Red jumpsuits, Salvador Dalí masks and the Italian anti-fascist revolutionary anthem “Bella Ciao” are no longer merely elements that comprise the iconoclastic Spanish caper drama “Money Heist.” They’ve managed to bleed out into real life as numerous protesters — from the hit series’ home country to Lebanon, Indonesia and beyond — have infused these motifs with their own fights against government tyranny, corruption and wealth inequality.
“I think people needed a symbol,” creator Álex Pina tells Variety. “We have this show that is presented as a resistance against governments and against institutions, and this combined with the entertainment, went beyond the borders of reality, and people just adopted it. You have these anti-heroes in the show that people actually regard as heroes and they create personal bonds and social and political bonds [with them].”
This year, local-language shows have led the charge in exploring anti-capitalism and anti-establishment themes and earned Critics Choice Award noms in the foreign language series category in the process. Alongside “Money Heist” on Netflix is South Korea’s sensation “Squid Game,” with both series dramatizing the brokenness of the global financial system post-2008 in high-stakes, fictional environments. France’s “Lupin,” for the same streamer, parses through these trends on a micro-scale, rooting for suave thief Assane Diop (Omar Sy) as he avenges his father’s wrongful demise orchestrated by a wealthy family. Meanwhile, Apple TV Plus’ English- and Spanish-language “Acapulco” offers a comedic rags-to-riches narrative in protagonist Máximo (Eugenio Derbez in the present-day story, Enrique Arrizon in the 1980s-set strand), who recounts his turbulent road toward upward class mobility.
Contrasting with U.S.-based shows including “Succession” and “Only Murders in the Building,” which follow an über-rich family-run media conglomerate and well-off New Yorkers, respectively, these international series champion the underdogs, all the while painting a morally gray picture of their protagonists. For “Squid Game” creator Hwang Dong-hyuk, the end result is a profound commentary on the ways society pits people against each other in battles of competing ambition and survival.
“From a society’s losers’ perspective, that whole system itself is a huge violence,” he says. “If you were eliminated from society, that equals social death — and so I wanted to shed light on the intensity of violence of competition itself and also the intensity of violence that is placed on the losers.”
While “Squid Game” bifurcates human nature — and more specifically, its creator’s “main strands of personality” — into Gi-hun’s (Lee Jung-jae) conditional empathy and Sang-woo’s (Park Hae-soo) desperate selfishness, “Money Heist” finds its moral ambiguity in the Professor (Álvaro Morte).
In the final season of “Money Heist,” the Professor and the gang keep the country’s gold reserve, swapping it out for brass. It’s unclear whether their aim is to redistribute the wealth — as they did in Season 3 — or keep it for themselves. “We wanted to continue to create some kind of confusion with the audience about whether the Professor was an honest and a fine guy, or whether he was a dishonest thief,” Pina says. “And we have to be ambiguous in the message we conveyed.”
In “Acapulco,” the same premise abounds, as young Máximo finds himself toeing a “gray line” to climb the resort’s corporate ladder. Co-creator Eduardo Cisneros sees it as the product of a culture of scarcity, “the idea that it’s a zero-sum game, there’s only so much to go around and what we see on screen then, it’s a comedic representation of it.”
Though lighter in tone, the series’ beating heart is about the sacrifice necessitated by dreams, and its aim is to subvert the mythical logic of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps.
“Acapulco,” Cisneros says, is firmly rooted in the “perspective of the servers, the workers, the people behind the scenes.” Beyond its cheerful veneer — the vibrant fuchsia and orange of the Las Colinas resort (coincidentally reminiscent of “Squid Game’s” larger-than-life playgrounds) — is a stark portrait of class disparity.
“Since day one, we wanted to show what it’s like when you pull back the curtain, and when you take something as globally known as the image of this Mexican resort,” Cisneros says. “That eventually grew into an exploration of the haves and have-nots.” The goal is to fuse entertainment with social commentary, he says, like “broccoli with a lot of melty, gooey cheese on it.”
In “Squid Game,” the message is expertly woven into the show’s twisted, adrenaline-fueling games. Meanwhile, “Money Heist” caches its politics in the flagrant, boisterous resistance of its captivating robberies. So, while these series’ protagonists are occasionally complicit within the system they are fighting against, a grander, more insidious villain looms. As countries from South Korea to Spain plunged into economic uncertainty and debt following the Lehman Bros. collapse at the start of the global recession, Hwang and Pina sought narratives to meet the current cultural and sociopolitical moment. And now, as the devastation of the ongoing pandemic and climate change exacerbates economic inequality, Hwang says his story, which draws extensively from his personal life and was more than a decade in the making, shifted from a local lens to include more international appeal.
“It’s been short of two centuries since we’ve seen capitalism,” Hwang says, “and I think it is and it has been put to a test through time, and I think we are living in a world where the many people belonging to capitalism are just not happy. They’re not satisfied. Rather, I think it has made their lives more unfortunate and it’s driving them to a dead end. And I think through the tests that capitalism has been put to, we are now seeing that the reality is it is not capable of responding to the many crises that humanity faces.”
Ultimately, that’s why shows such as these have found global audiences. Amid the imaginative, dystopian-adjacent details of both their worlds, they’re grounded in a reality that resonates, compels and inspires change.
“It’s exciting when people believe in what they are watching and when they adopt this underlying message from the show,” Pina says. “And it was totally unexpected for us. I think it resonated that much due to the unhappiness of a certain time with the society, what was happening [was] people needed to have tools to protest and to have a voice.”