Conventional wisdom indicates that the reason viewers are compelled to stay glued to their screens well past the point of what could reasonably be described as normal, healthy behavior — the reason “binge-watching” happens at all — is that, as an audience, we become so wrapped up in the conflict and struggles of these characters that we absolutely must see them through to completion. You know how it is: you click Play on a new Netflix show at 2 PM “just to give it a shot,” and next thing you know, you’re fully immersed in an intricate story where you know the names and backstories of every single character and moving piece, and it’s 1 AM, and you haven’t slept a wink, and your girlfriend is telling you to bed, and dammit I can’t, not right now, they’re about to shoot Charlie’s cousin for disrespecting the mob boss at that pizza parlor! We’ve, uh, all been there.
But the recent resurgence of episodic anthology series such as Netflix’s smash success Black Mirror puts that theory to the test. The appeal of a show like Black Mirror, which uses each self-contained episode as a vehicle for exploring the more disturbing aspects of humanity’s relationship with technology, isn’t in connecting with any one character or story. Instead, it’s about immersing oneself in the overall mood of the series, and letting oneself be swept away by each episode’s individual narrative; each self-contained dystopic nightmare comes with the assurance that it will all be over within a few minutes. Encerrados, the new anthology series by creators Benjamín Avila and Marcelo Müller, is an Argentine version of that time-honored, Twilight Zone-inspired approach.
It would be easy to refer to this show as “an Argentine response to Black Mirror,” but that’s not exactly right; the show was originally produced in 2015, well before Black Mirror would reach its current spot in the zeitgeist. And yes, both shows delve into the darker recesses of the human psyche to find places of extreme anxiety and discomfort, but where Black Mirror uses humanity’s increasing over-reliance on technology as fodder for each new horrific episode, Encerrados takes a Hitchcockian look at the mortifying mundanity of routine.
Each episode is centered around characters who have become deeply ensconced in their mediocre lives, suddenly finding themselves faced with an earth-shattering disruption, which leads them to a breaking point of some sort. To give you an idea of what we’re talking about: the first episode focuses on a 30 year-old customer service representative whose utterly unremarkable life is suddenly and violently interrupted by a disgruntled customer who threatens to kill him with a sniper rifle. What follows are 30 minutes of panicked dialogue and sheer dread.
There’s a term in episodic television called “bottle episode.” Even if you don’t know the term, you might recognize it in your favorite show: it is an episode that is designed as a money-saving measure when planning out each season, meant to be produced cheaply and thus limited in scope. Some of the more famous examples of bottle episodes are the “Parking Garage” episode of Seinfeld, or the infamous “Fly” episode of Breaking Bad. Bottle episodes are dense with dialogue, and tend to take place within one single setting. Some people hate bottle episodes, while others admire the fact that the more limited approach leads to more in-depth character exploration, and more creativity in storytelling. Well, Encerrados is an entire season of television comprised of bottle episodes, and your opinion of the concept will influence your impression of the series as a whole.
Encerrados has several episodes that are gripping and compelling in the best possible way, telling these fascinating isolated stories that serve as snapshots of different aspects of our everyday lives. At its best, it alternates between being profoundly disturbing and wryly humorous– the episode “Sesión Extraordinaria,” which depicts a meeting between an apartment building’s tenants and its superintendent which dissolves into absolute pandemonium, is a fantastic example of that melding of incongruous tones. There are a handful of other episodes that strike uncomfortably close to home in their depiction of the struggling middle-class.
However, there are a few misfires: the second episode, “Laundry” — though anchored by three fantastic performances by its actresses — lands with a thud, and falls closer to “aggravating” than it does “insightful.” One gets the feeling that a lot of these stories would work better if they were just a tiny bit longer, and the tension had more of a chance to build up over time; as it stands, some of the resolutions feel rushed and unearned. This show was originally produced for traditional television and not a streaming platform like Netflix, so each episode is around 30 minutes in length and punctuated by obtrusive “act breaks” where the commercials would usually go. Hopefully, if another season is produced for the platform, they’ll be able to take advantage of the freedoms of streaming and go deeper with their storytelling.
Generally speaking, Encerrados is a bit of a mixed bag, but when it works, it really takes you on a journey. If you’re looking for a show that pushes you into the absolute deepest pits of existential despair, this is probably not it. But as a scrappy collection of character studies and a few genuinely gripping stories, as well as a showcase for great acting and an absurdist picture of the modern Argentine, it’s a good way to spend a few hours of your time.
Encerrados is currently streaming on Netflix. English subtitles are available.