herself into a corner and cannot get herself out in a reasonable fashion. With intense audience engagement, pressure to continue the show is high but the writing team seems to lack vision for where they can go if they bring Serkan and Eda together. Episodes 15 – 26 are a long-drawn out dance to get the pair to overcome their inhibitions that are rooted in this family history.
Producer Asena Bulbuloglu’s resume is not as long as Faruk’s, and her decisions with directors and writers have been fluid. Granted, she has the added challenge of managing a production of this scale during a global pandemic that compounds issues in various forms. Asena believes that instead of a RomCom, MFYapim is tasked with producing a Romantic Dramedy, and as audience impatience grows with the stalled plotline, she tries a new team of writers in Episodes 22-23 whose style is evidently different from Ayse’s. She brings back Ayse for 24 and allows her a public farewell, and continues with the new team of writers led by Fikret Bekler.
Fikret & team almost takes a shotgun approach with plot directions, trying many things in a short period of time and we have multiple new characters come and go without much time to build or finish them. By Episode 30, we have another amnesia plot, which seems a new scenarists’ favorite tool to wipe the slate clean for new directions in the story. Since Episode 31, we have yet a third set of writers, neither of whom are as experienced as Fikret’s team of writers, and we have vignettes of plots that stand well on their own but struggle to tell a cohesive story across the episodes because most of the characters have taken unexpected turns in their portrayals.
Much like EK, SCK also has a choppy form of storytelling where the characters do not grow organically from their original strength of personalities established by Ayse in the initial episodes.
[Just as a suggestion, it might be best to have Ayse start a story, with a secondary team of writers shadowing her from the beginning. Her storytelling and creativity are one of the best in the industry but falters once the first peak in the relationship is reached. If she will work with a secondary group of writers who are intimately familiar with her vision, then there is high possibility that the characters can continue to evolve in an organic fashion, allowing ratings to remain stable.]
Winner: For plot movement and cohesion, HYS is an excellent, contained romantic comedy well-deserving of its recognition. For creativity, EK did groundbreaking work in conceiving modern, contemporary characters in Can Divit and Sanem Aydin. In comparison, Serkan and Eda in SCK didn’t take any physical risks in transforming their persona like Can Yaman did for Divit. The slightly quirky, artsy, flamboyant Divit allows creative comedy in the couple’s interactions, accentuated by excellent comic timing and expressions by Demet Ozdemir as everyday girl Sanem.
ON SCREEN CHEMISTRY
For a romantic comedy in the modern era of social media consumption and audience engagement, the on-screen chemistry between the lead pair seems to supersede a tight script. Even when EK and SCK faltered as a narrative, the off the charts chemistry between the lead pair, coupled with speculations of an off-screen relationship, keeps the core audience engaged with the show.
Recently, with the change of writers in SCK, the initial sensuality of the relationship seems diminished as too many spiritually painful arcs have been introduced, including Serkan entering into a relationship with his ex-girlfriend while he suffers from amnesia. The latest set of writers have also recycled many of the past skits that were sexually charged in their original rendition but falls flat with a post-amnesiac Serkan, who splits his confused affections across two women.
Side note: it is a cardinal sin in a romantic comedy/ dramedy to show either party have a hint of a relationship with someone else, especially when that someone has a history with the person. The Serkan and Selin plot in SCK is a poor choice and takes away from the depth of relationship built for the main pair.
Her Yerde Sen
HYS has the most satisfying kiss in Episode 10 with a longer version published on the production’s YouTube channel, but it doesn’t boast as much of a passionate and sensual on-screen chemistry as the other two shows. The speculation about an off-screen relationship was also not as vibrant. Furkan Andic and Aybuke Pusat are not as popular on social media as their counterparts in EK and SCK.
Here’s the first kiss shared by Demir and Selin, a cinematic splendor designed by director Ender Mihlar. Ender was also signed on for SCK and directed Episode 1 but was eventually replaced by Altan Donmez.
This fan video by Khushi Siwakoti for Can and Sanem does a great job of capturing their journey of love:
Sen Cal Kapimi
This fan video by Unicorn Production is also a good summary of the many ways Serkan and Eda have a sensual foundation to their relationship:
Winner: Between EK and SCK, even though the latter has shown far more risqué sensual skits than EK, the sexual tension between Can and Sanem seems more mature and charged. At times, the near kisses and near misses are overdone, but their sexual attraction towards each other does not take a back seat even when they are separated.
After much hunting, I was able to gather all the total ratings numbers for all three shows, and the chart speaks volumes.
Here are a few observations:
All shows started in between mid-June to early July (EK: June 26, HYS: June 14, SCK: July 8) and as such all three ran into the fall season at around the same time in their episode count.
Both EK and SCK had their highest rating on Episode 11. Both times, Ayse reaches a zenith with her couple in Episode 11.
Both EK and SCK experience a sharp drop after Episode 11 but in the case of SCK, the drop is steeper. One theory is that the audience already knows what to expect of Ayse’s storytelling and tune out before they lose the afterglow of Serkan and Eda’s union. Or the audience does not like the turn towards tragedy with the family feud.
HYS never reaches the kinds of highs as the other two, and competing against a strong lineup on Friday nights, has a gradual decline once the fall season comes back. The show’s curve is a lot less volatile, validating my earlier assertion that it is a mild love story that remains on an even keel throughout the narrative.
SCK is performing lower than EK and that speaks to the audience’s acceptance for the kinds of twists and turns the relationship takes to keep the couple apart, since both shows follow a similar pattern of makeups and breakups for various reasons.
Winner: Comparing apples to apples where the ratings' methodology and contributors to the numbers are the same, EK is the best performing show of these three.
FEMALE PROTAGONIST’S CHARACTER
For a primarily female audience, the female lead character is an important reason for continued support of the show. All three RomComs show girls who are innately capable. Of the three, Eda in SCK is the best written character in all the opportunities she has to showcase her fiery but compassionate, indomitable but soulful personality. Except for episodes 15 – 26, where her personality languishes, the tenets of her character make it easy to make assertions, assumptions and justifications about the choices she makes as a character. We see growth in her in meaningful ways, where she learns to step down from a self-entitled path in life and shape a more self-deterministic path as life continues to throw her one curveball after next. The strength of her character, played well for the most part by hugely popular Instagram star Hande Ercel, is inspiring for many young viewers.
Can is obviously more experienced than Sanem in EK and it takes a long time to see a consistently confident Sanem who doesn’t feel intimidated by Can. Selin is also a capable young girl but lives with the contradiction of seeming emotionally fragile in certain unexpected scenarios.
Winner: Eda in SCK for the range of emotions she has to traverse in the midst of life-altering situations.
MALE PROTAGONIST’S CHARACTER
Can Divit took on a life of his own with his curated, flamboyant persona but his personality has many shortcomings. An arrogance and abandonment issues manifest into several choices on his part that are detrimental and disrespectful towards his love for Sanem. Serkan in SCK has similarly perverse traits and we have been shown far too many instances where he publicly humiliates Eda because of his self-importance. We see growth in his choices but with the current amnesia plot, his callousness has taken on new proportions.
All three men have childhood abandonment issues, but Demir Erendil is shown to have the healthiest set of choices despite his life’s negative experiences. He never treats Selin as less than his equal, is not unduly harsh or aggressive with her. When angry, he becomes disengaged but does not express his angst with physical or verbal belligerence. In fact, Selin is allowed to express her emotions with far more veracity than Demir’s chosen path of leading with logic.
Winner: Even though Kerem Bursin's portrayal of Serkan is nuanced for the character, and Can’s portrayal of Divit is physically transformative, as a character Furkan’s Demir in HYS is the best written male character of the three.
“Consumer Fatigue” is a problem in any realm. HYS was popular among the urban population and certainly a favorite with the international andom, but its nuanced storytelling failed to capture the imagination of the broader audience. A repeat of a similarly youthful story with subtle dramatic turns will likely have a similarly even reception in the local market.
Both EK and SCK start with aplomb, try to capitalize on the cast’s popularity and lengthens the plot, but both lose their identity as a romantic comedy. The characters and plot arcs become very dramatic, filled with angst, heartache and apprehension and, when it is not well-told, consumer fatigue sets in and one begins to care less and less about the couple’s happy ever after. That seems a death knell for a romance story, be it comedy or drama. This is evidenced in the declining ratings for both shows but SCK is experiencing greater volatility, perhaps because the same target segment remembers the consumer fatigue experienced with EK.
As an international viewer, I have access to data to generate heat maps of international reactions and there is already a decline in interest in SCK. The twitter fandom flexing their might as a fandom does not automatically translate into a deep love for the direction in the show. Many ardent fans still hashtag the show in their rants against plot and character choices. Twitter does not sift for negative versus positive sentiments in the tweets. Over time, this practice of hash tagging everything may also go on the decline.
The plot in SCK has taken unwelcome turns that take away from the depth of the original love story, and many are simply waiting to see if and how these twists will be resolved. Many fans are sticking to the show because of the strength of the fandom and the sense of community that comes with it. Many of my friends have stopped watching altogether and ‘may’ catch up once the series is concluded. This not only has consequences for this particular show, but also future consequences for an international viewer’s investment in watching Turkish shows that are airing live. I, as an example, will not be embarking on this path again any time soon.
This perception that Turkish shows meander without a purpose can negatively impact the economics of making the content available on YouTube as a possible revenue stream for the producers or, worst case, the shows’ marketability in international markets. Through streaming giants, international programming has become globally democratized, and many new markets are garnering the kind of appreciation for their storytelling once reserved for Turkish dizis. In this growing competition, it will become a matter of survival of the fittest and superiority in perceived storytelling will become an important differentiating factor.
TURKISH ROMCOMS, THE FUTURE
Romantic Comedies as a genre will remain thriving for a long time. A decline in theatrical releases has translated into many original films and series for the digital and cable markets, such as Netflix’s “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before”. People pick to watch a RomCom story because of the expectations of a joyful experience. This has been especially true in the midst of an existential crises of epic proportions in the past year due to the COVID pandemic.
RomComs remain as the blooming weed in the littered field of art, where experimental movie making is rewarded by critiques and visual cinematic bonanza is rewarded by theater patrons, but the average viewer seeks visual entertainment for pleasure or escapism from the regular stresses of life. The steady viewership of RomComs showcases the importance and value of love, as well told stories leave us with a positive feeling towards life.
One of the most popular Turkish dramas in international markets is Adini Feriha Koydum, showing the young love between a doorman’s daughter and a rich boy. The show never pretends to be a comedy and, as such, the dramatic turns are expected and accepted. It is criminal to seduce the audience with the pretense of a light-hearted comedy and then pull the rug out from underneath them by turning it into a tragedy. The audience’s trust, once lost, is hard to regain.
Turkish RomComs should work harder to remain true to their genre. In addition to the story of them coming together, they can also focus on the comedy as the couple learns to be in a relationship. Award-winning “I Love Lucy” of the 1950s, “Mad About You” of the 90s prove that a series based upon love after marriage can also have a large following. In fact, most of the genre’s paying members are probably married and will relate better to the nuances of leading with love within a marriage. Marriage does not have to be the end of the series. There are long and fascinating tales to tell after.
From this comparative study, the industry can take the positive elements from HYS, such as mature dialogue as the couple discovers each other and confront gender stereotypes, and accentuate such themes for dramatic appeal if popular shows such as EK/ SCK need to be lengthened. Taking leaps of faith in plot direction is stressful for makers and viewers alike. Makers, because they have to keep spinning on inconsistencies, and viewers, because of mistrust and mismatched expectations about the story. The producers should start with a full season in mind, with plan B for a few extra episodes if the show does well. Then take a break before the start of Season 2 so that one can maintain the high. It is important to stay true to the characters such that it becomes a memorable story and experience for the fans who work so hard to support the show.
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