By: Jon O’Brien
Airport bookshop staple Harlan Coben gets the Netflix treatment again this week, with The Innocent – the fourth of a remarkable 14 planned adaptations to make it to screens. Starring Mario Casas as an ex-con whose new life gets torn apart nine years after being sent down for accidental homicide, the miniseries bears all the prolific crime writer’s hallmarks: unwanted blasts from the past, a sprawling cast of interweaving characters, and enough twists and turns to make Line of Duty seem the height of predictability. On this occasion, though, the mystery is entirely in Spanish.
Hot on the heels of political thriller The Minions of Midas, El inocente (to give its native title) is the second original series to emerge from the Madrid-based production hub opened by the streaming giant in 2019. Netflix announced plans to employ 25,000 people at its first European base, a testament to just how much faith they have in their Spanish content.
That’s perhaps little surprise considering that their most-watched foreign-language original is also rooted in the capital.
Money Heist’s debut season was actually an acquisition – its compelling tale of an elaborate bank robbery masterminded by a vengeful nerd known as The Professor had first aired on Spanish network Antena 3 several months previously. However, it was only when Netflix edited its 15 lengthy episodes into a more palatable 22 that the show became a global phenomenon, picking up the company’s first International Emmy Award along the way. And with 90 per cent of its viewers hailing from outside Spain, a Netflix-funded second season was a no-brainer.
By this point, Netflix had also enjoyed success with several Spanish series they could call entirely their own. First out of the blocks was Cable Girls, a charming period soap based on four telecommunication workers trying to navigate the patriarchy of 1920s Madrid. Its creator Ramón Campos then journeyed forward to the post-war era for High Seas, an Agatha Christie-esque murder mystery set aboard a luxury cruise liner.
And combining the prep school guessing games of Gossip Girl, teenage angst of 13 Reasons Why and unadulterated chaos of Riverdale, school drama Elite even managed to attract the demographic assumed to be most averse to what Bong Joon Ho once so eloquently called the “one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles”.
But post-Money Heist, Netflix’s Spanish drama output began to carve an identity of its own. It’s hard to find an English-language comparison for Someone Has to Die, for example, where an ultra-conservative family spectacularly implodes when its absent son returns home with a male ballet dancer in tow. Likewise Hache, a provocative neo-noir also set in the midst of the Franco regime which explores the seedy Barcelona underworld of heroin-trafficking. These are the kinds of complex stories that aren’t being told anywhere else, certainly not in front of a global audience, anyway.
It’s why Netflix have been able to attract some of Spain’s finest talent both behind and in front of the camera too. Mateo Gil, who co-wrote 2004’s Oscar-winning Best Foreign Language Film, The Sea Inside, co-penned The Minions of Midas. While Oriol Paulo, whose first feature-length effort, The Body, spawned three international remakes, took the director’s chair for The Innocent.
Pedro Almodóvar may still be reluctant to join the streaming revolution, yet his muse, Carmen Maura, had no qualms about taking the wicked grandmother role in Someone Has to Die. You can also find some of the Cannes favourite’s regular players elsewhere. Adriana Ugarte (Julieta) is leading lady Helena in Hache, Victoria Abril (Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!) takes centre stage in intergenerational drama Three Days of Christmas and Asier Etxeandia (Pain and Glory) steals the show as cartoonish drug lord Romeo in Sky Rojo.
The latter – a hyperviolent crime caper about three prostitutes fleeing their pimp, which plays like a Quentin Tarantino best of – is indicative of how much more daring Netflix’s Spanish slate has become. Just look at the less-than-inspiring English-language originals that have premiered since the start of the year: a soapy melodrama that could have escaped from the Hallmark Channel (Firefly Lane), another psychological thriller that leaves plausibility at the door (Behind Her Eyes) and the latest in a long line of Sherlock Holmes spin-offs (The Irregulars). Netflix’s main arm has now slipped into the same tried and tested pattern as the traditional networks it once prided itself on being an alternative to.
In contrast, its Spanish team appear willing to taking risks. See the upcoming Ídolo, which not only boasts an intriguing set-up – opportunistic fan takes on persona of pop star who dies in front of him – but also plays around with the format by serving up 10 ten-minute episodes. Or Feria, a ‘90s-set fantasy in which two teen sisters find out that their missing parents are in fact literal monsters.
And it’s still one area where Netflix is paving the way. You had to wait until December 2020 for Amazon to drop their first original Spanish drama, the lavish historical saga El Cid, while Disney+ have only just debuted theirs, anthology Besos al aire. As CEO Reed Hastings neatly summarised at the opening of Netflix’s Madrid hub, “It turns out that not all interesting stories come from Hollywood.”