Don’t you sometimes wish you had fewer choices in your privileged Western life? Fewer takeaway options. Fewer herbal tea flavors. Fewer coffee choices. I visited London recently and many of the cafés there have just added the Spanish cortado to their range – because why have 40 options when you can have 41?
A Cornell study from 2007 found that people make an average of 226 food-related decisions every day, and I’d wager we make almost as many when it comes to our viewing choices. Sometimes that decision is informed by the day itself: I’ll always watch “Real Time With Bill Maher” the day after it airs in America, for example. Sometimes it’s in special circumstances – for instance, I’ll watch “Hannity” the day Hell freezes over. And sometimes we find ourselves in that most perilous position of all: between series.
If Hieronymus Bosch were alive today, I’d like to think he’d be painting images of people agonizing over what to watch on Netflix – as the streaming site is probably the scariest place to be when you’re in series limbo.
Apologies to Phil Spector, but Netflix presents the user with a “wall of vision” – row upon row and bank upon bank of viewing options that never seems to end, no matter how far you scroll down. And with so many choices, I’ve taken more wrong turns in it than Israeli soldiers using Waze.
Here’s a perfect example. I fully intended to write about Netflix’s new show “Wild Wild Country” this week. You may have heard of it – it’s a six-part documentary about, as one headline put it, “the crazy sex cult that invaded Oregon” in the 1980s. What’s not to love? It’s also got a 100 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with critics united in their praise of crazy sex cults (or documentaries about them, at least).
But, dear reader, I am here to eulogize about something completely different: a Netflix show without a single review on Rotten Tomatoes.
Maybe it was the influence of all those cortados I drank in London, but I was drawn not to Oregon sex cults (“Fool me once”) but to a Spanish thriller called “La Casa de Papel.” This translates as “The House of Paper” in Spanish, but you’ll find it on Netflix with the blander title “Money Heist” (I guess it could have been worse – “Money Shot,” for example).
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The “money heist” is, of course, a movie staple – think the “Ocean’s ” film franchise, including the upcoming female version, “Ocean’s 8”; and classics such as “Rififi” (with its near-silent 32-minute jewelry store heist), Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing”, Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” and Michael Mann’s “Heat.” (A personal favorite is Peter Yates’ “The Hot Rock,” with Robert Redford and George Segal.)
But it’s rarely the stuff of TV dramas – and certainly not a series with a running time of over 15 hours. The original Spanish show aired at 70 minutes per episode, while Netflix is showing it in 50 minute episodes with the season split into two “parts” – episodes 1 to 13 in part one; and 14 to 22 in part two. (Both are available to watch now on Netflix.)
“La Casa de Papel” immediately subverts the heist movie formula. While most films spend the first half getting the gang together, staking out the site, and planning and practicing the always-audacious heist, here we are catapulted into the heist straight after the opening credits.
What comes before is a mini-masterclass in setting up a story: A mysterious figure known only as “The Professor” (Álvaro Morte) stops a thief (Úrsula Corberó) from walking into a police trap. He then introduces her to seven other criminals at a derelict mansion, where he outlines his plan: The group will spend the next five months training to pull off the heist of the century – stealing 2.4 billion euros from the Royal Mint of Spain.
He explains there are three rules: No one can reveal their real name; there must be no personal questions; and personal relationships are not allowed. If this were set in Britain that’d be a given – but this is hot-blooded Spain, so naturally the third option will be extremely unlikely.
Armed with code names taken from cities – the female thief we first saw is now dubbed Tokyo; the other woman in the team is Nairobi; the Serbian twins providing the muscle are Helsinki and Oslo; the impetuous young computer wizard is Rio; Moscow and Denver are a father and son duo; while Berlin is the scheming head of the team on the actual heist.
This is seriously riveting stuff, with a scenario that keeps expanding as the episodes progress. If at the start you’re wondering how a single heist could possibly be sustained over 15 hours, you’re soon marveling at how many balls can be juggled in the air at any one time.
As well as the thieves, we also see the chief hostage negotiator, Raquel Murillo (Itziar Ituño) – who, naturally, is wrestling with her own marital problems while trying to resolve the crisis. Oh, and did I mention that two of the hostages have been conducting a passionate affair while working at the mint and she’s just found out she’s pregnant? Or that there’s a school outing to the mint on the morning of the heist?
If it all sounds a little melodramatic, well, that’s because it is. But it’s more twisty thriller than soapy telenovela, driven by its ingenious plot, engaging characters, tense flash points, pulsating score and occasional moments of humor. This is not an “Ocean’s Eleven” film where you only get to know a few of the characters; here, they all get a chance to shine. (My only complaint is the scenes where the directors think they’re shooting Corberó in a lingerie ad, detracting from a show that otherwise serves up fascinating female characters.)
There’s a line early on that seems particularly apt: The Professor says that when people eventually hear about the heist, their reaction will be “Bastards! I wish I’d come up with that idea.” There will be a lot of people in Hollywood thinking likewise when they see creator Álex Pina’s show, because an English-language version would have absolutely killed on cable TV.
If you make only one viewing choice among all your food decisions today, add “La Casa de Papal” to your Netflix list. It’ll steal your heart, guaranteed.