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Mélissa Bédard, Ève Landry and Florence Longpré star in Can You Hear Me?Courtesy of Netflix

Over the past few months, hundreds of millions of Netflix subscribers have made the South Korean drama Squid Game the streaming giant’s most-watched show. Its overwhelming success follows a recent surge for subtitled foreign-language TV series proliferated by wide-reach streamers (see Lupin, Money Heist, and dozens of other examples). So in a bilingual country like Canada, could this be a watershed moment for homegrown Quebecois series, too?

The days of Canadian TV being viewed as second-tier, or worse, to American fare are increasingly a thing of the past, thanks to the global success of programs like Schitt’s Creek, Kim’s Convenience, and the recent CBC comedy Sort Of, which is currently making a splash in the U.S. on HBO Max. But prestige Canadian TV exists in both official languages, even if much of Canada doesn’t quite realize it.

“Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films,” said Parasite director Bong Joon-Ho as he accepted his Academy Award in 2020. Those words ring true in Montreal, where there have always been Anglo boosters of Quebecois TV. Offerings are beyond varied: from the innovative time-travel drama Plan B to the zeitgeist-skewering sketch comedy series Like-Moi! and Quebec’s addictive version of the reality confection Come Dine with Me, entitled Un souper presque parfait (“an almost perfect dinner”). But while these series receive rave reviews in their home province, they exist in French and French only: no subtitles or English dubs are on offer.

Urging folks to look to Quebec for entertainment requires Anglo access. Luckily, some of the best shows are slowly becoming available for English audiences. M’entends tu? (Can You Hear Me?), is one example. A program about the lives of three girlfriends struggling to get by in Montreal, it’s a critically acclaimed series now available subtitled on Netflix Canada. There’s also the excellent 1970s Sainte Foy-set comedy-crime thriller C’est comme ça que je t’aime (Happily Married), which can be screened in a subtitled version on Amazon Prime Video Canada as well as CBC Gem.

C'est comme ça que je t'aime takes place in a quiet suburb of Quebec City in 1974.Courtesy of CBC Gem

Annie Sirois, partner and producer from Trio Orange, the Montreal-based production company behind M’entends tu?, doesn’t shy away from the Netflix factor. “Of course we have won awards, which is important for the industry, but what really has made a difference is the show being on Netflix,” she said in an interview.

While Netflix has not yet made ratings for M’entends tu? available, Pascale Renaud-Hébert, one of the show’s writers and actors, says viewer response comes from far and wide, since the show has been translated into dozens of languages, and “people say, ‘I watched the show because it is on Netflix – it was easier.’”

Jenna Bourdeau, senior director of acquisitions for CBC and CBC Gem, said in an statement that the CBC is committed to Quebec content and subtitles, which the network views as providing “the purest, most authentic experience rather than dubbing.” Availability of Happily Married on CBC Gem has meant that, in addition to viewers in France and Germany, where the show has garnered critical acclaim, writer-actor François Létourneau’s show is available to viewers across Canada.

Like the work of acclaimed playwright Michel Tremblay, whose plays, through translation, brought Quebecois life and language to the world, starting in the 1960s, there’s an opportunity to provide this access to a new generation and a new medium. Létourneau’s show is, as he puts it, “very Quebecois but specific and real. People can relate to it even if they don’t know the culture.”

And Renaud-Hébert wants to present something that displays reality too: “One thing that was very clear for us at the beginning was that we were bored by the fact that we only saw ‘white TV,’” she says, referring to the general lack of representation on Quebec programs. “As if all people are wealthy and middle class. We wanted to show another side of reality that we tend to ignore.”

Beyond providing insight into a particular Quebecois experience, both programs are evidence of a thriving industry that is willing to experiment. Producer Sirois is clear: “I think that in Quebec the scene is really alive. There are a lot of good creators and strong writers. We are not afraid to try different things – we have great partners in our broadcasters to try different things that have happened before. It is a small market, but people love TV in Quebec.”

Anglo viewership may be low, but Létourneau thinks it “goes both ways,” reflecting, “People in Quebec don’t know what’s being done in English Canada. So it’s like we care about what we do and then we care about the United States.” There should also be more cooperation between CBC and Radio Canada, he says. “Maybe it is time we create some bridges between us,” says Renaud-Hébert, “I think it is evolving positively – people are getting more comfortable watching shows with subtitles. I see in the future we can have more exchange between French and English Canada.”

This does seem to be in the works. As Netflix celebrated 10 years in Canada this summer, they announced an expansion of the platform’s French-Canadian film offerings. Where TV is concerned, producer Tara Woodbury, recently of bilingual content and distribution company Sphere Media, joined Netflix Canada this month and is tasked with developing and commissioning scripted series in both official languages. Netflix already provides a model where one can watch a huge range of programming from all over the world. “I watch series in Danish, in Portuguese, in English – it doesn’t matter,” says Renaud-Hébert, “I just put on the subtitles.”

Increased access through platforms and subtitling isn’t just good for people who love to watch good TV. As Sirois underlines, it’s good for everyone: “We can be exposed to shows more and more – having access to all those programs around the world really raises the bar for all programs. It makes everything better.”

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