What I thought about: Cruel Summer (t/w: grooming)

I don’t think I’ve ever been more shocked, stunned, and disappointed in a season finale cliffhanger than the one in this show. And now you get to watch me review it without spoiling it for you.

How did Kate Wallis end up here? The truth may shock you.

What’s it about?
In 1993, Jeanette Turner is living her best, if slightly nerdy and unpopular, teenage life. By 1995, she’s one of the most hated people in America. What went wrong? We actually find out quite early on: In late 1993 the popular, pretty, and wealthy Kate Wallis goes missing – kidnapped, in fact, by the principal at her school, Martin Harris. When she’s eventually rescued towards the end of 1994, she accuses Jeanette of having seen her chained up in Martin’s basement, locking eyes with her before walking away without alerting anyone.

Each episode in the series looks at a significant event in the characters’ lives which, due to the circumstances, plays out differently in each of 1993, 1994, and 1995. In 1993, Jeanette is on a mission to up her coolness by competing with her friends to complete a list of challenges (mostly petty crimes and pranks). But in 1994, she’s a totally different person, filling the void that the now-kidnapped Kate left behind. Literally – she has Kate’s friends and even her boyfriend. And things are going well. In 1995, however, Kate’s allegations against Jeanette have reverberated around the nation, ruined her relationships with friends and family, leaving her fighting to tell the truth in court.

What do I like about it?
Props have to go to the actors, Chiara Aurelia (Jeanette) and Olivia Holt (Kate) – it must have been challenging to convey three different personalities and they do it so well. You might think Jeanette’s change from nerd to popular girl is a sharp contrast, but if you look closer, you will see that she was developing her confidence in lying early on in 1993, still displays an element of self-doubt in 1994, and only drops her lip quiver in 1995.

I also think the show handles the topic of grooming pretty well, although I’m no medical expert in this area. Kate wasn’t especially vulnerable – she had friends, she was well liked, she even had a boyfriend! And, as the show carefully conveys, the kidnapping wasn’t anywhere near as violent as you might think. All of that culminates in a very disturbing penultimate episode dedicated to the time Kate spent trapped in Martin’s house. I actively squirmed throughout that one.

What do I not like about it?
The timeline can actually be really hard to follow – it often felt like we were really only guided by Jeanette’s completely different hairstyles in each year, and the harshly-done desaturated and darkened filter placed on the 1995 scenes. Even with these, it can be difficult to know where you are – the 1994 scenes include a mix of pre and post-rescue of Kate, and the narrative style shows the same event (and therefore the same setting) happening across three different years.

I am also really fucking disappointed in the ending, but I haven’t worked out if that’s because it’s so good or because I hate the writers for it.

Worth a watch?
It’s a bit of a slog at 10 hours, but if the premise interests you then I think you will find this quite a deep and captivating show. Give it more than the first episode, too, as it starts off slow.

By the way…

  • There are side plots in this show but none of them are particularly relevant, which added to my confusion when watching.
  • Olivia Holt was cast as a replacement for Mika Abdalla. I don’t know why, but Olivia was a great choice so there’s no complaints from me.

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What I thought about: Sweet Home

If you want to see a slideshow of horrible things happening to undeserving people; of despair and violence and gore and destruction, you’re in the right place. If not, run. Run far away from this show.

Monster or human? The answer is more complicated than you might think.

What’s it about?
One night, an infection (or some say a curse) sweeps across South Korea. The first symptom is a torrential nosebleed, and those unable to fight the darkness often turn into powerful monsters with various ‘abilities’ that are said to relate to their deepest desires. The residents of the Green Home apartment complex find themselves barricaded inside. When someone tries to leave and is promptly skewered by a monster, they realise it’s for their own good.

Essentially, it’s an apocalypse survival series. Except it somehow manages to weave an insane amount of backstory and side plots into its 10-episode run. It’s also ghastly and brutal. Bad things just keep on happening to the residents, relentlessly. The monsters, aided by some pretty impressive CGI (and some of whom are just plain human, if you catch my drift), keep coming.

What do I like about it?
I really can’t tell if this is a great show or a terrible one. On the one hand, it is technically brilliant. It’s gripping, the cliffhangers at the end of each episode are perfect, the acting is top notch and the audiovisual elements add so much depth to it (watching this with a 5.1 surround setup was a real treat).

The show also benefits from typical K-Drama quality. You become attached to the characters, all of whom, besides the usual background characters, have such unique personalities and qualities. This allows the show to deliver some side plots and flashbacks that add a surprising amount of depth to the crisis, even if I wished they would tie together a little more neatly.

What do I not like about it?
On the other hand, this show is absolutely awful. The monsters are really, really bad. You can’t kill them unless you set them on fire. They are strong. People keep dying, all the time, in every episode. Whenever there is a shred of hope dangled in front of you, the show executes more characters all over the place.

There is so much violence and so much despair. Also, lots and lots of blood. This is not a show for the faint of heart. Blood pours out of infected people’s noses and splatters onto people’s faces. At one point, someone picks up a sword from his own severed hand in order to make one last attempt at stopping a monster from killing everyone else. It’s fucking horrific.

Worth a watch?
I don’t think I know anyone who would find this an enjoyable watch.

By the way…

  • There is a setup for a second season but, considering the characters who are left standing, I’m not sure if it would be worth watching
  • I kid you not, Imagine Dragons’ Warriors (a song they wrote for a League of Legends gaming tournament) is played at least 5 times during the show. Criticism of the show’s soundtrack is warranted.

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What I thought about: Alice in Borderland

Very Japanese, this part-sci-fi part-thriller part-horror series, based on a popular manga, has random citizens of Tokyo get teleported to an alternate universe where they must take part in sadistic games to survive.

Don’t get too attached to anyone in this show. Consider yourself warned.

What’s it about?
One moment you’re having a shower, or something. The next thing you know, the lights go out and, when they come back on moments later, everyone around you has disappeared. In fact, not just the people around you – the entire population of Tokyo. Gone. Just like that.

That’s the situation facing Arisu, Chōta, and Karube – a trio of delinquents and misfits. As night falls, the only source of light comes from screens around the city which read ‘this way to the game arena’. They follow the screens to a building with mobile phones set out on a table. Unbeknownst to them, they’ve just registered for their first game.

Two doors, one says ‘live’ and the other ‘die’. Two minutes to choose before the room is incinerated. Another player (they’re not entirely alone) freaks out and runs through the ‘live’ door, only to be zapped in the head with a powerful laser. The rest escape through the ‘die’ door into the second room, now with less time to choose another room. With some luck Arisu, good with puzzles, work out the shape of the building and draws a map that leads them confidently through the rest of the game. Their prize? A three-day visa, the importance of which is explained to them when a disheveled man rounds a corner and yells ‘I can’t take it any more, my visa has expired’. He is promptly blasted in the head by a laser from the sky. Your visa is your right to live, and you can only get them by clearing the dangerous games.

What do I like about it?
The games are cool, and most are well designed, if a little confusing what with the additional language barrier for on-screen cues. Along the way, more characters are introduced and we start to learn more about the pseudo-Tokyo and what’s going on. Also, in contrast to Escape Room (which you might consider to be a related concept), the set-up for the sequel is fantastic. No spoilers, though!

What do I not like about it?
There’s a little too much filler for my liking, Some scenes are long, drawn out, and emotional. I also wasn’t a fan of the fact that the ‘main character’ is basically a nobody except for the little nuggets of wisdom he occasionally dishes out, but then again, that is a trope of manga like this.

Worth a watch?
This is a very violent and miserable show. Things only really go from bad to worse for everyone involved, so be careful. But if, like me, you were intrigued by the mystery and are a fan of Japanese on-screen violence, Alice in Borderland is brilliantly produced.

By the way…

  • Much of the shots of an empty Tokyo city centre were filmed with extensive use of green screens, and they did a great job of blending it all together
  • Apparently this season covers 31 of the 64 manga chapters – so maybe Season 2 is all we’ll get

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Quickfire round: Escape Room

Overall a good horror movie that capitalises on the explosive growth of escape rooms, it was somewhat let down by the revelation of a slightly wider universe/plot towards the end which felt cheap.

It’s getting toasty in there.

Six strangers receive a cube, ostensibly from a friend or relative. It’s a mini-puzzle, and upon solving it a piece of paper pops out inviting them to test an immersive new escape room with a prize of $10,000 up for grabs. Amanda, an Iraq war veteran, Jason, a financier, Danny, a nerdy escape room enthusiast, Zoey, a genius physics student, and Ben, a stockroom worker. After being told by a woman behind a frosted glass screen to take a seat and wait, Ben decides he’d rather leave the room and go outside for a smoke. As he pulls the door handle it falls off, revealing what appears to be an oven dial. This is the first room.

So, it’s an escape room horror movie. It follows the basic premise of escape rooms – there are rooms, and there are genuine puzzles with cryptic clues. Only, the Game Master is nowhere to be seen, and you can’t ask for hints. Oh, and if you don’t escape the room in time, you genuinely die. I’ll spare the details of how each room becomes deadly because it’s a large part of the enjoyment of the movie.

And enjoy it, I did! Don’t get me wrong, it was terrifying and my anxiety went through the roof. But I couldn’t stop watching as the chaos unfolded. Towards the end, though, the story gets a bit more complicated, and not for the better. Up until the final room, the rooms could potentially be completed with everyone surviving (spoiler: they don’t all survive said rooms, but you must have known that would happen given this is a horror movie). But the final room is different, and after that the ‘reason’ behind the escape rooms existing is revealed. What follows is too much of a spoiler to write here but I think, although it was a decent plot twist, it felt tacked on.

The feeling of the plot being weakly tacked together continued after the events of the fateful day itself, with a cheap ‘6 months later’ cut which sets up the sequel to the movie (coming out early this year). Don’t get me wrong – I’m totally going to watch the sequel, but I’m not holding my breath for an improvement to the overall plot.

If you like horror and puzzles and escape rooms and acting that is not terrible but also not particularly impressive, I could think of worse ways to spend 99 minutes.

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What I thought about: The Minions of Midas

I am simply not smart enough to understand the plot. This Spanish thriller starts off with a bang, but its twists morph it into something that, right to the very end, had me scratching my head.

Victor has two expressions. His shocked face, which is this one, and his thinking face.

What’s it about?
Victor Genovés, an executive at media conglomerate the Malvar Group, has recently become the company president after being named heir to the late owner’s fortune in his will. Shortly after, he receives a letter at his office, closed with a traditional wax seal. It’s from the Minions of Midas or Los favoritos de Midas, a shadowy group who want to engage in a business transaction with Victor. That’s a very polite way of putting it – for in reality they are extorting him to the tune of 50 million euros. The consequence if he doesn’t pay? A stranger will die – and they give an exact time and place for the murder.

Like any self-respecting millionaire, Victor is a little spooked by the letter but ultimately ignores it. Sure enough, a woman is killed in a hit and run at the exact time and place specified in the letter. Unlike any self-respecting millionaire, however, he refuses to cut the loss-making Observer newspaper from the Malvar Group. This upsets the board of directors and they assemble enough votes to ditch him – that is, until another letter from the Minions shows up. “We have some information that can help you keep your position in the company,” they say, “remember, your gain is our gain”.

How mysterious.

What do I like about it?
The first half makes for a great thriller. The police scramble to hunt down the Minions as, every five days, exactly where promised, another seemingly random stranger is killed. It’s also mind-bending at times – some of the murders are arguably not caused by the Minions at all but rather by the police themselves and the hysteria invoked by the shadowy organisation.

The other events of the show are also pretty good – and pretty bleak. Victor’s love interest, Observer journalist Mónica Báez, uncovers the Bank of Madrid’s shameful financing of the Syrian regime, and there are mass protests verging into riots across Spain moments before they are due to host the European Summit. The polarisation of Victor’s penthouse apartment and the rioters below him make for a stark image of class divide, and tie in somewhat well into the extortion plot.

What do I not like about it?
This is probably just me but… I didn’t get it? I don’t want to spoil the plot but, towards the end, Victor changes how he reacts to the Minions and makes decisions which are unlike his character in the first half of the show. I just can’t quite work out what it all means – and I’m one of those people who longs for at least some kind of closure.

Worth a watch?
Probably not, unless you like the idea of it. Not to sound weird or anything but there wasn’t a lot of death and violence in it to make up for the slow parts.

By the way…

  • There is some nudity.
  • This is a limited series – it ain’t coming back.

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Quickfire round: Inheritance

An annoying waste of time, this movie drags you along through its story – littered with boring characters and empty set design – with the promise of a great, mystery-solving payoff at the end. Spoiler: it was not worth it.

Who is she pointing that gun at? If you’ve seen the movie you’ll know how smart this caption is.

“That sounds like such a great story, let’s turn it into a movie!” <- words which were, apparently, uttered by someone, for how else would we have ended up with the 1 hour, 51 minutes waste of time that is Inheritance? I will struggle to write more than a few hundred words on this for that is how hollow the entire thing is.

Lauren Monroe, Manhattan District Attorney and member of a very wealthy family, inherits part of her late farther’s estate including, via posthumously released video tape, the ‘deepest secret’ her family has. I’ll tell you right now: it’s a man who’s been chained up in an underground bunker on the family estate for 30 odd years. Okay, as a viewer, you’re immediately interested, right? What’s this guy doing down here? Who is he? How has he been kept a secret for so long? Lauren tries to uncover the truth without telling anyone in her family about the guy.

So what went wrong? Firstly, this is one of the weakest attempts at creating an atmosphere for the story that I have seen. The entire supporting cast, including her brother, husband, daughter, and colleagues, may as well have not been in the movie at all for all they brought to it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s okay for thriller/horror movies to concentrate intensely on the central plot. But only if that central plot is worth it. This… wasn’t. I won’t spoil the exact ending but will say that, essentially, the mother in the family knew about the guy in the basement, and the plot twist he would help execute, the whole time. Whoop-de-doo!

If you’re thinking I added Inheritance to my Watch List after seeing Lily Collins in Emily in Paris, you’d be right, damn you. Honestly, she does as good as job as she can here, but the role feels totally mis-cast.

Give this one a miss.

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What I thought about: Criminal (UK) (Season 2)

I couldn’t wait to get started on the second season of this gripping police interview drama. It’s a testament to the quality of acting in this show that I remained captivated for the entire runtime despite all the action taking place between a few actors in a small room.

It’s not all finger-wagging, I promise.

What’s it about?
A special unit of the police (we assume in London), practice unorthodox interview techniques in order to tease out a confession or some other crucial information from their subjects. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t the CIA, there’s no waterboarding, it’s purely psychological. Things like padding a medical examiner’s report with blank paper and slamming it down on the table to make it seem important. Playing good cop bad cop. Selectively choosing who asks what question. These all add up to mount pressure on the subject and get them to give in.

This season includes Kit Harrington (accused of rape) and Kunal Nayyar (convicted but suspected of a second murder) among a pair of slightly lesser-known actors for a total of four episodes, one more than last time.

What do I like about it?
The acting is incredible, as indeed its has to be. Armed with viewer’s foresight (for we know that something is going to happen due to the nature of the show), you can really appreciate the skilful writing and acting. The team pick up on a fairly obvious moment in episode one, where the interviewee Julia (not a suspect!) launches into a mini tirade and yells out about facts that only the killer would know. But there was something much more subtle earlier on. She asks if her husband (convicted murderer, and suspect of a second murder) had been charged for the it. “Not yet”, comes Detective Constable Vanessa Warren’s reply. Julia lets out a deep sigh and puts her hands to her face. “When will it end?” she says, ostensibly referring to the misery of being married to a murderer.

Now, why would she do that? If she was innocent, I’d argue the response would be more like ‘oh’, or the question wouldn’t even be asked. What she’s doing is checking in on the investigation into the second murder, to see if she’s gotten away with it. When she learns he hasn’t been charged, it means she’s still at a degree of risk. The fact that this is acted out, but is never referred to again for the rest of the episode, demonstrates the show’s the attention to detail. Detail that’s necessary to make such a slow burning, single-room drama so gripping.

What do I not like about it?
Why are the police staff so limp outside the interview room? Inside, they are powerful and cunning, and have a way with words that makes even the most hardened criminal slowly crumble. But outside it – in the corridors of the station – they buy drinks from vending machines and throw little paper balls into tiny bins, letting out a depressive sigh when they inevitably miss. I’m not sure I get what the writers are going for here.

Also, as a lawyer myself, I can’t help but question the way the solicitors – who are sometimes also present in the room – just sit back and let the police’s line of questioning happen. They do speak up at times (they’re not totally silent!) but you just know that if this were real the solicitor would be reading out a statement and advising their client to reply with ‘no comment’.

Worth a watch?
You have to appreciate that it is literally just people talking in a room. Sit through absolutely any episode in the first or second season – they’re all good – and if you liked it, carry on. If you didn’t, it’s probably not for you.

By the way…

  • The first season launched simultaneously with editions in France, Germany, and Spain, all with their own plots and local actors…
  • …But the UK show was the only one to be renewed for a second season.

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What I thought about: Defending Jacob

Unusually dark when you consider Apple’s typically family friendly orientation, this slow-burn thriller is a different take on a murder mystery story. I’m just not convinced it’s a worthwhile one.

That moment when you have to have ‘the talk’ with your teenage son. No, not that one…

What’s it about?
Ben Rifkin, a teenager, is found murdered in the woods on his way to school. Leonard Patz, a registered sex offender living near the woods, is the obvious suspect. But as assistant district attorney Andy Barber struggles to get any hard evidence on him, another suspect crops up: his son, Jacob, who was in the same class as the victim and who also walks through the woods on the way to school. Before he knows it, police are swarming the family home and searching for the murder weapon. Convinced of his son’s innocence, and well and truly off the case, Andy fights to uncover the truth.

What follows is an oddly-paced unravelling of the story. Did Jacob do it? If so, why? How? We don’t find the answers to all of these questions.

What do I like about it?
It’s dark, and it’s not very violent. The slow pace is a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it’s frustrating not watching something with the constant twists and turns we saw in something like The Stranger. On the other hand, smaller actions have more impact.

There’s a scene where Jacob’s mother Laurie goes shopping for groceries at the crack of dawn to avoid being spotted and harassed. She rounds the corner and bumps into the victim’s mother, Joan, who slowly approaches, zombie-like. “Joan…’ Laurie says, only to be cut off by Joan nastily spitting in her face before walking away. Both mothers were there to shop away from the gaze of strangers, either as the mother of a horrifically murdered son, or as the mother of the alleged murderer. If it was all action, I suppose we wouldn’t have thought anything of that scene.

What do I not like about it?
I can’t tell if the acting is terrible or really, really good. Jacob is a weird but plain kid. The way he looks at you is weird, he’s pretty quiet, and his mind is usually somewhere else. It gives off a creepy, sinister vibe. But at the same time, you can’t help but believe him when he says he’s innocent. So, maybe Jaeden Martell did exactly what the directors wanted him to do. Or maybe he’s a bad actor. I honestly can’t tell.

I also don’t like how many twists occur in the final two episodes. I think the pacing in murder mysteries is a tricky thing, and on this occasion they got it wrong, spending far too long setting the scene in the run up to the trial, and not enough on the last few pivotal moments.

Worth a watch?
Watch the trailer first and ask yourself if you have the patience to get through 6 hours of slow-burn before it all kicks off.

By the way…

  • Yes, that is Chris Evans of Captain America fame playing the father, Andy Barber.
  • Jacob’s actor starred in Knives Out as that little shit who’s always on his phone and WHO IS ALSO CALLED JACOB. I did not recognise him in this.

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What I thought about: Dare Me

Upon reflection, I’ve re-written this review. Dare Me is a confusing mess of teenage angst and suffering, but its redeeming features help make it bingeable, and I wonder if I’m just missing something about the plot.

Coach Collette and Lieutenant Addy being rather confrontational – I wonder what changed?

What’s it about?
Beth is captain of her school’s cheerleading squad, assisted by best friend and ‘lieutenant’, Addy, who loosely narrates the story. The squad’s new coach, Collette, dethrones Beth immediately (‘there are no captains in my squad’) and begins treating Beth’s half-sister, Tacy, with more than a little favouritism.

Addy wants a scholarship, and cheer squad is her path to it. She cosies up to Collette in the hopes of being guided to success, but it comes at the cost of alienating Beth. And then stuff gets really… weird. Collette seems to revel in the rift she is creating between Beth and Addy. She’s also using Addy to help her cheat on her husband.

What do I like about it?
The cast are very good. Beth, emotionally damaged by her adulterous father leaving her mother for a woman who literally lives across the street, harshly bullies Tacy (who sort of deserves it) and battles more than a few personal demons throughout the series. These emotions are captured brilliantly by actress Marlo Kelly.

Collette, played by Willa Fitzgerald, is a perfectly balanced mix of sweet and sour – she’s cute on secretive dates with her high-school flame, but puts on a ‘tough love’ attitude with the squad. She’s also, as we eventually discover, quite sinister.

The colourists have also done an excellent job, utilising the High Dynamic Range (HDR) format well and making the gritty scenes look, well, gritty.

What do I not like about it?
In one scene, Addy goes inside Collette’s house for the first time and she… strokes the bedsheets (‘1000 ply cotton’, Collette says) and lays down in the bed? Is it supposed to symbolise the ‘success’ that she too can achieve, if she follows in Collette’s footsteps?

There’s a lot about the plot which just seems quite weird and off-putting. You wonder why the characters are doing what they’re doing. But maybe that’s what the show is going for? We’re seeing into the destructive world of a teenage cheerleading squad, maybe that’s just how they are?

Worth a watch?
I was underwhelmed by the confusing nature of the plot and the disappointing ending, but I’ve reconsidered my earlier review in which I described it as ‘ten hours of my life I’m not getting back’.

By the way…

  • The show is based on a book that has a 3/5 rating on Amazon. That should serve as warning…
  • The show was cancelled by USA Network for poor ratings, despite receiving critical acclaim. The book’s author says the first season only got though half of it, so watch this space?

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What I thought about: Control Z

Is Mexican Netflix as good as Spanish Netflix? If this mystery drama is anything to go by, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. Featuring an excellent lead actress and supporting cast, I devoured this show in less than 48 hours.

Look at them, phones out, ready to record today’s mishap. Over-use of mobiles is what got them into this mess…

What’s it about?
Sophia is a bit odd. She lost her father many years ago in a fire, and recently returned from a mental institution after an incident of self-harm. But she’s also a thinker, able to spot patterns in behaviour and notice the little details. When a hacker hijacks the school assembly to drop a truly explosive secret about one of her classmates, they all turn to her for help tracking the hacker down. Sophia needs to hurry up, though, as the hacker continues to either reveal more secrets or blackmail students into doing their bidding, including taunting Sophia.

The show was described by a much better writer than me as “Gossip Girl meets Mr. Robot, with just a touch of Sherlock Holmes”, and I couldn’t put it better myself.

What do I like about it?
It has a similar salacious energy that we’ve seen before in Elite. These kids have some pretty messed up secrets, and as they start coming out, there are some truly catastrophic consequences. But the show also takes the time to illustrate how the students – many of them rather stuck-up, self-absorbed, or outright bullies, are quite emotionally fragile underneath, and the incident changes them for the better. I also enjoyed seeing Sophia become more accepted by her classmates who used to whisper about her mental health issues.

What do I not like about it?
With the advent of streaming services, episodes no longer have to fit neatly into an ad-friendly running time. This show runs anywhere from 35 to 41 minutes. It’s strange, then, that it felt like some connecting scenes were missing at times, as if they had been cut. Characters would get close to boiling point in one scene, and then are completely calm in the next. I remember a scene where Raúl is looking for Sophia, literally going up to random students and asking them if they’d seen her. The very next scene shows Sophia walking together with Raúl and Javier. I suppose we are to assume he managed to track her down eventually? That these elements were missing does raise some concerns about the solidity of the show’s plot.

Worth a watch?
Yes, as long as you’re not expecting too much. I enjoyed this show and can’t wait for the confirmed second season, but I can’t give readers the same encouragement as I did for The Stranger, as it’s just not on the same level. The childishness of the school’s students and the aforementioned plot difficulties might annoy the more seasoned mystery fan.

By the way…

  • This is fifth foreign-language show I’ve seen this year, and in fact the third Spanish-language one. The beauty of Netflix’s Originals is their ability to push it out to their entire global subscriber base without international licensing woes. The consumer ultimately benefits – if you’re not watching foreign-language titles on Netflix, you’re seriously missing out.
  • NME gave it 2/5. I think that’s a bit harsh, but then again, I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy.

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