Thursday, 14 August 2014

Grand Hotel, the TV series you love to hate

Spain has given the world more than 5 other countries combined. 

You'll probably reach middle age before you know all dance styles, all music styles, all languages, all subcultures, all food, all world class literature, paintings, that handful of great movies - and feel the need to also study another country (nope, no chauvinism here, this is a Dutch-Belgian speaking).

TV is SO not part of that success story. 

If anything, more often than not Spanish TV is a complete reputation killer.

Those that do have theatre in the genes (the Italians, Britons) can sometimes look at it and think: que? Why is there no build-up or cool down? Why is one emotion not carefully crafted upon the other? Is this a rehearsal? Just a paella of emotions, without further reason, roots or purpose?

And, dammit, it's a pity for there are flashes of brilliance. 

If I were Spain, I would heavily invest in a certain TV series. Take it as seriously as some other countries do. If only as an economic tool. 

England has proven just how profitable and advantageous that can be for a country: the Queen and Period Dramas alone put it on the radar of tens of millions of tourists, investors and CEOs of multinationals alike.

Sure, other countries can't sell that hyper popular product of 'quint-essential Englishness', a source as profitable as the oil of Shell.

I exaggerate. But only for sake of the argument. As a marketing tool 'Downton Abbey' might not attract mass tourism, it does attract a classy or affluent tourism though: those who visit museums, dine out, buy literature, and spread the message to others. Jane Austen is not a mass product, but has the same staunch, educated, rock solid following of Rolls Royce.

Such were my thoughts when I noticed I started to want to speak Spanish better... because of a soap opera.

Pardon, a shampoo opera, for this takes the basics of a soap opera to a whole new level. Compress all the scheming of 3 seasons of Downton Abbey into 5 minutes, and you've got 'Gran Hotel'. 

After the success of the former, it's no surprise also this Spanish TV series is taking the world by (calm) storm. Sure, it is set in 1905, in a Grand House, with a clear division between Upstairs and Downstairs, but that's where the similarities end. 

For where Downton Abbey taps into that winning product of Englishness (say 'English series' and you already know what to expect and are already amused by it), Grand Hotel obviously can't.

It's only set in a luxurious hotel for it wanted to be set in a luxurious hotel, and not because there was a need for it, or to tell something about society or our history or to makes any other connection on a deeper level.

And where Downton Abbey introduced a plethora of true, warm, breathing personalities, characters you recognise in your own life or would wish to know, 'Grand Hotel' has none. From script writer to director to the actors: everyone seems to have been given an urgent order to please not waste time on building a character, not even a caricature. 

This is where I would intervene. As minister of Culture I would call the minister of Finance out of bed: "We have a unique opportunity here! Free all money you've got for the very best script writer we can track. Someone who can really build a personality and a moment. For all other elements are there. It's a once in a lifetime chance to put Spanish TV on the map, not just of Spanish speaking audiences but the whole world".  

In the mean time, we have this suspicion that we are supposed to root for waiter Julio Espinosa and heiress Alicia Alarcón to come together, but we don't. We couldn't care less. They're merely contracted as eye-candy, human shaped creatures that stride from restaurant to gardens, without any genuine or understandable human emotions bar dubious morality. You watch them now, and they're forgotten the moment you switch off the TV.

In this general war on character creation there are only a few flashes of hope: for example fellow-waiter and faithful friend Andrés often is a credible, likeable and consistent character: a person that could actually exist

Every once in a while our limbic brain also manages to organize some sympathy -  quite an achievement in this series - for unlucky sister Sofia Alarcón. After which any empathy for any character goes down the drain again for many, many episodes on end. 

But, but, but... BUT... how beautiful that eye-candy! 

How gorgeous the eyes, how magnificent those gardens, the costumes, the art-direction. It all shines and sparkles as a, er, luxury spa hotel in 1905. 

And then there are the 5 intrigues per square inch! How anyone even dares to whisper in that hotel is beyond me: it's a guarantuee that someone is eaves-dropping, while someone is spying, and the spy is being shadowed by a murderer. 

It is so over the top there should be an Olympic medal for it. 

And yet, and yet: country after country is purchasing broadcasting rights, and who will start watching will do everything to switch off the TV but, damn, will not be able to do so. For it is simply THE guilty pleasure of 2014. 

Everything and everyone is attractive in this series, superficial and exterior attractiveness that is, forgotten the instant the end titles start, but the 50 minutes before are sheer joy: a 'pleasure for the eyes'

Keep on doing that, Julio Espinosa and Alicia Alarcón, Javier, Belén, Andrés, Teresa and the Doña of whom I always forget the name - for whatever you're doing (creating a story? thinking about creating a character one day?), it's fun. Costume and Art Direction - maravilloso.

One very big extra push, minister of Culture, just one more push.  



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