Money Heist, more elegantly titled La Casa de Papel in the original Spanish, is Netflix’s most popular non-English language series, but is bafflingly underappreciated in the UK and US.
When I first watched it I had the feeling of discovering some little-known indie film, because nobody else had heard of it. Then I would look up the stars and discover it had 10 million followers on Instagram.
This wasn’t just Anglophone arrogance. The default setting was a dreadful English-language dub, rather than subtitles. If you chanced upon it you would think it was stilted trash, rather than what it is: the silkiest, most perfectly constructed trash on TV. A master criminal called The Professor (Alvaro Morte) assembled a team of eight master criminals to take over the royal mint in Spain, dressed in red jumpsuits with Dali masks.
They named themselves after international cities: there was Rio (Miguel Herran), an IT whizz; Nairobi (Alba Flores), a forger; Moscow (Paco Tous), an former miner turned criminal; etc. Once inside, they could print money for as long as they can hold out against the police, their hostages and their own internal strife.
The series was as slickly executed as the heist. It had everything a heist needs; wild ingenuity, loveable rogues and a clear sense of physical geography. Except for The Professor, the gang were inside, surrounded by the cops. It was a post-crash thriller, with a Robin Hood moral angle. Not only were we rooting for them, but they might actually be the good guys.
Flashbacks gave context to the gang’s travails as they played cat and mouse with the police, led by Raquel Murillo (Itziar Ituño). Each revealed hidden depths, especially the psychopathic aesthete Berlin (Pedro Alonso). It was nonsense, but very enjoyable. I craved new episodes.
So did the rest of the world, evidently. We are up to season four, and the programme has become such a worldwide phenomenon that a documentary is being released at the same time. The gang are locked into their new target, the Bank of Spain. Nairobi is in trouble, and so is Palermo, a new character who was introduced in the previous series as a foil to Berlin.
Although supremely watchable, Tokyo (Ursula Corbero), the unreliable narrator, has always been a dramatic weak link, a lunatic supermodel with no discernible skillset, and the script stretches itself to justify her presence.
I won’t give away too many spoilers. There is no point watching Money Heist if you don’t begin at the beginning, and the twists are the fun of the thing. The star rating here is for the series as a whole, which is peerless escapism. But ennui is setting in. It was intended to be a two-part limited series for a Spanish network, Antena 3, before it blew up and Netflix stepped in.
The problems it has are familiar to every programme that becomes a sacred cow for its network, kept alive beyond its natural lifespan. The early episodes were characterised by a rush of twists and new ideas. Now they are being dragged out to fill airtime. Plot dynamics are being reheated and repeated, with diminishing returns. All the joy in the heist format is wondering how the robbers will escape. With Money Heist, I’m starting to dread the new ways the producers will find to keep me locked in.