There is no denying the continued appeal of cartel stories in mainstream entertainment. From Narcos and Queen of the South to Sicario: Day of the Soldado and the upcoming Miss Bala remake, there’s no shortage of media about kingpin drug traffickers and their cronies. As Héctor Tobar put it in a recent op-ed in the New York Times, “Hollywood has become addicted to the narco narrative because it offers a tried-and-true tale of good and evil on an epic scale.” Tobar ends his screed against this ever more insidious trend by asking executives to understand that there are other Latino stories that need not be centered on the drug war. VH1’s latest reality show Cartel Crew feels like an inadvertently fascinating, if frustrating, response to Tobar’s challenge.
If we must find new ways of telling cartel stories, here’s one that remains under-explored. Shot in the style of your favorite Housewives/Jersey Shore show, Cartel Crew takes a look into the lives of eight descendants of the cartel life as they navigate adulthood and the effects the legacy has had on their upbringing.
That premise sounds ripe for exploration. How do you build a life for yourself, for example, if you’re the son of Griselda Blanco, the “Cocaine Godmother”? How do you start over if your father is assassinated and you’re forced to flee the home you’ve always known? What does your day-to-day look like when you know your dad was arrested and sent to federal prison for being a cocaine trafficker? These aren’t abstract questions for Michael Blanco, Kat “Tatu Baby” Flores,and Stephanie Acevedo respectively. They are, instead, questions that echo into their everyday lives in Miami and which they make a point of stressing as they let cameras follow them for this glossily packaged Miami-set show.
Watching the pilot episode of the series, I got the sense that there’s a truly groundbreaking docuseries lurking here. When Blanco is confronted by a radio interviewer who asks him how he responds to criticisms that his soon-to-be-released lifestyle clothing brand “Puro Blanco” glorifies his mother’s cartel years and profits from the blood she spilled, his responses are necessarily complicated. He clearly wrestles with those issues. But he insists that he’s just living the American Dream by turning his mother’s (and his own) criminal past into a marketable brand. One he hopes will allow him and his girlfriend Marie Ramirez de Arellano to financially thrive. Otherwise he might, as we’re reminded over and over again, slide back into his old habits.
“I want to distribute dope clothing like my mom distributed dope around the world,” he says at one point. Which is as tone-deaf yet self-aware as the show gets. At another point, tattoo artist Tatu Baby all but echoes him: “I’m going to be the female Pablo Escobar of tattoos. The one that nobody fucks with and makes all the money.”
A show interested in what that kind of rhetoric reflects — how it perpetuates and sanitizes Griselda and Escobar’s images by turning them into entrepreneurial models to follow — would be thrilling. It’d be uncharted territory. But, this being a personality-driven reality TV show, those moments end up being mere catchphrase-ready soundbites. They pepper clichéd catty fights, fashion launches, and manufactured family heart-to-hearts that are a dime a dozen in the genre. For every eye-opening moment about co-parenting a child with a man who’s recently been put on house arrest, there are plenty more about vapid in-fighting. The kind that end with: “They’re lucky this ain’t a real fucking cartel.”
— Cartel Crew (@CartelCrewVH1) January 8, 2019
The show as a whole, in fact, goes a long way towards selling “cartel life” as a new lifestyle brand. The show’s establishing shots, for example, are made to look like surveillance-type images. Camera snaps are supposed to mirror intel photographs gathered by DEA agents (we even get redacted faces). Just like the men and women the show is chronicling, the Cartel Crew’s visual language apes that of other cartel narratives but rids it of its specificity. When all is said and done, this is a boilerplate reality TV show that just so happens to star sons and daughters of former cartel leaders. “My name is Nicole Zavala,” a young Colombian woman tells us in her requisite intro confessional; “my ultimate goal is for everybody to know who the fuck Nicole Zavala is.”
That kind of line and others like it (later Nicole adds: “People always coming at me like, ‘You’re gonna look really plastic and fake’” when talking about her plastic surgery-enhanced body, which she showcases in ever-more revealing tops and swimsuits throughout the episode, “But that’s exactly how I wanna look: plastic and fake”) tells you everything you need to know about Cartel Crew. Which is a shame. Because beneath its hair-pulling fights and drink-fueled altercations the show has clearly tapped into a fascinating group of people with family histories worth exploring.
Cartel Crew airs Mondays on VH1.