Why you should care
Because forbidden love and betrayal are hot in any language.
English-speaking audiences may have previously dismissed Spanish-language series as melodramatic (see: cries in Spanish), but three recent high-budget Spanish period dramas — Velvet, Gran Hotel and Las Chicas del Cable — deliver addictively complex plotlines that fuse the camaraderie of Grey’s Anatomy, the workplace sexism of Mad Men, the humor of Friends and love stories from countless other TV shows.
Tackling universally identifiable themes, including forbidden love, family betrayal, socioeconomic tensions and women battling the odds in a male-dominated world, these three series — all directed by Carlos Sedes and produced by Ramón Campos and Teresa Fernández Valdés — are indisputably binge-worthy for international audiences. And luckily, all are available on Netflix (with subtitles).
Netflix doesn’t release viewing figures, but Antena 3 reported an average of 3 to 4 million viewers when Velvet and Gran Hotel originally aired. Now viewers across Spain and Latin America are engrossed in the three shows’ romance and nostalgia, something Paul Julian Smith, distinguished professor at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, attributes to an ocean. “My feeling is that there is a niche audience for Spanish period drama abroad,” he says. Spain has released several costume dramas over the past decade, Smith says, which other Latin American countries rarely do. Plus, non-Spanish-speaking viewers will recognize faces, from between the shows themselves and from other popular productions. Cable Girls’ Blanca Suárez and Velvet’s Miguel Ángel Silvestre, for example, have appeared in Pedro Almodóvar films (Silvestre has also appeared in Sense8 and Narcos).
So if you aren’t already swooning over Velvet’s charismatic Alberto (Silvestre) or dreaming of dancing alongside Cable Girls’ adventurous Carlota (Ana Fernández García), it’s time to sit back and enjoy the historically informed romance and betrayal.
Velvet (Antena 3, 2013–16, 55 episodes)
Spanning the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Mad Men–esque, Madrid-set Velvet is centered on the lives of the management and employees of the fictitious Spanish fashion powerhouse Galerias Velvet. Over the course of four seasons, multiple failed attempts at love are made by seamstress Ana Ribera (Paula Echeverría) and Alberto Márquez (Miguel Ángel Silvestre), son of the store’s owner.
The angst is palpable, but comedic relief and heartfelt friendships underscore that though life is unfair, there’s nowhere to go but forward. (Also, that if you get punched at the office, having a glass of whiskey at 10 a.m. will make you feel better, and that if you’re upset you can hurl the contents of your desk to the floor.)
Las Chicas del Cable (Cable Girls; Netflix Original, 2017–present, 21 episodes)
The raunchiest of the three shows, Cable Girls chronicles the lives of four women working at Spain’s premier telephone company as, you guessed it, chicas del cable. While they depend on one another for friendship and support in a sexist world, they also force one another to be accomplices in illegal activities. In the recently released third season, Lidia Aguilar (Blanca Suárez) continues to teach viewers about loyalty, sacrifice and, of course, lying for the greater good.
While the show’s biggest failure is in its attempt to convey big ideas about feminism, gender and sexuality, the plot entanglements and cliffhangers make it a worthwhile watch.
Gran Hotel (Antena 3, 2011–13, 39 episodes)
Often referred to as the Spanish Downton Abbey, Gran Hotel takes place in a coastal village hotel in turn-of-the-century Spain, but life is far from simple. The drama begins when a murder occurs during the hotel’s fiesta de la luz — an ostentatious celebration of the arrival of electricity. A few weeks later, the victim’s brother arrives, willing to lie, cheat and snare anyone in his quest to find out the truth (while falling in love along the way).
The characters aren’t sexting, but there’s plenty of insinuated corset-removal throughout the hotel’s corridors. The family matriarch’s sinister smile will send chills down your spine — and possibly convince you that sometimes it’s OK to betray your children in order to cover up your mistakes.
You might want to start watching Gran Hotel now, before the American version of the show debuts. ABC is currently working on Grand Hotel, with a Miami setting and Eva Longoria in a starring role.