The city in the new batch of Catalan series

The intersections between markets, the refinement of audiences and creative talent form new balances that are starting to make Barcelona more visible.

The first time I heard the name Barcelona in a cult American series was in The Sopranos. The gangster’s daughter changed the history of television – a girl who was studying at one of the best universities in the world was set on going to Barcelona to study for a year. The programme, praised for its realism and its extremely critical tone, painted Barcelona as the dream destination for a young person from the economic and intellectual elite: a city idealised above the typical Paris, London or Rome. However, The Sopranos portrayed an extremely critical picture of its closest metropolitan surroundings. The legendary opening, showing a car journey from New York to New Jersey to the strains of Born Under a Bad Sign, focused on the importance of the urban space in the construction of the story. Social degradation was inseparable from urban degradation.

But how has Barcelona been explained through Catalan series? Making television is very expensive. Making films is, too, although until recently, cinema was an art and television the “idiot box”. No one would think of asking a film by Catalan directors Ventura Pons or Albert Serra for an economic result that would justify the subsidies. And series? Low-quality soap operas, banal comedies for switching off your brain. Whatever is not high culture requires an audience. This hegemonic idea of what the small screen should be like has conditioned the creative process from top to bottom and has imposed a law of the lowest common denominator, i.e., to try to please everyone. Let’s not upset anyone, lest they switch off their tellies. And in Catalonia, talking about Barcelona honestly is running the risk of annoying lots of people.

That is, until the progressive implementation of TV-on-demand platforms brought the third golden age to series in Catalonia. And with that the expectations of viewers changed forever. After becoming fans of The Wire, Louie or Mr. Robot, we have become accustomed to television fiction that creates a very cutting discourse about urban reality. It turns the city into another character. We will talk about three examples of the new batch of Catalan series set in Barcelona to illustrate the extent to which there has been a response to this change.

Scenes from Cites (Dates).

Cites (Dates). The Instagram Barcelona

Cites marked a before and after. It sounds strange because the series has not left as big a generational footprint as others. Actor and director Joel Joan is an innovative force who is much more etched on the collective imagination, but his memorable series Plats bruts (Dirty dishes) and Porca misèria (Good grief) form part of a naive past in terms of the treatment of the city.

On the other hand, the work of Pau Freixa – an adaptation of the British series Dates – was the first in a new paradigm. The daring tone, the elegant production and the meticulous performance have left a cinematographic mark on a series that had never been seen before on TV3. And when television moved closer to cinema, the city came into the foreground.

Cites shows us an aspirational Barcelona – a marketing concept based on the idea that people like to see advertised what they would like to be real, instead of actual reality. Turning the city into an Instagram account. This representation of the city would have fit in the years of the property bubble and during the campaign to protect and improve the urban landscape under the slogan “Barcelona Posa’t Guapa” (Make yourself pretty, Barcelona). Today, the distance we residents/spectators have taken with regard to that myth is too great for us to swallow it uncritically. Cites builds a papier mâché city that is unsuitable for diabetics, because it tries to counterbalance its interesting position in terms of format by hiding the conservatism in the urban image. The fact is that Catalan prime time has begun to become aware of the city, albeit through an affected filter.

Stills from Nit i dia (Night and day).

Nit i dia (Night and day). The city and the noir genre

Nit i dia is the best drama series that has been produced up to now in Catalonia; the culmination of this sequence that has combined audience success and technical excellence that started with the abovementioned Cites and is providing series such as Merlí (Merlin) or El crac (Mr Brilliant). The work by screenwriters Jordi Galceran and Lluís Arcarazo weaves a circular story and shows how narrative and aesthetic criteria can be imposed. And how a series improves when it takes an interest in the space where the story takes place.

Film noir has always had the city in the spotlight. Its immoral characters did not come from nowhere; rather they were reproduced in the ecosystem of the underworld. Nit i dia uses the codes of the genre to show a two-sided Barcelona. The high and the low: the luxury house of the financier who lives in Pedralbes interspersed with inhospitable streets in Nou Barris. Nit i dia dares to portray the dark side instead of trying to sterilise it, and the force of the contrast between the social lights and shadows expands the script even more.

The web miniseries Coneix la teva ciutat (Get to know your city).

Venga Monjas. Ridiculing Barcelona

These two examples of super-productions require a radical contrast, which we find with Venga Monjas, the creative duo behind the most teasing and interesting web series from the current YouTube scene. It is an independent production with absurdly low costs that achieves hundreds of thousands of visits to each video uploaded, and that has earned its creators Xavi Daura and Esteban Navarro a regular slot on TV3’s comedy programme APM (Any more questions?). We see how, when the production is outside the circuit of politically controllable cultural industries, an ugly Barcelona appears that cannot be found on conventional television.

Through the miniseries Coneix la teva ciutat (Get to know your city), Venga Monjas, alongside comedians such as Raúl Cimas or Berto Romero, visit urban planning disasters and spaces that fall under their own weight thanks to the characters’ sarcasm. Sketches about the kitsch of the café in department store El Corte Inglés, or the absurd “Cub” in Poble-sec – jewels of post-humour that ridicule spaces unthinkable in fiction by the politically correct mainstream. In this series and in all the series on their channel, with the freedom afforded by YouTube, Daura and Navarro stick two fingers up at brand Barcelona and leave the audience in stitches.

Barcelona needs its own The Wire

Until the critical reassessment that series have achieved thanks to the boom of HBO, Netflix, and co., Catalan series were following a comfortable inertia: blurring the presence of the city and creating the illusion of neutrality in their characters. The action would have been able to have taken place anywhere in the world and there would not have been any noticeable difference.

We have outlined three examples of how this is changing. Of how the intersections between markets, the refinement of audiences and creative talent form new balances that are starting to make Barcelona more visible.

The conclusion: complex, quality television is not possible unless it recognises the urban space, unless it explains a story in one way or another. The trend towards this model of television will give the discourse about the city an increasingly prominent place. And the day that the reality of the port of Barcelona can be shown with half the rawness with which The Wire shows the port of Baltimore, we will have grown up.

Joan Burdeus

Communicator and philosopher

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