Sometimes you want a TV show to feel challenging, as though it vaguely resents you even watching it. Sometimes the show itself isn’t that enjoyable, but thinking about it is nice. In that case, I’d recommend The Romanoffs. But if what you’re looking for is the exact opposite of that — a show that’s fast moving and fun and not especially deep, but still about people with very deep feelings — may I suggest Elite, Netflix’s new entry into the “horny teens behaving badly” category of TV dramas.
Elite will remind you of lots of other shows. Riverdale, for its color palette and its tempo and its extremely attractive teens who get up to no good, often while in bed with each other in ever-shifting configurations. (And Gossip Girl, for similar reasons.) It will also remind you of Big Little Lies, largely for its timeline-skipping structure, which includes flash-forward scenes where a police officer interrogates all the major characters about a murder. It’s got a solid dash of BLL in its central premise, too: In the opening episode, three scholarship students from working-class families arrive for their first day at a wealthy, exclusive private school, and much of the season is about the friction between their cultures.
While Elite will absolutely scratch an itch for anyone looking to replicate the delicious, pulpy momentum of those other teen dramas, it’s also happily, completely itself. It’s messy and fast-paced. It’s happy to poke at the sensitive cultural spots like closeted gay teens, sexually transmitted diseases, racism, and the corruption of wealth. But it’s pulling in those subjects to provide more fuel for its tangle of hot high schoolers, who keep falling in love with the wrong people and disappointing their parents and partying too hard and making terrible choices you just know they can’t avoid. And if much of the grist for Elite’s quickly churning mill comes from the divide between the wealthy and the working class, its underlying message is one of equality. It does not matter if your mom is a marchioness, or if your parents own a grocery store, or if your brother just got out of prison, or if you’re an up-and-coming tennis star: The giddy thrill of transgressive teendom is a great equalizer.
Part of why Elite works as well as it does is that it begins with recognizable, clichéd character types, but then it doesn’t take long for them to twist into more idiosyncratic creations. Both sides of that equation are crucial for its success. Elite needs these kids to start out as representative of a whole abstract class of people, so it can swiftly incorporate the narrative tensions of their roles as a shorthand. There’s Nadia (Mina El Hammani), the scholarship student who wears a hijab and is forced to take it off during school. There’s Guzmán (Miguel Bernardeau), the handsome, ultraprivileged alpha boy who may actually be a little sad. There’s Lu (Danna Paola), the super-wealthy villainess and snob who always has to get her own way.
But Elite is even better than I was expecting because it takes those types and gives them more internal life. That’s particularly true for Marina (María Pedraza), who’s wealthy and tragic and sympathetic and also far from angelic, and Christian (Miguel Herrán), a scholarship kid who gets caught up in a high-school bet that’s meant to embarrass him, but somehow turns into a surprisingly functional triad relationship between him and one of the school’s most privileged, golden couples. That nuanced character development is a little less true for Samuel (Itzan Escamilla), the last of the three scholarship kids, who spends much of the season trying to be the good guy in any number of impossible situations, and who often doesn’t have more to say than “Oh no!” and “Don’t, you’ll get in even more trouble!” But he does it with such sweetness that it’s hard to resent him. Plus, by the end of the season, things accelerate to such a life-threatening pace that his few moments of comparative dullness are easily forgivable.
A final note: I would never tell you how to watch a TV show — all our TV habits are our own, and if you want to make dubious choices like watching in cropped aspect ratios or watching without headphones in a public place, that is a decision you have to make yourself and take the consequences as they come — but streaming shows like Elite offer a particular choice from English-language audiences. Should you pick between watching in its original Spanish with subtitles, or with dubbed dialogue? Please, please, please consider watching the subtitled version. If you don’t, you miss the fine subtleties of Lu’s gloriously mean takedowns, and the fantastic line readings in the pained love story between Omar (Omar Ayuso) and Ander (Arón Piper). You’ll also miss a pretty mortifying spoken word/rap performance in one of the season’s middle episodes, and honestly, why would you deprive yourself of that?
Elite is not pushing new boundaries in television, it’s not a self-serious reboot of an old property, and it’s definitely not aiming at airless highbrow experimentation. In spite of that — or more likely because of it! — its commitment to breakneck melodrama is undeniably enjoyable.