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Your winter of discontent: A German TV primer

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Your winter of discontent: A German TV primer
14:05 CET+01:00
In the dead of winter, Ben Knight and Jacinta Nandi delve into the wacky world of German TV for Exberliner magazine looking for enough entertainment to last until spring. Be warned: this journey gets weird fast.

Maybe you think you've integrated well in this country. You've been out and about, made some German friends, consumed your share of extra-mild curry. But for all your efforts to blend in and understand, the real window into the German soul has been under your nose all along. While you spent the summer sowing your wild Haferflocken, the neglected box standing dormant in the corner of your room has held the secrets safe. Now it's January. You've already stopped going out. It's time to hibernate, i.e. extract yourself from the expat bubble and switch on, shock-treating yourself to all the delirious fantasies German TV can dream up. EXBERLINER took the mind-clogging journey.

Saturday programming requires an especially salty, meaty pizza, because the TV will provide only sugary sustenance. It's time for Fest der Volksmusik, a huge folk music party broadcast on primetime ARD. In line with Germany's programming schedule, the show starts at 8:15pm, and seemingly lasts two geological eras.

It is relentless: one saccharine Bavarian melody after another is nailed into your head by a merciless four-by-four beat. In between, singer-presenter Florian Silbereisen, some kind of human-silicon hybrid, interviews special guest singers about how they should torture the viewer next – a cloying fairytale read by a venerable actor, for instance, or an excerpt from The Nutcracker rendered by a troupe of intensely smiley dancers.

Every once in a while, the show gets ‘edgier' and presents, say, a pre-pubescent singing Prodigy in lederhosen. All this thrown against a backdrop of sets so gaudy they could cause cataracts. The show averages 7 million viewers (8 percent of the German population) and is an experience very similar to being hammered in the face by a pony with soft pink hooves.

After taking several barrages of oompah square in the face, you may want to switch over to the news channel N-TV for some light relief. As it is a weekend, there is no danger of finding any news here, much like on N-TV's only rival N24. If you are used to the high-pitched astonishment pumped out continuously by Sky or CNN, you may be wondering what is going on.

Here in sober Germany, the 24-hour news-cycle has been reduced to a desultory ticker on N-TV and N24, running beneath extremely foolish time-filler documentaries, like The World Without Humans, which postulates what might happen in the aftermath of a total depopulation of the planet. The Fest der Volksmusik might lend just the right amount of apocalyptic foreboding to make the latter seem relevant. Sleep soundly.

TITTY TITTY BANG BANG

When you wake up, it's time for Tatort (CrimeScene). Tatort is good. It's not just a detective series, nor just a 40-year-old institution – it's a tour of the dark heart of Germany. The geographical structure lures you in: each 90-minute episode is set in a different German city (and produced by the local state broadcaster), with different detectives.

What the various regional detectives have in common is they all have very boring personal problems which they insist on talking about when they should be cross-examining a local shopkeeper/nun/child or checking the corpse's fingernails. In effect, you end up getting a regional tour of Germany's psychological problems while, ironically, watching a local psychopath being hunted down.

By the time this has ended and you're opening your third bag of Erdnussflips, the soft porn is just beginning on RTL2. If you're like countless other expats who hail from parts of the world more steeped in Anglo-Saxon prudishness, you may be thrown back into those first throes of delight when you found out what happens on continental TV after a certain time. Some part of every Englishman still twitches whenever he sees a breast in an advert.

On German TV, the French or American films are punctuated by phone sex advertisements that run in mesmerizing 20-minute loops, which eventually morph into quizzes where topless women ask you extremely easy questions. Or something like that.

FRAU-BOTS IN STILETTOS

While you're on the trashy end of the spectrum, dip into reality TV land. Of course, everyone knows that normal, non-clinically insane people don't volunteer for reality TV shows anyway. If you actually want to be on reality TV, you should be automatically disqualified – you're like those noblemen in ancient Rome who willingly became gladiators, or like the guy who agreed to get eaten by that cannibal.

The two worst reality TV shows are hosted by women who were probably sent from some diabolical, high-cheekboned Aryan planet. Yes, you guessed it: Heidi Klum and Katia Saalfrank. Heidi, the reptilian über-model who presents Germany's Next Top Model on Pro 7, judges the vapid, kitten-heeled contestants with an icy dead gaze. As celebrated German feminist Alice Schwarzer put it: “With what coldness she despises those girls!”

“Hey, you,” says Heidi, while some 17-year-old changes into a sufficiently degrading bikini. “Do you know that the other girls think you're going to be the next chucked off? What do you say to that?” And the unfathomably stupid 17-year-old girls – what do they say back? Well, they just simper and grimace a bit. They never ever say, “Fuck off, Heidi Klum, at least I'm not having consensual sex with fucking Seal, coz he's about as talented as one of Phil Collins' farts.” They don't, but they should.

Still, at least Heidi's not as bad as Katia of RTL's Supernanny. We don't mind getting child-rearing tips. But at least in the British version of Supernanny, the supernanny in question (Jo Frost) has the common decency to be slightly fat. In the German version, Saalfrank is a sort of judgemental stick insect, poking at parents with her antenna and long legs of disapproval.

The trouble with the reality TV format on shows like Supernanny and Frauentausch on RTL 2 is that Germany isn't really a class-based society. So while on the British show Wife Swap they'll pair up lower-middle-class socially mobile snobs with middle-middle-class vegans or upper-middle-class culture-vultures, in Germany the whole show functions by pairing up basically normal people with people who are, and we're being generous here, seriously dysfunctional. There are aubergines more intelligent than some of the candidates on Frauentausch. Are we really meant to judge these people for not cleaning under their beds? We're seriously impressed they're still dressing themselves… half the time.

THOSE FUNNY GERMANS

While you're in the depths of the private channels, you may stumble upon Mensch Markus on Sat.1. German sketch comedy is sometimes a bit strenuous, but it can be funny... if you are prepared to add your own punchlines. Sometimes you are just presented with an odd situation acted in an exaggerated style. Random sample from an episode of Mensch Markus: a man and a woman want to buy condoms from a chemist, the man asks for condoms, and then buys foot spray and other hygiene-based items. The woman gets in a taxi and drives away. That's the joke. The whole joke.

But there is good German comedy – The Heute Show on ZDF with Oliver Welke, for example. It's a very good Germanification of Jon Stewart's Daily Show. It is painstakingly similar, even down to the way it immediately becomes rubbish when Oliver/Jon turns to a fake comedy guest and conducts a weird interview-sketch.

STUFF WHITE PEOPLE LIKE

Of course, ZDF also has – quite literally – a flagship: Das Traumschiff, a Love Boat-type show that involves every single famous German TV star ever. It's set on a cruise ship, and each episode is filmed in a different exotic location. Two things have remained constant in its nearly 30-year history: an ethnic dancing display in the background and an absurdly privileged set of white people floating around the world having maritime melodramas. Since new episodes are now only produced once or twice a year, it has also become Germany's finest event TV.

Another institution is the Munich-based Lindenstraße, on ARD: a much more prosaic, weekly soap, with the requisite attention to Social Issues, often involving some quite hilarious Bavarian-style violence.

So you've had your fill. You are drained, lacking vitamins and at risk of developing sofa-sores. The battery in your remote control has died, so you roll on to the floor and slowly edge towards the TV.

But you can't quite reach and you find yourself unexpectedly comfortable on the hard floor. Luckily, Space Night is bridging the night-time gap on the Bavarian regional channel BR. It is endless unaltered footage of old NASA space programmes. This is lucky, because it doesn't matter at what angle your head is, seeing as you are in zero gravity. So the release you have been praying for all weekend comes finally while you are literally staring into space.

PhotobucketCheck out Exberliner's guide to German TV 'Promis' you should know.

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