This month Gutter Guest Star Kat Gligorijevic writes about watching tv and movies in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. Part 1 “Tumbling for Boy George in Baghdad” can be found here.
It was the late ’80s and I was nine years old when my family returned to Belgrade from Baghdad. I was already a more sophisticated television viewer. I spoke English, which meant being able to watch the foreign shows without subtitles. I was old enough to watch action-based shows without being frightened, and I generally understood what was funny about most comedies. In Belgrade, there were three shows (and one movie) that had the deepest impact on my pre-teen personality, and prepared me for a future in North America that I didn’t even know was coming.
Several American prime time dramas were very popular in Belgrade when we first moved back. While Dallas and Dynasty were both equally baffling to me, I was more drawn to Dynasty. The trials and tribulations of the Carringtons were simply more compelling than those of the Ewings. I have a couple of theories as to why this was so.
The central character of Dallas, wealthy oil tycoon J.R. Ewing, conformed quite readily to my barely-formed, childlike idea of a “rich American”. He was loud,brash, spoke in a southern drawl and wore a big cowboy hat. He made sense to me. His long-suffering alcoholic wife, earnest younger brother and rich and malevolent father, a family patriarch named “Jock”, all seemed plausible as characters, or even as real human beings who might exist in the exotic land of Texas.
Blake Carrington (also nominally an oil tycoon) on the other hand seemed like pure fiction – a character whose entire world was so preposterous that it could not possibly exist. Carrington’s naïve second wife Krystle (an implausible name if ever there was one) and psycho-ex Alexis (the incomparable Joan Collins) were such extreme, over the top characters that it was hard for me to understand how anyone could take the show seriously. I hadn’t yet learned that not all television dramas strive for total cinema-vérité-esque realism. It’s not a lesson I fully learned until we moved to Toronto and I saw my first ever daytime soap. I don’t think I could have been more baffled if I’d encountered E.T. in my bedroom closet. The acting, the sets, the storylines of soap operas like Days of our Lives, which I ended up following for two or three years, were, without exaggeration, the most confusing pop culture phenomenon I’ve ever tried to understand.
Back in Belgrade, however, Dynasty became the obvious and immediate favourite. The only show that competed with it for my attention was a late ‘80s cop drama called Hunter. It starred NFLer-turned-actor Fred Dryer. In it, he played a tough sergeant whose partner was a sassy broad named Dee Dee. Hunter and his partner had a great, fun repartee, but then were never romantically linked during the whole seven year run of the show. It was the first show I watched that made me think “hey, those two should get together”, before I understood about things like “ratings” and “viewer expectations” and how that would
have actually wrecked the show. Hunter taught me the phrase “cheap & greasy” (used in reference to fast food), and it taught me that criminal investigations in America can often be happily resolved when the cops just shoot and kill the bad guy. Dead bad guys can’t break the law, right?
But my love affair with cops did not end with Hunter. Thanks to a bootleg VHS copy of the first Police Academy film that I saw when I was very young, I was very familiar with the franchise when the sequels started popping up in Belgrade theatres.
My father (a man who doesn’t watch television, spends all his spare time reading, and who took me to see my first Pasolini and Alain Resnais films when I was older) suffered in silence through at least a couple of Police Academy films with me and my cousins. I can’t imagine how excruciating the experience was for him, but I like to think of it as a really heartwarming example of parental sacrifice. I have nothing but the fondest memories of good times with dad during those Police Academy outings, and all seven of the Police Academy films (all on VHS) still hold a proud place on my movie shelves at home.
In addition to prime time soaps and cops, I had a major weakness for sit-coms. Inxplicably, the only American sitcom that I remember being aired in Belgrade in the late ‘80s is Sledge Hammer, a show with a style and sense of humour that translates very poorly across cultures. If you don’t remember this gem, it was a satirical comedy about a crass, obnoxious, ultra-violent cop. The hammy, pun-and-slapstick-gag-heavy comedy is hard to do justice to in a description. It’s worth YouTubing, really. Luckily for me, Yugoslavian stations also ran a nightly program of British comedy, which included shows like Monty Python’s Flying Circus; Yes, Minister; Are You Being Served?; Only Fools and Horses and my personal favourite, ‘Allo ‘Allo!
I’m not totally certain why a comedy about WWII was so appealing to me at the age of nine, but I couldn’t get enough. ‘Allo ‘Allo! revolved around the central character René, a bumbling café owner in war-torn, occupied France. He had an annoying wife, several mistresses, and a few hidden British airmen in his attic. The Germans were always on his back, as was the Resistance. In retrospect, a sitcom in which one of the funniest recurring characters was a grim, trench-coated Gestapo officer seems kind of risqué, but at the time I just thought it was the funniest thing on television. I wasn’t even a history buff. I think I just loved national stereotypes. They’re funny because they’re true, and everyone in Europe knows it!
When we moved to Toronto, I learned that sometimes, making fun of WWII isn’t considered politically correct. But thankfully, back in they heyday of 1980s Yugoslavia, political correctness didn’t exist, and we were allowed to laugh with impunity at any and all cultural products produced by the British.
I have the many hours of I watched in my childhood to thank for: a) making me kind of a nerd, because really, who was more nerdy in elementary school than kids who quoted Monty Python? and b) making me capable of fitting in with my new North American classmates.
Nine-year-olds in Toronto had a wealth of television programmes actually written for children to select from when watching TV. Very few could relate to my experience of Dynasty, Hunter, or some of the shows that I started watching in Belgrade and continued to watch after we moved, such as LA Law. Even Police Academy was a tough sell until I got much older and people started admitting their nostalgic former love for it. Most of my classmates, however, (ok, just the nerdy ones) could totally relate to British comedy. It was the universal language without which I would have been considered utterly and irreversibly weird.