The last several years have seen a somewhat surprising resurgence of the prison drama subgenre, which had been largely dormant in the world of serialized television after HBO’s groundbreaking drama Oz. Probably the most popular of this new wave of prison stories is Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, which adopts a somewhat more comedy-driven approach to subjects such as sexuality, mental health, and abuse. But 2016’s El Marginal, the first Argentine TV show to be acquired by Netflix, is a whole other beast, having more in common with the aforementioned Oz and with S. Craig Zahler’s brutal, unflinching Brawl in Cell Block 99 than the quirky, often cartoonish hijinks of OITNB.
You might’ve already heard of El Marginal, especially if you follow Argentine show business. The series garnered a tremendous amount of acclaim during its initial run, including eight nominations for the prestigious Martin Fierro awards, and three wins. The first season is currently streaming on Netflix; the second one is expected to air on Televisión Pública this year, hitting the digital platform shortly thereafter. So is the first installment of this highly-celebrated prison drama actually worth watching, or is it all a bunch of empty hype?
We’re happy to report that El Marginal is not only worth a watch; it is one of the most gripping, impactful, genuinely affecting TV shows in recent memory.
El Marginal follows the story of Pastor (played with pitch-perfect, dead-eyed stoicism by Juan Minujín), a former cop looking to infiltrate San Onofre, a notoriously violent and derelict prison, by posing as an inmate in an attempt to locate the kidnapped daughter of a corrupt judge. Once inside, Pastor finds himself having to finesse an all-out infiltration, making his way through the ranks of the prison and its crooked social hierarchy. He has to start at the very bottom of the totem pole, or the prison’s courtyard; essentially a villa miseria tent city where the more hapless inmates live, while the prison’s interior is controlled by a powerful and violent gang.
The leader of said gang is Borges, an imposing patriarchal figure who rules with an iron fist. Played by the great Claudio Rissi with a level of a level of delicious viciousness that instantly makes him one of the most compelling TV villains in recent memory, Borges’s calm and even sometimes affable demeanor effectively masks the true depths of his depravity; as long as someone stands in the way of furthering his agenda, nothing is off limits. He even has the guards and the warden under his thumb, making his reach within the prison absolute. Our protagonist is immediately faced with the enormity of his task, and that is what makes this show instantly compelling.
Beyond the story elements, there are a couple of factors that make the series so thoroughly watchable: its colorful cast of lovable characters, many of whom stand decidedly on the darker end of the “moral grey area,” and its level of believability.
Believability is a big factor in the impact of a show like this, and it’s one of the biggest reasons why some don’t land quite strongly as they should. When a plot unfolds in a setting unfamiliar to audiences, filmmakers have a little bit of leeway in how they set up and present the world; the inner workings of said setting are often bent to the tone of the show, and are presented in a way that maximizes both dramatic (and often comedic) potential.
A show like Orange is the New Black can get away with presenting a heightened, absurdist version of life in a minimum-security women’s prison because its audience is removed far enough from the setting to be willing to allow for a small amount of cognitive dissonance in service of the plot and themes. In other words, when you watch OITNB, there’s a small voice in the back of your mind going “this is probably not how prison life really works, but that’s fine.”
Meanwhile, El Marginal plunges the viewer head-first and without anesthesia into a world that feels believable, vivid, and truly dangerous. Thankfully, I’m not able to comment with any authority on what the underbelly of the Argentine prison system is actually like, but what’s important here is that the world — its dynamics, its power structures, its inner workings, and the cast of ancillary characters that round it out — feels real. Even minute elements, such as Borges and his flunkies lounging around as they casually watch The Simpsons while they’re going about their nefarious plotting, provide this show with a dash of real-life color to break up the gravity of it all.
Related to this, one aspect I really appreciated during the first couple of episodes was how seamless the exposition felt. As audience members, we’re in a position of following a point-of-view character as they infiltrate the world of San Onofre. The immersion needs to be sustained even as the particulars of said world are dictated to us by secondary characters. On a lesser show, this would feel like a tedious and unnatural information dump, while El Marginal handles this introduction very gracefully.
I do have a few nitpicks, however. There are certain characters introduced later down the line that feel like they’re plucked straight out of another show; by episode 7 it feels like the entire series shifts into a secondary story (focused mostly on the gang dynamics within San Onofre) that isn’t quite as realized or satisfying as it was at the onset. Aesthetically, I find myself wishing the show had more of that high-contrast look to capture the true grit of the characters and the environment; as it stands, there is a vague blue digital tint that washes over every shot, sometimes making the show feel unnaturally smoothed-over.
All told, the first season of El Marginal is an excellent piece of television. The second season’s trailer was released last month, and I can’t wait to delve deeper into the history of the show’s truly insane setting. Season one is available to stream on Netflix; for some baffling reason, the Argentine version of Netflix does not include English subtitles (it appears that international versions of Netflix do), but here’s a great chance for you to practice your Spanish comprehension skills. Trust me, it’s worth it.