There was a time when Italian TV series (or fictions as they are called in Italy) were inevitably badly written shows, starring mediocre actors that for some reasons (read political connections) seemed to get all the parts.
Until a few years ago, in Italy there were essentially only six TV Channels, belonging to two main players: the state-owned RAI and Berlusconi’s Mediaset. This limited competition did not help with raising the standards of production. The public was so used to the low quality of the shows produced that they would watch them anyway.
Both RAI and Mediaset series covered the same themes: celebrated national heroes, different degrees of public-utility jobs (doctors, policemen, firefighters, teachers, lawyers), religious figures (priests, nuns, the Bible and a few saints), history (with emphasis on the Romans, Middle Ages and the Second World War events). Then there were the glorified soap-opera ones with even worse acting. Actually some of these productions could have had a potential but were flattened out by scripts that seemed to be written to please an 80-years-old God-fearing granny. In fact, anything that could go against Catholic morality or cause any controversy was carefully avoided.
Things started to change about a decade ago, with the increased popularity of subscription-based channels. Young people started to ditch the traditional Italian television to watch edgier TV series from the US. This public was much more sophisticated and would not settle for what their parents watched. Then, almost as a miracle, a few Italian shows appeared. They contradicted the dogma that Italy could not produce good quality TV series.
This was the very first Italian show that blew my mind away for its superior storytelling and memorable characters. The series is set in Rome during the ’70s and it is inspired by the real story of the Banda della Magliana, a criminal gang that raised to great power in the city during that period. The series cast unknown young actors that delivered excellent interpretations (among which the most outstanding was Francesco Montanari’s Libanese, the gang leader). The only flaw of Romanzo Criminale is that there are only two seasons!
This is one of the most successful TV series of the last years, not only in Italy but internationally too.
Set in a suburb of Naples, the series is about the rise and falls of a group of Camorristi, local Mafiosi. Gomorra is an excellently-written story, with great rhythm, and also, in this case, it features extremely talented, almost unknown, actors.
While Romanzo Criminale had epic tones and fascinating characters for whom it was easy to feel empathy, Gomorra is darker and it has no hero. The viewer is often tempted to warm to the two main characters: Ciro and Genny, but then the story shows them committing some evil actions that push any sympathy back. There is no morality, and the only motivation that drives the actions is the pursuit of power. The series crudely shows the destructive power that organised crime has on people’s lives. This is, after all, the only depiction of mafia (in its various regional forms) that is culturally acceptable in Italy. Mafia is an issue too real to allow the romantic or comic portrays (this is one of the reasons why The Godfather had many critics and the Soprano was never successful in Italy).
Suburra is the first Italian series produced by Netflix and it is the prequel of a 2015 movie with the same title.
The series is set in Rome and the main theme is the link between political corruption, gang criminality and organised crime. The story comes from a real-life scandal and it has a connection with Romanzo Criminale. In fact, one of the main characters (Samurai) is inspired by a former member of the Banda della Magliana ended up gaining influence on the political circle in the council of Rome.
Suburra is another series that it is easy to binge-watch due to its rythm and well-crafted storytelling.
Boris is a definitely different kind of series from the ones above. It aired between 2007 and 2010 and with time it has achieved cult status to the point that it is still considered by some as the best Italian series ever.
Remember my rant about Italian television at the beginning of this post? Boris is exactly about that, a satire that tells the story of a production team that is shooting a terrible Italian fiction: Gli Occhi del Cuore (The Eyes of the Heart). The hero is the idealist director Renè, who is commended by the circumstances to produce mediocre material. The show hints that Gli occhi del cuore is an Italian public television (RAI) production. Renè is shown fighting against the cynicism of producers, the political interferences and a system that does not allow change.
If you are curious, you can find episodes with English subtitles available online
The Italian mainstream television has not yet caught up with the new quality of shows produced by the subscription channels. Perhaps the only RAI production that is watchable is the Commissario Montalbano. It has some flaws, but they are compensated by the beautiful photography, the great scenery and some good acting (Montalbano is my guilty pleasure!).
A new show called zerozerozero was recently released in Amazon Prime. It comes from the same creators of Gomorra (like Gomorra, it is inspired by the writing of Roberto Saviano). The main theme is cocaine trafficking between Mexico and Italy. I have yet to watch it, but I have read great reviews.
If you are interested in the recent story of Italy you can also watch the trilogy 1992, 1993 and 1994. I have not included this series in the list above as I don´t think it is in the same league as the others, but it still offers a good insight on political and social changes that allowed the rise of Silvio Berlusconi to power.
Change (as everything) is slow in Italy, but good shows keep coming and I am sure I will update this list again at some point.