Spoiler alert: This review includes some (but not all!) spoilers for the first season of Netflix’s “Élite.”
The first time I heard about Netflix’s new teen drama “Élite” was from a friend was gushing about how it felt like several great shows in one. If it were a mathematical equation, he said, “Elite” would look something like, “The O.C.” multiplied by “Gossip Girl,” divided by “Veronica Mars,” to the power of “Big Little Lies” — which, to be frank, sounded overwhelming. How could it take on so many tropes at once without becoming an overstuffed Frankenstein of a show?
Within 10 minutes, my fears started to melt away. “Élite” does indeed include countless teen show clichés, but it also relishes the opportunity to dig a bit deeper and twist them into more interesting shapes. It interrogates the very tropes it indulges by finding new gears in old plot engines. And with the addition of a smart flashback structure keeping its central murder mystery afloat, Darío Madrona and Carlos Montero’s drama quickly proves addictive enough that it’s hard to stop watching before the end of its eight-episode conclusion.
(Though as a quick and crucial sidenote: make sure to select the original “European Spanish” as the overdub with English subtitles before watching; Netflix unfortunately defaults to a distracting English dub for all its foreign titles unless told explicitly otherwise.)
The drama takes place at a — you guessed it — elite Spanish private school, picking up at two crucial moments in its characters’ lives. In the past, three new scholarship students come to the school and quickly shake up its accepted social order. In the present, one of the students has been murdered, and everyone is a suspect.
Given this setup of class warfare giving way to murder and intrigue, it’s not long before a bunch (of my favorite) teen show clichés turn up. Within just a couple acts, scholarship kids Samuel (Itzan Escamilla), Christian (Miguel Herrán), and Nadia (Mina El Hammani) find themselves at the epicenter of three classic storylines.
Samuel has eyes for Marina (María Pedraza), the school’s resident “free spirit” who does everything in her power to rebel against her parents’ sleek world of extreme wealth. (See: “The O.C.”) Marina’s older brother Guzmán (Miguel Bernardeau) is “Elite’s” go-to rich jerk with a heart of gold (see: “Veronica Mars”), which makes him the perfect candidate for taking his high maintenance girlfriend Lu (Danna Paola) up on a bet of seducing the most unlikely girl to fall for him (see: every other high school movie). In this case, that means Nadia, an industrious student who’s just trying to be the “good Muslim girl” her father expects her to be in peace despite Lu’s taunting and the school’s insistence that she remove her hijab, which they erroneously dismiss as “an accessory.”
Christian, meanwhile, falls for the vulpine Carla (Ester Expósito) and gets caught in a love triangle with her and her jealous boyfriend Polo (Álvaro Rico). A love triangle is arguably the most common and stalwart of teen tropes, but the “Élite” version immediately takes a juicier turn. Carla, bored and restless in the relationship she’s been in for years, lures Christian in because she and Polo get off on having a third party in their relationship. “Labels are for clothes,” she shrugs at one point, and though her boys of choice don’t always believe her, they’re nonetheless so devoted to her and curious enough about each other that they’re down to see where it goes.
For as many teen love triangles as there have been on TV, this one gets an extra boost of creativity by acknowledging their long dormant subtext of crisscrossing desire. The show’s other love triangle — between Marina, Samuel, and his brother Nano (Jaime Lorente) — is one of the show’s only duller features, even if only because the one between Christian, Carla, and Polo is so much more magnetic in its singularity (not to mention better acted).
“Elite” also finds room to explore sexuality through Ander (Arón Piper) and Omar (Omar Ayuso), two closeted teens who find each other on a dating app. Ander is the principal’s son, Omar is Nadia’s brother, and the two never quite feel comfortable seeing each other in broad daylight. But unlike many other shows before it, “Élite” doesn’t portray their burgeoning relationship as one borne of shame. And while many “coming out” stories onscreen tend to err on the chaste side, Ander and Omar are incredibly, demonstrably attracted to each other. What’s more, when their best friends — Guzmán and Samuel, respectively — realize they’re gay, neither reacts with shock or revulsion. Rather, they’re just sad that their friends didn’t feel comfortable telling them as much in the first place.
And oh, yeah: there’s a murder. Truth be told, there’s more than enough intrigue going on in the everyday lives of these teens without one of them ending up dead. But to “Élite’s” credit, the conclusion manages to be both satisfying and intriguing as to where season 2 — which Netflix has already ordered — might go. Even given a million other options on Netflix alone, this tantalizing and whipsmart entry to the teen show pantheon proves itself worthy of the spotlight.
Drama, 60 minutes. (Eight episodes, all watched for review.) Now available on Netflix.
Cast: Omar Ayuso, Miguel Bernardeau, Mina El Hammani, Itzan Escamilla, Ester Expósito, Miguel Herrán, Jaime Lorente, Danna Paola, María Pedraza, Arón Piper, Álvaro Rico.
Crew: Executive producers: Iñaki Juaristi, Diego Betancor.