It recently came to my attention that there is a show called Money Heist on Netflix, it’s from Spain, there are four seasons, and it’s about—don’t even try to guess, you won’t come close—a group of people heisting money. It’s hugely popular across the world, to the extent that it became the most-watched non-English series in the history of Netflix in 2018, and it’s just now making its way to American latecomers like me.
(Quick side note: You can watch the show with Spanish subtitles, or you can try out a dubbed English version. Until I read this Timesstory, I had no idea dubbing was so popular worldwide, since it always seemed like a jokey relic to me, and even less idea that Netflix was trying to make it happen in America since viewers are less inclined to watch a subtitled show that requires total focus. I gave dubbing a go for about three minutes, and I’m here to report that it’s a heinous sacrilege and I don’t remotely recommend it. Finally, something Americans know best! But anyway, uh…it’s there if you want it.)
After watching the first season—which, fair warning, doesn’t resolve the main heist—I am here to report that the show is replete with crime cliches, and yet somehow I mean that as a compliment. There are plenty of ways to be cliche and just outright bad, and in fact that’s the most common result. Gangs of London, another recent crime show, succumbed to a violence fetish that diminished and eventually erased any joy you might experience from the story. Other shows fall into cliched patterns without realizing exactly why cliches exist in the first place, and hit certain required beats without packing any punch.
Money Heist finds the narrow sweet spot between gratuitous and antiseptic—a slightly more psychological Ocean’s Whatever, and a less batshit Any Tarantino that successfully maintains dramatic tension but never dips too deeply into the realm of “prestige” to spoil the fun.
At the center of the action are a group of criminals who have been recruited by a man simply known as “The Professor” to pull off an audacious robbery at the Spanish mint. A thief on the run who witnessed the love of her life gunned down in a caper gone bad narrates the action for us, which is a bit of a strange choice since the storytelling jumps between all perspectives. Her name, or at least her chosen name, is Tokyo (played with alternating ferocity and kindness by Úrsula Corberó). Her co-conspirators also choose major cities for their noms de guerre, from Helsinki to Nairobi to Denver, but from this vague background we learn bits and pieces throughout the season. If not “fully fleshed,” these characters at least become “kind of fleshed,” which is plenty to give weight to their actions within the main drama.
On the flip side, you’ve got Raquel Murillo (Itziar Ituño, in a stand-out role), a police inspector tasked with negotiating some kind of resolution with the hostages while paired with a team that has absolutely no clue what the robbers intend. She’s a victim of domestic violence—a plot point which I’m relieved to tell you is dealt with delicately—whose child lives with her ill mother, and lives a life of compounding career and personal stress. Eventually, The Professor conspires to make her acquaintance in “real life,” at which point things go truly bonkers, and nothing more can be said on that front without major spoilers.
The main attribute of this show is that it’s extremely enjoyable on a visceral level without requiring a ton of emotional engagement. That might seem like damning with faint praise, but it’s actually pretty difficult to pull off! We’ve been so littered with content throughout our lives and especially in the last decade that even the dimmest viewer is savvy enough to spot the predictable beats when they happen. To traverse this well-trodden ground while still being compelling and occasionally surprising is no mean feat, and Money Heist takes this act to expert heights. People mainly use the term “guilty pleasure” to mean trash TV, but there’s a level above that at which a certain class of entertainment exists that is definitely not trash, but that knows itself incredibly well and isn’t necessarily striving for artistic greatness. It’s “entertainment” without whatever negative connotations exist; just a solid, workmanlike drama that never over-extends, and saves its moments of flair for where it really matters.
So yes, Money Heist paints with broad strokes. But they’re good, sure strokes, and the final product is almost ridiculously watchable. The story is inventive, and while it does that thing where it runs a little too long to stay tethered to reality in all aspects (I do think 10 episodes for the first season would have been plenty), it never strays to the breaking point even during the twistiest twists. Ditto for the characters, who are either sadistic, anxious, defiant, or sweet in the broadest of ways, but who turn in such good performances that it doesn’t matter—you’re along for their ride.
I submit that there is a place of honor for shows like these, especially in the already godforsaken year 2021 when my brain, at least, has been fried to the point that I would rather suffer various forms of physical torture than sit through a single episode of a very good but very draining prestige drama like, say, Mad Men. Simplicity done well is satisfying in the best of times, and a treasure in whatever you call our current age. Money Heist will not rock your television world and you probably won’t remember it in five years, but for now it will pass the hours and make you forget whatever you want to forget in a protective mist of good, solid crime drama. At this point, I’ll take that over just about anything, and in lieu of real-life deliverance from our various plagues, entertainment of this caliber is a terrific substitute. It can’t carry you away forever, but it can carry you away.
Shane Ryan is a writer and editor. You can find more of his writing and podcasting at Apocalypse Sports, and follow him on Twitter here .
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