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How Netflix is tricking American audiences into embracing subtitles

Wagner Moura as Pablo Escobar in the Netflix original series “Narcos.” (Daniel Daza/Netflix via AP)
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Americans aren’t big on subtitles. Just ask Helen Mirren. The Oscar winner was so excited to use her French skills for the first time on screen when she signed on to star as a haughty restaurateur in last year’s “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” only to find out that her French character would be speaking in accented English.

“The reality is that it’s a Disney movie,” Mirren told Hollywood Reporter at the time. “The other reality is that the vast American public will not accept films with subtitles. People in Ohio have to go and see the movie.”

She has a point. The scary thing is how that thinking can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Americans get stereotyped as a nation that refuses to read dialogue, so distributors shy away from bringing foreign-language films to the states and pretty soon Americans are left with little more than superhero movies and Oscar bait — safe stuff that doesn’t challenge us too much.

But Netflix is proving that subtitles can be both painless and valuable. Its latest binge-worthy prestige drama, “Narcos,” follows cops and kingpins during the rise of the big cocaine cartels in 1980s Colombia. You won’t see Pablo Escobar ordering around his minions in accented English; that would be ridiculous. He and all the other Hispanic characters speak Spanish.

The show is clever about it, though. The subtitles are stealthily delivered, kind of like a parent furtively adding butternut squash to the mac and cheese.

First of all, there’s the marketing. Those coming to the show might think the story focuses mainly on the narrator, who is the very American looking guy on the right here:

Boyd Holbrook plays American DEA agent Steve Murphy. He spends considerable amounts of time explaining in voiceover how Escobar transitioned from being a relatively small-scale electronics smuggler to being the man in charge of a massive, lucrative empire. The narration is pretty heavily front-loaded, and all the confusing background information is in English, which makes a subtitle-hating viewer feel safe and warm.

In episode one, the first time we see a character speak in Spanish, it’s a one-sided conversation of one of Escobar’s men on the phone, and what he says isn’t all that important. What really matters is that American lawmen have wiretapped the guy’s (fantastically massive) cell phone, and they’re relaying the intel to Steve.

This first scene is the equivalent of mom and dad saying, “just try it, you’ll like it.” See how easy a little reading is? By the time we’re introduced to characters that are having entire conversations in Spanish, there has already been a shootout and plenty of intrigue, so we’re hooked. And, this being a modern-day adult drama, it isn’t long before people start stripping down and coupling up, too.

Well done, Netflix.

“Narcos” isn’t the only show to take this kind of gamble. FX did the same thing with “The Bridge,” a show that took place on either side of the U.S.-Mexico border. The series only lasted two seasons — for whatever reason — but the bilingual storytelling is still evidence that showrunners are willing to take more chances than movie producers when it comes to unearthing tales from around the globe and presenting them in authentic ways.

But television still has to be smart about the way it handles risks.

Netflix took a similar approach with “Orange Is the New Black.” The series looked like it was going to be a fish-out-of-water tale about a pretty, preppy, blonde New Yorker, the type of character Americans are used to seeing onscreen. But Piper Chapman was just our gateway to a much more interesting world where black, Hispanic, Asian, transgender, elderly and gay characters, who would normally be pushed to the margins, are front and center.

Like on “Orange,” the most interesting characters on “Narcos” aren’t the supposed face of the series, Steve, but all the people around him. And luckily, while we hear a lot from our narrator, we don’t actually spend much time watching his life unfold. Instead, like “The Wire,” the sprawling show examines the lives of characters on both sides of the law (not to mention the characters who straddle the divide).

“Game of Thrones” fans will be happy to hear that Chilean actor Pedro Pascal is just as magnetically watchable as he was as Oberyn Martell. He plays Steve’s partner Javier Peña, a role that makes use of Pascal’s ability to be lovably difficult.

But the most impressive portrayal is Wagner Moura’s take on Escobar. The Brazilian actor plays the druglord as nonchalantly terrifying. Escobar is a low-key man of few words, but beware his bad side.

Moura has such a command of the character you’d never know that delivering his lines in Spanish was actually a challenge. His native language is Portuguese, and he had assumed that the series would be like every other show and use Spanish-accented English. So, according to an interview he did with the New York Times, he lived in Medellín for a few months before shooting began in order to learn the language and get the accent just right.

It was more work for him, and reading subtitles is more work for us non-Spanish speakers, but that’s the necessary price we pay for authenticity. And it’s worth it.