Review of "Toy Boy" (Netflix)
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.
3/18/2020 02:18:21 pm
Currently, the telenovelas produced in Turkey far surpass even the Brazilian and Spanish productions. They're dubbed into Spanish language and extremely popular her in South America. The scripts are well done,and the cinematography and acting top rate. My wife has her favorites, of course, but two new recent ones she suggested, that are on Netflix that you might enjoy are "Fatih" - a historical drama based on the life of the Sultan Fatih Sultan Mehmet who lived in the time of the Ottoman Empire and "The Gift" which is a sort of supernatural mystery shot on location at Göbeklitepe.
4/12/2020 11:22:29 am
I've watched a couple make inTurkey, but I wonder if any are free-wheeling with a gay theme as those made in Spain or South America? I say this as homosexuality is a no-no in the Muslin culture--in fact isn't punishable by death? If I'm wrong on this, and there are films with a gay theme, would you name same? Thanks.
El bolon pin pon
3/18/2020 02:39:56 pm
Spanish and Mexican acting are mannered and overdramatic to the point that they are just as entertaining to watch with the volume off and no subtitles.
3/19/2020 09:00:21 am
This series was terrible. Horrible story line, bad acting by nearly everyone and unoriginal. Thirteen episodes was way too drawn out for such a weak and predictable story line. It was just chaos and messiness that kept on going and going. The only saving grace were the sexy dance numbers by the strippers. That and the fact that nearly everyone in this Netflix (un)original series was pretty to look at.
1/3/2021 06:08:31 pm
Not for nothing, but I am old enough to remember the old eighties tv series Cover Up, starring models-turned-actors and one-time room mates Jon-Erik Hexum and Antony Hamilton (who replaced Hexum after his on-set death), as models turned spies/detectives.
3/19/2020 05:41:04 pm
My partner made me watch the first episode and I grudgingly agreed for shallow/obvious reasons. I, too, was pleasantly surprised and I'm making a rare exception to my 'no subtitles after dark' ...mainly because I'm semi-fluent in Spanish, but the Andalusian accent does provide a reasonable challenge. I'll give Elite a shot soon, too.
6/30/2020 03:19:08 pm
Good luck with the Spanish in Elite. My spanish isn't great, but I could barely understand a word in Elite. Toy Boy was far more forgiving.
3/20/2020 07:19:33 pm
I may well never get round to watching any of the shows mentioned (for a start, a new season of "The Great British Sewing Bee" is coming soon) but as no-nonsense reviews go, this was wonderfully uplifting
3/22/2020 06:18:34 pm
I loved the love story between the stripper and rich guy. Loved it so much I rewatched the series and forwarded to their parts. The age difference did give me pause but they never have sex . They kissed only three times. I want more of Jairo's story and his and his boyfriend who is turning 18 so I want sex too. All the guys are pretty but Jairo is my star.
3/23/2020 05:40:27 pm
Both shows were great viewing, and, of course, some plot points were overblown or at least not believable! The acting in 'Elite' was top drawer and in Toy Boy acceptable with one exception:Jario. His character was nuanced into a believable portrayable of a conflicted character trying to bridge two 'worlds, in one,'living as a male prostitute and the other,trying to live the life of a ''normal' person! This 'normalcy is prompted by his love for a boy who was cast aside by his wealthy parents in their pursuit of power in the dynamics of building their financial empire! (BTW; the reviewer congrats Netflix for their 'inclusiveness' in their film releases. I beg to differ with his assessment. Netflix has gone overboard with this mantra! In too many films they deal with unreality in the real world.). lol
4/3/2020 11:48:00 pm
I want to make a Comment about toy boy. Please don’t get me wrong I like the male dancing and I like the story between Triana and Hugo. I love the way they connected and I appreciate the Way that all the trouble was resolved at the end but is the very end, i’m writing about. I for one love love stories and this one had me going till the end but the way they made Triana die was painful for me to watch. I guess I’m a romantic at heart! How difficult would have meant to kill the bad guys and leave the story between the honest man and his beautiful girl? Anyway thanks for listening. Ciao
4/9/2020 05:40:54 pm
You've should have a spoiler alert. Shame on you. Now I don't want to keep on watching it
4/4/2020 11:31:26 am
Me too had a low expectation so i was surprised how good it was and the twists of the story. Lately ive been watching spanish, brazilian and french on netflix. I didnt know how good their films are especially spanish. Toyboy is exceptional. Im waiting for season 2 but i wish triana will be there still. I love hugo and triana love story. Plus the soundtracks are cool.
4/11/2020 10:40:33 pm
I too, looking forward to season2. However, they should flesh out the relationship Jario and the rich kid (forgot his name)! Jario is conflicted and how he resolves his relationship with him should prove good sexuall tension, in the overall story line!
6/30/2020 03:24:36 pm
Good review having just finished it, though I think you're more forgiving on the series. The first six episodes are entertaining, despite being quite 'trashy' (or what you might refer to as soap-opera) but I'm simply amazed the writers were able to get 13 episodes out of this series. The plot quickly becomes ridiculous with far too many one-off occurrences which have close to no bearing on the story progressing. It amazed me that the writers could suffer from such groupthink to not realise how much they dragged the series on which had such a negative impact on the show. I digress, its still entertaining and would probably just suggest to someone to watch it if they had already watched Money Heist and the far superior Elite.
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I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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