4BLOCKS, a drama series about a Berlin-based, Arabic drug cartel that roams the streets of Neukölln, is the brand new production of the pay-per-view action TV channel TNT. The show thrives on the charismatic German–but-not-German cast, its formidable depiction of grimy Neukölln and Kreuzberg, and a surprising script that doesn’t bend over for easy stereotypes.
Based in Neukölln, Toni Ahmadi (played by the amazing Kida Khodr Ramadan) is the head of an Arabic drug dealing gang. He wants to leave his old life to become Germanized – passport and everything – after 26 years of not being able to legally work in the country. But as you would expect: it’s never that easy to leave your family’s legacy. When his brother-in-law Latif gets busted by the police and his younger brother Abbas (an Oscar deserving role by German rapper Veysel) tries to salvage the situation with his uncontrolled aggression, his whole mission for a new life starts to take a sour turn…
The entire premise of 4 BLOCKS – new episodes air Mondays on TNT, we are up to 4 – references, uses and dismisses the typical Mafia tropes with its distinct Arabic-German culture mix. While the structures of a tight family-run business may be similar all around the world, the Berlin tonality is what makes the show an authentic and entertaining experience all-around. While it does play with the typical Sonnenallee-Gangster clichés, it doesn’t feel lame.
Those clichés exist – strip clubs, excessive gangster violence, meth-heads, hipsters on Sonnenallee – but they’re usually considered in public discourse only when it fits the hoity-toity Feuilleton and not when they’re actually part of someone’s reality. 4 BLOCKS thankfully knows how to draw the line, but they would have been amiss if they hadn’t included the Playstation-playing gangster, his Versace underpants or the violent crazy boys who are looking up to their Godfather.
I’m glad the producers didn’t shoot for the humorous tone of Sopranos, which is impossible to achieve with German words, German jokes or German anything. On the other hand, it’s also very pleasant to see that the awkward moments of stiff German realism and ernesty were kept to a minimum (although their tastes linger in every scene in which Frederick Lau, who plays the undercover cop and trustee of Tony, Vincent, appears. There’s something about this smug dick that just annoys me so much).
When the trailer was launched, I was admittedly critical. A German TV series (made by German scriptwriters, producers and directors) about an Arabic clan on Sonnenallee? This can’t be good. But apparently, we’ve come a long way from the last Till Schweiger Tatort. Not only is the action, the drama and the cinematography on point 1, all of the episodes I’ve seen leave you longing for more.
My only issue? The women in the show. To portray Arabic women like that when THEY are the ones who typically run the show is a big mistake and one that I’m not easy to forgive. But then the scriptwriters and directors are exclusively male, too, so whatever. Arabic, German, y’all backwards as fuck.
4 BLOCKS: ENTERTAINMENT, NOT EDUCATION
What I appreciate the most about the show – despite the fact that it was produced apparently exclusively by Germans – is the lack of educational bullshit to justify the violence or the obvious dichotomy between the lawful Germans (in the series) and criminal immigrants. The producers weren’t afraid of showing what Germans are scared of the most: the displacement of German culture, the focus on crime instead of order. They let the characters of the show breathe and become multi-dimensional, just like Hollywood does it. No stress on the politics. No self-conscious, over-analytical scripting that ruins the fun.
Instead, they managed to create something that everybody loves: a goddamn entertaining series, approaching the quality levels of classic gang / police dramas like The Wire. And MOST importantly, they have had the courage to create a German TV show about a German life in a German city with a German context in the German language THAT WAS NOT ABOUT HITLER. And that, my friends, is a lifetime prestige achievement for any German.
The interspersed Arabic cursing and praying, the detailed takes of Kottbusser Tor, the clash of sly humor and unvented aggression – 4 BLOCKS is not just a great show for Berlin, it’s a great show for everyone.
PS: Some angel uploads the newest episodes to OBOOM every Monday night, so just Google the stream to watch the show.