Turkish Young Love, Revisited

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Turkish Young Love, Revisited
watch_later Last Updated: Friday, May 15, 2020 18:28:38 pm (UTC) folder_special Tagged: Aşk 101, Medcezir

by Paola Cesarini  

"Aşk 101" and "Medcezir" belong to different generations in more ways than one. Both currently available on Turkish television, these series offer an interesting opportunity to reflect on the evolution of young-love drama over the last decade. The latest in a long list of successful shows in the teen drama genre, the Netflix Turkish original narrates the lives of five young misfits from high school into adulthood. On the other hand, StarTV's "Medcezir" reruns feature Çağatay Ulusoy at the peak of his youthful charm in a rags-to-riches tale set against the background of an elite private university.  

Çağatay Ulusoy as Yaman Koper in "Medcezir"


Above and beyond the age gap between the main characters, the different educational institutional environments separate these series in important ways. In "Medcezir," there is little room for the kind of teenage pranks featured in "Aşk 101". There is also a greater distance between instructors and students, and the latter appear to take their educational responsibility more seriously. The reason for this difference is obvious. In Turkey, high school is competitive, but not mandatory, and secondary institutions are differentiated according to levels/types of instruction. The school featured in "Aşk 101" is an Anadolu Lisesi, where one year of foreign language study (usually English, Arabic, German, or French) is followed by 3 years of rigorous education in both Turkish and the foreign language. A young student's college future hangs on the results of a challenging national exam usually administered in the final year of high school.

"Aşk 101" protagonists at their high school


University in Turkey is a very different ball game than high school. Following the national test, only 30-40% of aspirant college students earn a coveted spot at a nearly tuition-free public university or a private institution. Therefore, doing well on the test is a major accomplishment. Scores also determine which universities and courses of study a student may attend. At the college level, Turkish students enroll directly in a specialized course of study, which forces them to focus intensely on their professional future.  

"Medcezir" protagonists at their university


"Aşk 101" and "Medcezir" differ in other key respects. The Netflix series' target audience is at least a generation older than the young people who watched "Medcezir" back in 2013-15. Much has changed in Turkey since then, and not all for the better. Consequently, each series reflects a different Zeitgeist. In "Aşk 101," isolation, anxiety, cynicism, and despair feature prominently. In contrast, "Medcezir's" overarching themes are hope and resilience. This is why "Aşk 101" lacks larger-than-life, immaculate figures such as Yaman Koper and Selim Serez, and is instead populated by morally questionable individuals, whose flaws leave little room for empathy. And this is also why the romantic relationships featured in "Aşk 101" lack the magical quality of Yaman and Mira's moving love story. On the bright side, "Aşk 101" emphasizes materialism and greed much less than "Medcezir." With the young protagonists in the throes of an existential crisis, defining one's identity takes precedence over securing a stable future, let alone worrying about the latest gossip or fashion.  

Yaman and Mert in "Medcezir"


Both coming-to-age stories, "Aşk 101" and "Medcezir" present several similarities. First and foremost they both take social issues seriously, especially when it comes to marginalization. At the start of "Medcezir", Yaman and Mert are outcasts in the posh Altinkoy environment. Born on the wrong side of the tracks, Yaman is repeatedly humiliated on account of his social origin and economic condition. Mert, on the other hand, is a socially awkward teenager with an all-absorbing interest in nerd-ish matters. Together, Yaman and Mert somehow evolve into a charismatic pole of attraction and are subsequently welcomed into the "popular" fold. Conversely, in "Aşk 101," the main characters engage with pride in self-marginalization and are, therefore, scarcely interested in developing a following. An obvious Pink Floyd reference informs viewers that their greatest fear is to become just "another brick in the wall." 

Second, in both series -- but especially in "Aşk 101" -- the main characters transcend the classic stereotypes often associated with young-love dizi. In "Medcezir," for example, Yaman is neither uncultured nor rebel. In open defiance to the poor boy/rich girl cinematic trope, he is a respectful, generous, sensitive, and artistically inclined young man, who desperately longs for normalcy. Among the spoiled brats of Altinkoy, his soul truly shines over the others'. "Aşk 101" introduces multiple counterintuitive characters as well. Şeytan (the devil) Eda, the En Kötular (the worst ones) gang leader, is a borderline sociopath from a loving middle-class family, who exhibits remarkable charisma and a penchant for creating havoc. Sinan, who is the most interesting character in the show, is an abandoned kid with an alcohol problem. He is also uncommonly smart, with a predilection for nihilism. Osman, who comes from a humble but honest family, is the clever mastermind of a busy homework-selling network and an efficient betting ring. Well-to-do basketball jock Kerem struggles with both a lack of self-respect and a serious anger-management issue. Işik is the outlier. A "good" girl from a traditional family, she chooses to keep company with the En Kötular for fear of becoming ordinary. There is still much we don't know about the "Aşk 101" protagonists, including why they became estranged as adults. Hopefully, there will be a second season to fill in the blanks.  

Kerem, Osman, Sinan, Eda and Işik in "Aşk 101"


Third, as it is often the case in Turkish series, the conversation among the young protagonists experiences moments of depth. "Medcezir" induces audiences to reflect on the nature of happiness by contrasting the vacuous existence of the rich with the frantic lives of the struggling poor, and the desperate determination of the ill. It also underscores the values of tenacity, resilience, family, and friendship. In "Aşk 101," the main characters debate the elusive nature of love, and whether a young person should always follow the advice of elders or think by himself/herself. The latter discussion echoes well-worn arguments in education about the importance of teaching the canon of human civilization vs. training students to think independently. In the end, the two need not be incompatible. Knowledge and experience from the past lend themselves to critical analysis, while the latter can hardly stand on its own without the solid foundations of existing wisdom. A conclusion that the En Kötular eventually reach over time.  

Both shows offer interesting, and at times comical, peaks into Turkey's social, cultural, and gender disparities. Some of the best scenes in "Medcezir" feature the wealthy Altinkoy kids' shocked disbelief and discomfiture as they learn of the hardships, which have characterized Yaman's early life. In "Aşk 101," Sinan and Kerem's visit to Işik's home reveals how the girl's puzzling attraction to the En Kötular is driven by her fear to end up like her conformist, helpless mother. in "Aşk 101," however, everything is relative. Compared to Sinan's (whose relatives abandoned him for no good apparent reason,) or to Kerem's (whose parents are obnoxious and abusive,) Işik's loving family is clearly a step up.  

Finally, both "Aşk 101" and "Medcezir" acknowledge that most young people experience a symbiotic relationship with adults. By disrupting the hierarchical nature of such a relationship, adolescence does not eliminate it. Rather, it transforms it into either a supportive inter-dependence or a toxic co-dependency. "Medcezir's" script is particularly clever in this regard, offering many instances of emblematic relations among different generations. In "Aşk 101," instead, we learn relatively little about the adults that populate the En Kötular's lives. We do, however, get to know a bit more about Burcu and Kenan -- the two teachers whom the gang unconsciously selects as role models in a world sorely lacking decent grown-ups.  

Kenan and Burcu in "Aşk 101"


In the end, "Aşk 101" and "Medcezir" deliver similar messages. First: no one has a perfect life. Not everything that shines is gold. And only digging beneath the surface reveals an individual’s true human condition, as even those who seem to have it all may be suffering in silence. Second: adults are as messed up as adolescents. They do not have all the answers and probably never will. Third: the bravest thing anyone can do is to have the courage to be oneself, and to hell with the consequences. The social price for doing so, however, is usually very high.  

While both shows are enjoyable and will definitely appeal to aficionados of young-love drama, in this author's view "Medcezir" remains the better choice, especially for a Western viewer. To be fair, "Aşk 101" is an incomplete show that fully deserves a second season. "Medcezir," however, is a better dizi on account of its clearly defined personality and appealing magical realism. From the very start, "Medcezir" is unapologetically a dramatic show featuring an idealized version of romance. The enchanting musical content and the interspersed lighter interludes never undermine the series' core identity. Conversely, "Aşk 101" sends mixed messages. It starts as a good comedy (see Eda's prank during the school's debate tournament,) and later develops into an introspective drama (see Sinan's inner struggle,) only to conclude season one with a vague social message. Similarly, while "Medcezir's" storyline is cleverly crafted to appeal to both young and adult viewers, "Aşk 101" appears uncertain about its target audience. In "Medcezir," the grown-ups are strong and often flawed characters with their own independent storylines. Conversely, in "Aşk 101" adults are often caricatures -- with the exception of Burcu and Kenan, whose personal stories remain relatively obscure. The greatest flaw of the Netflix show, however, is casting. While the actors are all extremely talented and deliver brilliant performances, they hardly look like 17-years old. Fans of "Çukur" will have an especially hard time disassociating Kerem from Celasun -- the older and more hard-edged character that the talented Kubilay Aka interprets in that series.  

Kubilay Aka as Kerem in "Aşk 101" and as Celasun in "Çukur."


"Aşk 101" and "Medcezir" reveal several interesting trends in the evolution of the young-love dizi genre over the last several years. First, there is greater realism. The protagonists of "Aşk 101" appear more ordinary and flawed than the amazingly beautiful and talented leads in "Medcezir." Moreover, "Aşk 101" replaces well-known TV stars, with a top-notch ensemble cast, where no character appears more important than others. Second, in contrast to "Medcezir," "Aşk 101" does not aspire to be a family show. Instead, it courts mostly an audience of teen-age viewers, who may watch the series alone or with their friends. Finally, "Aşk 101" takes greater risks not only than most current dizi, but also than "Medcezir," which at the time was considered quite progressive for a Turkish series.  

Above and beyond the depressing Osman controversy, "Aşk 101" reveals that the current generation of young urban Turks manifests culture, habits, predilections, and anxieties that are very similar to their European and North American counterparts. Indeed, the most traditional character in "Aşk 101" is the older Burcu, who appears as a much less confident and sexually liberated woman than her 17-year old pupil Eda. Differently put, while the official censors would have viewers believe that, in 2020 Turkey, young lovers listen exclusively to domestic music, always respect their elders, and barely hold hands, the Netflix show delivers a far more realistic picture. Thanks to the greater artistic freedom granted thus far to digital TV platforms, "Aşk 101" reveals that -- for better or for worse -- the global differences among the younger generations are far less significant than the culture wars proclaim.  

Alas, most Western audiences have probably had enough of realism in their domestic TV fare. Indeed, they like to take refuge in Turkish dizi precisely because they offer an idealized portrayal of romance and, in turn, a magical viewing experience. Notwithstanding its merits, "Aşk 101" may thus result unoriginal to Western audiences. It may also prove too risqué for viewers in Asia or the Middle East. In conclusion, "Aşk 101's" well-intentioned realism and genre stereotype-avoidance are not enough to outclass the extremely well-crafted and well-acted "Medcezir," whose appealing romantic tale, outstanding soundtrack, and incredibly beautiful and talented cast remain unequaled to this day.

@ Article Copyright by Dizilah and Paola Cesarini

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