Grant me this: Not everyone is gripped by the Olympics. Not yet, anyway.
There are other distractions to be found and enjoyed while that weirdly disconnected event builds up a head of steam and gets dramatic. Besides, the Games’s broadcasts are all over the place in terms of time zones and the periods when you might actually be awake and alert. Instead, an excellent onscreen diversion is the lurid and opulent story – specifically what the makers of a certain returning series call “Latin pulp.”
The creators of Sky Rojo (new episodes now streaming on Netflix, in Spanish with English subtitles) like to use that term to describe their work. They’re a distinguished bunch, as the team behind the wonderfully insane 2017 crime drama Money Heist on Netflix. And if that series was rooted in inside-the-cave tension and strange twists, this one is about the glorious vistas of Spain – plus drugs, guns, car chases and gonzo twists. Like Money Heist, it’s also about something more than the surface plot: It’s a colourful excoriation of the sexual exploitation of women.
When we first met our heroines, Coral (Veronica Sanchez), Wendy (Lali Esposito) and Gina (Yany Prado), they had escaped their imprisonment as dancers and sex workers at Club Las Novias, a high-end nightclub and brothel located in the middle of nowhere, owned by Romeo (Asier Etxeandia), a brute with a weakness for cocaine. They fled, were harried and attacked, but survived. In the final scene of the first season, Cora had returned to confront Romeo – and, through cunning and violence, managed to tell all the women trapped by him that they were free. But was that even true?
The chase now continues, and the women reunite, but are still trapped – literally and figuratively ensnared by Romeo’s henchmen. As before, and as in Money Heist, there is both humour and heart in this unorthodox, gaudy but vividly smart series (there are eight new episodes in Season 2, each a brisk 30 minutes). Some viewers will find the treatment of sexual exploitation improper, but there is more inference than dramatization here, and the endless captivity of women in a macho culture remains a constant theme.
The series is made with the kind of verve you don’t often see, with the runaway women facing more than one near-death experience along the way. But for all its energy and showy visual palette, there is a seriousness in the depiction of drastic, retributive action by both the female and male characters. Just as Money Heist is about a fantastical socialist response to economic austerity, Sky Rojo is about much more than its forceful storytelling style might suggest.
If that sounds intriguing, here are some other “Latin pulp” series on Netflix worth exploring:
Hache (two seasons in Netflix) is another Spanish oddity (with English subtitles), gorgeously made and definitely pulpy in its seething treatment of perversity, both economic and erotic. Set in Barcelona in the 1960s, it is highly stylized, with lavish attention to period detail. The story centres around Helena (Adriana Ugarte), a sex worker who ends up the favourite of the violent and powerful organized crime head Malpica (Javier Rey) and sets out to own his empire. Almost Victorian in its sense of moral outrage, the show still manages to smoulder.
High Seas (three seasons on Netflix, also in Spanish with English subtitles) also offers an elaborate period setting – more old school than either Sky Rojo or Hache, the first season of the series (titled Alta Mar in Spanish) is set entirely on a ship sailing from Spain to Brazil just after the Second World War.
The Villanueva sisters, Eva (Ivana Baquero) and Carolina (Alejandra Onieva), are leaving Spain forever – one to get married and the other to start a new life as a writer. Before they’re even on board, they encounter a young woman, Luisa (Manuela Velles), who declares cryptically, “They’re going to kill me.” The sisters smuggle her onto the ship – and within the first 10 days of their journey, three people are dead. There’s more mystery than madness unfolding here, but the series has a distinct Spanish flavour, one drenched in sumptuous glamour that conceals the underlying malevolence.
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