It was more than five years ago, and I had only been in the role of disability policy adviser for a few weeks. I was…
“My name is Tokyo…”
In the grand tradition of heist crews — and books/movies/TV shows about crooks coming together to pull off a big winner-take-all job — no one uses their real names. They are known only by cities. Those two burly, bearded guys? That’s Helsinki and Oslo. The Romani with a first-rate take-no-shit glare? She’s Nairobi. The baby-faced hacker is Rio, the father-son team go by Moscow and Denver, and the impeccably dressed gent who’ll turn out to be a bit of a sociopath (there’s one in every gang) answers to Berlin. And the young woman pointing a gun at the camera in the very first scene, already on the lam from the law? Meet Tokyo. She’s going to be your narrator over the next five seasons.
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None of them are actually from those places, mind you; they’re all either Spanish or Serbian. It’s just that crafting code names using colors is so 1992, numbers aren’t a feasible option and planets are out of the question because no one wants to be “Mr. Uranus.” So cities it is. As for the mastermind who’s brought all of them together, the quiet, socially awkward guy with the glasses? He’s the Professor. The man with the plan intends to have his associates don Salvador Dali masks and red jumpsuits, enter the Royal Mint of Spain, and rob the joint. He knows it won’t be an easy in-and-out job. He’s well aware that the police (notably Raquel, the female officer heading up the response team), the government, and the media will be watching their every move. And the Professor understands that while all of this is happening, he’ll be able to execute his real caper, which is a lot more complicated than what appears to be happening on the surface….
You could call the Spanish TV show Money Heist a serial crime thriller, a bullet-pocked soap opera, an epic love story or, depending on your perspective regarding genres, a makeshift family drama and a pitch-black workplace comedy. What it is above all else, however, is a massive international crossover hit, and the sort of flex that’s allowed Netflix to both sell foreign-language entertainment in America and bingeable programming around the world. Originally a two-season, 15-episode series titled La Casa de Papel that aired on Spain’s Antena 3 channel in 2017, writer-producer Álex Pina’s story of a stand-off between smooth criminals and the state was purchased by the streaming service, diced up into 22 smaller installments and unleashed upon an unsuspecting global public. The result was so immediate that Netflix then commissioned three more seasons, complete with lavish budgets and blockbuster-level set pieces. What started as a popular regional show that went out with a whimper — viewership in Spain dropped by half during the original run of its second half — turned into a phenomenon that’s inspired copycat crimes and real-life resistance symbology.
And any attempt to describe what the creators and cast have crammed within the format of a typical caper story structure risks turning into a Stefon NYC club recommendation. This series has it all: Shoot-outs, stand-offs and screaming matches. A criminal chessmaster who always thinks 15 moves ahead. A Heat-style cop-versus-criminal scenario, only this time the De Niro counterpart is actively seducing the Pacino character. An insanely photogenic ensemble of actors. Not one but two major robberies, and mini-heists within the main heists. Drunken twerking, Stockholm-syndrome stripteases and a group dance-off to James Brown’s “Sex Machine.” A sympathetic, multidimensional trans character (albeit one played by a cisgender performer). A decades-old Italian anti-fascist song (“Bella Ciao”) resurrected as a chart-topping dance hit, and a pithy, slightly off-color description of quick-and-dirty hook-ups (“Boom, boom, ciao!”).
But wait, there’s more. Later seasons feature a blimp that rains money over downtown Madrid, discussions about the ethical ramifications of state-sanctioned torture and the fragility of the global economy, and a pregnant police inspector who admires Putin. Crew members come and go; you witness the death of several major characters, though that doesn’t stop them from returning in a narrative that prizes flashbacks, flip-forwards and a fast, loose approach to timelines. There are chase scenes, elaborate action sequences and a protracted siege that feels lifted from a war movie. “Good” guys become “bad” guys and vice versa, via double crosses, triple-crosses, quadruple-crosses. Violence? There’s lots of it. Sex? Lots and lots of it. The pile-up of plot twists within any given episode becomes dizzying. At certain points during Money Heist‘s five-season run, it doesn’t seem to jump the shark so much leap over an entire water park full of Great Whites. Prestige TV this is not.
Yet despite — or possibly because of — the sheer volume of ridiculous, logic-straining turns, Heist has not only translated well outside of Spain, it’s managed to become one of the single most watched shows around the world. Prior to Squid Game, the equally popular dystopian thriller from South Korea, the show was Netflix’s number-one foreign-language series by a large margin. (And in an act of God-level corporate synergy, Squid Game‘s Park Hae-soo will soon star in a South Korean version of the show, produced by Pina for Netflix.) And given the fact that the streaming service quietly dropped the first two seasons of the show shortly after it had concluded its run on Antena without any promotion whatsoever, the sudden broadening of its fanbase came as a shock. Virtually overnight, the show’s ensemble cast became stars and those Dali masks replaced the “Anonymous” Guy Fawkes masks as the face of worldwide rebellion. By the time the second part of the final season dropped in December of 2021, the series had won numerous awards and been the most-viewed television program in a half-dozen countries across Europe and Latin America. It was the most organic example of a Netflix bump imaginable, a word-of-mouth hit thanks to a lingua franca of style, a hot cast and a subversive anti-authoritarian streak.
That last aspect might be key to understanding why a Spanish “event” TV show which slightly petered out before its conclusion became such a worldwide sensation. A key part of the Professor’s plan is to turn his gang in to folk heroes — and by keeping the public on their side, they can keep the police and the military from storming the gates, should the presence of hostages stop being a deterrent. Never mind that they are, for practical purposes, a for-profit criminal organization, or the eventual revelation that the Professor has a very personal reason for staging this raiding of the country’s royal mint (and, later, the Bank of Spain). They brand themselves as both modern-day Robin Hoods and capital-R Resistance fighters, strategically using the media and surveillance tactics as a form of moral jujitsu against the state; the exposure of documents that indict Spain and other E.U. countries in war crimes and other dodgy activities plays a key part in the third season. They become the “good guys” by comparison.
Once you get into the Netflix-produced seasons, with their cash-infused production design and globetrotting location shoots, you can feel the show retrofitting that aspect — the gang members are now internationally recognized as outlaws who stuck it to the man, the Dali visage as meme-to-logo–friendly as Shepard Fairey street art or Che Guevara t-shirt. Actual activists and protestors in the Middle East, Asia and the U.S. had already adopted the red jumpsuits and masks as a uniform after Money Heist first took off, and the show then amplified that back to viewers. It became a melodrama with a built-in sense of one-size-fits-all rebellion. In Spain, critics might have singled out the pop resistance stance as a reaction to the country’s austerity measures or financial instability on the continent. Once Heist began playing in other regions, however, those audiences could view the Casa de Papel gang’s flipped bird as a mirror to their own issues, whether it was standing up for human rights, standing against totalitarianism or repression, you name it. It was possible to indulge in the usual wish-fulfillment you get with grand escapist entertainment — who wouldn’t be stage an elaborately complex heist and look impossibly cool while doing it, before retiring to your own tropical island? — while plugging in your own subjective machine to rage against. It may have taken stances against sanctioned torture, but the show’s overall political stance was a sexier version of this.
Still, that doesn’t explain how Money Heist managed to conquer the world in record time, or made the seismic impact it’s made everywhere from North Africa to South America. Or how it’s propulsive mix of high melodrama and lowbrow pulp, combined with a slew of genre mash-ups and relentless hit-or-miss twists — we’re still unsure why one already-established bad guy had to inexplicably become a sexual predator in addition to a standard heel — managed to strike a chord with American audiences, even ones weened on post-Reservoir Dogs pomo heist flicks. The fact that the dubbed version seemed to have an edge on its original-language iteration in the U.S. may make those of us who view subtitles as a necessity rather than a hindrance gnash our in teeth in frustration, yet if Netflix’s numbers are to be believed, the show seems to be making audiences more receptive to their foreign programming overall. (Money Heist crawled so Squid Game could sprint.)
Several of its stars have become bankable outside of Spain as well: Úrsula Corberó, who plays Tokyo, showed up a music video for the J.Balvin/Bad Bunny/Duo LIpa cut “Un Dia” and now has a recurring role in the G.I. Joe franchise; you can catch Álvaro Morte, the charismatic actor who plays the Professor, in Amazon’s bid for the GoT fantasy bullseye, The Wheel of Time. A spin-off series for Pedro Alonso’s Berlin character is in the works, and we assume other beloved characters from the show will drop by as well. Yet to dig into the fit-to-burst, crime-pays telenovela that first brought them to our attention, as it swerves from thriller to romance to camp to black comedy to WTF face-palming cliffhangers, is to feel like you’ve inhaled a gateway drug of sorts. Like the Spanish-Italian “Spaghetti” Westerns of the 1960s and early ’70s that took a familiar set of genre conventions and Euro-subverted them for their own means, Pina and Co.’s series feels like it bending and banging around heist-movie stories in order to make them its own. For every wrong move it makes, it gives you a dozen reasons to feel giddy over its sheer audacity and how high its getting off its own genre fumes. It manages to keep stealing you back to its side. That’s the real heist.
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