Promotional still from Ethos.
As I searched for new shows to binge during quarantine this fall, I kept forgetting the title of the most recent Turkish Netflix drama. Ethics? Event? Euphoria (no), Eulogy … Ego … What was that show friends had told me to watch?
The English title is Ethos, but the words you see in the opening credits are, of course, in Turkish: Bir Başkadır. Episode after episode, I would rack my brain for a suitable translation—one that fit the idea of ethos, but also matched the delicate world of the show. “It’s Something Else,” I ventured to my partner. Or, “There’s One More Thing.” Or, maybe, simply, “The Other,” as in, an-other-ness? Something about this eight-episode miniseries—its wistful soundtrack, its themes of miscommunication, deflection, silence, and withholding—encouraged me to keep generating my own language for it. I still haven’t looked up the dictionary translation for the Turkish phrase.
Ethos is, admittedly, the first Turkish show I’ve managed to watch past the first episode. I never took to the long and overstated soap operas that played continuously on the TV in the restaurants of my childhood, nor could I get into the flat knockoffs of American shows with equally vague titles, like Intersection. I even struck out with The Magnificent Century—a gaudy historical drama about sex in the Ottoman Empire that I did attempt, in earnest, to enjoy.
What makes Ethos different is, well, everything and nothing, which is part of its running metacommentary. In its better moments, the show uses subtle humor and poignant details to write its characters both into and then out of the roles that it also, inevitably, inscribes. The most memorable scenes revolve around communication set askew: the aristocratic mother who calls her housekeeper by the wrong name, the conservative abla who prays as a way of ignoring her cosmopolitan sister, the ornery young hodja-in-training who tries to flirt by detailing each stop on a bus route through unremarkable neighborhoods of the city.
I appreciated what the show was able to do with a bus route, the way it displaced any celebratory focus on Istanbul’s prominent postcard sites. Rather than marveling at the Hagia Sophia or the Blue Mosque, the camera takes us to the interior spaces of the city: dystopian skyscrapers, dingy suburban nightclubs, sun-soaked Anatolian homes. About halfway through the series, when I saw the Bosphorus lapping up against the glass window of a traditional Ottoman yalı, I nearly choked on my Kombrewcha. I kept trying to figure out where the camera was shooting from, which neighborhood these characters actually lived in. At some point, I thought I could make out the Galata tower in the distance, but I wasn’t too sure.
Although I had to read the subtitles, I could tell the dialogue in Ethos leaned heavily on the fanciful “gossip tense” in Turkish (mish-mush)—a grammar used to describe anything that is only known allegedly, or secondhand. Even with subtitles, the conversations and spaces of the show reveal the thickly layered social and psychological underpinnings of this grammar, what it means to have a “gossip tense” at all. —Sara Deniz Akant Read More