Sex, scandal and murder, but with a surprising social commentary to boot.
It’s smart, it’s sexy and it’s scandalous – and it’s not American. Netflix’s latest Spanish-language original, Élite, has turned plenty of heads in its portrayal of the life and times of students at an elite private school. More than just a high-school drama, however, the first season of the eight-episode series has explored topics such as elitism, romance, homosexuality, racism and a number of other equally thorny issues that are maybe not explored enough in television in the context of teenagers.
Though initially compared to the likes of Gossip Girl, what makes Élite one of the most unique and important Netflix Originals is the climate in which it has been conceived – the zeitgeist on which it feeds off. With Brexit continuing to divide Europe in more ways than previously thought, jingoism seemingly being the reflex reaction to the recent (attempted) influx of refugees and the progressiveness of Europe’s most powerful nations becoming more and more muddied by the increase in right wing political support, Europe is a scary, unpredictable place.
To some, equating these issues to what is essentially a teen-based soap opera might seem a tiny bit over the top. On some levels, they might be right. But take a step back and look at the bigger picture; consider the fact that Netflix is going gung-ho and investing a huge amount of resources into Europe, by opening a huge European production hub in Madrid – where we met the team and insanely good-looking ensemble cast of Élite.
“It makes us very proud,” one of the Élite’s co-creators, Carlos Montero, told us. “It makes us very happy that Netflix trusts and believes in us to invest so much.”
This confidence is partly owned to the rousing global success of another Spanish Netflix original, Money Heist, which, beyond all expectations, managed to find a huge number of non-Spanish speaking fans, potentially setting a trend for what could become of Netflix’s continued expansions.
But why the big fuss? What is it about Élite that has seemingly inspired the masses? At its base, the premise is that three students from the wrong side of the tracks, so to speak, find themselves forced to enroll in a school that is well beyond their and their families’ means. But the obvious clashes that this incites are just a minor note on what unravels, as we build to one hell of a reveal for what at the surface is a whodunit thriller.
“It gives the proper importance in value to the suffering of young people, to teenagers,” Jaime Lorente, who plays Nano and also starred in Money Heist, told us. "For many, the trials and tribulations of the teenage tribe is so easily dismissible – frivolous, trivial and even fleeting. But as actors who aren’t that far removed from their own teenage years, it’s a sentiment shared by the other members of the cast, too.
“It’s raw and it’s realistic,” Miguel Bernardeau, who plays Guzman, told us. “A lot of movies show what adults think young people are doing – what Élite shows is what they are actually doing. Teenagers develop so fast. Everything is exponential.”
There will always, of course, be a level of embellishment in its portrayal – this is, after all, entertainment. But what has made the show so pertinent, is its unflinching approach to the subjects it tackles.
One surprising storyline – one that is most politically-penetrating – follows a veiled Muslim student, Nadia, played remarkably sensitively and affectingly by Moroccan-Spanish actress, Mina El Hammani, with the inevitable cultural clash making for a complex, but subtle plotline exploring Islamaphobia.
"I, like Nadia, come from a Muslim background,” she explained. “I know what it is to live in a closed environment; I know what it is to not be able to express what you want to express and do what you want to do.”
It’s this sense of authenticity that lends legitimacy to the storyline – and it’s something that applies across the board. Omar Ayuso, who plays his namesake character and Nadia’s brother, is involved in what has emerged as one of the more controversial plotlines, in that his character is Muslim and gay. But so well thought-out is the story that it has emerged as a fan favourite. In fact, almost all of the actors pointed to Omar and Ander’s romance as their favourite storyline of all.
“It’s pure love,” Bernardeau is quick to mention. “Maybe the only pure love in a show full of sex, deceit a lies.”
With season two just announced, it’ll be interesting to see where Élite can go next. Though the finale tied up the major loose end, there are still plenty of elements to build on develop. The key to more success, however, lies firmly with the makers’ ability to remain in tune with the teenage experience – the real one. And who knows what the success could mean? With Netflix hell-bent on expansion, maybe we’ll start getting more Originals from across Europe and beyond. The world needs a gritty Egyptian drama, if anyone from Netflix is reading this…