Success hasn’t come easily for some of Netflix’s biggest hits. On their torturous journeys to the small screen, “The Queen’s Gambit” and “Squid Game” famously suffered more rejections than Matt Gaetz looking for a prom date. “The Crown” got the cold shoulder from HBO, which couldn’t understand why Americans would care so much about British history.
And “Stranger Things” was rejected up to 20 times by TV networks, including one executive who stressed that it shouldn’t be about kids, before finally landing at the streaming giant. (One can only imagine that exec’s other notes, like “Lose the robots!” for “Westworld,” or “Zombies? Really?” for “The Walking Dead.”)
Then there’s “Money Heist” (“La Casa de Papel”), the super-slick, high-concept thriller that became the first of Netflix’s foreign-language hits (followed by the likes of Israeli shows “Fauda” and “Shtisel”), eventually running for five seasons. Amazingly, it struggled to find an audience in its native Spain when it premiered locally in 2017 and it was only global success on Netflix that saved it from the ax.
One of the curses of this writing gig is that new shows always take preference over established series. So, despite being a big fan of the first season of “Money Heist” – what was not to love about those Dali face masks, outrageous plot twists and flashbacks between a meticulously planned heist at the Royal Mint of Spain and the robbers’ backstories? – I just couldn’t find the time to keep watching. That’s why most of the things on my bucket list are TV shows I need to catch up on before I meet my maker.
The original Spanish series concluded last December, but a spin-off show, “Berlin” – about one of its most charismatic characters – is due on Netflix next year. And, of course, who could ever forget the, um, apparel and footwear collaboration between Netflix and Reebok to “honor” the series’ concepts and characters. Yes, that really happened earlier this year, though you may have overlooked it while buying your “Bridgerton” bonnets.
Now Netflix has remade one of its biggest hits, relocating the action from Spain to Korea in “Money Heist: Korea – Joint Economic Area,” a title that doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue.
The streamer has led the way in bringing foreign-language gems to the world, so it seems a little counterintuitive for it to now start remaking its own hits. What’s next? “Even Stranger Things” for the South American market? A Russian “House of Cards”? (Actually, I quite like the sound of that, even if the idea of a Machiavellian, murderous Russian leader seems like a step up from the current war-crazed president.) Or maybe Spain can return the compliment to South Korea and give us “Juegos de calarmes”?
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The thing is, South Korea loves a remake. As well as never seeing a Japanese show it didn’t want to kidnap, it has remade plenty of Western shows as well. These include “Suits,” “Designated Survivor,” “Luther,” “The Good Wife,” “Criminal Justice” (itself remade in America as “The Night Of”), “Criminal Minds” and “Entourage,” while a “Jane the Virgin” remake is in the works. Admit it, you’re curious to see quite how insufferable that “Entourage” remake is. (For true comedy gold, they should have set it in North Korea.)
In return, South Korea has given America “The Good Doctor” and the format for “The Masked Singer.” Wow, thanks Seoul, you’re too kind.
The way Netflix’s finances are going, it probably green-lighted “Money Heist: Korea” because some analyst told it Pyongyang was going to be the next big TV market (they misheard: there’s one big TV set at a market in Pyongyang). Whatever the reason it exists, fans of Álex Pina’s original are likely to experience strong feelings of – well, anyone know how to say “déjà vu” in Korean? – given the new show’s remarkable fidelity to the earlier plot.
Once more, a national mint is the subject of an audaciously staged robbery by “the Professor,” coordinating a group of eight thieves. This time, the money is to be printed at the Korean Mint following the unification of North and South Korea. The show is set a few years in the future, but there’s no reference to Kim Jong Un, which is a shame as I’d love to know what happens to him – my guess is he meets his end riding a nuclear bomb, Slim Pickens-style.
Honestly, if you’ve seen the Spanish “Money Heist,” this remake must be the most redundant cultural exercise since Gus Van Sant’s colorized “Psycho” in 1998 or Ryan Adams’ redo of “1989” in 2015. Indeed, I had to smile when I subsequently rewatched the first few episodes of the original and heard the professor describe the heist as being “one of a kind.”
Everything you may have liked about the original is transported wholesale to Korea’s 2025 Joint Economic Area (where the current Joint Security Area exists, in the DMZ between north and south), including the criminals using cities as aliases. These include Tokyo (Jeon Jong-seo, who’s a lot blander than Úrsula Corberó’s feisty narrator in the original) and Berlin (Park Hae-soo, who you’ll recognize as Gi-hun’s pal, or Player 2018, in “Squid Game”). There’s also ace hostage negotiator Seon Woojin – played, I was delighted to see, by Yunjin Kim, who will forever be Sun from “Lost” for many of us – and the slimy boss who’s having affair with one of his assistants and is all too happy to throw her under the bus.
There are efforts to localize the remake: The North Koreans are presented as either hard-as-nails crooks or gung-ho goons whose first instinct is to nuke everything within a 10-kilometer radius. The original show’s Dali mask, perhaps second only to the “V for Vendetta” Guy Fawkes mask in iconic status, is replaced by the Hahoe mask. This comes from the Andong region of Korea, apparently, and is said to embody criticism of the powerful. If you like it, I’m sure Reebok will be selling its own version soon.
If you only have time for one “Money Heist” in your life, it’s a no-brainer that the original is the one to go for – it’s a lot more thrilling, for starters. But the reimagined version is by no means a disaster and I happily binged the first six episodes (a further six are on the way, apparently). You’ll have to excuse me now, though, as I need to track down that Korean version of “Entourage.”
‘Ten Percent’ (Yes)
If you thought robbing a mint was a universal theme, wait till you hear how many countries have remade or are set to remake the wonderful French comedy-drama “Call My Agent!” and its send-up of the world’s most pampered, precious people: actors.
We’ve already had another French version, “Les Invisibles,” set in Quebec; a Turkish version set in Istanbul; and an Indian version set in Bollywood – and that’s just the start. There’s still talk of a U.S. version, and remakes are definitely planned for Italy, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Poland and, of course, South Korea. There’s also the British version that premiered on Sundance Now in the United States this spring and has now arrived in Israel.
“Call My Agent!” was another foreign-language hit for Netflix, and was doubtless the talk of many a dinner party during its four-season run (there’s some confusion about whether the series has actually ended, but what’s known for sure is that a spin-off movie is in the works).
Tarter than a patisserie and as intoxicating as a good Burgundy, “Call My Agent!” could only have been more French if it looked down its nose at you as it closed for two months and headed for the beach.
It’s actually pretty rare for the Brits to remake a French show, with the procession normally going the other way across La Mer. (Even though I suspect they all suck, I’d love to see the French versions of “The Office,” “Doctor Foster” and “Fleabag,” especially as the latter stars Camille Cottin of “Dix Pour Cent” fame). But you get an immediate sense of how faithful the British remake is with its title, which is a straight translation of the original’s “Dix Pour Cent.”
The remake is by John Morton, who previously enjoyed success with the genial faux-documentaries “Twenty Twelve” – about inept administrators preparing for the London Olympics – and “W1A,” about inept administrators working at the British Broadcasting Corporation. Given that I spent eight years working at the latter, it’s safe to say I particularly enjoyed “W1A” with its endless mockery of meeting-room etiquette and BBC middle-management memos.
Like “Money Heist: Korea,” “Ten Percent” is almost as redundant as a blacksmith in Silicon Valley, but again it’s not without its charms. The frustrating thing is that neither show does enough to forge its own identity, preferring instead to operate within the predefined tram lines of the original. It’s as if they’ve been shot with tracing paper on the lenses, meaning there are very few surprises for devotees of the originals.
Fans of Morton’s work – and I number myself among them – will recognize his trademark style here: an “Office”-esque recreation of office life, peopled by more middle-class folk than at a suburban book club. It’s all a bit too nice for the source material, though, and lacks real bite.
It’s also a lot less funny and more slow-paced than the original, which really reminds you that the French gave the word farceur to the English. Not helping in that regard is the fact that the British version introduces a new character, Simon (Tim McInnerny), a sad-sack actor who’s also a recovering alcoholic – and good luck extracting any laughs out of that.
On the plus side, the Soho district of London looks fantastic (a rare benefit from shooting during the pandemic is that the streets are relatively empty) and it’s fun to see which British actors are deemed famous enough to play versions of themselves (Helena Bonham Carter and Olivia Williams were the pick of the bunch for me).
What do both remakes ultimately prove? That the hardest thing in the world to remake is a successful show, because the showrunners feel constrained to replicate the things that made the original work rather than look to try something new. If Morton really wanted “Ten Percent” to stand out, he might have been better served embracing the wisdom of vive la différence.
The first six episodes of “Money Heist: Korea – Joint Economic Area” are out now on Netflix. “Ten Percent” is on Hot HBO on Tuesdays at 9 P.M., with all episodes available to view on Hot and Yes VOD, and Next TV.