Some day, there will come a time when Latino prestige television won’t feel synonymous with drug cartel narratives. But it seems we’ll have to wait a while longer. After the success of shows like La reina del sur and Narcos, it was only a matter of time until someone got in the game with yet another TV show about a drug kingpin. Enter: the Univision and Netflix co-production El Chapo. They’re not making it subtle so we don’t need to tell you it’s about the infamous drug lord, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. What we should tell you is that, if its first episode is any indication, we’re getting yet another version of the drug lord-as-antihero story.
Above all, the show wants you to know this is all based on true events. The first handful of images we see are of news reports following the capture of one of the world’s most notorious criminals. But before getting to his infamous escape, those secret meetings with Sean Penn, and every other salacious detail of his saga, we’re taken back to 1985. Back then, El Chapo was a lowly member of the Guadalajara cartel – one whose nickname (which translates to “shorty”) shows you just how little respect he got from those in charge. The series then sets out to tell us how this expendable little guy became the much-feared boss we know him to be now.
Yes, that means we get some family backstory. The first episode ticks away like an episode of 24. El Chapo only has 48 hours to deliver Pablo Escobar’s drugs across the US border. So, of course, he gets a call from home telling him his father is about to die. We won’t spoil whether our antihero gets a teary deathbed moment with his dad. But suffice it to say the entire subplot aims to humanize the plucky go-getting drug trafficker who still doesn’t blink when needing to pull his gun on anyone who crosses him.
In a post-Breaking Bad world, we were sure to get plenty of shows that tried to re-tell the War on Drugs story using that same template. And while El Chapo is competent in all the right ways, it remains yet another example of how thin the line between depicting and glamorizing bad men can be. Films and TV shows that center on law enforcement (see: Sicario) can often needlessly demonize those on the other side of the law. But one wonders what is gained by telling this particular story as a sort of antihero origin story where we find ourselves rooting for the mustachio’ed protagonist. The former Sinaloa cartel leader is refashioned here as a dashing leading man (actor Marco de la O is as hot an El Chapo as you’d expect in a Univision production) stuck in a thriller. There are car chases, crashing planes, and a real-life ticking clock of a plot line. We’re encouraged to just hop along for the ride. But don’t we know the toll these seemingly exhilarating action set-pieces had on real-life people? Worse yet, haven’t we seen it all before?
El Chapo premieres April 23, 2017 on Univision