When I talk to friends and family back home, one of the questions I get asked the most about life in Estonia is "What's on TV there?" Yup, we live in a entertainment/media-obsessed society.
I usually just answer "The A-Team" and "Knight Rider" (which is totally true - Estonia loves the 80's!). For some reason, that usually seems to be exactly the answer people are expecting and ends the conversation. When pressed for more details, however, like "What's your favourite show there?" I usually provide the following info dump:
Favourite show: Only in Russia a.k.a. Russian Idiots
Honestly, this show is incredible. Clip after clip of videos taken from the internet showcasing the best of Russian ridiculousness. I saw this one clip where a guy decides to drive his car through an airport terminal. It was unbelievable! I mean, he's got his hazard lights on (!) the whole time and security guys are chasing after him, runnin' and slippin' like a goddamn Benny Hill sketch for what seems like an hour (Benny Hill was quite popular here btw, and still airs from time to time).
Fortunately no one was hurt. So it's ok to laugh.
Favourite Guilty Pleasure: Psychic Shows
There are many psychic shows here. Many. Most are Russian. I'm always confused, asking which one we are currently watching. They are kinda good but mostly ridiculous. There's an endless parade of crystal-clutching, sufi-hyperventilating, goth-looking psychics competing to be Grand Psychic #1.
Concept wise, these programs are sort of like a reality competition series meets Ghostbusters. I'm sure the format would fly in North America, as I still sometimes get sucked into them even though I can't understand what is being said. They are probably the most sensationalistic and trashy shows I've ever seen (but still less ridiculous and more watchable than The Bachelor).
The last time my wife, Reelika, was watching one of these shows she said "I really wonder who is going to win."
Me: "No one. No one wins. Not the contestants, not the viewers. Nobody."
Favourite WTF?: Nasha Russia (Rip Off of Little Britain)
I'm a bit of a night-owl and sometimes I will fall asleep on the couch while writing or watching the A-team. One night I woke up around 3:00am with the TV still on and blinked at the screen, bleary-eyed and confused. Little Britain was on - only it wasn't David Walliams and Matt Lucas. There were two other guys onscreen and these dudes weren't even speaking English! It was a bit of a mind**k I can tell you.
This show is a Russian knock off of Little Britain. The opening is virtually identical and the style of the show and the sketches are the same. So weird.
Least Favourite: Turkish Soaps
I have to endure a tonne of this stuff. How is it that Turkish soaps are so popular in Estonia?! Baffling. Where do I even begin?
There's this Game of Thrones-style Turkish soap that I think recounts the ancient history of Turkey. The title roughly translates to "Queen of the Century." Every single episode is six hours long and involves a group of royal children being protected from murderous usurpers behind a locked door. There's always a violent sword battle in a palace corridor and lots of stink eye and snarky banter between the queen and every other female character due to scheming and jealously (most likely).
The music is quite gripping, but I think they only had the budget for one composition. The main theme is repeated endlessly throughout each episode until you're completely broken down mentally, hypnotized into believing you are actually living within that world.
The craziest thing about these shows is that they are all dubbed into Estonian by the same male voice. Yes, this is true. Sometimes no matter who is speaking - male, female, adult or child - one solitary vocal talent usually dubs every single voice. Often the guy will attempt to do a woman's or kid's voice, but more often than not he just keeps his voice the same for every character.
You get used to it, but it takes awhile - especially because they don't remove the original dialogue track, they just dub right over top of it. This may make you feel a bit insane at first. If you're someone who normally hears a lot of voices in your head, maybe don't turn the TV on while visiting Estonia.
Some shows - like the aforementioned "Super History Queen" - utilize a female voice as well. I would guess the more popular shows have bigger budgets for dubbing. But get this - the female voice dubber is the male voice dubber's wife! Charming!
The "Face" Show
Well, so far I've mostly listed shows that are on Estonian TV but aren't technically Estonian made. You may be asking, "aren't there any good ACTUAL Estonian shows to watch?"
The answer is "I think so?"
It's tough to know for sure. My Estonian is coming along but I'm still a little short of conversational - I can thank people and I know how to say "twelve months" (kaksteist kuud - sound it out).
The production values for TV shows here are certainly quite good. Estonian shows look great and I'd wager they are better entertainment than most Canadian shows (not counting Hockey Night in Canada).
I don't believe Canada has produced a TV show of any lasting substance or impact since The Littlest Hobo aired back in the 80's - and that show only qualifies as great because of the theme song and how indescribably bad the show was. You'll never see any Canadian soaps airing on Estonian TV, that's for sure.
Seriously, though, every Canadian can sing the lyrics to this theme song from Littlest Hobo. It might as well be a second Canadian anthem.
But I digress...
There is one show that reigns supreme in Estonia; a show that even a language-challenged resident like myself can enjoy. This show is affectionally referred to as the "Face" show, and is the Estonian version of Your Face Sounds Familiar - a show that exists in every country in the world, even Mongolia (but not Canada). Here it is known as Su nägu kõlab tuttavalt.
Singing and performance are extremely popular here, so let me tell you that Estonians love this show. Each Sunday everyone in the country, whether young or old, gather around the TV with baited breath, eyeballs almost touching the screen, ready to laugh their faces off.
This is another great and weird thing about living here - the people aren't cynical. I've never seen a people so eagerly enjoy a show en masse like they do here with this program - and I'm from Canada, the land of hockey fanatics.
If my brother and I were watching this show at my parents' house, we'd eventually be sent out of the room for mercilessly hacking the show to pieces and relentlessly making fun of every performer. Because that's what we do with every show. Shows like The Littlest Hobo made us this way!
Here, that mentality doesn't seem to exist - the laughter and enjoyment are pure, innocent and genuine. I mean, they laugh hard. There's no hate-watching their celebrities here. Both the performers and the performances are sincerely loved and I always feel kind of ashamed of my go-to, reflex cynicism.
Now maybe it's because I don't speak the language that well yet. Or maybe it's because I didn't grow up here and am not that familiar with the native celebrities or the nuances of Estonian culture. But I don't often see anyone on TV here who I think should be mocked or ridiculed. In North America - I swear - every fourth or fifth person you see on TV is an idiot deserving of scorn.
So what exactly is happening here? Is this North American cynic slowly being mellowed and assimilated by the genuine, good-hearted nature of Estonian charm? Does Estonia score really low on the "famous-idiots-per-capita" index? Or are they just really good about keeping their idiots off of TV?
I've no idea, but this could explain why you always see the same group of actors starring on their shows here, used over and over and over. Which leads to a question I often ask myself:
Is There a Law Governing The Number of Actors Allowed on Estonian TV at Any One Time? And if Not, Then Why the Hell Don't You See More Actors?
I have researched this question a lot over the past year. Every time I watch TV here in Estonia, I'm constantly asking my wife questions like "Hey, isn't that the same guy from that other show?' and "For crying out loud, how many shows can that woman possibly be on?!"
My wife now loves to nudge me and point to the TV whenever omnipresent actors like Ott Sepp or Märt Avandi show up in a series or commercial, as she loves to hear my reaction:
Reelika (stifling laughter): "Hey, look who it is."
Me (looking up, then rolling eyes and sighing): "Oh, of course! Who else would it be?!"
Just recently we were watching a news report on the lead actor in the Estonian production of Les Miserables and I remarked "Wow, look at that, a guy I've actually never seen before," thinking I was making a droll comment on how rare it is to see new faces in the Estonian entertainment industry.
Reelika: "Uh, yes you have. It's the guy who sang one of the songs in the Eurovision contest. And he was on the 'Face' show."
My face fell as I took a harder look. Sure enough it was the same dude, just with a wig and fake beard. All I could do was shake my head. Incidentally, the Estonian Eurovision show was hosted by - who else? - Ott Sepp and Märt Avandi.
Here in Estonia it's normal to see the same actors pulling double and sometimes triple and quadruple duty on all manner of shows, specials and advertisements. And they've all been in the business forever! For example, the two co-hosts of the Estonia's night talk show - Teet Margna and Kristjan Jõekalda - are also game show hosts (there's a version of Jeopardy and Family Feud), as well as, the stars of a travel show and numerous advertisements. I've seen them in clips going back to the 90's.
They always seem to work as a team, kinda like an Estonian Hope and Crosby. Apparently Teet Margna owns the production company that makes some of these programs, so I guess these guys have pretty good job security.
As mentioned earlier, Ott Sepp and Märt Avandi are two more Estonian actors who also work together as a team quite often. They both host game shows and present awards shows and act in tv shows and do commercials and travel shows and theatre and sketch shows and probably even puppet shows etc. etc. And yes, they are also an Estonian Hope and Crosby. Or maybe they are more Abbott and Costello.
Actors here randomly pop up all over the place, even populating certain game shows as contestants as well. I'm reminded of the the old Hollywood studio system where actors were usually placed under contract and worked more like employees. "Okay, this season you will be starring here, tomorrow you will be guesting there, oh and Thursday you will be on the improv show."
In the early 80's, the American networks used to do this kind of stuff. This makes total sense as Estonia often seems to exist within a time bubble, circa 1985.
I'm not sure if this is what is going on here, or if there are only so many actor "slots" in the industry and someone has to die before any new actors are allowed to work on TV. Regardless, it's as if a small repertory company were to be charged with handling all of the entertainment needs for an entire nation.
Lest anyone think I'm disparaging the Estonian entertainment industry, or the nation's fine company of actors and entertainers, let me just say I actually think it's kinda cool. I just find it weird as hell, that's all. I mean, aren't there hordes of up-and-coming actors clambering to become TV stars here? Or is there really only twenty or so people who wanted to be thespians and singers? You basically have two guys doing every single commercial! That's not odd to you?
Anyway, like I said, there is this charming sense of community to it all which is quite comforting. Like living in an idyllic, small town. With zero need for cynicism and a half-true sense of knowing everyone, you never really experience the crushing societal angst you sometimes feel in North America. So I guess maybe I just answered my own question.
SPECIAL UPDATE & MARRIAGE DISCLAIMER:
Apparently I am incorrect in stating that my wife watches soaps or any TV of any kind, at all. She is much too busy with our daughter, Rosie, and much too tired at the end of the day to watch TV.
When she does have a second to herself at the end of the night, she tells me that she reads Justin Petrone, Dickens and Tolstoy. She certainly doesn't watch any trashy psychic shows or any Turkish soaps. These just happen to be on in the background as the TV has been left on from earlier when we watched nature documentaries and classical music concerts. She is also not a "gossipy person." At all.
Isadaddy regrets these errors.