Spanish crime drama La Casa de Papel is one of the finest slices of TV on Netflix and you need to give it a chance
We need to talk about Money Heist. The Spanish-language show on Netflix – known as La Casa de Papel (house of paper) in its native tongue – is one of the best shows on Netflix that too many people aren’t watching, despite being the streaming service’s most watched non-English language show.
I mean, it’s called Money Heist, which is one of the least compelling English-language names; and it’s in Spanish, which means you either have to watch subtitles (the horror), or listen to an unconvincing American-English dub (even more horror), where everyone sounds a little bored and a lot like they’re reading from a translated script. There are so many barriers to entry here that I wouldn’t blame you for never taking that first step into the world of Money Heist. But, in an irony that wouldn’t be lost on the show’s characters, you’re robbing yourself of one of the richest shows of the past few years.
The plot focuses on a bunch of highly experienced, Self-Reliance, career criminals who follow a plan to rob the Royal Mint of Spain. Well, rob doesn’t quite do it justice… I’m trying to avoid spoilers here, but this isn’t a simple cash grab. There are hostages, political messages, psychological games, and a hell of a lot of interpersonal conflict. The Dali-mask wearing heist crew are all under the guidance of a man who calls himself The Professor, the mastermind behind the robbery. He’s the character the whole series pivots on, although each of the criminals (and several members of the police) are outstanding enough to carry much of the screentime on their own. It’s rare to see so many watchable players in a single TV show, yet here they are, losing nothing in the translation either.
The actual heist itself is a rollercoaster ride of emotions, and in that smart way only the very best TV shows manage, your allegiance is constantly in flux between the police and the criminals, the notion of who are the ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ constantly shifting. What’s more, the level of detail and number of tactical twists involved in this heist are phenomenal – its level of subtlety making the likes of Ocean’s Eleven seem like a drunkard sticking a pistol in the face of a gas-station employee and screaming “Give me the cash” while CCTV records the whole affair. It’s telling that a show can cover a single event for the course of 22 episodes, each 45 minutes long, and still maintain its pace and potency throughout.
There are moments in La Casa de Papel that expertly tread the line between believability and compelling fiction; taut scenarios that play out with that neat mix of tension and realism, all of which are perfectly designed to keep you watching for ‘just one more episode’. The Professor himself carries most of the cliffhangers through the show, his expert planning and wonderfully confident performance almost mirroring those of the showrunners, who keep the audience guessing before presenting a satisfying conclusion and escalating the story to a whole new level. During every single episode.
Money Heist also manages some wonderfully subversive tricks too. It presents several of the hostages as the true villains of the peace. It shows the vulnerability and fragility of the police officers dealing with the heist. And it constantly undermines our expectations of who the robbers are and what motivates them. While it clearly draws inspiration from the likes of the Oceans franchise, The Sting, Inside Man, Heat, and any other great heist movies you care to mention, it evolves the classic ‘cops ‘n’ robbers’ formula in ways you definitely haven’t seen before. Sure, you’ve cheered on the criminals in other shows and movies, but how often did their plight leave you close to (or actually in) tears? Or how many times did you actually cheer, out loud, at their victories? You’ll likely do both of these, and so much more, during the course of Money Heist.
Sure, there are weak links in the chain. Some of the plot lines are more contrived than others, and occasional episodes feature ‘one twist too many’. There are moments when you’ll shout at the TV to either admonish certain characters for their naivety or to tell them “anyone could have worked that out by now!”, but these all feel like part of the theatre of the show. For the most part the narrative is incredibly clever and very well paced. Certain speeches and lines of dialogue lose a little in translation, and the attitudes of certain characters can seem a little off until you get to know them better. But on the whole, everything hangs together so well, it’s easy to forgive these minor imperfections.
If you must watch with the dub, then it’s better than not watching at all, but you definitely lose much of the expressiveness of the characters. The Professor’s English-language voice is especially poor, losing much of the confidence and gravitas of his speech. Similarly, Inspector Murillo’s dub makes her sound more like a deferring housewife than the resilient lead investigator. Still, there are worse voiceovers out there (hello, Dark), and it stays reasonably faithful to the Spanish script. As do the subtitles.
With a name as generic as Money Heist, and the added difficulty of subtitles, it’s a miracle anyone outside of native Spain (and the more niche, foreign crime drama communities) have watched this show at all. It’s a tough sell for a vast, global audience, and it’s testament to the quality that Money Heist is currently Netflix’s best-watched non-English show. It took me three months to finally take the plunge after adding it to my Watchlist, the lure of shows like GLOW season 2, Luke Cage season 2, and Lost in Space always seeming more tempting and ‘easier’ to digest – but I’m so glad I did. So take an hour of your TV-watching life to immerse yourself in one of the best crime dramas of recent times, and learn to accept the subtitles. You could just discover your new favourite show, and once that happens you won’t stop watching until the bitter, thrilling, emotional end.