My contribution to solving the two solitudes: Get bilingual anglos to watch more French TV

I never used to watch French TV. Even in the days of analog cable, we’d skip past Radio-Canada, TVA and TQS to get to CTV, CBC and Global. Wouldn’t even bother seeing what’s on. It was in French, and we didn’t want to watch it.

There were a few reasons for this. One, my French comprehension wasn’t quite good enough at a young age to be able to properly understand the fast-talking faces on screen. The fact that many of these series were primarily dialogue-driven (faute de moyens, as they say) made it worse. But perhaps just as important, I was disconnected from the culture. I didn’t get the popular references, I didn’t know the actors, and I wasn’t familiar with the series.

It changed about 10 years ago. I can’t point to a specific moment, or even say why it happened exactly or what the first show I watched was. But it started not long after I moved into a building where all my neighbours were francophones. Combined with writing this blog and covering media including francophone media, I got exposed to a lot more French than before — reading it, speaking it, understanding it.

Nowadays, French-language TV is a large part of my (rather gluttonous) TV-watching diet. A lot of it is low-budget and has horrible writing. But as American TV has reached its so-called golden age, Canadian TV in both languages has also dramatically improved in writing and production quality, at least at the high end.

Watching French TV has given me a lot more insight into Quebec culture, in addition to providing conversation material for the extended (francophone) family get-togethers on New Year’s Day. It’s something I wanted more people to be exposed to, especially as the idea of “two solitudes” in Quebec seems to persist despite how much of both sides of it understand the other language.

So with that in mind I proposed an idea to the Gazette, which was quickly accepted, to compile a list of suggestions of French TV series for bilingual anglophones to check out. A Top 15 list of French TV series is published in Saturday’s Culture section.

Initially, my plan was to look at series that could serve as gateways for anglos. Series without too much complex, fast-talking dialogue or cultural references. And I didn’t restrict it to fictional series either. But in the end the suggestions were all works of fiction, almost all of them dramas, and heavily weighted to more recent series. And some of these series might not be easiest for people who struggle in French (pro tip: turn on closed captioning. I still have to rely on it sometimes when I can’t make out a key word that was spoken).

As part of the effort to unite the languages, I reached out to some experts for suggestions. Three were kind enough to offer them: Marc-André Lemieux from the Journal de Montréal, Amélie Gaudreau from Le Devoir, and Thérèse Parisien from 98.5 FM and C’est juste de la TV. All three watch TV for a living, so they know what they’re talking about.

I also got plenty of suggestions from Twitter in response to this tweet. As well as several responses from anglos who wanted to take note of those suggestions, which is encouraging.

I intentionally left off Tout le monde en parle, the Sunday night talk show on Radio-Canada, which I think is a special case because it’s big enough to be newsworthy in itself. But I included a bonus mention of C’est juste de la TV, which offers TV suggestions and reviews on a weekly basis.

If I were to suggest other non-fiction series, I would suggest hospital documentary series De Garde 24/7, Radio-Canada’s Enquête, En direct de l’univers, and whatever Véronique Cloutier’s latest variety show is.

Feel free to suggest more series, fiction, non-fiction or other, in the comments. And like broccoli and Brussels sprouts, at least try some before you decide you don’t like it.

23 thoughts on “My contribution to solving the two solitudes: Get bilingual anglos to watch more French TV

  1. Marc

    I would suggest Génial! weeknights at 7 on CIVM. It’s a science-oriented quiz game show with Marti Carli, the science guy who stars in the “recycle your old electronics” commercials.

  2. Francois Laforge

    One critique of Québec television that resonated with me was that it’s all the same actors, who studied at the same conservatory. There isn’t a wide variety of technique and styles. In the U.S. you have actors who’ve done theater, broadway, big/small-budget cinema and a variety of television shows, and a bigger pool of talent to draw from.

    Quebec is slowly getting better, but it’s still very homogeneous in terms of style and culture.

    1. Fagstein Post author

      One critique of Québec television that resonated with me was that it’s all the same actors, who studied at the same conservatory.

      There’s definitely a lot of that, the same actors turning up in different series. It’s partly a consequence of having a smaller pool of people. But there’s still some good quality stuff out there.

      1. Michael Black

        To be fair, I notice the same thing with English Canada shows and movies. If one has a certain level of success, they end up “everywhere” which is fine for them, but means someone different doesn’t get the role.

        So Rick Mercer was on more than one show at a time, Shaun Majumder had multiple shows, two from Corner Gas were on another show. Lorne Cardinal is all over the place, though he represents a minority too.

        This may not be so different from the US, but they have a lot more shows and movies, leaving more spaces for newcomers.

        Others need their chance too.


  3. MightyD

    Well kodos to you sir! C’est exactement le genre de réalisation que je souhaite ardemment pour tous les West Islanders who claim to be left out as Quebecois. It’s not just une position geogéographique, c’est une identité. Comme Québécois francophone parfaitement bilingue, je comprends la langue car je comprends la culture derrière. Clamer haut et fort d’être Québécois pcq ta maison est située au Québec mais en rejeter la culture, well that is just plain narrow minded.

    1. Fagstein Post author

      C’est exactement le genre de réalisation que je souhaite ardemment pour tous les West Islanders who claim to be left out as Quebecois.

      It’s not just their fault. Many Quebec series do very little to present a heterogeneous culture. It’s hard often to relate to series that pretend you don’t exist.

      1. X

        It’s slowly coming around with some visible minority characters in shows. I highly recommend 180 Jours, a docuseries about a South Shore high school full of minorities and the trials and tribulations of working in the QC education system. The teachers and staff are true heroes..

      2. Dilbert

        I agree with you fully here. French television has, with the exception of a very few recurring faces been really horrible at showing the changing face of Quebec (and Canada). There has been sort of a denial that in some way matches up with the old style pur laine thinkers. Slowly the people at the top and the people making the programming decisions are changing, and as a result they are getting a little more diverse.

        I honestly didn’t think the TV people want to burst the “everyone who is a proper Quebecis a white francophone” bubble. That bubble has been burst in every day life, so they can get away with showing it more honestly.

      3. MightyD

        You know what? Je suis parfaitement d’accord and it’s getting old even. Soon to change my friend. J’espère.

  4. Bruhar514

    Steve would any of these be available with English subtitles? I’m extremely interested to watch but I don’t understand enough French to follow the dialogue even with closed caption turned on. Thanks

    1. Fagstein Post author

      would any of these be available with English subtitles?

      Série noire is on Netflix with English subtitles (I couldn’t figure out how to turn them off). Unfortunately most other sources are designed solely for francophones so won’t have translated subtitles available.

  5. X

    I don’t have cable anymore so I started to watch tele Quebec and find their programs quite interesting. I like: Deux hommes en or, chef a la cabane, génial, kebec, curieux Bégin, franc tireurs. I don’t really watch fictional stuff though I heard that Fuguese is good. The problem with fictional stuff is that I don’t want to watch anything taking place locally because I want to escape Montreal for a bit after spending all day downtown. And yeah be prepared to see the same actors spread over different shows. One sick day in front of the TV I saw Marie Eve Janvier from morning to night- morning show to talk show to game show to evening chat show. But she had an album coming out so understandable… And might as well watch tele Quebec since your taxes pay for it!

  6. Anonymous

    French television helped get me through those awkward teenage years. Thank you ‘Bleu Nuit’. Perhaps a little more of that will help get anglos tuning in.

    But seriously, there is not only a culture disconnect, but more importantly, the production/writing/acting quality is significantly greater coming from the United States. In the end, it’s not a knock at french speaking TV, it’s Canadian television as a whole. As a youngster (I’m in my mid-40s now) the only Canadian show I recall my friends and I would talk about was Kids In The Hall – and that’s when there were only a handful of channels to choose from. Now with HBO, Netflix, and other US-based specialty channels, the chances that an anglo would watch French TV is even less than 20 years ago.

  7. Jack Nathanson

    I find myself watching films on French television, but that is because the English language channels seem to have given up on showing films. They probably want people to put out the big bucks to subscribe to cable in order to watch films. Presumably this is because the same companies seem to own both the cable systems and the broadcast television channels.

    1. Anonymous

      From your post…I’m guessing you’re using OTA for TV. I find Tele-Quebec (CIVM 17.1) usually airs good movies. Lot’s of movies on TVA (CFTM 10.1) But, if you really want Movies in English, the Movies! TV Network is available on WCAX 3.2 in the Montreal area. 24 hrs a day of nothing but movies. Also Tubi TV is a free streaming service. Loads and loads of movies. You just need to know where to look.

  8. J.F. Bérubé

    TV, wether it is in French or English, is less interesting then it used to be anyway because of the Internet. As far as cancon is concerned I’ll watch the 6 o clock Téléjournal and District 31. That’s all. The rest of my time is spent on international sources and when I say international, that excludes the US. I am functional in French, English and Spanish and manage to understand Italian and Portuguese. Nowadays, I am into German, (which is not a piece of cake :p.) It kind of makes me laugh when I see anglos say they need subtitles to watch French TV because by the time I was in highschool I was almost always watching tv and listening to radio in English and subtitles didn texist back in the days. This reminds me of the days when all of my friends and I were listening to CHOM. 65% of their audience was francophone back then. We just couldn’t stand the CRTC quotas on French radio, which made it cheesy and boring.

  9. Mario D.

    And Voila ! Congrats to you ! The way you described it , i’d say you have the exact and perfect recipe to learn french (or any other language). One needs to want it, to practice and to keep on learning new things .
    My suggestion to you is one that will be both useful in learning the language and the history on how the french society settlement got done up north with Les Pays d’en haut on Radio-Canada. It is a new version of an old classic dating way back when tv and radio were created. As a bonus you will discover tons of great french actor that you will for sure enjoy in other tv shows and /or films on big screen.

    This show means the same thing for the francophone culture as Ann of green gables has for the English Canadians.

    Oui les deux solitudes sont encore très d’actualité au Québec meme en 2019. The francophones did not have the same freedom of choice being drowned in English cultures either from the U.S.A. or from the rest of Canada in the past . There still is a way to live as an unilingual in Québec . We have our own wall that sometimes prevent us from learning from each other. As long as we keep on making it a cultural asset and not a political one , both languages can mix and match and maybe learn a thing or two….

  10. Michel

    An interesting twist on this, as most CBC programs are blocked for viewing in the UK (even tried VPNs), I’ve turned to ICI RDI for news and occasionally ICI Télé will show l’épicerie and Découverte as broadcast online. Luckily has a lot more shows to choose from, just finding out which ones will play.

  11. Stéphane Dumas

    “Tout le monde en parle” was interesting in the first seasons but now it got stale and it’s a shadow of itself. I wouldn’t mind if the bring back the concept of “Les Beaux Dimanches” when they showed various specials and plays but it’ll be hard to find a host as good as the late Henri Bergeron.

    What I would like to see also is some kids shows inspired from older shows like Minibus, Sol & Gobelet and Pop-Citrouille.

  12. Deborah Bee

    I’ve been watching some French TV since last October (2018). I started with the Palmares Adisq channel. Since then I’ve been scanning a few other channels and shows.
    I don’t know how many different shows Marina Orsini is on, perhaps three or four…but it’s too much. Another problem is that everyone is white, and there are too many shows with celebs. I have enjoyed ‘District 31’ and ‘La Dérape’, but I don’t follow either religiously.
    With the release of the recent Zapettes d’or nominations, it seems that only the English media see anything wrong with all the nominees being white.
    I’d love the CRTC to make all government–funded shows, have subtitles for the shows be in both languages.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.