Istanbul: One is a headscarf-wearing cleaning lady from the poor suburbs of Istanbul, the other a jet-setting psychiatrist who breaks glass ceilings and harbours suspicions about conservative Islam. Together, the two women make for a compelling story in a hit Netflix series that has pushed boundaries and won plaudits for its unflinching portrayal of Turkey’s deep social divides.
The psychological thriller Ethos (Bir Baskadir) is Turkey’s latest slick streaming export, adding to an expanding list of local productions to make it big abroad. But director Berkun Oya’s eight-part series goes where no previous Turkish TV drama has dared, feeding a national conversation that was once confined to bohemian art houses screening intellectual films.
“The series managed to find a balance between a popular work and a thoughtful film,” said Dogan Gurpinar, a historian at Istanbul Technical University. Released on November 12, the series stars Oyku Karayel, who plays Meryem, a cleaner who never went to high school and turns to her neighbourhood ‘hodja’, or religious cleric, in times of trouble.
Suddenly, she crosses paths with the high-flying therapist Peri, played by Defne Kayalar, who is not only secular but also profoundly unhappy about Turkey’s social course. Enveloping its characters in empathy and attempting to demystify “otherness”, the series has triggered online debates about prejudice in Turkey’s booming digital community – the core audience of Netflix.
Zeynep K Serefoglu Danis, chairwoman of the KADEM academic committee whose deputy director is President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s younger daughter Sumeyye Erdogan Bayraktar, said Ethos was not without its faults.
The portrayal of the lead character as an uneducated headscarf-wearing woman has led some conservative women with degrees to “rightfully ask ‘why aren’t we represented?’,” Danis shared. “But I believe a fictional production can’t promise to give a panoramic view of society.”
Danis said the show’s writers should have gone “beyond the ordinary” in their depiction of a showdown between traditional and modern women. But she applauded the series for allowing Meryem to find her own way out of social confinement and helping Peri come to terms with a different world at the same time.