¡Arriba, Arriba!: why the most exciting shows on the small screen are Spanish

Annabel Nugent
·6-min read
<p>‘Money Heist’ proved that the language spoken by a show’s characters doesn’t have to be a barrier to anyone’s entry</p> (Netflix)

‘Money Heist’ proved that the language spoken by a show’s characters doesn’t have to be a barrier to anyone’s entry

(Netflix)

A loveable ragtag group of criminals wear red boilersuits and Salvador Dalí masks in a heist engineered by an omnipotent mastermind. At first glance, the premise for Casa del Papel stank of a tired Ocean’s Eleven reboot. Its comically butchered English title, Money Heist, seemed to confirm its status as a one-and-done viewing experience, as easily enjoyed as it would be forgotten. And did I mention it’s not in English?

The premise of watching something obstructed by one-inch of text was, up until recently, presumed to be repulsive to the average viewer. When Parasite became the first-ever foreign-language film to win Best Picture at this year’s Oscars, its director Bong Joon Ho playfully chided Hollywood for its cultural myopia and aversion to subtitles, outside of the avant-garde.

So it was against the odds that Money Heist became hugely successful – not successful for a foreign-language series but successful full stop. The crime drama became Netflix’s most-watched series overall in countries including France and Italy. In 2018, the show’s total streams topped that of Stranger Things.

Money Heist proved that the language spoken by a show’s characters doesn’t have to be a barrier to anyone’s entry. Its success has been followed up with a spate of further Spanish-language shows on the platform, including more crossover hits such as Elite and Toy Boy. Other streamers have taken note by placing their own orders, too; Los Espookys has been a critically lauded addition to HBO in America, while last month Amazon Prime Video released the teaser trailer for El Cid, an epic, Spanish-language historical drama of Game of Thrones proportions. Another Amazon Prime original, Un Asunto Privado (A Private Affair), will tell the story of Marina Belloch, a 1940s high-society woman seeking out a Jack the Ripper-like murderer.

It’s common now to have at least one Spanish language series on your streaming rotation. This month it’s likely to be the new crime drama The Minions of Midas which debuts on Netflix on 13 November. But cultural attitudes don’t shift overnight; the global renaissance for Spanish television has been a long time coming. Money Heist is just lo mejor de lo mejor (best of the best).

<p>The Dalí masks and red boilersuits of ‘Money Heist’ have become a symbol of resistance beyond the series, having been used in political protests in Puerto Rico </p>Netflix

The Dalí masks and red boilersuits of ‘Money Heist’ have become a symbol of resistance beyond the series, having been used in political protests in Puerto Rico

Netflix

This trend has grown incrementally, over the past five or so years, no doubt in part because there is an enormous Spanish-speaking populace worldwide to be catered to (we have also seen this in pop music with the growing popularity of Latin global stars). On our televisions, like baby birds wary of new things, we’ve slowly been drip-fed bilingual series one after the other. Narcos was the first Spanish-English show (on Netflix, of course) to really attract international attention in 2015. The drug cartel drama chronicling the rise and fall of notorious kingpin Pablo Escobar and his cat-and-mouse game with the DEA ripped through ratings to become one of the streamer’s biggest hits.

After testing the waters with a 70-30 language split, Netflix then pulled the trigger on their first Spanish original Cable Girls (Chicas del Cabel). Nobody expected big things from the Madrid-set drama about four women working in the country’s first national telephone company, but just this summer the show aired its fifth season, making it the platform’s longest-running non-US original series. While the series didn’t break records outside Spanish-speaking territories, its slow rumblings of popularity did pave the way for Money Heist to do so. Following the success of Cable Girls and Money Heist, in spring last year Netflix opened its first European production hub in Madrid, where the streaming giant set to work assembling a line-up of Spanish-language programming.

Among them was must-watch show Elite, which arrived in March this year and was Netflix’s most-watched series for three weeks. On the surface, the series is just another Gossip Girl (it too deals with the problems of beautiful rich people) or Riverdale (at times it indulges in OTT dramatics). But Elite also bears some resemblance to a slow-paced noir like Big Little Lies, largely because of its scrambled chronology and the murder at the centre of its gripping story, but also because of its unexpected restraint. At its best though, Elite is entirely its own thing. The series presses softly on hot button issues like wealth, sexuality, feminism, Islamophobia – but unlike its English-speaking counterparts, it never pulls too far from what it is: a horny teen drama.

<p>In post-‘Gossip Girl’ television terrain, ‘Elite’ has been the only series to stand up next to the beloved teen show</p>Netflix

In post-‘Gossip Girl’ television terrain, ‘Elite’ has been the only series to stand up next to the beloved teen show

Netflix

Spanish-language shows tend to be different. While British viewers are sifting through the fog of self-serious dramas, sad-coms trying to replicate Fleabag, and toothless satires, Spanish-language imports are an entirely different beast. This quirky quality is perhaps no better evidenced than in HBO’s Los Espookys, an absurdist comedy series which last year found an unlikely home on the network’s main US platform instead of, as its creator had envisioned, HBO Latino.

The show follows a group of true-blue weirdos in an unnamed Latin American country who earn a living by staging horror encounters for paying customers – in one episode, a priest wants to act out an exorcism for clout. There is a granular eccentricity that touches everything in the show, from the reappearing and never fully explained water demon to the earnestness with which every joke is delivered. It might feel like uncharted territory to English-speaking audiences, but those familiar with the magical realist landscapes of Pedro Almodóvar’s films and Gabriel García Márquez’s novellas – where supernatural elements like hereditary curses and levitation are interwoven into real-world settings and mundane stories – may be less surprised.

But it also feels as if Spanish creators are keen to make series that will connect no matter where you are based. Watching these shows, one can’t help but notice how “un-Spanish” they seem at times, and some scenes are about cultural differences but most have nothing to do with being Spanish or Latinx at all. They aren’t stocked full of specific cultural references or jokes that only make sense if you’ve lived in Madrid; they refuse to boil their protagonists and storylines down to identity. Elite, for example, is not just a show about a group of Spanish friends; it’s a show about a group of scheming, calculating, selfish Spanish friends. They’re Spanish-language shows, but they’re also just really great TV – and in a television landscape that’s looking increasingly homogenous, that’s more foreign to us than anything.