Turkish Sitcom Taps Into the ‘Seinfeld’ Vibe

How a wildly unconventional new TV show has captured the alternately dark and humorous underside of life in Istanbul

Turkish Sitcom Taps Into the ‘Seinfeld’ Vibe
Stills from the show Gibi / EXXEN Streaming Service

Every once in a while, a show comes along that seizes the spirit of an age with enough humor and existential charm to turn the cruel banality of modern life into a glorious celebration of the absurd. What “Seinfeld” did for the 1990s, “Curb Your Enthusiasm” for the 2000s and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” for the 2010s — at least in America — the new hit comedy “Gibi” (“As if”) has done for Turkey in the 2020s.

Upon risk of social death, there are three subjects that comedians shy away from in Turkey, a young comic tells New Lines: Atatürk, religion and homosexuality. Everything else is fair game.

The creators of “Gibi,” 33-year-old Feyyaz Yiğit (who also stars in the show) and 41-year-old Aziz Kedi, seem to feel this in their bones. While they have yet to make mincemeat of inflation, migration and next year’s elections — the three political topics on most people’s minds — there’s hardly another issue that “Gibi” doesn’t dissect over 22 riotous episodes that have aired since January 2021 on Exxen, a new streaming service.

From social manias and modern-day slavery to love and loneliness, individualism and social conformity, globalization, unemployment, consumerism, urban anomie, culture wars, exercise freaks, self-help gurus and social media lynch mobs, “Gibi” offers a biting take on nearly every puzzle perplexing postmodern Turkey.

How do they pull it off? “Seinfeld”-style, “Gibi” often begins in the living room of its chief protagonist, Yılmaz (Feyyaz Yiğit), or his local cafe in a sleepy, middle-class section of Istanbul. Though various friends and neighborhood characters come and go, Yılmaz is usually accompanied by his two best friends, İlkkan (Kıvanç Kılınç) and Ersoy (Ahmet Kürsat Öçalan). Here they bicker and pontificate on every issue known to the modern disenchanted man — whenever they’re not being sucked into someone else’s farcical pursuit of happiness.

A cynical, witty, paunchy and unemployed chain smoker, Yılmaz is a refreshing antihero for our times. Mopey yet confident, brilliant yet unsuccessful, sorry but sublimely indifferent, he’s a fearless reincarnation of Seinfeld’s George Costanza. His best friends, İlkkan and Ersoy, are no less endearing. Tall, bald and honest to a fault, İlkkan is the spineless voice of reason. Short, stocky, sweet and sharp, Ersoy is the show’s moral center.

In each of its 22 episodes, “Gibi” stretches the narrative possibilities of the absurd. Though it has several recurring characters, each installment is a standalone masterpiece featuring oddballs from every stretch of Turkish society: tailors, butchers, artists, body builders, cannibalistic foreign exchange students, streetwalkers, soothsayers, busybodies, absent parents, violent cousins, verbally abusive uncles and murderous stepgrandmothers, to name but a few.

The pilot is a case in point. It opens with Yılmaz and İlkkan trying to hail a late-night cab from a nameless corner in some forgotten part of Istanbul. The scene could be anywhere in the 16-million-strong metropolis, bar one small detail: Behind them is an enormous food stand that sells a popular late-night sandwich made of lamb intestines called “kokoreç,” which is rendered on the stand as “kokariç.” The humor lies in the fact that to misspell or mispronounce this very common word is to betray a fairly strong country-bumpkin ignorance, however insignificant in the grand scheme of things. It is as if someone showed up in Philadelphia and put up a sign selling “Billy cheesesteaks” or arrived in New Orleans selling a “’mo’ boy” sandwich instead of a “po’ boy.” The fact that someone’s “honor” should be at stake over such a trifling and stupid detail highlights some of the show’s undercurrents, among them urban anomie and what’s often mocked as the overwhelming ignorance of newcomers to Istanbul.

Being cheeky, they have a chuckle and take a selfie. But the fun is just beginning. The large, middle-aged, mustachioed proprietor, resting outside after a long day of work, is not amused. An argument ensues, thick with the threat of violence, over who speaks better Turkish and how kokoreç is correctly spelled. To extract themselves from this potentially violent pickle, the lads have to think quickly. “We took the picture because we actually need a sign of our own,” says İlkkan. “Indeed,” continues Yılmaz. “We’re thinking of opening our own kokariç place.”

“Well, why didn’t you say so!” sounds the chief of the “kokariç” shop. “We’ll partner up and help you get everything you need. A van, a fridge — the meat itself. Come on in, let’s sit down and sort out the details.”

Within minutes, Yilmaz and İlkkan have been strong-armed into spending the equivalent of thousands of dollars they don’t have on vastly inflated kokoreç-related overhead costs. Standing over them as they flip through a catalog of signs is one of the restaurant’s younger employees, an enforcer type with a meathead haircut and a giant butcher’s knife.

In 20 minutes alone, “Gibi” sums up life for so many in the Turkish metropolis: the relentless pressure to socially conform; the cutthroat commercialism; the lurking tension between classes and grammars; and the all-important role of the state, which saves the day. It’s only when the police show up in force that Yılmaz and İlkkan escape a long, hard life as debt-peonage “kokariç” peddlers.

“There’s not a show in Turkey that better captures our current malaise,” actor Efe Tunçer told New Lines. “It pulls back all the curtains on our petty corruptions and chronic social misdeeds.” Be that as it may, “Gibi” doesn’t indulge in the creeping despair that has consumed so much of Turkey’s youth in recent years, as geopolitical fault lines combined with domestic economic woes to fatally poison many young people’s hope in the future.

Maybe that’s because neither Yılmaz nor his friends have jobs or rent to worry about (they live in the apartment of Yılmaz’s aunt, who’s off in Belgium). Or maybe it’s because, unlike millions of young people raised on a diet of hard work, big dreams and high expectations, they have no vaunting ambitions of their own. Unlike those who spent their youth cramming for exams, piling up degrees, and dreaming of Europe and North America, Yılmaz and the boys seem happy enough, like millions of men across Anatolia, to sit around coffee shops chewing the fat.

This doesn’t mean they don’t suffer economic hardships or burn with desire every once in a while. In one of the most outlandish episodes, İlkkan, in a financial pinch, sells himself into slavery. “I found this service online,” he tells his friends at the coffee shop. “And she offered me 9,000 liras [about $500] a day to be her slave.”

After being tied up, whipped, verbally abused, locked on the balcony and largely deprived of food and water for four days, İlkkan is finally set free. The only catch? Rather than compensate him for his troubles, his torturer presents him with a bill.

“The cost of your treatment,” she says with a straight face. Now he’s on the hook for a small fortune. But since “Gibi” is as much about solidarity as it is about alienation, İlkkan’s friends have his back. How do they raise a small fortune overnight? You’ll have to watch the show to find out.

Though it carefully avoids sex and religion, “Gibi” doesn’t shy away from many of the cultural superstitions that still abound in Turkey. One of them is on display in “The Dark Force,” when Yılmaz’s neighbors come to believe a dark spirit has been released by excavations at a nearby construction site.

Partly a hint at the city’s failure to protect the countless ancient ruins beneath it and partly a jab at the relentless roar of construction hammers throughout Istanbul, “Gibi” never takes itself too seriously. The source of the “evil spirit” is not a luxury high-rise but an innocent nearby elementary school.

In the ensuing social mania, Yılmaz’s building holds a tenants meeting. One elderly neighbor discovers that he now speaks Spanish. Another attests that she was visited by djinns (invisible spirit creatures). For his part, the DJ from the fourth floor recommends everyone sprinkle salt in front of their doors, which everyone proceeds to do. “What’s clear is that we must take precautions, since it’s common opinion that a dark force has been awakened,” the building manager says.

“What’s the use?” Yılmaz says, in the most scathing line of the show. “Our entire lives are dictated by commonly held opinions.”

A telling film came out in 2017 called “Taksim Hold ’em.” Set during the 2013 Gezi Park protests, it recounts the story of four friends who get together for poker night near Taksim Square during the height of the unrest. Each is of a different mind regarding the historic events taking place around them. One is hell-bent on revolution, though mostly to meet women. The host, for his part, couldn’t care less. A dyed-in-the-wool cynic, he aims only to play poker and drink beer. “Forget your revolution,” he says. “No social change is possible while most of us remain rotten to the core.”

If “Gibi” isn’t quite so harsh, a whiff of moral fatalism does run through it. “Life doesn’t always meet our hopes and expectations,” İlkkan is fond of reminding Yılmaz whenever one of their schemes comes to naught. Whether in search of money or love, justice or security, peace of mind or moral satisfaction, our odds of success are relatively low, “Gibi” seems to be saying. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. “If you want to make God laugh,” İlkkan likes to say at inappropriate moments, “tell Him about your plans.” Maybe we can laugh, too.

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