While the 'Romanian New Wave' has seen films from the region bag Golden Globe nominations (4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days), Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival (The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu) and the Golden Bear at Berlin (Child's Pose); it's a very different situation for the television programs made in the European Sovereign State. As the world hunts down the next thrilling slice of Nordic Noir or the latest streaming binge-fest, few look to the Eastern side of Europe for their latest televisual fix. That is until now.
Based on the 2011 Australian comedy Small Time Gangster and hailed as the one of the finest shows to ever to come out of Romania, Umbre takes the blueprint of the Aussie show and adds lashings of ultra-violence and a darker pitch. Following the life of a small-time mob enforcer who is trying to keep his less-than-savoury career choice from his wife and children, the crime drama is the first Romanian drama to find itself being uttered in the same breath as the likes of Breaking Bad and The Sopranos. When the show was launched in Romania, it out-streamed the fourth season of Game Of Thrones ten to one.
But does Umbre signal the rise of Romanian television as a significant force or is the crime thriller a standalone drama barely floating in a sea of clichéd preconceptions?
It's of no surprise that when Channing Tatum set his producing sights on television he looked to the Eastern side of Europe for inspiration. His still to-be-released spoof cop show Iron Fisting, billed as "the greatest 80’s Romanian cop show ever", promises to ridicule television made in the European Sovereign State. Cue terrible fashions, bad acting and dodgy dubbing. But in reality, there is more to Romanian TV than Bargearse with cabbage rolls.
HBO Romania, who produced Umbre, has made succession of successful shows that hold their own against the better-known American branch of the television studio. În derivã is a Romanian take on In Treatment. The Israeli format, created by Hagai Levi with an already hugely successful remake in the States, did the same in Romania. Starring Marcel Iures as psychiatrist Andrei Poenaru, the tried and trusted concept ensures that the scripts produce excellent performances from the doctor's patients.
Valea Mută, the mini-series that gripped the nation last year with its fast paced-thrills. Inspired by the Norwegian show Eyewitness (now screening on SBS On Demand), the tale of two teenagers who become witnesses to a murder, and potential victims themselves, when their attempts at a clandestine liaison are cruelly interrupted.
It’s not only HBO Romania producing interesting television. A blind lawyer and his new intern form the core of Deschide Ochii, a legal drama that sheds new light on a tried and trusted genre. The only person who can really see behind the lies and deceit of the courtroom is the only person who cannot see who is perpetrating the crime.
While it’s the dramas that attract overseas eyeballs, Romanian television, much like here in Australia, is littered with reality shows and sitcoms, many of which are hugely successful in their motherland. Fierbinti is one of the most popular of those shows; a comedy set in the rural town of the show's title, the lives and loves of the townsfolk providing the laughs. Atletico Textila will be of interest to all fans of the World Game as the struggles of a football club in the lower divisions only get worse when its corrupt coach is locked up leaving his girlfriend to clean up the mess. Hilarity and soccer ensue.
While the gags are often lost in translation - the nuances of the language and sense of humour is missing to non-Romanian ears - the shows being produced are a symbol of maturation for the local industry. Almost thirty years ago television, and the political landscape, was very different. The rise of Romanian TV may appear to be on a very slight incline, especially in terms of international penetration, but when you consider that before 1989 and the end of the Ceaușescu era there was only one, state run, television channel (a second did exist but was suspended in 1986 as part of an energy saving scheme); the quality of what the former communist state is producing is already world class.
While we await some of the above television to head Down Under, there is plenty Romanian film content waiting to be watched on SBS On Demand. If I Want To Whistle, I Whistle, Tales From The Golden Age, The Way I Spent The End Of The World are all just a click away.
Umbre is streaming now on SBS On Demand: