Language learning can be regimented and scholarly, but to get the most out of it, you’ve got to transcend your textbook (or app!). Without a doubt, consuming popular media in your target language is one of the best ways to beef up your comprehension skills and give you a new cultural perspective to color your learning experience. There are few better ways to immerse yourself in the Italian linguistic and cultural landscape than by opening your laptop, donning a pair of headphones and pressing the play button on a whole host of streamable Italian TV shows. Whether you’re laughing along with a goofy family comedy or you’re enthralled by a dark adrenaline-surging drama, with enough practice, you’ll be speaking like a true Italian molto presto.
1. Un medico in famiglia
Where to watch: RaiPlay, the streaming site of the Italian broadcasting network RAI (you can get a free account)
Number of seasons: 10
Show premise: Un medico in famiglia might have the flavor of a children’s show, but it’s been entertaining Italians of all ages for nearly twenty years. The show tells the story of the widowed doctor Lele Martini, his three kids, and his father — among a changing cast of other characters — after their move to a neighborhood just outside Rome and their ensuing quest to deal with the changes that the move brings in all of their lives. Since its first airing in 1998, it has become one of the most popular Italian TV shows and is still being broadcast today.
Italian practice: Because it’s a family- and kid-oriented show, the language is simple and digestible for most learners. You’ll be surprised at how much you can pick up without subtitles (there aren’t any offered). It’s perfect for beginners wanting to stretch the limits of their Italian knowledge.
2. Romanzo criminale
Photo: Kino Lorber
Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video
Number of seasons: 2
Show premise: Romanzo criminale takes place over more than two decades, chronicling the ambitious and power-hungry Libanese and his two friends Dandi and Freddo as they struggle to build an empire in the crime underworld, evading police to become violent drug overlords. The show is based on the story of the real-life Banda della Magliana and its reign of terror in Rome for more than a decade starting in the 1970s.
Italian practice: Each episode is almost an hour long, so if you’re ready to sit down for a big chunk of language practice — it’s too gripping to quit watching halfway through — then Romanzo criminale is for you. If you have a hard time parsing the Romanesco dialect, which is noticeably different from mainstream Italian, try putting on the subtitles in either English or Italian to see what you can pick up.
Photo: Sky Italia
Where to watch: Netflix
Number of seasons: 3 total, (2 available for streaming at the time of publication)
Show premise: Based on the 2006 Roberto Saviano novel about the Neapolitan crime syndicate, the Camorra, and on the 2008 film of the same name, Gomorrah is one of the most popular shows ever to spill over from Italy’s borders into the international mediascape. It follows a Neapolitan mafia boss and his family as they navigate a gruesome ring of organized crime rife with drug wars and cold-blooded murder. Sounds like a wild ride, right? It’s a visually and cinematically captivating and critically acclaimed crime drama, a twist-laden rollercoaster that will show you the gritty underworld of Italian gangsterdom all from the edge of your seat.
Italian practice: Because the show takes place in Naples, the Italian spoken is more of a Neapolitan dialect — complete with a heavy regional accent — than most learners might be used to. It’s a great challenge if you want to put your comprehension skills to the ultimate test. Try putting on the subtitles in Italian if you’re confident enough to see how well you can pick up on the words. Or, you could display the dialogue in English to fill in the gaps.
4. Zio Gianni
Where to watch: RaiPlay
Number of seasons: 2
Show premise: The show follows the shenanigans in the life of “Uncle” Gianni, a down-on-his luck fifty-year-old who’s resigned to move in with three early-twenty-something student roommates after he loses his job, and his life and marriage fall apart before him. A refreshing respite from all the heavy crime drama, the show is a lighthearted sitcom-style series that will keep you laughing both with and at the characters.
Italian practice: Each episode only runs a little less than 10 minutes long, so they’re perfectly bite-sized if you want quick practice. It’ll help you pick up on the slang and jargon popular today with i giovani — or “the youths,” as they say. But beware that the show doesn’t offer subtitles, so use it as an extra challenge if you think your Italian’s up to snuff.
Where to watch: Netflix
Number of seasons: 1
Show premise: If you thought there couldn’t possibly be another Italian organized crime drama on this list, think again. Suburra, Netflix’s immensely popular first Italian original program, details the web of corruption involving local politicians, the mafia and the Vatican as Ostia, a seaside town on the periphery of Rome, transforms into a gambling haven. Plot-heavy and full of exhilarating hooks, Suburra moves at a thrilling pace without going overboard.
Italian practice: Romans are known to speak quickly, so put on the Italian subtitles if you’re afraid you’ll miss something or won’t be able to understand much of the dialect. Watching the show is a great way to learn local colloquialisms and expressions!