The young Griselda Blanco: real (left) and telenovela versions.
“Art VAGUELY imitating life.”
It’s probably safe to say La Viuda Negra is “inspired” by the story of Griselda Blanco, rather than anything more. But there are aspects of the telenovela which are surprisingly accurate, especially in the early stages, before things begin diverging for dramatic purposes. [Note: of necessity, what follows will include major spoilers for the TV series] For example, Griselda did move to the city of Medellin with her mother at an early age, not long after the end of World War 2, and it does appear she was involved in criminal activities there, before even becoming a teenager in the mid-fifties.
A focus of the early episodes sees Blanco joining a gang, which then kidnaps the scion of a rich local family. In the telenovela, this kick-starts her career, because the victim dies, and his father vows vengeance on Griselda, forcing her to go on the run as a young adult. The reality is perhaps even more astonishing, with her former lover, Charles Cosby, reporting that the kidnap and murder took place when Blanco was only eleven years old. After the boy’s parents refused to pay up, the frustrated gang gave her a revolver and challenged her to shoot him in the head. Challenge accepted…
It was around this time she also met her first husband, Carlos Trujillo. In real life, he was involved in forging immigration documents; she had three children with him, all of whom would become involved in the drug trade, and suffer violent ends. The same happened to Trujillo, whom Griselda had killed, shortly after they divorced at the end of the sixties. In La Viuda Negra, her first husband, Puntilla, is part of the kidnapping gang, who goes on the run with Griselda, and is killed by him in Episode 6, after betraying her. [This is kind of a theme through the TV series; if Ms. Blanco has serious trust issues as a result, it’s understandable!]
It’s with her second husband that her career as a drug queen really started to take off, both in reality and fiction – though the latter has Robayo operating over the border in Ecuador, where Griselda (Serradilla) takes refuge. They establish a pipeline to move their product from South America to the United States, using attractive women as mules. The TV version has her having high-heeled shoes built, with hidden compartments to hide the drugs. That seemed a very inefficient approach to me: really, how much could one person carry? The reality made more sense: Blanco actually developed and used specially-made corsets and other lingerie, capable of holding up to seven pounds of cocaine per person. Even in those days, that was worth about a million dollars.
In the TV series, there’s a diversion after they’re established in New York, as Italian Mafia kingpin, Enzo Vittoria, falls in love with Griselda, and abducts her for reasons of affection, despite her having previously shot and wounded him. Never one to leave a job unfinished, she shoots him again, on their enforced wedding day (Episode 19), and this time completes the job. [Should that count as another murdered husband? They technically weren’t married…] However, she gradually grows estranged from Robayo, not least over the upbringing of their son, Michael Corleone Blanco – yes, he was named that in real life too! – and kills him in Episode 26, just before being arrested by long-running DEA adversary, Norm Jones (Gamboa), after having relocated to Miami.
The truth is somewhat different. Vittoria appears pure invention, although DEA agent Bob Palumbo did spend more than a decade on the trail of Blanco. There was indeed a falling out between her and second husband, Alberto Bravo, ending in her killing him. However, this took place back in Colombia. She and her top killers, Humberto Quirana and Jorge ‘Rivi’ Ayala, went to meet Bravo in a parking lot; the resulting gun-battle left Bravo and six bodyguards dead, and Blanco wounded. Later in the seventies, she returned to Florida, rising to the top in a brutal reign of terror, culminating in an infamous double homicide at Dadeland Mall. Her network brought in as much as $80 million a month, but Palombo eventually got his woman in 1985.
So, jail on both sides. But this is where the stories really start to diverge. In reality, she served 13 years in New York for cocaine smuggling, then was shipped to Florida where worse trouble awaited. For hitman ‘Rivi’ had turned stool-pigeon, and with his testimony linking her to literally dozens of murders, the death penalty loomed large. However, his testimony was largely discredited after a bizarre scandal in which he was shown to have paid secretaries at the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office for phone sex. In the end, prosecutors had to settle for lesser charges; Blanco got 20 years, and was released after only seven, returning to Colombia at the end of her sentence in 2004. The day she left, ‘Rivi’ was stabbed eight times in Dade County jail.
The TV series compacts the nineteen years Blanco really spent behind bars, in two separate sentences, into one period in New York alone. These 18 episodes add additional, entirely spurious aspects such as Griselda being forced to engage in cage fights (!) with other inmates, or her being attacked by guards, and getting revenge by setting them on fire. There are a couple of aspects one might call ‘somewhat true’. There was a plan hatched to kidnap the son of John F. Kennedy and exchange him for Blanco, though it never came as close to success as depicted in the telenovela. And while it is true that a man struck up a relationship by writing to her while she was inside, Charles Cosby was not the undercover DEA agent, portrayed as “Tyler” in the TV version.
Certainly, there’s major dramatic license in Blanco’s departure from prison. Rather than just reaching the end of her sentence, there’s a dramatic escape from literally being in the electric chair [which is odd, since no-one has been executed in New York state since 1963, and no woman since Martha Jule Beck in 1951]. Using a drug which gives the impression of death, allows her gang to break her out by ambulance (Episode 44). From there she returns to Colombia, and only at this point, does Blanco cross paths with the most notorious drug-lord of them all, Pablo Escovar. However, it appears they knew each other far longer. Some sources say they were childhood friends, others that he was Griselda’s “great apprentice,” and there are even salacious whispers they were lovers.
So any connection to fact in the show has now evaporated entirely. By this point, the real Griselda Blanco was in her sixties, and suffering badly from the effects of her life of excess – according to reports, “Court records show Blanco was a drug addict who consumed vast quantities of ‘bazooka,’ a potent form of smokeable, unrefined cocaine… would force men and women to have sex at gunpoint, and had frequent bisexual orgies.” After her release, she apparently lived quietly in Medellin. But it wasn’t enough to save her from a violent end. In September 2012, she was killed outside a butcher’s shop – ironically, in a motorcycle drive-by, the style of assassination she had pioneered and which became one of her trademarks.
This is as good a place as any, to mention the remarkably straight-edge depiction of Blanco in the telenovela. Unlike the sex- and drug-fiend described above, teleGriselda never gets high on her own supply, and is strictly monogamous – when anyone can get past her trust issues, that is. That’s something which I also noticed about La Reina Del Sur – and the Mexican TV version was radically different from the American one, where the heroine was not averse to powdering her nose now and again. It’s an odd version of morality, considering how there’s apparently no problem with her being directly and indirectly responsible for the deaths of dozens of people. “Yeah, but they were all bad,” to borrow a line from True Lies.
In the television version, however, she returns to business back on home turf. But there’s a problem, in the shape of Otalvaro. He’s another Colombian drug-runner, who holds a grudge against Blanco because she ordered the execution of his niece in her New York days – albeit for business rather than personal reasons. He teams up with Susana, another character apparently created for the show. She’s a Florida real-estate agent, who becomes part of Griselda’s crew, and is also a lesbian who has a long-time secret affection for her. When her hopes are crushed, she turns bitter, joining forces with Otalvaro, and tangentially, Escobar. Otalvaro’s daughter, Karla, meanwhile, goes the other way, falling for Michael Blanco after Otalvaro kidnaps him; she helps him escape and becomes part of Griselda’s crew.
In truth, these later episodes are less interesting, largely because the focus is so diluted – it gets away from Griselda, rather than focusing on her, as it should since she’s the most interesting character. I haven’t even mentioned Silvio, who betrays Griselda and tries to steal a submarine (!) packed with cocaine. He then gets miffed after she orders the death of his girlfriend, and begins his own, independent plot to take revenge on the family. Also still rattling around Medellin in the later stages is Jones, the series’s version of Bob Palumbo. He isn’t just chasing after her, he also ends up falling in love and prepared to do anything for her. Throw in his son and a renegade colleague, Garcia, prepared to go to any lengths to capture Griselda, and you’ll understand why it feels the writers are going for volume over quality in their storyline elements by the end.
But it’s at the end the story diverts furthest from reality. Instead of having Griselda gunned down in the street by an unknown adversary, she and her longest lasting and most faithful ally, Richi (Román), are trapped in a cold-storage room. Rather than surrender, or be captured by their enemies, legal or otherwise, they agree to a mutual suicide pact. The screen goes black, we hear the sound of gunfire, and the series ends. But mere mortality is no match for the demands of audience ratings. And so, two years later, the show began its second season, with a further 63 episodes detailing the further adventures of Griselda Blanco. The fictional version of the character appears to be even harder to kill than her real-life inspiration.
We’ll get round to watching that series in a bit, but after this 81-part marathon, I’m inclined to take a bit of a break! It wasn’t a bad show, and never became a chore: Serradilla is solid in the central role, and I also enjoyed Gamboa’s performance. But as noted, it did appear to lose focus as it went on, and did appear to be over-stretching its material. However, it will provide a useful template, against which other adaptations can be measured. For there are at least two competing Hollywood projects in various stages of production: one starring Catherine Zeta-Jones and the other, Jennifer Lopez. As and when those arrive on our screen, we can see how they compare to the extended version, offered by this telenovela.
Star: Ana Serradilla, Juan Pablo Gamboa, Julián Román, Ramiro Meneses
If like us, you’re lucky enough to get Robert Rodriguez’s El Rey Network, consider yourself fortunate, since its mix of action, horror, SF and the other genres we love is right up our alley. Perhaps the jewel in the crown is Lucha Underground, a pro wrestling show that crams more into one hour (less commercials) than WWE manage in a bloated three hours of RAW. For the purposes of this site, it’s particularly notable for its roster of women wrestlers that (again, unlike WWE) are treated little or no different from the men; Mexican luchadora Sexy Star recently had a brief reign as the federation’s top champion, something no woman has ever managed under Vince McMahon. But the last show in November blew them all away.
Some storyline background is necessary. Last year, one of LU‘s top villains, Pentagon Dark, attacked and, using his signature move, broke the arm of Black Lotus, in her role as bodyguard to the federation’s owner, Dario Cueto. Since then, Lotus has been looking for revenge, and found her opportunity a month or so back during the show’s Aztec Warfare episode. Her intervention, along with three other women wrestlers known as the Black Lotus Triad, potentially cost Pentagon Dark his shot at the title. Now it was Pentagon’s turn to seek revenge on Lotus, and Cueto set up a a gauntlet match in which he would get his change to fight her – but only if he could first defeat, one by one, the three other members of the Triad.
All three, using the names of Doku (which translates roughly as “poison”, Yurei (“ghost”) and Hitokiri (“assassin”) are played by top fighters from Japanese women’s wrestling: Kairi Hojo, Mayu Iwatani and Io Shirai, respectively. I’ve largely been out of touch with puroresu of late; used to be a huge fan, but I hadn’t even heard of the Stardom promotion from which this trio come. That’s going to change going forward, for all three made a strong impression – even if Doku and Yurei lost the first two matches to Pentagon. They both had their arms broken in much the same way as Lotus, albeit only after having their own moments. [Doku, in particular, took such a pounding, I wondered if she had a side-job as a stuntwoman]
But what it did was set the table nicely. For one of the problems of inter-gender matches like this, is the inevitable difference in size and strength between the opponents. By Pentagon having had to go through two tough matches to reach Hitokiri, taking no small amount of damage on the way, it helped level the playing-field. The other main issue is a frequent sense that it’s “wrong” to hit a woman: while true on an everyday level, of course, this is pro wrestling, and such rules shouldn’t apply. They didn’t here, and there was never any sense of Pentagon holding back. He didn’t need to, since Shirai’s reputation is as one of, if not, the best woman wrestler in the world, and she absolutely lived up to that. Anyone who thinks wrestling is “fake”, should watch the bout below. Staged, yes, in the sense the outcome is predetermined, and the action is done in such a way as to look devastating, while not being lethal.
Yet, there’s much here that can only be described as jaw-dropping, even for someone like me, who has been watching wrestling for close to 20 years. For instance, there’s Pentagon basically skipping Hitokiri through rows of chairs like a pebble across a lake. Or the drop-kick as she tries a handspring off the ropes. Hitokiri gave as good as she received too, right from the get-go with a hellacious moonsault off the top rope onto the outside, and her dive off the second floor of the building onto Pentagon. Again, moves like that helped balance the scales, with quickness, agility and a reckless disregard for personal safety countering a larger and stronger opponent. The net result was the finest man vs. woman wrestling bout I’ve ever seen, and arguably one of the greatest such fights across any genre.
[Spoilers follow] After the bout, with her top minion having taken care of Pentagon, Black Lotus came out and took her vengeance, breaking his arm, as he had done to her last year. Worse was to follow, as Azteca Jr – another previous victim of Pentagon’s limb-snapping – seized his chance, coming to the ring and breaking the other arm too. We’ll have to wait and see what happens; I’d love to see the Triad stay on long-term in LU, even if the commingling of Japanese and Chinese elements is a little “Yellow Peril”-esque. But I’ve also read Shirai has been signed by WWE, so her time here may be limited. Still, we’ll always have this match, which even less biased observers have said, “might be the greatest debut in Lucha Underground history.”
“She’s a woman in enemy territory. All women are in enemy territory for centuries, but in this case, this is particularly accentuated because the drug-dealing world is a very machista, hostile environment. Here, the survival of a woman in enemy territory is even more spectacular. That’s the original challenge of the novel — to ensure that in a machista, violent world, which is the territory of men — that in such a world where the women use the weapons of men, they use the intelligence and penetration of a woman. The challenge is for her to do more than what men do in those circumstances and for her to become the boss of men.”
— Arturo Pérez-Reverte
There have been two, significantly different televisual adaptations of Arturo Perez-Reverte’s novel, La Reina Del Sur (you can read our review of the source material here). The first, was a Mexican telenovela that ran for 63 episodes during 2011. However, this summer saw the premiere of an American television series based on the same novel, which played on the USA Network. This covered 13 episodes thus far, and finished its first run last month, with the network agreeing to a second season next year. Let’s take a look at both shows: their similarities, differences, strengths and weaknesses, starting with the Mexican version.
The impact of La Reina Del Sur probably can’t be exaggerated. Right from the first episode, screened in February 2011 on Telemundo, it was a smash hit. The premiere drew the network’s biggest ratings ever for a first episode, and perhaps surprisingly, the audience was almost equally split between men and women. The following week, viewers increased by almost 20%, and beat all English-language stations in the 18-34 demographic. The final episode, on May 30th, was the most-watched program in Telemundo’s 19-year history – and again, was watched by more men than any show on TV at the time. Though since surpassed, it was also the station’s most-expensive production, shot in five countries and budgeted at $10 million, So if you’re expecting cheesy drama, you’re going to be surprised – at least somewhat.
It tells the story of Teresa Mendoza, whose life is thrown upside down when her boyfriend, El Guero, is killed by the organized crime gang for which he has been flying planes. She trades his notebook to the head of the gang, Epifanio Vargas (Zurita), in exchange for her help escaping to Spain. There, she gets a job as a waitress in a brothel, and gradually works her way up to running the place’s books. She begins a relationship with a smuggler, and learns the ropes of the trade from him, only for tragedy to strike. While trying to out-run the authorities, their boat crashes into rocks, killing him and leading to her being sent to prison.
In jail, she links up with Colombian Patricia O’Farrell (Urgel), who knows the location of a huge cocaine stash, hidden by her late boyfriend from the Russian mafia. On their release, the pair work out a risky deal with Oleg Yasikov (Jiménez) to sell it back, giving them the cash to set up in the drug business, with Yasikov’s help. However, this attracts unwelcome attention from two fronts. The DEA start sniffing around, with the help of the local cops. Potentially more lethally, Epifanio is now on the political rise, and Teresa’s existence represents an unwelcome loose-end that must be tidied up. Not least because the DEA are interested in getting her back to Mexico to testify against him.
According to del Castillo, the entire series was shot in just seven months, which is an extremely quick pace: it works out at more than two episodes, or over an hour of new footage, every single week. At one point, the star required medical treatment for exhaustion. Arturo Pérez-Reverte, author of the source novel (whose work also inspired Roman Polanski’s The Ninth Gate), helped extend the material, a very necessary task given the 63 episodes the show lasted. Not having read the book myself, I can’t comment on what was added, but having read Werner’s scathing review, seems like the telenovela is superior to the novel, and has certainly made its heroine a more sympathetic character.
The two areas where it works best are Teresa Mendoza’s character arc, and the supporting cast. With the story unfolding over such a long period (by English-language TV standards), the former kinda creeps up on you. It’s only near the end, when the show includes a number of flashbacks to what Teresa used to be like, that you realize how drastically she has been changed by events. The plucky yet naive young woman to whom we were initially introduced has gone, replaced by a thoroughly hard-bitten woman, She learns the hard way that trust and affection are traits that can get you – or your loved ones – killed in her chosen profession. Frankly, the trail of dead bodies left behind Teresa in one way or another, is so high, her belief she may be cursed begins to seem credible.
I also liked the background characters. O’Farrell is a hard-drinking, coke-snorting, flagrantly bisexual party girl, yet still vulnerable and insecure at her core. She’s played by Urgel, who looks like a supermodel version of Brienne of Tarth, taller than most of the men on the show [Per Google, she’s officially 5’7″, but as this pic of her, del Castillo and male star Ivan Sanchez shows… someone’s not telling the truth] Another woman Teresa meets in jail, who becomes a key part of her team is Marcela, known as “La Conejo” (the rabbit). She looks like she wouldn’t say boo to a goose, but actually poisoned her husband and his mother. Alberto Jiménez, as Yasikov, seems to be channeling Lee Van Cleef. Finally, DEA agent Willy Rangel, shows up early, vanishes in the middle, then comes back to be pivotal at the end, drinking coffee from his Union Jack mug. Given this show is a marathon, not a sprint, having these to sustain interest is likely a necessity.
It is disappointingly low-key in terms of action: Teresa’s first boyfriend teaches her to shoot, as shown above. But after using it to escape early peril, she doesn’t fire another round until the final battle. To be honest, even the efforts at generating tension are only sporadically successful, and this is more drama-than thriller-inclined. There are some moments of plotting which don’t ring true either. Apparently, in Spain, police procedure means than when someone confesses to having hired a hitman, you then let them wander off upstairs on their own to, oh I dunno, tidy up or something. Such mis-steps are likely inevitable at some point though. All told, I found it acceptably entertaining, with a lot less time spent on torrid romance than I expected, and anchored by del Castillo’s sound performance.
Finally, in a bizarre element of life imitating art, Kate del Castillo subsequently became involved with notorious fugitive Mexican drug-lord El Chapo, after Tweeting about him in 2012. Turns out he was a fan of La Reina Del Sur, telling her, “That series that you made, I saw it and I loved it. I’ve seen it many times—you’re a great actress in it.” He authorized Kate to begin work on a film version of his life story, before his break-out from jail in July 2015. Subsequently, she traveled to Mexico, along with Sean Penn, to meet El Chapo, a trip which Penn later chronicled in a heavily-criticized article for Rolling Stone. The relationship brought del Castillo scrutiny by the Mexican government, including an investigation for involvement in money-laundering. As of July, this was still ongoing…
Star: Kate del Castillo, Cristina Urgel, Humberto Zurita, Alberto Jiménez
I’ll likely have less to say about the American version, because thus far, it has run barely 20% of the length of its predecessor, and tells far from a completed story. It is, however, radically different to this point in a number of ways. The most obvious is the shift in Teresa’s destination from Spain to the United States. This has caused some complaints among fans of the series and the novel, yet seems entirely understandable, given this is aimed squarely at the mainstream American market. While she’s still running from her boyfriend’s former employer, with a book containing a wealth of incriminating evidence, that information plays a more significant part here, becoming the McGuffin which drives the final third of the first season.
The other major difference is one of focus. Teresa (Braga) has, to this point, not risen very high at all up the ladder of the drug business. There’s some obvious foreshadowing that she will, in that her “spirit animal” is an impeccably-dressed version of herself. But that appears well off into the future. For now, the real “Queen of the South” so far is Camila Vargas (Falcon). She’s the separated wife of Epifanio Vargas (de Almeida), who runs the American side of the business. She seizes an opportunity presented by Epifanio’s political campaign, and is working on going into business entirely on her own, dealing directly with the Colombian cartels. Needless to say, this does not sit well with her former husband, and when she discovers he is also after Teresa – no more than a low-level runner in her Dallas, Texas organization – her interest is inevitably piqued.
So far, it has not been at all interested in romance, unlike LRdS, where Teresa’s various boyfriends and entanglements were a significant part of the show. This may develop down the road: for now, US Teresa has been too busy trying to survive. Likely as a consequence, she has also directly slain more people than Mexi-Teresa at the same point. The first came as the result of a drug deal/heist gone bad, and you could make a good case for self-defense. The killings in the final episode, however? Not so much. I sense she’s going to be considerably more “hands on” than LRdS, where Teresa delegated all the dirty work to her minions [I may be wrong, but I don’t recall her killing anyone personally until the shoot-out in the final episodes]
Where Queen really scores, however, is in its production values. Despite the solidity of the performances, Reina always felt like a soap-opera: largely enclosed in its sets and constrained by a budget that, while unprecendented by telenovela standards, was still low by comparison to American TV. That isn’t the case here: at its best, this even goes beyond television and has a cinematic feel, comparable with the likes of Traffic or Sicario. I particularly liked the use of music, which was certainly a lot more appropriate than the jaunty Norteño awfulness which permeated LRdS. [I should point out, my tolerance for country & western is equally low!] The electronic beats used here instead, felt a bit reminiscent of Miami Vice, or perhaps Giorgio Moroder’s work for Scarface, both of which are certainly relevant.
It’s a grittier version of the drug life too. In LRdS, you largely felt one or more degrees of separation from the harsh realities involved, with the drugs almost an abstract construct. There’s no such escape here, right from the opening episode when a drug mule has the packages she’s carrying burst in her stomach, with fatal results. But the biggest ace the show has so far is Vargas – a character not present at all in Reina, and neither in the book as far as I can tell. She’s part chess player, part grim reaper, with a voice which sounds like honey being slowly poured over sopapillas. She’s a fascinating, complex creation, beautifully portrayed by Falcon, and we’d have happily watched an entire series focused entirely on her.
Certainly, it’ll be interesting to see where the story develops from here. The first season ended with Epifanio ascending to the governorship of Sinaloa, and immediately exercising his new-found power, calling in the military against the cartel his ex-wife had just taken from him. Meanwhile, Teresa suffers a heart-breaking personal loss, yet rises above it to tell Camila, “I don’t work for you any more.” And, to nobody’s great surprise, there was a shock final twist, revealing something which wasn’t all that much of a shock, Reina having prepped me for it (albeit, a lot later there than in episode #13). None of which diminished my interest in the next season, slated for summer 2017. While fans of the telenovela may choose to differ, I think any neutral would likely agree that this is a more polished and effective rendition of the story.
Star: Alice Braga, Veronica Falcon, Peter Gadiot, Joaquim de Almeida
“If Xena was a history teacher.”
This short series, originally produced for the Discovery Channel in 2003, consists of five, 45-minute episodes, each one focusing on a different historical figure. Specifically (and in Netflix-listed order), they are Joan of Arc, Grace O’Malley, Boudica, Lozen and “Mulan” – quotes for the last used advisedly, but we’ll get to that in a moment. The episodes themselves seem a little disjointed, composed of three separate elements that don’t quite mesh. You get talking-head interviews with academics and historical experts; dramatic re-enactments of events from the women warriors’ lives; and Lucy Lawless stomping around the locations, occasionally doing semi-practical demos like sword-wielding. The last seems particularly pointless, and seems inserted purely to appeal to Xena fetishists – not least the sequence where Lawless is getting woad applied on her face, and is informed by the giggling painter, that “the binding agent in this particular agent is semen.” And a thousand fan-fics were born…
The other main issue is, particularly in the early episodes, there isn’t anything new here – Joan, Grace and Boudica are all women whom we’ve written about here in the past, and you are largely watching them go over well-worn territory here. For example, it’s hard to imagine anyone interested enough in the topic to watch the show, will also not already have heard of Joan of Arc. The only one I hadn’t heard of before was Lozen, an Apache warrior and contemporary of Geronimo; however, the approach for this story is deadly dull, batting so straight down the “noble savage” archetype, that I literally fell asleep. The final episode is entitled “Mulan”, and I wondered how they were going to squeeze 45 minutes out of this, given virtually everything known about her is a single poem. The answer, it turned out, was to spent 80% of the show talking about someone completely different from the late 18th century, whose sole connection to Mulan was being Chinese. This is a bit like titling your show “King Arthur” and then talking mostly about the Duke of Wellington. They’re both Brits, right?
That said, the actual topic, Wang Cong’er, a leader of the White Lotus Sect who rebelled against imperial rule, was a very good one. The story is one that certainly deserves to be better known – I’m quite surprised the movie industry there, which has mined many less interesting characters in the past, hasn’t developed anything based on her life, which had a nice, “heroic bloodshed” arc to it, right up to Wang flinging herself from a cliff, rather than let herself be captured. This is one where the various approaches mesh to excellent effect, despite the rather tenuous efforts to connect her to Mulan; not just building a living character, but putting her in a historical context that makes sense. It’s a shame the other four episodes only manage to achieve the same success on a sporadic basis.
Dir: Noel Dockstader and Patrick Fleming
Presented by: Lucy Lawless
“Scissors cuts… well, just about everything.”
As previously noted, one of the trademarks of the telenovela is the flashback, and the one we get here is a doozy. For, this begins with Rosario Tijeras (Yepez) being shot and rushed to hospital, prompting frantic phone-calls to her yuppie boyfriend, Emilio (Martinez). It then rewinds some five years, to show the events by which everyone got there, and takes roughly 45 episodes – three-quarters of the series! – to catch up and once more reach the point at which it began. Admittedly, this does reflects the structure of the source novel, and I don’t know if that’s why the final quarter feels like a marked improvement in terms of pacing and energy: the critically-injured Rosario is hunted in the hospital by those who want to finish the job, and has to be rescued by her brother Johnefe (Restrepo) and his crew – along with an unwilling doctor, to tend to Rosario in a workshop. From there, it’s an escalating series of death, betrayal, death, death, tragedy and death, with a body count that makes Hamlet look like Mary Poppins.
This is, however, getting well ahead of ourselves, and you have to trudge through your fair share of soap-opera drama and “love across the class divide” to reach these excellent 15 final episodes. It begins with Rosario still a schoolgirl, albeit a rebellious one: an incident where she gives a teacher an unrequested hair-cut gets her and pal Dayra expelled, but also gets her the “Tijeras” (scissors) nickname, and wins the heart of Antonio de Bedout (Sandoval), a student visiting her school as part of a college project. He is the son of a rich businessman! She is the daughter of a poor but honest beautician! They keep just missing each other, even though her mom does house-calls on his sisters! But, wait! There’s more! His best-friend, Emilio (Martinez), gets to Rosario first, and they begin a torrid romance! But he’s already in a relationship with Paula, a girl from his social level! Okay, enough already. Although I think I probably used up the entire month’s quota of exclamation points there, they did not die in vain – you presumably get the picture.
Fortunately, that’s not all that’s going on. After their expulsion, Dayra and Rosario work for the latter’s sleazy step-dad in the local market, selling cellphone minutes. Not cellphones. Cellphone minutes. They have a set of mobile phones chained to them, one for each carrier, and rent them out to whoever needs to call – I believe it’s the result of a market where calls between networks is extremely expensive, so if you want to speak to someone whose mobile uses a different carrier, it’s better to pay a small mark-up to a third-party. This demonstrates one of the confusing joys of watching foreign shows; the cultural differences, with things that seem strange to an outside, yet make perfect sense as part of the cultural norm, to locals.
I digress – but given a show telling a single story over 60 episodes, so does the series, so we’re even. Anyway, the girls’ job brings them into contact with their stepfather’s boss, Gonzalo González, whose even sleazier, and has a “thing” for young virgins. Hoping to make her way out of the slums, Dayra sashays into Gonzalo’s ranch, but when he discovers she is not quite as pure as advertised, his revenge is swift and brutal, and her lifeless body is found on a patch of wasteland. Meanwhile, Rosario is having issues of her own, culminating in her abduction and rape at the hands of a local gang led by Cachi. She takes revenge there first, castrating him, and then goes after Gonzalo – although the plan is for Johnefe to help her, she ends up entirely on her own resources, but doesn’t flinch, and he becomes her first victim. Gonzalo’s drug-running rival, Adonai, known as “The King of Heaven” is delighted by her actions, and the first phase of the show ends with her becoming part of his organization.
We then fast forward a few years. Emilio and Antonio encounter Rosario again, in a nightclub, and begin their dalliance anew, unaware that she was there on a job for the King, and is now a feared and notorious assassin for him. The love triangle is more of a love quadrilateral, thanks to barrio boy Ferney, and it’s this which provides the key to the Shakespearean events of the second half. Rosario discovers evidence that the king’s brother, Teo, is deceiving him, having swapped out two tons of cocaine for sugar, blown up the plane on which the cargo was being transported, then sold the real thing off to another buyer. Teo realizes Rosario must be silenced, and convinces Ferney that he has no chance with her, when put beside the rich yuppies, and that she’s going to betray her roots for a future as part of the upper classes to which the pair belong. And that’s how we eventually end up, 45 episodes later, back where we started, with Rosario being rushed to hospital.
The early going is certainly more soap-opera than anything else, it still makes for adequate entertainment, with the good characters appropriately likeable, and the bad ones suitable evil. That said… Damn, the guys in this show appear to be almost entirely driven by their genitalia. In particular, Emilio has absolutely no issue with bedding Rosario, even as he is going out with, then engaged to, and even married to Paula Restrepo, an aspiring model. She shows rather more tolerance for his roaming than I would, and I can’t really blame her for eventually taking steps to remove Rosario from her married life. But Emilio is hardly alone: there’s an entire subplot involving Antonio’s father, Luis Enrique, who has been having a long-time affair with his secretary, including a secret daughter, which may explain his wife’s heavy drinking. Not sure how much of this is in the book, and how much is additional padding: I suspect the latter, since when you’ve got 60 episodes to fill, you’re likely going to need more material than a single novel. Some aspects does appear directly derived, however – or, at least, were also in the film version, made five years previously.
One such is the funeral of one character: it appears such events, at least in the Medellin slums, are rather less… formal than we’re used to. By which, I mean the corpse is paraded about on a sun-lounger, to loud reggaton, then placed on the back of a motorcycle which pulls wheelies around the neighbourhood. Like I said: these kind of cultural differences, can only be accepted for what they are. Though it might have helped if Netflix had the same person subtitle all the episodes, as there are sometimes confusing inconsistencies. It took me a while to figure out that characters called “Querubin” and “Mago” were the same ones called “Cherub” and “the Magician” elsewhere, depending on whether the subtitler bothered to translate their names. Even more confusing, Netflix managed to list one episode entirely out of order. When watched in the order provided, this led to Luis Enrique’s affair-daughter suddenly being held to ransom, for no apparent reason, then being released, and only finally, getting kidnapped – at which point, it all made sense, rather than being some particularly obscurist structure involving nested flashbacks.
One aspect worthy of note is that the police aren’t shown here as being particularly corrupt or bad, in contrast to some I’ve seen where they are the “bad guys”. Detective Pamela Pulido, played by Jenny Vargas Sepulveda, is both honest and smart, and gets a fair amount of screen-time as she tries to disentangle the increasing mess with her partnet, Isaak – in particular, by turning up the heat on Emilio and Antonio. [During filming, there was an odd incident where Sepulveda was arrested and held for five hours, at the airport on the way to Medellin, after her luggage was inexplicably found to contain a number of live rounds of ammunition!] Rosario’s second step-father, Libardo, is also a member of the police force, though his morality turns out to be considerably more murky, even if some of his actions largely appear to be driven by concern for the welfare of his step-daughter.
I’d have liked to see more from the period over which the show entirely skips, showing Rosario’s rise to the top of the King’s accomplices, rather than the various subplots involving the business and property dealings of the de Bedout family. The show is called Rosario Tijeras after all, and should be about the heroine and her lethal exploits, not country-club memberships and tennis matches. Still, even during the lengthy periods where it focuses more on the drama than action, the cultural freshness and generally engaging nature of the people depicted, kept this ticking over. Rosario herself makes for a very good and strong heroine, who takes absolutely no shit from anyone, and when life gives her lemons, she makes lemonade – albeit, one imagines, only after repeatedly stabbing the lemons with a pair of scissors.
Star: Maria Fernanda Yepez, Andres Sandoval, Sebastián Martínez, Juan David Restrepo
“The pain and strain, stays mainly in the Jane…”
Originally created as a comic-book by Jimmy Palmiotti and Joe Quesada in the mid-nineties, it told the story of its heroine, Jane Vasko, who became effectively immortal after an incident left her with superhuman regenerative powers. She can still be hurt, certainly – even knocked down – but she heals at a phenomenal rate, rendering her nearly unstoppable. Over the years since, she has crossed paths with a number of other characters, including Hellboy and Vampirella, and the show became a TV movie on SyFy in December 2005, starring Emmanuelle Vaugier as Jane. The film was also used to gauge interest in a potential TV series, and one duly emerged in April 2007, albeit with Kristanna Loken now in the role, and effectively pretending the movie didn’t exist. For example, Jane went back from being a soldier to the law-enforcement agent of the comic, albeit a DEA agent rather than an undercover cop, and the cause of her abilities also became rather less opaque.
Unfortunately, it still wasn’t very good, especially in the early episodes. This is actually my second attempt to review the show: after eight episodes or so in the my original effort, I realized I had entirely abandoned watching them, and simply had them on in the background while I did something else. The return effort proved my attention span was made of sterner stuff, though I admit that I might not have watched every single frame of every single show. But I did make it through to the end, which teases a second series that never materialized, SyFy deciding it would not renew the show in August, with half a dozen episodes remaining to be screened.
Certainly, from a 2016 viewpoint, it seems overly familiar, treading territory we’ve seen, with variations, in X-Men, Heroes and Alphas, among others. The core concept here is the “neuro” – someone who has developed an inexplicable paranormal talent which might be anything from invisibility through mind control to fire manipulation. Jane encounters one such on a drug bust at a nightclub, and as a result, is recruited by Andre McBride (Stewart), who leads an undercover team dedicated to capturing and neutralizing neuros. The rest of the team are the usual bunch of shallow stereotypes e.g. computer wiz Riley Jensen (Roberts), ex-military muscle Connor King (Danby), etc. but Jane is “different” in that her first mission results in her neuro-esque ability being awakened, after she is defenestrated from a high-rise window. I say “neuro-esque,” since there’s an ongoing vague debate as to whether she should be chipped and shipped off to NICO, the internment camp set up for the “special”.
After that, however, the show rapidly became not much more than a series of “neuro of the week” episodes, effectively abandoning much real interest in its heroine and her abilities. To some extent, I can understand this: once you’ve established that she is, literally, bulletproof, what more can you do? There’s not much sense of threat. But outside of sporadic examples, the creators didn’t make sufficient use of Vasko’s abilities, which could certainly have come useful, as the most extreme example of “taking one for the team” Nor do they bother to give her much life outside the disused subway station which is her team’s super-secret lair. There’s a brief friendship with the girl next door, which comes to a sudden end with so little impact, it feels like the actress involved must have demanded a pay rise or something. Then there’s a boyfriend, and at least that relationship does end up having a point – like the rest of the show, however, it takes far too long to get there.
For after initially setting up an evil corporation as the Big Bad, the series seem to forget about them completely for the next 20 episodes, before suddenly blowing the dust of the company for the final episode. It seems likely that never-realized second season might have gone in that direction, though if that was always the intent, seems very odd to start off as they did. The budget was apparently jacked up for the final three episodes, allowing for the cast and crew to travel to Hungary and the NICO facility, where it turns out there have been various dubious medical experiments going on, involving reversing the chips implanted to disable the neuro abilities. There are some interesting moral questions raised in this arc, and it’s a shame the show chose to ignore them, until after it had been given the ace.
That isn’t to say the show was entirely worthless up to that point. There were a few episodes which actually made use of the concepts and developed them in interesting ways. The one I liked most was Playback, about a neuro who could reset time to the beginning of the day. He was being used to plot the assassination of a visiting foreign politician, gradually refining his plan to negate the countermeasures of Jane and her team, as if this were Groundhog Day. Jane’s ability to take damage came in handy here, and the script was well-thought out, both in problem and solution; while they couldn’t foil the neuros plan, they could make the rest of his day such a bad one, he was compelled to rewind one more time. More of this smart invention would have been welcome, but the show instead seemed to run out of ideas almost immediately. I mean, a handful of episodes in, and you’re already going down the “ghost hunters” route? Why not just have a musical episode and be done with it?
AS in most things she has done – hell, even BloodRayne – Loken is fine, and seems to embrace the action aspects with enthusiasm. I’d say that gives her the edge over her predecessor, Vaugier, and the series likely solidifies her position on the B-rung of action actresses [“Can’t afford Milla Jovovich? Give me a call!”] It’s the writing that is the key weakness here, often giving the impression that they were making things up as they went along, never a good thing. Still, it may not be the end for Jane. In July 2014, it was announced that Palmiotti was producing an independent feature film version, with the Soska Sisters signing on to direct. While I’m not sure about them as a choice [I saw their horror film American Mary, and found it very much over-rated], and I haven’t heard anything much regarding the project since, it’s interesting that adapting Painkiller Jane appears to be every bit as difficult to kill off as the character herself!
Star: Kristanna Loken, Rob Stewart, Noah Danby, Sean Owen Roberts
“The Jones’ town massacre.”
A low-key take on the whole Marvel Universe, this takes place alongside the likes of The Avengers, yet almost separate from them. This means there are a couple of references to more high-profile superheroes (the battle for New York depicted in Avengers is called ‘The Incident’), plus nods to, and characters from, Netflix’s other Marvel show, Daredevil. Otherwise, this is its own creature, and likely the better for it. The heroine is Jessica Jones (Ritter, possessing an Eliza Dushku vibe), a private eye who has been gifted – or cursed – with remarkable strength. While this does occasionally come in handy, as we see in the first episode when serving a subpoena to an unwilling recipient, she’s well aware of the downside that her talent might bring; in the comics, but barely discussed in the show, she had a brief stint as a superhero, which ended badly. Now, she largely keeps it to herself, rather than running around the city fighting crime ‘n’ stuff.
Our story starts with her taking on what looks like a mundane missing person job, the parents of the girl in question having been recommended to her PI services. The disappearance turns out to have been engineered by “Kilgrave” (Tennant), the pseudonym adopted by a man with the talent of mind-control. Jessica crossed paths with Kilgrave before, having been one of those under his mental thumb. The experience left Jones with post-traumatic stress, but she believed she had seen the last of him – only to discover that not only is he still alive, he is perhaps even more obsessed with Jessica than he was. Fortunately, she isn’t alone, with help from her foster sister, Trish Walker (Taylor), now a popular radio host, and Luke Cage (Colter), a barman who, like Jones, has an abnormal ability he prefers remain private. However, how can you defeat someone who can take anyone, even your closest friends, and turn them against you as spies or assassins?
If you are used to Marvel movies, this is very much understated in comparison to something like The Avengers or Guardians of the Galaxy, big, bombastic epics with a lot of things blowing up. It’s often easy to forget they share the same universe – but then, remember that “comics” aren’t a genre, they’re a medium. While the term “comic-book movie” has come to mean a certain type of film, the truth is the range actually includes titles as diverse as The History of Violence, The Road to Perdition and When the Wind Blows. It’s possible to imagine a version of Jessica Jones, with its heroine entirely free of all special abilities – you’d more or less have a modern noir, right down to the jazzy intro music and voice-over narration. Kilgrave would be harder, admittedly, since his powers are largely what he has allowed to define him, but perhaps he could become a creepy, stalkery ex-boyfriend.
Jones is certainly flawed, though how many of these flaws are the result of her first encounter with Kilgrave is uncertain, given the limited glimpses we get of her life before that. She now drinks heavily, can’t maintain a relationship with anyone, and is crabby and sarcastic. All told, not a very likeable individual, and this is reflected in the near-lone existence she has. As the audience spends time with her though, they grow to appreciate her better qualities, such as a ferocious loyalty which, once earned, is never lost. She’s relentless too: once she sinks her teeth into a case, you probably would have to cut off Jones’s head to get her to back off, though the pursuit of Kilgrave certainly has a significant personal element to it too. As well as strength, it appears Jessica has the ability to take damage and keep going; not just physical either, but also psychological and spiritual, because she goes through the ringer over the course of these 13 episodes.
However, she may still be overshadowed by Kilgrave, even during the early episodes where he is rarely seen. Unlike most traditional “comic-book” villains, Kilgrave has a philosophy that informs his actions, and even possesses a twisted morality of sorts. He wants, and indeed, is desperate for, Jessica to like him, without being compelled to do so through mind-control. Tennant is quite brilliant in the role: you’ll be astonished if you’ve only seen him in Doctor Who, less so if you’re aware of his excellent work elsewhere, such as in Broadchurch, or even as Hamlet. Kilgrave is a total dick, likely a clinical psychopath, with a short fuse. This may be close to the worst combination possible for someone given the ability to manipulate others like a puppet. However, Tennant manages to retain a good degree of humanity in his depiction of the character. Like many psychopaths, Kilgrave can be charming on occasion, and the differences between him and Jessica are not as obvious as you might think: they are both children of trauma.
Less effective, for me, were the supporting cast, and this aspect left the show short of “Seal of Approval” status [though I know many disagree]. The apparently obligatory, dysfunctional romance between Jones and Cage feels both too sudden and forced: I guess he needed to be established for his own, upcoming TV series, though I’ll probably not bother with it, any more than I did with Daredevil. Meanwhile, Carrie Ann Moss’s aggressive lawyer, oddly gender-swapped from the comic, never served any significant purpose over the course of this first season. More effective is the complex relationship between Jessica and Trish; one born of personal tragedies, on both sides, which still continue to resonate, years later. Still, I couldn’t help feeling that a 13-episode series was over-stretching the material; a few of the shows appeared a good deal more filler than killer, and I suspect a 10-episode order might have been better overall.
The other main weakness, to me, was some contrived plotting, such as the way in which an inexplicable immunity to Kilgrave’s powers becomes an essential part of the final arc. I can’t say if the comics dealt with it similarly, but for a series so grounded in gritty realism, suddenly to pull out something which felt more like a big lump of handwavey Kryptonite, was disappointing. Similarly, the final confrontation between Kilgrave and Jones also had the former behave in a rather dumb way, closer to that of a sixties Bond villain, than the smart and savvy psycho he’d been portrayed as over the previous 12 episodes. I guess you can take the television show out of the comic-book, but you can’t entirely take the comic-book out of the television show. Or something…
Those flaws noted, this is still likely the best action-heroine entry to come out of either Marvel or DC so far. The show has been renewed for a second season, although the time-frame for this is uncertain, and it may end up being queued behind other planned Marvel/Netflix series – not least The Defenders, their “low-rent” version of The Avengers which will team up Daredevil with Jones, Cage and Iron Fist. Additionally, the makers will need to figure out who or what will replace Kilgrave as the show’s “big bad”, a tough act to follow. If the future of Jessica’s day job seems highly uncertain at the end of this run, there are also hints that she is no longer going to be quite the lone wolf operator that she was here, possibly building eventually toward that Defenders team-up. If not as jaw-droppingly good as some claim (“The best show on TV”?), its hard-boiled approach has to be commended, and is refreshingly unlike anything else available, from any source.
Creator: Melissa Rosenberg
Star: Krysten Ritter, Mike Colter, David Tennant, Rachael Taylor
The recent arrival of a large batch of telenovelas on Netflix has opened the window on a new field of potential action heroines. For these Latin American TV series – often (and, admittedly, not entirely incorrectly) derided as soap operas – appear to be featuring an increasing number of strong heroines. Before we get to the reasons for that, let’s have an overview of the field in general. They began in the 1950’s, springing up almost simultaneously out of Brazil, Cuba and Mexico, but there is now hardly a Spanish-speaking country that doesn’t produce them – indeed, the style has also been adopted by non-Hispanic countries, such as Korea. That format differs from soap-opera in that it is less open-ended: rather than an indeterminate run, it is a single story, told in concentrated form, typically daily, or at least multiple episodes per week.
While associated with romantic entanglements, class divides, family drama. terminal illness, pregnancies and extreme over-acting, that is not quite accurate. Yes, there are plenty which feature that kind of thing – the four R’s of the genre being romance, rivalry, revenge and redemption – and even the top-end are still budget productions by the standards of English language television, costing at most $170,000 per 45-minute episode, a fraction of the $1 million per episode spent in Hollywood on even the cheapest of scripted dramas. But an increasing number have become more interesting and gritty, exploring darker themes. There’s even a telenovela version, also available on Netflix, of Breaking Bad, called Metástasis, which is basically identical to the original, right down to a hero called “Walter Blanco”.
In particular, the landscape changed with the unprecedented success of La Reina del Sur in 2011. During its American screenings, even though it was on a purely Spanish-language station, Telemundo, it was often the most-watched program in the coveted age 18-49 demographic, beating the English-language channels. Its finale scored the highest-ever ratings in Telemundo’s history, and was seen by about the same number of people as watched the last episode of, say, Parks and Recreation. [An English language remake, Queen of the South, starring Sonia Braga, will appear on the USA Network later this year] It was the station’s most expensive production, but it’s the story – a woman who rose from nothing to become the biggest drug boss in southern Spain – which matters here.
For the new ground it broke, in its depiction of a heroine who could be as tough and ruthless as any man, clearly resonated with the audience. Inevitably, the show spawned a slew of others seeking to imitate its success, with similarly single-minded and ambitious heroines, prepared to gun down anyone who wrongs them, or gets in their way. And it’s this new generation of telenovelas, that we find showing up on Netflix in bulk. But where to start? That’s what this article is for: I’ve watched the series of potential interest to gauge whether they deliver on the potential offered by their covers. Though I give you a caveat. These shows typically run anywhere up to 80 episodes, and watching that would be about three months of the viewing time I devote to this site. So, I’ve based what follows, mostly on the first 10 episodes of each. Full reviews will follow eventually.
Before I break them down. there are some common elements in these shows, worth addressing to avoid having to repeat myself!
- The glamorization of criminality. The heroines here are generally not cops, private eyes or other characters on the side of law and order. They are almost all criminals; some begin as criminals (or their other halves), some become criminals, and others have criminality forced upon them. But the escape from whatever perils befall them inevitably involves illegal activities of one kind or another.
- Flashbacks R Us. In most of these, we join proceedings at a particularly dramatic moment, and then skip back to see what brought us to that point. This isn’t unheard of in American TV of course – the “24 hours previously” trope – but in telenovelas, this can last for multiple episodes. Indeed, in at least one case, I get the feeling the entire series may be a flashback.
- Sexual assault as a plot-device. Unfortunate, this one, and also symptomatic of lazy writing, in that the creators can’t seem to think of many other ways to trigger the heroines into action. Want her to move out? Sleazy stepfather tries it on. Need her to get her hands bloody? Rape and revenge! Then again, it kinda makes sense, since they seem to take place in a universe where all men appear to be scumbags with exactly one thing on their minds…
- Recommended for viewing at about 75% attention. If I actually sit down and watch these, their flaws (such as fairly obviously being shot on video) tend to become a bit too glaring. I’ve found that they’re more palatable watched while doing something else, lightly-engaging – in my case, the daily stint on the treadmill.
Camelia la Texana
If perhaps the least “action heroine-y” of the shows taste-tested here, there’s a fair case to be argued for the storyline being the most interesting, overall. The show was inspired by Contrabando y Traición (Smuggling and Betrayal), one of the first “narcocorrido” songs from legendary norteño band, Los Tigres Del Norte. It tells of Emilio and Camelia who smuggle drugs into America, only for him to dump her. Camelia does not respond well: she shoots him seven times and vanishes with the money. It led to a movie of the same name, and has since become embedded in popular Hispanic culture, even becoming an opera in 2013, with Camelia becoming a mythical figure, whether or not she ever was based on a real person.
A three-minute song doesn’t have enough meat for a 60-episode series, so of necessity the show expands the scope significantly. With occasional flashbacks to events during the forties, it mostly takes place in the early seventies, when Camelia (Sara Maldonado) is training to be a dentist in Texas, working part-time at a diner, and waiting for her boyfriend to return from the Vietnam War. In short order, pretty much all of that falls apart, and she is instead thrown together with a well-groomed gangster called Emilio Varela (Erik Hayser), who has been tasked with bringing Camelia back to Mexico, where a drug lord has an inexplicable – well, it’s pretty explicable, actually – interest in her.
If Camelia has not, in the early going, done much to justify the viewer’s interest [thus far, she has mostly been making gooey eyes at her beau], the rest of the show is quite intriguing. There’s a power struggle south of the border between rival gangs, and it’s the women there who hold much of the power, albeit from the shadows. There’s even an occult subplot, involving a blind young girl who can foresee the future – as well as a transvestite shaman who cannot, despite her claims! Add in a good deal of political chess, and there has been enough to sustain interest, while we twiddle our thumbs, waiting – if the series is true to the song – for Camelia to pop the requisite seven bullets into Emilio and, one hopes, head into business on her own terms.
La Esquina Del Diablo
I was initially pretty excited by this one because unlike the other shows, its central character is a policewoman, not a perp. Ana García (Ana Serradilla, fresh off the success of La Viuda Negra – more on which below) blows her chance at joining the special forces due to her temper. But she is then recruited for a clandestine mission into the lawless barrio of the title (which translates as “The Devil’s Corner”). The crime-lord who rules it, Ángel Velasco, has supposedly just been killed in a helicopter accident, but there are suspicions this was staged. In the guise of a social worker, Ana infiltrates the area, in her mission to find out what’s really going on.
By the end of the first episode, García has proven her bad-ass credentials, gunning down four robbers and arresting two more after stumbling into a crime in progress. Unfortunately for my adrenalin levels, this was an exception rather than the rule over the first 10 episodes, as the undercover nature of her work relies more on stealth than the banging of heads together. Indeed, the focus as a whole becomes a good deal more diluted, with the script juggling a large number of balls. These included, but are not limited to: Ana’s boss, who is dating the mayor’s daughter; Velasco’s quest for a large quantity of explosives; his second in command’s delinquent son, befriended by Ana in her social worker guise; a rival criminal gang, operating in the heart of the city rather than the barrio.
It’s a lot of threads to try and keep in the air, and I’m not sure it has been entirely successful thus far. It seems pretty clear where this is going to end up, with Ana and her boss having already shared their first, fleeting kiss. However, the second in command mentioned above, Yago, has the kind of smouldering good looks you know they’re not going to waste on celibacy. So I strongly suspect we’re going to see, down the road, Ana having to make some kind of dramatic choice between the two men in her life, on opposing sides of the law. I may be beginning to get the hang of this whole telenovela thing…
There are some positives. The location work is good, and much like Rosario Tijeras, you get a clear sense of the class divide in Colombia between the haves and the have-nots. I’m also intrigued by Michelle (Estefania Piñeres), one of Velasco’s enforcers. I have to wonder whether she was named after Michelle Rodriguez, for she sports a similar sneer, chip on the shoulder and corn-row hair-style. Hopefully, her character won’t be disposed off too quickly; if they can also give Ana more of an active role, rather than her character just being a passive information gathering conduit back to her boss, there’s still potential. While Serradilla’s charisma is still undeniable, it needs to be more focused than it has been thus far.
Based on a novel by Arturo Perez-Reverte, as noted above, this was the entry which truly kicked off the recent surge in the market. It’s the story of Teresa Mendoza (Kate del Castillo), whose boyfriend is “killed” by his drug-dealing cronies, which forces her on the run. She heads over to Spain, and begins work as a waitress at a brothel in the North African enclave of Melilla, after refusing a more “horizontal” position there, and begins to work her way up the crime ladder. However, her ambition brings her to the jealous attention of a workmate, who frames her for dealing drugs – to avoid deportation, she has to sleep with the brothel’s owner, although this also brings her into contact with the real power behind the local throne, Colonel Abdelkader Chaïb.
I like Teresa’s unwillingness to compromise her ideas: even though she’s on the run, she clearly has a goal, is intent on achieving it, and woe betide anyone who stands in her way. She’s also fiercely loyal to those who help her – and even has a sympathetic streak for her enemies (as we see when the woman who framed her falls afoul of her abusive boyfriend). It’s nice she also finds someone possessing similar moral scruples – smuggler Santiago Fisterra (Iván Sanchez), reluctant to transport cocaine or people, even though that’s where the big money is. Although nothing much has happened between then in the first 10 episodes, I’m predicting a relationship in their future. To be frank, I’m also predicting a return for her original boyfriend, because the way they filmed his death appeared deliberately vague i.e. no actual body was ever seen, to the point of obviousness.
Teresa has been relatively restrained in her actions so far, except for shooting one of her boyfriend’s former colleagues who tried (sigh… inevitably) to rape her. However, she has managed to disarm the jealous counterpart who came at her with a knife, and one senses more to come. I also like that much of this has taken place outside the standard settings of Mexico and Columbia, with the heroine now the one who is maligned for her otherness, and “talking funny”, even if Teresa plays up to the stereotypes as much as runs counter to them. When a friend needs help getting her son from Morocco into the enclave, Teresa basically points out that “us Mexicans are good at crossing borders”! Donald Trump would likely not disagree, but I suspect it’s likely for the best if we keep politics off the site.
The first one I tried, in part because the title was familiar from a film adaptation of the same novel, which I’d already seen. This one is a little older, dating back to 2010, and like the movie, is also from Colombia. The heroine, Rosario (María Fernanda Yépes), gets her nickname – Tijeras means “scissors” – after an incident at her Medellin school where she cuts off the hair of a teacher who is scolding her. That gets her expelled, but she also catches the attention of a visiting college student, Emilio, who spends many subsequent episodes trying unsuccessfully to track her down. Meanwhile, she also comes to the attention of an underworld boss with a thing for virgins, and he eventually provides Rosario with her first kill – a murder that is gratefully received by his rivals, and allows her to become a full-time assassin.
I’ve actually gone deeper into this one – 30 episodes to date, though that’s still well short of even half way – and it certainly does take its time to get going, with Emilio’s inability to locate her, in particular outstaying its welcome. Despite a tagline which proclaims “It’s harder to love than to kill.” there is clearly a great deal more of the former than the latter, and even though the men are generally more engaging and well-drawn than in some of the other series, that doesn’t stop them from behaving like stags during the breeding season. There’s also a big helping of class divide here, with the show depicting both the working-class lifestyle of Rosario and her family, which is in sharp contrast to the upper-class one enjoyed by Emilio and his chums.
If somewhat short on action thus far, it has still been entertaining viewing, not least by providing a door into a world that’s far removed from anything familiar to me. The split focus helps maintain freshness, and there’s greater depth given to the supporting cast than usual. The show came in for a lot of flak at the time of its broadcast in Colombia for glamorizing the drug traffickers lifestyle, with the main local newspaper sniffily calling the series a “gulp of absurdity, vulgarity, bad manners and a big dose of narco-culture.” Needless to say, that didn’t exactly stop the show from becoming a big ratings hit.
Well, this one doesn’t hang around. Inside the first episode, we’ve seen a wedding turn into a blood-bath, as heroine Sara Aguilar (Blanca Soto) sees her marriage to a Tijuana police commander lead to her own kidnapping and near-rape, her father’s death, and not one but two assassination attempts on her husband – he survives the first, but not the second. Turns out he was actually in bed with the cartel, unknown to Sara, and during a drinking session, unwisely boasted about stealing $3 million from them. [Memo to self: not a good idea] They presume she knows where the money is, and she has to bail with her son for Guadalajara, while fending off others trying to figure out the stash’s location – not just the cartel, also the mayor of Tijuana, and even her own family members, who blame her for the misfortune which has befallen them.
However, despite some cool imagery – Sara riding through the forest on horseback in a tattered wedding-dress – this is likely the most “traditional” of the shows, and is probably the worse for it. There’s an excess of angst-filled family feudin’, and way too much in the way of medical misfortune as a plot device: inside the first 10 episodes covered here, we’ve already had multiple sclerosis, Type 1 diabetes, and a surprise pregnancy – that’s all discounting the plastic surgery disasters overseen by Enriqueta Sabido (Rebecca Jones), who uses cooking oil when there’s no silicone to be found. Unsurprisingly, this leads to a steady stream of dead bodies out the back door of her beauty salon. Frankly, she’s probably a bit more interesting and lively character than Sara, who has spent much of the time so far pouting ferociously and being concerned about her son’s health.
Maybe it’ll pick up down the road. For this was such a success it became one of the few telenovelas to be renewed, getting not just a second season, but a third due out at the end of this year. While not available yet on Netflix, the second series looks like it might be a bit of an improvement going by this promo pic. Absolutely nothing along those lines has yet to show up in the show thus far!
La Viuda Negra
This is, at least nominally, based on a true story, having been inspired by Griselda Blanco, a.k.a. “The Godmother,” who was one of the major players in the boom days of cocaine trafficking into Miami, in the seventies and eighties. Naturally, the actress who plays her here, Ana Serradilla, is considerably less homely than the real person – though since Catherine Zeta-Jones is playing Blanco in an upcoming Hollywood film, we can’t really mock the telenovela for prettifying the character.
In some ways, it certainly pays fast and loose with the truth. It begins with Blanco facing the death penalty in New York, and flashes back as she literally takes her seat in the electric chair. Never happened – indeed, no-one at all in New York state has been executed since 1963. But in other ways, it appears fairly accurate: her first serious criminal activity, kidnapping the son of a rich family for ransom, a crime which ended in her shooting the victim dead, did actually occur. Although she was actually younger in real life: eleven years old, which is likely more disturbing than anything scripted drama can offer.
The best thing about this is its relentless forward progress: going by the frantic early pace, there’s a lot to cover. In the first 10 episodes alone, Blanco goes to Medellin, joins a street gang, escalates to that kidnapping, and is then forced on the run by the victim’s rich parent who is obsessed with revenge. That leads to a lengthy hunt, as well as Blanco shooting her first husband for betraying her. She then heads to Ecuador, teams up with a local drug boss there, and returns to Medellin for revenge of her own, before setting up shop, and beginning her plan to import copious quantities of cocaine to the United States, hidden in high-heeled shoes. While I don’t know whether it can keep this going, so far, this has been among the most enjoyable of the series, and is probably the one I’m most interested in continuing.
This Canadian TV series ran for 13 episodes, but was not renewed at the end of the first series, leaving the double shock which occurred at the end of the final episode, with no hope of resolution. That’s a shame, since there was a lot to like about its grubby portrayal of 1869 life, just north of the border between Canada and Montana. It begins when a wagon train of settlers, passing near the mining settlement of Janestown, is attacked and almost all the men are killed or driven away, leaving the women to fend for themselves. In particular, there is Kat Loving (Gee), a half-Indian sharpshooter who seeks the truth about her husband’s fate, and Rebecca Blithely (Farman), a female medical researcher, something almost unheard of at the time. But they are up against John Slotter (Poole), who runs Janestown as his own personal fiefdom, and whose wife Isabelle (Jones) is a match for the new arrivals in terms of her wits, and likely surpasses them when it comes to crafting of intrigues.
It’s the characters – the three women, and let’s not forget John, who eventually becomes the glue that binds them together in common cause – which drive this. Kat is certainly the most conventionally “heroic,” becoming the town’s sheriff, a position which brings her into direct conflict with Slotter; yet, she also has a murky past, being a wanted woman for the murder of a surveyor. Rebecca is the most difficult to get a handle on; while possessing a brilliant mind, she has a near-total lack of “people skills”, to the point of near-sociopathy. Finally, Isabelle possesses no scruples and is prepared to do absolutely whatever may be necessary to achieve her goals and escape her low-born upbringing – including seducing her husband’s father, when access to his money becomes necessary. They make a fascinating trio, well-drawn and well-portrayed by the actresses concerned.
The past year has seen a number of new takes on the Western genre, from Bone Tomahawk and The Hateful Eight to The Revenant. Empire does, perhaps, try somewhat too hard to be subversively revisionist, not least in the gratuitously transgender “cowboy”, who seems to have been added to the story for no reason than to appeal to trendy modern sensibilities. It’s much better when not attempting to pander to those, sticking with the Slotters’ efforts to keep their teetering mine business afloat, along with its probably more profitable brothel sideline, by any means necessary. This is balanced with Kat’s refusal to let John act like some kind of medieval baron, and insistence that he face the consequences of his murderous actions, which are becoming increasingly more frequent – if she can’t get justice for the massacre of the male settlers, perhaps there are other crimes that can be pinned on him.
While there are a number of side-threads (the strong role of Chinese businessman Ling is also very interesting), it’s this which drives the plot forward, and I was kept watching in the fervent hope of seeing Slotter get what he deserves. It’s to the show’s credit, with its unwillingness to collapse into a simple “black hat/white hat” mentality, that the outcome remained in doubt until almost the last few minutes of the final episode.
Created by: Laurie Finstad-Knizhnik
Star: Cara Gee, Melissa Farman, Tattiawna Jones, Aaron Poole