Alternative realities in Turkish TV: Atiye and Unfinished Love

At a time when the dark clouds of economic recession lurk on the horizon, signs of catastrophic climate change appear from the sandstorms of Ankara to the wild fires of California, and the pandemic continues to ravage the world, it makes sense that viewers are captivated by imagining what it would be like to escape to a different reality to undo present mistakes.

In the past week, two new TV series have come out based on the same theme: alternative realities.  

In the newly released second season of Netflix’s popular psychological thriller The Gift, the show’s heroine Atiye travels between worlds using a cave hidden beneath the ancient temples of Göbekli Tepe. In Yarım Kalan Aşkalar (Unfinished Love), Turkish streaming platform BluTV’s latest original production, an ambitious young journalist dies only to be given a second chance in another man’s body. 

At a time when the dark clouds of economic recession lurk on the horizon, signs of catastrophic climate change appear from the sandstorms of Ankara to the wild fires of California, and the pandemic continues to ravage the world, it makes sense that viewers are captivated by imagining what it would be like to escape to a different reality to undo present mistakes.

The Gift has been one of Netflix’s most successful Turkish-language productions. Last week the second season was released to much fanfare and the show has already been renewed for a third. The series began with Atiye (played by Beren Saat of Aşk-ı Memnu fame) as an abstract painter living in Istanbul. She has recurring visions of the Neolithic temples of Göbekli Tepe and eventually travels to the archaeological site in Şanlıurfa, which date back to 9,000 BCE. She is led by her visions to a secret cave that functions as a portal between realities. Meanwhile, her fiancé’s rich father is part of a cabal seeking to use this portal for their own dark purposes, in the process killing Atiye’s sister. 

Season 2 begins with Atiye successful reaching an alternative version of the present. Here, her lover, family, and friends all exist but in different combinations. No one but Atiye’s mother, locked up in an insane asylum, know who she is. In this reality, Atiye’s sister is still alive. However, there are even bigger problems: a mysterious illness is killing off pregnant women, poisoned by the babies in their wombs. Just as in Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 dystopian film Children of Men, a world without babies causes societal panic. Pretty soon there will be no new generations to replace those who die and the human race will come to an end. 

Just as in the world she came from, here too the rich business man Serdar Yılmaz is hot on Atiye’s tail. Serdar has at his disposal a German spy, embedded in the family as his son’s wife, as well as shadowy forces who whisper messages to him in Syriac through his iPad. 

These cartoonishly evil villains are not the only improbable aspect of the show. The characters constantly drive back and forth between Istanbul and Urfa as if it were as short a trip as visiting the neighborhood supermarket. Similarly, Atiye has no money yet somehow taxi drivers are fine with driving her around for free—something impossible to imagine if you’ve ever encountered an Istanbul cabby. The show also has continuity issues: Atiye repeatedly runs out of the house mid-conversation, but no one ever asks where she disappeared to. Finally, even shamanic holy women in Turkey’s southeast speak with the cleanest of Istanbul accents.

The first season already felt like an extended tourism campaign to promote the Göbekli Tepe archeological site. The characters visited the famous royal statues in Nemrut as well. Season 2 adds Cappadocia as a central plot site. Perhaps in Season 3 the characters will dip their feet in the waters of Pamukkale or stroll around the ancient city of Ephesus.     

It is also difficult to buy Atiye’s role as a savior of worlds. Throughout the series Beren Saat, who is great as a public figure speaking on political issues but not so convincing as an actor, spouts pseudo-spiritual platitudes like “Death is only a transition, there is no such thing as time.” She keeps announcing that “time is narrowing” or “the time has come,” while running around in circles with the same bewildered expression—one assumes this is what the show’s creators think the face of an enlightened person looks like.

The most compelling aspect of the latest season of The Gift is the theme of pregnancy. Though this plot point is left undeveloped, Serdar Bey’s ancient Assyrian overlords are responsible for the sickness that causes pregnant women and their babies to mysteriously die. The reason? It seems they are environmentally conscious ancient beings, for they are worried about increasingly scarce natural resources and overpopulation. Atiye, of course, doesn’t challenge this eugenicist approach to climate change. Yet her desire to cure this disease through magic is an appealing form of wish-fulfillment for viewers who are dreaming of a vaccine against COVID-19.

In BluTV’s well-promoted new series Unfinished Love, the disease infecting society affects not pregnancy but sight: people are inexplicably going blind. Ozan (Tolga Sarıtaş) is fiery young journalist trying to release an investigative piece on the origins of this contagious blindness. His editor at the newspaper warns him that this topic is too dangerous and that he should focus instead on catchy headlines that will help with sales. With the help of his devoted girlfriend and fellow journalist Elif (Dilan Çiçek Deniz), he decides to pursue the story anyway. Yet on his way to the home of a key source, he is run over by a truck. His death begins to seem less like a hit-and-run and more like an assassination.

Cut to the next scene and Ozan wakes up in the body of a dirt bag police officer sitting in a junkyard in a car filled with beer bottles and syringes. A man in a bowler hat appears next to Ozan and informs him that he has been chosen by the Unfinished Business Office for a second chance. The only condition is that he cannot tell anyone, including the love of his life, that he is alive in another body. 

Ozan, now a washed-up homicide detective named Kadir Bilmez, visits his own funeral wearing his drabby suit, greasy hair, open-chested shirt and gold chain. He learns over the course of time that the body he now inhabits belongs to a man universally despised by co-workers and family: a man with drug, gambling, and sex problems. Yet Ozan has been given a second chance to investigate his own death and the only way to stay alive is to keep his true identity to himself. 

Only one episode of Unfinished Love has been released so far, but the story is compelling. Though just as improbable as The Gift, this series has an internal consistency that allows the viewer to suspend disbelief. At a time when many dream of a second go at things, whether because of the state of the world or their own personal mistakes, Unfinished Love offers an interesting thought-experiment in starting over when everything has gone wrong.

October 31, 2020 'Ghosts' of the New Turkey