TV Writers Weigh In: Is Mexican Television Glorifying Narcos?

If it seems like U.S. media has been besieged by an endless parade of narco stories over the past few years, just imagine what Mexican film and television has looked like. From ethically dubious telenovelas like El señor de los cielos to brutally insightful features like El infierno, Mexican media has become in many ways a reflection of the violence that has racked the country since the Cártel de Juárez took over the coke game from Pablo Escobar back in the 1990s. But is all of this merely a mirror held up to a terrible reality, or does the media actually participate in perpetuating this cycle of violence?

It’s a debate as old as film itself, and while there seems to be no clearcut answer to be had, it was recently rekindled at the Los Cabos International Film Festival after a screening of the new Mexican teleseries El Dandy. Produced by Sony Pictures Television in collaboration with Teleset and Televisa, El Dandy is an adaptation of the 1997 organized crime classic Donnie Brasco, set in the high-crime neighborhoods of Mexico City. In the series, a law professor is hired by the attorney general to infiltrate Mexico City’s notorious organized crime networks, only to find himself wrapped up in a dangerous friendship with El Chueco (Damián Alcázar), one of the men he’s been sent to take down.

While the series itself features some small-scale drug distribution, the real focus is on petty crimes like piracy and forgery. Nevertheless, at a recent panel with writers Rodrigo Ordoñez and Max Zunino during the Cabos Film Fest, the public was most interested in how the team approached the ethical dilemma of representing narco crime in the creation of the series. The result was an interesting and respectful debate about violence in Mexican television that brought about some insightful reflections. Here are the highlights.

On What Attracted Them to the Project

“We’re in this era of the antihero narrative, not just in Mexico but around the world.”

It’s very interesting how this culture of illegality has coexisted with us in Mexico with for many decades. In this country we’re very used to this, and there are family businesses and even entire neighborhoods dedicated to organized crime, and this is the reason we were interested in this project.

On The Difficulties of Adaptation

There is this idea for big companies like Sony to go with the safe bet, which is holding on to properties they already own like the film Donnie Brasco. And so they contact you and say, “How about we do an adaptation?” But the film lasts two hours and the series lasts 70. So you have to invent 70 hours of story. I think we didn’t even [go] back to the film after the seventh episode. We told the story we wanted to tell and were able to tell that within our budget limitations, etc.

On The Dangers of Aspirational Crime Series

“The kids are saying, ‘I prefer to die at 40 surrounded by luxuries and women than live a decent life for 80 years.’”

This is not aspirational. This is not El señor de los cielos… but yes, it’s very paradoxical that in many projects we’ve tried to make the audience identify with the good guy, and nobody’s rooting for the good guy, and you read the commentaries and for everyone the good guy is a terrible bore… Yes, we’re in this era of the antihero narrative, not just in Mexico but around the world, but in Mexico our reality is so terrible that these should not be aspirational models.

It’s horrible that the kids are saying, “I prefer to die at 40 surrounded by luxuries and women than live a decent life for 80 years.” Yes, there is an aspirational theme in these [other] narco stories in Mexico and it’s really fucked up. We tried not to play into that, and in the end we’re telling a story where a hero wants to do good.

On Shared Responsibility

The problem with all of this is that even though we try to avoid the typical narco narrative, we’re not actually the ones who decide what to tell and what not to tell, and the producer behind the show is concerned about what the audience is asking for. So it’s complex, because they need to give concrete results in terms of weekly sales so they can get advertisers, and the advertisers come when the audience comes. And the people are gravitating toward this type of content, so at the end of the day we’re all complicit.

On The Differences Between Screenwriters and Politicians

We don’t write to get a message across, we write to lay out complex stories and invite people to question what they would do in certain situations. Basically, good dramatic writing asks questions, it doesn’t give answers. And our job is simply to make an interesting story and make those questions interesting so that the viewer is moved to ask them. As for giving answers, that’s something for a politician on the campaign trail, and that’s not our job right now.

On the Myth that Violent Films Lead to Violent Behavior

That’s like saying, “I’m not going to watch a horror movie because it might turn me into a serial killer.”

El Dandy is currently airing on TNT in Mexico and premieres in the U.S. on UniMás in early 2016.