“Acapulco,” a romantic comedy series very loosely inspired by the 2017 film “How to Be a Latin Lover,” is a vibrantly hued trip down ’80s memory lane in a gorgeous resort with endearing staffers and guests.
But the Apple TV Plus show, wholesome and sweet like “Ted Lasso,” carried a level of creative risk: Its near-even split between English- and Spanish-speaking lines meant that viewers would be watching a show with subtitles. “Acapulco” presents a genuine portrayal of what it could be like to be a Mexican employee at a hotel that forces them to speak English on the premises (or, at least, when their supervisor is around). The series, which debuted earlier this month, currently has a perfect score on the review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes and is part of a growing number of multilingual TV series, including “Tehran,” also on Apple TV Plus, and Amazon Prime’s Italian crime drama “ZeroZeroZero.”
Other international shows such as Netflix’s South Korean hit “Squid Game” have become global smashes despite the fact that many viewers must rely on subtitles or dubbed versions of the series.
From the start, it was important for “Acapulco” co-creators Austin Winsberg, Eduardo Cisneros and Jason Shuman to keep the storytelling — and bilingual characters — authentic. “We didn’t worry about it in terms of people balking at it or feeling like it would be too much reading or heavy lifting,” Winsberg says.
Apple TV execs almost “overly embraced” the bilingualism of “Acapulco,” its creators say, emphasizing to them that if they felt that something would be said in Spanish, then they should try to make it in Spanish and to subtitle as much as possible. “There was a lot of work on Eduardo’s part, specifically,” Shuman explains. “I enjoyed writing the scenes with Eduardo in English and watching him translate them to Spanish, making sure that the jokes worked.” If the show’s two Mexican best friends are talking at the resort, where they are supposed to speak English, but are out of earshot, they revert to Spanish.
Cisneros hopes “Acapulco” will make viewers wonder what’s going on behind the smiles of friendly resort staffers in Cancún and Cabo — what their dreams and inspirations are. “That was one of the biggest motivators to aim for authenticity, because you often do not see that side of the story on-screen,” he says.
On trilingual “Tehran,” returning for Season 2 next year, scenes bounce from Hebrew to Persian to English, while Amazon’s “ZeroZeroZero” miniseries weaves seven languages into eight episodes. And Hulu’s “Only Murders in the Building” leaned on subtitles when a character used American Sign Language in a nearly silent episode of that series.
Dana Eden, co-creator of “Tehran,” says it was a no-brainer to use subtitles in the trilingual Apple TV Plus series, suggesting that viewers are getting more used to them due to high-quality international shows on streamers. “Viewers are now more willing to make the effort.”
Gina Gardini, executive producer of “ZeroZeroZero,” says she and her team made a conscious effort to open the pilot with an English-language voiceover before diving into Mexico and Italy, where Spanish and Italian are, respectively, spoken with English-language subtitles. “There was an awareness that to get the broadest possible Anglo-Saxon audience they would probably need to be eased into the show.”
Gardini and her team took great pains to make sure subtitles to ensure that they reflected the original language and weren’t overly obtrusive. “Subtitles are very tricky because you don’t want people to be spending all their time reading, and we want people to also see the imagery. It is a difficult balance to be as authentic and as true and as nuanced as you can,” Gardini tells Variety.
“I think everybody is just hoping for the broadest possible audience. It’s great that dubbing has come such a long way for people who just can’t get into subtitles,” she says.
“Only Murders in the Building” director Cherien Dabis knew that, given the comic nature of the show starring Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez, doing a near silent episode with sign language carried risk. “The fear was, will people find humor in the silence, and will it still feel like an episode of the show even though we are not centering a character that is the main trio?” she recalls. “I didn’t want it to feel contrived or that the actors looked like they were pantomiming.” It helped that ASL is such a visual language, she added.
As U.S. audiences grow more comfortable with subtitles and international productions such as Oscar best picture winner “Parasite” and “Squid Game,” we’ll likely see even more multilingual or non-English language shows in the future.
“We believe that great stories are universal, and they can come from anywhere and be loved everywhere,” Netflix said in a statement to Variety. “Our goal is to not let language be an obstacle in experiencing new voices, cultures and perspectives.”
And Netflix is not alone in this perspective, as recent Amazon and Apple TV Plus series indicate.
“Obviously from the success of ‘Squid Game,’ it is easy to see that there are shows from other parts of the world that can catch on globally,” Winsberg says. “Bringing in other voices and perspectives can expand what TV can mean, and I think a lot of these streamers have proven that exciting storytelling is universal.”