I love trashy teen TV series. All of the betrayals, backstabbing, social climbing combined with actors who are in their 20s…these shows are my kryptonite. Recently, we’ve seen kind of a renaissance of this type of show, from Riverdale to How to Get Away with Murder and beyond. Because they are on network TV, the creators can’t get away delving too heavily into the sexuality, though shows like …Murder manage to push envelopes in delightfully trashy ways. Into this landscape comes a Netflix original and boy does it deliver.
In the world of Élite, the students of Las Encinas are rich and entitled. They come from a life of luxury and riches, with nary a concern about anything except who they’re sleeping with or whatever next scandal might erupt. When a local state school’s roof collapses, the contractor who made the school sets up a scholarship for some of the students to attend Las Encinas. As Élite begins, three students are the recipients of the scholarship and are about to begin their first year in a rich new world.
There’s Samuel, a waiter whose brother Nano just got out of jail and is already embroiled in crime. Nadia, a Muslim girl who knows what this type of life can do for her future. And then there’s beefcake Christian, who’s just there to have a good time and make connections. Of course, the classmates at Las Encinas aren’t too happy with the so-called “riffraff” joining their life of luxury.
Élite begins in the future, when Samuel is found, dazed and confused, in the school, blood smeared on his hands. There’s been a murder, and everyone is a suspect. The narrative flips back and forth between the past and the future, as the police try to figure out who is the killer and we, the viewer, see all of the events that led to this fateful encounter. As the story progresses over the 8 episodes, we get to know the students and teachers at the school and see how the lies everyone tells and all the backstabbing makes the murder less cut and dry than it may seem.
The best way I can describe Élite is that it’s How to Get Away with Murder…with butts. There’s a yearly trophy at the end of the school year (like in …Murder) that can give one lucky student a glorious future. A trip to a Florida school and Ivy League status. So you have people like Nadia who see this as an opportunity to pull herself out of her situation. And then you have people like Lu, who doesn’t need the perks it’ll give but simply sees it as another competition that she must win, whatever the cost. Another similarity is the time shifts from the future and the present (or present and past?) that shows the twisty journey to the murder.
Netflix leans hard into the Mature rating and allows its cast to get naked, curse and fool around with impunity. It’d be incredibly scandalous if the cast weren’t obviously in their twenties. Thank goodness for that, because honestly this show is steamy.
One thing I really liked about the show is just how sex positive it is. Intermixed with the typically heteronormative relationships, we have a very strong gay couple who are just now exploring their sexualities. It dives into familial obligations and race in a way that feels both nuanced and, yet, somehow skin deep. Another relationship involves a M/M/F threesome (!!), which isn’t the typical gender pairing in TV shows and it leans hard into it. That relationship was probably the most interesting in the season, as it showed experimentation and examined the themes of control.
Other topics Élite digs into is obviously the socio-economical conflicts between the upper crust and those living at or below the poverty line. Unfortunately, like the exploration of race and sexuality mentioned above, it feels very superficial. Set dressing. The story is at its best when it just allows its characters to be characters. As the story progresses and the murder becomes more central to the story, the more nuanced aspects of the show falls away, which is kind of a shame.
The acting is incredibly strong overall. Standouts include María Pedraza as Marina, who has a very conflicted and emotional journey throughout the story. Additionally, Jaime Lorente, as Nano, Samuel’s recently paroled brother, brings pathos to a character that could be one dimensional. Other actors are just as good and bring depth to characters that I found myself caring about. From the cold an calculating Carla to the goof-in-love Ander, the creators of the show really sell the relationships.
Unfortunately, at only 8 episodes, there’s a lot to cover besides the central murder mystery, which becomes the main narrative thrust. A lot of the issues and characters that felt so fresh and interesting tend to either get glossed over, ignored to reduced to caricatures by the last episode. With a cast of 10+ memorable characters, each with their own backstories and their own agendas, the story feels a bit too big to be contained in so few episodes. It adds to the frenetic pace that surprises for a Netflix show, but at the same time I wanted to spend more time with these characters. Basically, I hope it gets renewed.
For those looking for their next binge-worthy teen drama, filled with sex and lies (and videotape?) and backstabbing aplenty, Élite is a very worthy addition. I loved every minute of it.