Three from Spain, One from Brazil

Four Very Different Netflix Shows Celebrate the Iberian Diaspora

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Well, summer is winding down. Since we suffer through a chilly June we get a reprieve of sorts. The warmer temps generally stick around well into September. But, some of us now are looking at the calendar with dismay or joy.

While Portlanders love to take their summer days outdoors, we’ll soon be cuddling up with the pets or loved ones in front of the fireplace. Many of us reading. Or, perhaps more than we care to admit, binge watching a new series on our tablets, laptops, or phones. Maybe Labor Day is a good day for these selections!

I don’t know if writing for television has undergone a renaissance in Spain--and now Brazil. But the programs I'm in love with from these countries portray drama, comedy, and dark comedy with a remarkable sense of clarity, wit, panache, and timing. Click on the titles to see trailers.

 

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The Cable Girls

It’s got things I learned to associate with telenovelas while living in New York with roommates of Costa Rican descent. Set in 1920s Madrid, in the local telephone company, The Cable Girls, or Las chicas del cable, is getting ready for its third season. It’s an ideal show for those of you that loved Downton Abbey, and perhaps enjoy telenovelas as a genre.

Starring the highly popular Spanish actress Blanca Suárez she’s a stranger with a mysterious past. There are two men she loves, who happen to be brothers-in-law. The matriarch is a fierce doña who, recently widowed in the first season, emerges from the shadows as anything but sympathetic or empathetic. There are mysterious deaths, of course.

The cast is mostly female. It portrays a Spain on the eve of Franco’s revolution. The girls may be dressed like Flappers longing for freedom but they still are controlled by a patriarchal society. This dictates whether they work, or with whom they associate. Divorce, sadly, is an almost impossible route for women with children to end unhappy marriages.

There is an undercurrent which we encounter in the second season: abortion and what today we’d call “conversion therapy” for a character who seems attracted to both men and women. They have gender-identity issues of their own.

Note: some people may find the use of modern music as detracting from the fabric of the show. However, I think it reminds us that these young, independent women, wanted the same freedoms and equality which young women today crave. If you speak Spanish, you may be amused by the proper Madrid accent; it really locks it into its time.

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Paquita Salas

Paquita Salas is a struggling, Madrid-based booking agent for Spanish TV and films. If you liked Absolutely Fabulous, this is your Spanish-language answer. In fact, there are many flashbacks set in the same time period--the early 1990s--as in the beloved Britcom.

Paquita struggles with her weight--like Edie on “Ab Fab.” She also has to fight for talent--both bringing them onto her roster and getting them work. She’s made more friends than enemies. Yet, there always seems to be an old nemesis just ready to snatch up her latest idea or venture. Desperate for money, at one point she shares her office with a hairdresser guilty of selling banned beauty aids.

The main character Paquita is so strong it took me a few episodes to realize, she is played by a popular Spanish actor and comedian named Brays Elfe. Yup, he’s a man in drag. Interestingly enough, the show is the brainchild of Javier Calvo and Javier Ambrossi an out gay couple in Spanish entertainment who have been together for about a decade.  

Note: the show has been renewed for a third season, not expected to drop until 2020. Paquita seems happiest in the 1990s and it looks as if the next series might return to that time. Be warned, they always seem to be eating and drinking wonderful things!

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Samantha!

Wow. This was perhaps the first show out of these four which made me realize Netflix is really allowing a whole generation of writers, in this case, Brazilian-Portuguese writers, to develop something great. Brazil has a well-known love of variety shows, beauty contests, and the like. Parodies are a staple in the show.

Enter Samantha, played by Emanuelle Araújo, who reminds me of a cross between Selma Hayek and Anne Hathaway. Samantha was Brazil’s answer to Punky Brewster in the 1980s. Except...she was a pretty horrible kid. She insults co-stars and adults, causing physical harm to people to foster her stardom. Other childhood incidents ebb back and forth from the 1980s to present day.

For instance, Samantha’s best friend and sidekick is a pack of cigarettes who, since her childhood stardom has always been there. When things are reworked to be more modern--in terms of not encouraging kids to smoke--he struggles to find his place.  

In one flashback, she’s five and selling beer. Sipping it. Urging her child viewers to suggest that particular brand to their parents.

She hasn't changed much with the times. At 40-ish she still performs as a grown-up version of her child star self. After a particularly bad night her former husband, who is Afro-Brazilian, shows up after a long absence. He was a former noted soccer player who himself has to rebuild his brand.

This show’s writers must have been fans of Arrested Development, perhaps Strangers With Candy, a touch of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and Malcolm in the Middle. This family is dysfunctional but they love each other. Even if loving each other involves doing horrible things to or on behalf of each other to be a family.

This is in Portuguese. Some of the jokes and comedy rely on idiomatic tendencies of the Brazilian-Portuguese dialect. However, I watched the first episode with English dubbing by accident. I thought this was an American show just set in Brazil. If you hate subtitles, this one does an excellent job of dubbing.

Note: be prepared to go back on your player. There are just so many excellent one-liners and punchlines you’ll want to relive them almost immediately.

 

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Welcome to the Family

Once again, in this dark comedy coming out of Catalonia, we see the influences of American television. Once again, shows like Arrested Development and Malcolm in the Middle come to mind. The show also seems to capture the fantastic, yet in their world highly plausible scenarios of Pedro Almodovar. Volver, for instance, comes to mind.

Àngela Navarro, played by Melanie Olivares left her family about 20 years ago. She’s a black sheep. She left mom and dad for someone her well-to-do parents found socially inferior. She hasn’t seen them or reached out in 20 years. She only seems to live in Barcelona, and her family in a nearby posh community, but suspend your disbelief as you would in an Almodovar film.

Her mother, she learns upon returning to her father's house, is tucked away in some nursing home. Her father has shacked up with a second or third rate actress named Victòria and her daughter, who seems wiser than her mother. The main character has three kids and has a sort of platonic parenting relationship with her former brother-in-law.

The father is shocked to see his long-lost. I won’t reveal more. But, Victòria is doing her best work: she’s able to turn out masterpieces of impromptu acting and manipulation when they realize they must band together. A show just on Victoria would be an excellent spinoff. Maybe she’ll get work with Paquita Salas. In fact, she already appears in that show in a role truly worthy of a character actress who can easily steal scenes.

Note: if you, like me, often confuse Spanish, Italian, and French, the dialect of Catalonia is perfect for you. It’s fun to hear the diverse influences of the dialect, which are heavily influenced by Spanish, French, Italian, and Occitane, the language of Southern France this extends to Northern Spain and Western Italy.

 


Is there anything you're binge-watching on Netflix, Hulu, orAmazon that you'd like to share? Feel free to comment on PQ's Facebook page under this story!