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What to watch: Offerings on Italian TV open window to the Italian culture and language

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Italian TV (T-voo) has come a long way in the past several decades with the introduction of cable and access to streaming channels with content in Italian. Italian programming offers a variety of shows and movies – some are old favorites, some are “twins” of American programming and others are new offerings that appeal to a wide range of viewers.

The Gulf of Naples as seen from Posillipo, the setting for the Italian drama “Un Posto al Sole.”

Some of the most popular programs in recent years have been binge-worthy TV series. One of these was “Un Medico in Famiglia,” a series that began in 1998 but ended in 2016. The story follows a father and his young children who have lost their mother and who lean heavily on their grandfather Nonno Libero, played by beloved Italian actor Lino Banfi. Set in Rome, the series reveals the day-to-day joys and problems they experience and the importance of family.

The beach at Punta Secca in Sicily is one of several locations in the province of Ragusa where the popular crime series “Il Commissario Montalbano” is filmed.

Another recent popular series is “Buongiorno Mamma,” based on a true story of a woman, Angela Moroni, who was in a coma for 29 years and whose husband remained by her side. The first season premiered in April 2021 and follows the story of a woman who is in a coma in the family home while the lives of her husband and children continue as they pray for her to come back to them. There is a great deal of intertwining of both the present and the past to explain how she ended up in the coma and multiple character stories.

Il Duomo of Spoleto and the café in front is often the location of scenes filmed for “Don Matteo” beginning in the eighth season. | ADOBE STOCK

This program features Raoul Bova as the husband Guido Borghi and Maria Chiara Giannetta as his wife Anna della Rosa and it ran for two seasons from 2021 to 2023. There is a great deal of drama surrounding not only the reason Anna was in a coma, but also familiar issues faced by her children, her husband and the detective who tries to find out who killed the woman he loved who was Anna’s best friend. While these questions are answered in season two, fans are hopeful a third season will begin at the end of 2024 or in 2025.

Two other immensely popular series are “Don Matteo” and “Il Commissario Montalbano.”

Don Matteo” first aired in 2000 and finished its 13th season in 2023. For the first 12 seasons the protagonist was a priest portrayed by actor Terence Hill. He served his parishioners in the city of Spoleto (near Gubbio in the region of Umbria), where he is filmed biking from location to location. He also had a special knack for solving crimes. In season 13 Terence Hill left the series and “Don Matteo” was replaced by well-known Italian actor Raoul Bova who came to town as Don Massimo. The episode when Don Matteo left was full of drama and tears and the new priest was met with great suspicion. The next season is expected in mid-2024. The series was filmed in the medieval town of Gubbio for its first eight seasons and was then moved to filming in nearby Spoleto.

Then there is the program with actor Lucca Zingaretti, known as “Il Commissario Montalbano.” He serves in the fictional town of Vigata where he solves convoluted crimes with unswerving determination. The show was primarily filmed in several historic towns in Sicily including Ragusa, Scicli, Ispica, Modica, Noto and Agrigento as well as other beautiful sites on the island. Perhaps the most recognizable location was his “house” in Punto Secca. The building, now a B&B, is on the beach in this small town, and he is often seen swimming in the Mediterranean Sea in each episode. This series was based on novels and short stories penned by Italian author Andrea Camilleri. It is so popular in Italy that tours are now available to visit the various sites used in filming.

Another popular crime-solving program revolved around a teacher, Camilla Baudino, who works with local officials to solve crimes even as she balances her family life and work life. “Provaci Ancora Prof” (Try Again, Professor) is set in Rome for seasons one to four and then moves to Turin for a few seasons and ends in season seven when she moves to Naples. This was a charming and funny show that not only offered a peek into education in Italy but also provided glimpses of three great cities.

Italian TV can often be very dramatic and of course there is nothing more dramatic than a soap opera. Two of the most popular in Italy are the longstanding “Beautiful” and the extremely popular “Un Posto al Sole.” Italians have been following “Beautiful” (known to U.S. audiences as “The Bold and the Beautiful”) since 1990 when the Italian company Mediaset first brought it to the airways.

“Un Posto al Sole” has been a mainstay for Italians and is also popular here in the United States for those who have access. It has been presented on RAI since 1996 and takes place in Naples. The series revolves around the lives of people who live in the fictional seaside apartment building of Palazzo Palladini in the Neapolitan neighborhood of Posillipo.

This soap opera, which is really more of a drama, is the first of this type of programming to be introduced in Italy and the longest running. It is set apart from other similar programs because the stories happen in real time and portray the reality of living in Naples. The production follows the seasons, festivals, and significant events of real life in Naples and intertwines stories of love, couples and families which are inspired by actual events, whether they are comedic or tragical.

Themes that are presented include social problems such as unemployment, violence, discrimination, crime, pregnancy and drug and alcohol addiction, all shown through the lives of the principal characters and the public officials who they interact with as they struggle with these issues. The show’s massive popularity was confirmed on June 14, 2023, when the series share reached 10.8 percent with over 2 million viewers.

Some of the most popular current TV programs in Italy include a few that are similar to some U.S. programs and others that are uniquely Italian. First is “L’Isola dei Famosi,” which is an Italian adaptation of “Survivor.” One of the longest running reality shows is “Uomini e Donne,” which presents a group of single people who compete against each other for love. Then there is the talk show “Che Tempo Che Fa,” (What’s the Weather Like) which hosts interviews with celebrities, politicians, and other notable figures as well as comedy sketches. As with many talk shows, the discussions can get heated with participants talking over one another to get their point across.

Another long-standing program is “Striscia la Notizia” (literal translation is Stripe the News) which is hosted by two comical and informative presenters bringing viewers interesting news and events with funny and bizarre facts that just beg for laughs. Baking shows have also become popular in Italy and the popular “Bake-off Italia” is one such program which is billed as a gladiatorial bake off where 12 pastry chefs vie for the prize of best in Italy. Other honorable mentions are the shows “X-Factor Italia” and “Ballando con le Stelle” (Dancing with the Stars).

Italy is big on animal rights and the program “Della Parte degli Animali” (On the part of animals) is one such program that is dedicated to helping all animals. The host Michela Vittoria Brambilla and her daughter Stella travel to various parts of Italy to discover all types of animals with the goal to promote animal protections and adoptions for those who have been abused or abandoned. This show can actually be viewed on YouTube and is also available on other media formats.

In addition to the programs I have mentioned, there are of course a substantial number of other shows that Italians watch and enjoy. There are numerous news stations, drama and historical series, comedies, concerts, sports and talk shows just as we have here. Movies, both Italian and foreign, are also popular and are too many to list.

Statistics on viewers and how they watch TV is changing in Italy just as it is here. Studio Frasi, a company that specializes in the analysis of media programming, recently reported that there has been a drop in the number of women, young people and university graduates who are watching TV and how they watch. Many Italians don’t have full access to all programming because they have older TVs which are not compatible with newer programming technology, and more young people are watching from their phones.

Another momentous change is the access to Amazon Prime, Netflix, and other streaming sites. That is also true here in the United States and this gives our readers new opportunities to watch Italian TV as a means to learn the language or improve their skills while also experiencing the culture of Italy and scenery which is filmed in multiple locations across Italy.