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Turkish RomComs, A New Breed Of Entertainment

Updated: Apr 2, 2021


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.


TOGETHERNESS


Erkenci Kus

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.


Erkenci Kus

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.

PC: @smoakisin | twitter

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.

Erkenci Kus

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: