A Spanish period series with a richly saturated palette that is all about a woman who, with the help of her loyal butler, and much to the chagrin of an all-male police force, outstrips the professionals in hunting down a serial killer? On paper, it sounds like Un asunto privado (A Private Affair) would be an absolute slam-dunk of a home run touchdown win for me, but in practice I have way more notes on it than I had hoped.
While her brother Arturo (Pablo Molinero) is being feted for becoming police commissioner—he’s the fifth generation of men in his family to have the honor—his sister Marina Quiroga (Aura Garrido) ducks out of the party so she can make it down to the docks in time to receive her shipment of black market science and criminology journals. When her butler Héctor (Jean Reno) gently scolds her for leaving early, she responds, “These social events make me sick. Such posing, and only the men talk. Nothing changes, Héctor.” (This is promising.) Then she takes the car and zooms off into the night, barely paying attention to the road, leaning over to re-apply lipstick, and often swerving at the last minute to miss another car or a pedestrian. (This is less promising.)
She arrives at the docks in her frothy pink party dress, whipping a scarlet red cape over her shoulders as she exits the car. (The way the red glows against the otherwise dark surroundings is deeply satisfying.) She carefully lifts her skirts and heads determinedly through puddles of questionable liquids into the industrial, oily dark to find Toni (Andrés Velencoso), who steps from the shadows to meet her—the lit end of his cigarette and his white t-shirt glowing against the gloom. However, before Marina and Toni, who take a moment to flirt, can pry open the box of contraband, the silence is split by a woman crying out in anguish. Toni and his Genetically Blessed Face say it has nothing to do with them, and he suggests Marina also stay out of trouble. “Not tonight,” she tells him. So, as he melts back into the shadows, Marina takes off running toward the screams. (As she gets closer, she calls out hello, because this is the obvious thing you want to do when there might be a dangerous attacker nearby. Yoo hoo, Friendly Muuuurderous Person, I’m over heeere!) She creeps closer, past rats feasting on spilled garbage scraps, down some stairs, and into a dank tunnel, where she finds a woman bleeding to death from a gash across her neck. As Marina is trying to tend to the woman, a scruffy man holding a bloody knife appears and attacks her. It seems the man will best her, but thanks to a very conveniently placed rock and the brooch on her cape, Marina manages to escape, find a phone, and call the police. The guy she gets on the phone doesn’t believe her at first, because he still thinks of Marina as a young girl calling up with pranks. Also, because he’s a raging sexist. But eventually other men confirm that she’s right, so the police actually show up to investigate the murder. Sigh.
Thus begins Marina’s foray into life as a side hustling secret-ish detective. As she says, “I have the bravery and courage of ten men.” And she does. When she was young, her father brought home cases that she and Arturo helped solve, taught her to shoot guns, and did everything else to train her to become a top notch police officer. She has more curiosity, intelligence, persistence, and scientific knowledge than most men on the police force. The only thing holding her back? C’mon you know how this tune goes. It’s the fucking Patriarchy.
She quickly ropes the prim and proper Héctor into being the Watson to her Sherlock and, with the help of some sweet-talking, gets insider police information via Pablo Zarco (Gorka Otxoa), her father’s former protégé. Oh, why, yes, sparks do fly between Marina and Pablo, who is very upright and shy. She can easily throw him just by making some off-color joke, which she does quite often. He’s entirely charming when he’s blushing and blustering. Of course, this wouldn’t be a real race for love without a dark-horse competitor, and that man is Andrés Castaño (Álex García), another detective who has a dead wife, a mysterious past, a very dark wardrobe, a high level of comfort with danger and sexual intimacy, and a FACE. Marina and he dislike each other in a way that, in a show like this one, can only mean they want each other deeply.
The mystery of who is killing all these women is perhaps not so mysterious, though this is perhaps not a show where that’s the main fun of watching anyway. If you want complex puzzles, maybe look elsewhere. If you want extremely rich set design, intricate costumes, and a new (possibly over-the-top) adventure every episode, look here. Will people end up hanging off moving trains just as a tunnel is coming up? Yes! Will there be falls from great heights? You bet! Will there be freak storms that nearly spell destruction if not for fate and luck? Oh, for sure! Personally, though, I could have done without the visit to the mental institution being filled with people in the background writhing, yelling, rocking in their chairs, and lunging at Marina. I think they meant to say that the institution was a poorly run place, but it came across as derogatory toward people with mental illnesses as well.
The tone of the series swings between zany almost farcical and seriously soap operatic, which can often work well, but doesn’t always here. Take, for example, Velvet, another series created by Gema R. Neira and Ramón Campos. In that show there were moments of pure silliness and giddy humor juxtaposed against heart-wrenching sagas of thwarted love. However, in Un asunto privado it often flops more than it manages to hop. I’m not sure why it flops here exactly, but the comedy sometimes feels too broad. Like her driving, for example—it’s so in-your-face that there’s not enough space to enjoy it, and I say that as someone who often enjoys campy or obvious humor. Even though I like the stylized sets and almost comic book feel of the series, sometimes it feels too stilted for me to enjoy. Like you’re watching someone who knows they’re doing a bit, so they’re enunciating all the parts very carefully. Though, at other times, the humor does work. Jean Reno is, unsurprisingly, a very good straight man to Aura Garrido’s non-stop hijinks.
The main source of my complicated feelings about the show stems from is the depictions of Marina and the other women. Marina is constantly pushing for herself and women (in the general sense) to be recognized as equal to men. When her brother lectures her about how difficult she makes life for him, his wife, and their mother, Marina passionately explains that “difficult is having to give up on all your dreams. Accepting that you’ll never be the cop you wanted to be, that you’ll have to get married so you’re not considered a freak. That you’ll have to live a certain way just because you’re a woman…All I want to be is who I am.” This is all such good stuff! She’s competent, intelligent, and resourceful, and yet, she’s constantly being saved in the nick of time from life-threatening situations by men. It’s infuriating to watch. She talks again and again about pushing the boundaries of society, but she’s required to do it all in heels or, occasionally, in stocking feet, which often causes her to run in short little steps like a mechanical doll. My feet ache for her, and I just feel like the costume designers could have given her at least one pair of sensible—but still cute, of course!—shoes. Because, let me tell you, that woman literally hikes miles through the wilderness in those suckers at one point, and that is a crime that needs to be further investigated.
Moreover, the show doesn’t leave much room for any other female characters to be more than wallpaper, prostitutes, saintly victims, or nags. In flashbacks, the show depicts the violence perpetrated against the murder victims, and this easily could have been skipped. We don’t need more images of women being violated when it serves nothing but gratuitous gore. And sure, Marina can talk a good game about how they’re all women, and they are, but, without any backstory or any agency, it’s difficult or impossible for them to slip their stereotypes and speak freely. If Arturo’s wife speaks, it can’t be more than a word or two. Marina’s mother is constantly fretting, complaining, and drinking away her evenings. Marina makes jokes about how it’s a punishment to be alone with her mother, and she also dislikes Aruturo’s wife. Look, I’m not saying that women have to like all other women—Good gracious! I would never!—but I do think it’s problematic when your feminist main character is surrounded solely by men.
The message in that case seems to be that she is somehow exceptional for a woman, which she’s not. Marina is exceptionally smart for a human, but clearly the argument should be that plenty of women are capable of doing the job that men are doing. And I do think there’s more to her mother’s character than this season lets on, and there is no question if Ángela Molina is good in the role, but it’s still disappointing to see yet another mother character be overbearing and annoying while the father, seen here only in memories, is the light of everyone’s life. Again, I think if the series has further seasons there will be more to both those stories, but boy howdy, for once would I like to start from a different place.