The trailer for Amazon Prime’s Borderline introduced a show with its tongue planted firmly in its cheek. Geo Santini’s series takes place near the U.S.-Mexico border, in the same setting as FX’s The Bridge, and one similar to Netflix’s Narcos. But while those shows focus on (and sometimes get lost in) international relations and violence, Borderline looks inward at the host of characters that make up a drug lord’s staff or a DEA office. And the show reveals that those people are often self-centered idiots.
Santini plays Jerry Diaz, the heir apparent to a Mexican drug cartel boss who falls ass-backwards into the driver’s seat when his father goes missing. No one really thinks he’s suited for the job, which is the same position that his adversary, DEA Agent Bob Dil (Eric Curtis Johnson), finds himself in at the show’s opening. But like players in a Shakespearean farce, they speak in asides and scheme in their free time.
We talked to Santini about Borderline’s creation, his inspirations, and making the requisite comparisons to The Godfather and The Sopranos. But it’s obvious that Santini, who forged his own path into comedy, has his own vision — which is something he’ll need for the second season that is reportedly already in the works.
First of all, how did you get into comedy?
I started off doing music videos, and then I did a film for Lionsgate. From there, I just started shooting developmental shorts. I got signed to do a bunch of films; I did commercials, pursued different avenues. My agent suggested doing a Funny Or Die video, so I did, and it went viral. I started realizing how much I loved comedy. It was a dark time for me — my mom had just passed away — but I was still able to laugh, so I just fell in love with comedy.
“It is completely satire; there’s nothing to take seriously about this. It’s just joke after joke after joke.”
Ordinarily, Amazon polls audience reactions to the shows that make up its pilot season, and those votes potentially lead to series orders. But you didn’t have to go through that, did you?
No, we created our show independently; it started as a small project, a proof of concept, but it kept growing. We had originally sold it to another platform (which I won’t mention), but it just ended up working best with Amazon. I’m a fan of what they’re doing programming-wise. I love Transparent. Amazon Prime was relatively new, and I’m always excited to be involved with something from the early stages. And it kind of resembled our project — it’s fresh, it’s new, it’s kind of different. But when we signed our deal, it was before Transparent won the Golden Globe and it was kind of like all these great things are happening at the same time.
You’re involved with Borderline from the top down — you’re the creator, director, writer, and one of the stars. So how’d you get started on it?
The way the show started out was I created the character of Jerry Diaz. We have a YouTube channel where we did sketches, and the original intention was to do a sketch.
I got the idea for Jerry when we were out at lunch and came across these guys who had a “cartel look.” We singled out one guy as the boss, and we were just goofing around with ideas for the character’s motivations. And I read this article about this cartel guy who was busted for posting images on the Internet and putting stuff on Instagram. I thought it was an interesting spin on it, that this would be an interesting series. It would be funny, it would be wacky, but I think people would kind of dig it.
So is this a parody of shows like Narcos, or a commentary on the War On Drugs?
I didn’t know about Narcos until about three months before our release date. When we actually started talking about [Borderline], it was as a comedic version of The Sopranos. Think The Office meets Breaking Bad. It looks like it was planned out, but it wasn’t. It just happened to be a great coincidence. I didn’t know about Narcos, but that world — it’s a very dark world, and there’s some really serious stuff going on. But we took it and made it light and thought more about the characters and the goofiness. We have no drug paraphernalia in the whole series, because we weren’t trying to glamorize it [the cartel lifestyle]. It is completely satire; there’s nothing to take seriously about this. It’s just joke after joke after joke.
“The title has a double meaning — [Jerry’s] borderline bipolar. He doesn’t understand real-world things.”
Tell us about your character, Jerry Diaz, the new head of the cartel.
I thought about what would a guy that grows up in a drug cartel would do, who really doesn’t have any experience in the real world. And the thing is, he doesn’t realize he’s bipolar. The title has a double meaning — [Jerry’s] borderline bipolar. He doesn’t understand real-world things. His father’s missing. He wants to prove to the world that he can run the business. His grasp of reality is very warped. Kids nowadays aren’t getting out into the real world. They’re absorbing all their culture and the reality of what’s happening in the world through social media and the Internet. That’s what Jerry’s doing. He doesn’t understand that it’s not legal or acceptable. He thinks he’s going to build a Fortune 500 company, make his family proud, and be seen as a hero.
So what’s the biggest hurdle in running the family business when the family business is a drug cartel?
[Jerry’s] always going to be his own biggest hurdle [laughs]. But again, he doesn’t grasp the business. He doesn’t see the hurdles. He’s like [DEA agent] Bob Dil — they’re both put in a position that they have no position being in. But as the saying goes, “a fumbling idiot always finds his way.” I see Jerry Diaz and Bob Dil as those guys. You start rooting for Jerry. You wanna see what he says and does. He’s always inappropriate; there is no filter. It’s gonna be interesting to see how all that stuff plays out.
Watching the show, we saw there’s incompetence and naked ambition on both sides of the border. Is everyone — the DEA, the cartels, the henchmen — fair game?
Yes, 100 percent. Every stereotype, every person — we go after everything. We even go against corporations. We’re making fun of the War on Drugs.
“Every stereotype, every person — we go after everything. We even go against corporations. We’re making fun of the War on Drugs.”
You mentioned The Sopranos, but Borderline’s world is almost like an alternate version of The Godfather, where Fredo became the don. Did you consider the movie as an influence while working on Borderline?
I didn’t really draw from anything. What I wanted to show was to be something unique. I took the landscape of that [mafia] world — we have the mansions, the cars, all the guns. But I wanted to see that in an unorthodox way, as a kind of soap opera where you’ve got these guys sitting around gossiping. Maybe image-wise we were inspired by classic shows and movies, but our tone is unique. From a comedy standpoint, we took some of our inspiration from what was happening in the news. There will even be a fake news segment called the Narco News on the show.
Do you have a favorite actor or character to write for?
I love writing for the DEA agent [Bob Dil]. It’s just so fun for me because when we first shot the pilot, Eric came in and he just owned it. And I just kept pushing the taste level with him, pushing the sexual harassment elements…just kept pushing. It’s really fun to write for him and to see him perform.
The complete first season is on Amazon Prime now. How did you wrap things up?
We left the first season on a cliffhanger, and we left everything open-ended. Without giving too much away, certain DEA agents are in the wrong part of town. We were focused on having a very intricate plot. Even though there’s lots of joking and silliness, there’s still a story we want you to follow along with. The whodunnits, and who’s backstabbing who, and who’s really on what side? There’s definitely some drama.
“I never saw being Latino as being a challenge; it was always a positive thing.”
You seem to be creating your own opportunities. As a Latino, have you ever encountered limited artistic opportunities?
I have always created my own work. I didn’t go to film school. I was in the music industry starting at 17; I was recording in studios and meeting different artists. But I just kind of had to do it myself; I’m very impatient. This show was a great idea. It was supposed to be a sketch or maybe a web series, but it became a TV series. And I can’t tell you how it happened. We didn’t have any big names, but it just became something bigger than we’d ever intended.
I never saw being Latino as being a challenge; it was always a positive thing. I always saw it as the one-up I had on other people. I grew up on a block that was diverse and culturally rich. And I always knew our numbers would be huge, and now there are all these Latino-led shows. We’re breaking all these different stereotypes.
Drug crime at the U.S.-Mexico border is a very sensitive subject, but sometimes things are so bad that you have to laugh to keep from crying. And Borderline is helping shape the narrative from south of the border.
I’m a fan of the crime or drug drama genre, but it’s just fun to see the same kind of characters and situations in a comedy. There was always something funny about the goombah characters from The Sopranos. We just wanted to show the lighter side.
The first season of Borderline is available on Amazon Instant Video and Amazon Prime.