As you might imagine, the global standstill created by the coronavirus pandemic has also slowed down the purveyors of pseudohistory, who have fewer conferences to share their new claims and whose TV series are beginning to see production delays. So, today I thought I’d take the time spent socially distancing from everyone to discuss my new favorite category of TV series to watch on Netflix, Spanish dramas—the ones from Spain, not just in Spanish. I burned my way through their Brazilian shows, which were generally quite good, and most of the French ones, too. I didn’t really get into the formless Dutch blob of a supposed thriller Ares, but I have been pleasantly surprised by the exceptional quality of Spanish dramas. Once you adjust to the Spanish style of somewhat mannered and overdramatic acting, it becomes quite interesting to see how Spanish TV producers remix and play around with templates and forms pioneered on American TV and add an extra layer or two. They also seem to move much faster, which is, like British series, a function of generally shorter seasons.
That tendency was on full display in such popular Spanish Netflix series as Money Heist and Élite, which offer entertaining and clever takes on the crime thriller and the teen soap opera respectively. I especially appreciated the impeccable structure of Élite, which across its three seasons has offered close to the platonic ideal of the high school teen soap, expertly borrowing from genre staples like The O.C., Pretty Little Liars, and Gossip Girl and then paring the result down to the essentials. The result, told so far in three seasons and 24 episodes, has been a tightly crafted story whose efficiency and narrative control almost reaches the clockwork catharsis of a Greek tragedy. The Greeks also used stock characters and clichés, so the comparison isn’t as absurd as you might think. The third season, which debuted last Friday, is the weakest of the three, if only because the repetition of tragedy begins to feel formulaic and the central mystery is not as compelling as the previous two seasons’ mysteries. But from the production values to the razor-sharp characterization and writing, Élite has been a delight.
However, Money Heist and Élite received plenty of media attention, so I thought I’d spend some time talking about another recent release, the murder mystery thriller Toy Boy, which bowed on Netflix late last month. I will admit that the premise did not sound promising at all: After one of their own is convicted of a murder he didn’t commit, a troupe of male strippers band together to investigate the crime. Admit it: It made you laugh.
Toy Boy debuted in Spain on Antenna 3 last fall to middling ratings but upon its debut on Netflix became a top 10 streaming series in most countries, reaching number 1 in some Spanish-speaking areas.
I was both surprised and delighted to find that the series wasn’t just Magic Mike Solves Crime! Instead, Toy Boy is a thoughtful and detailed soap opera about power and privilege in Spanish society, examining how marginalized people become disposable and how the political system, the justice system, and the social system conspire to reinforce the roles they foist on those who aren’t entirely in control of their fate. That such social commentary ends up wrapped in a glossy package and an entertaining mystery story only makes it more effective. And Spain has never looked more beautiful than in the lush photography that makes the on-location exteriors practically glow with summertime warmth.
Toy Boy tells the story of Hugo Beltrán (acting newcomer and ex-fútbol player Jesús Mosquera), who begins the series in flashback as a teenage stripper and escort in Marbella, Spain. Hugo finds himself falling for an older client, Macarena (Cristina Castaño), until he wakes up next to a charred headless body and is convicted of the murder of Macarena’s husband. Seven years later, a young lawyer, Triana (María Pedraza, from Money Heist and Élite), takes his case and gets him out of prison on parole while a new investigation commences. Hugo returns to his troupe of fellow stripper-prostitutes, the Toy Boys, and resumes his career while he and Triana actively investigate one of Marbella’s most powerful families and unraveling a conspiracy that winds through corporations run like medieval fiefdoms, corrupt politicians and police officers, and a culture of amoral indifference that treats people as objects in the power games of the few. Perhaps the most unexpected aspect of Toy Boy is its ability to imbue some of society’s least respected, male strippers and prostitutes, with nobility and dignity while never shying away from the moral compromises involved in living a life outside of respectable society.
None of this is particularly groundbreaking stuff, but the first season is sharply written and well-structured, creating a relentless forward momentum, even as the plot gradually slides toward the ridiculous. The first half of the season, which features the strongest episodes, is also the most disciplined. That part of the show sets up a twisty, satisfying murder mystery. But the moral arc of the back half of the season bends toward pure soap opera, and the resolution of several of the major plot threads of the season is risible, though never not entertaining. One of the most ridiculous developments, the whereabouts of a severed head, ends up being unraveled by another seemingly ridiculous situation to American eyes that nonetheless makes perfect sense in Spanish culture: A key clue revolves around the question of how a person of interest could possibly have purchased a bag of ice at the ungodly hour of 8 PM! Spanish shops are all closed by then, apparently.
The show contrasts Hugo’s murder investigation with the story of Macarena’s teenage son, Andreas (Juanjo Almeida), who was present at the time of the murder that set off the story. He suffered sexual trauma that has left him withdrawn, sullen, and fearful. When some homophobic thugs beat him up outside the strip club where Hugo dances, another stripper/prostitute, Jairo (Carlos Costanzia), rescues him and strikes up a hesitant but sweet romance. Andreas’s mother finds it hard to believe that her son would spend time with a prostitute just to talk, and Jairo struggles to balance his need for money with his desire not to cheapen this relationship with payment. Jairo is mute, so their growing attachment takes place largely through nonverbal cues, like an old silent movie, with Jairo’s inability to speak mirroring Andreas’s inability to overcome his trauma and tell his story. The two care deeply for one another but struggle to overcome the pressures of family, social class, and money that leave each thinking the other would be better off without him. It’s so sweetly done that unless you run the math in your head, you don’t realize that Jairo can’t be younger than 25, while Andreas is 17. Hugo has a romance, too, but it is explicitly subordinated to his investigation and given much less attention.
Like many Spanish shows, there is a lot more going on than even this lengthy review can suggest. By the end, the number of subplots, red-herrings, and setups for a potential second season threaten to weigh down the narrative, and not all of them are given the space they need, even after thirteen 70-minute episodes. The story ends in a more or less satisfying way, albeit reminiscent of some of Hollywood’s trashiest thrillers, followed by a cliffhanger meant to goose demand for a second season.
I enjoyed Toy Boy quite a bit, largely because I had low expectations and it easily overshot them. But don’t be fooled: This is very much a nighttime soap opera. It is not a show full of gritty realism or strict logic. One episode centers on recovering memories through hypnosis, for crying out loud. But if you can accept that you are watching a soap opera, this is the best kind of soap opera trash. It reminded me most of the first season of ABC’s Revenge, with a similar class-based mystery structure, but Toy Boy has the courage to take the subtext to its logical conclusion and to recognize that money is not a substitute for morality, and one can’t buy the other.
Watching Toy Boy and the third season of Élite back to back, however, made me realize how much of an overcorrection that has been in terms of gender and representation. In both shows, the main romantic story involves young men in love with one another. Between them, there were two, maybe three female characters who weren’t either depicted as witches, bitches, or criminals, while the men were treated with much more favor, at least those under 40. (Old guys are still evil manipulators.) Between the two shows, I believe that there was one brief shot of a topless woman, while both built their seasons around lots of men in various degrees of nudity. Now, don’t get me wrong: As a gay man, this is not a problem for me. But as a TV critic, I can’t help but see this as a complete reversal from the typical “male gaze” programming of twenty years ago. That’s not to say that either of these shows is doing anything but telling its own story, only that they reflect a weird cultural moment where TV shows are rewarded for subverting traditional dynamics and are also rewarded for avoiding any implication that they are objectifying women. However, while the objectification of men has changed markedly, it is still unusual to see mainstream popular shows foreground gay love stories. While it is becoming standard for Netflix, which purposely develops or acquires shows for under-served audiences, the contrast between the prominence of these stories and the back-burner treatment on mainstream English-language TV is marked.
A couple of years ago, the movie Love, Simon generated a thousand think pieces because its main character was a gay high school student. The movie focused on a hoary coming out narrative and focused uneasily on the question of who else was secretly gay. In the second season of Élite, there is a scene where Gúzman (Miguel Bernardeau), the leader of a group of heretofore assertively heterosexual preppies and jocks, is dumbfounded to realize that he is the only straight guy in the entire group, and he wondered how exactly he ended up with only gay and bisexual best friends. By the end of season three, he was very nearly the only straight guy left on the show and ended the season cheering on a friend’s same-sex romance. It may not be realistic, but the difference with American entertainment was stark.
There is certainly something symbolic in Netflix’s progressive fantasy, but I have gone on for too long to tease out the many implications here. I’ll instead finish with praise for Élite’s costume designer. I’ve never been too interested in TV characters’ clothes, but Polo (Álvaro Rico) had an amazing wardrobe, and for the first time in a long time, I am jealous.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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