‘Elite’ is the latest addictive teen drama

Netflix’s new series is a sprawling, intoxicating addition to the teen drama genre.

This review contains spoilers for “Elite.”

Fans of teen dramas have not been kept in short supply in 2018. Since “Gossip Girl” left our screens in 2012, the sub-genre has evolved and made its way to streaming services, putting all of its signature love triangles, inopportune hookups and questionable behavior right at audiences’ fingertips. However, with shows like “Riverdale,” “13 Reasons Why,” “Grown-ish” and “The 100” in such high demand, do new additions run the risk of seeming disingenuous? Netflix’s “Elite” may be reminiscent of many high school melodramas, but if its thorough character explorations and experimentations with tone are any indication, the TV format still has room to grow.

The Spanish series revolves around the students of Las Encinas, a luxurious prep school that sends its graduates to top-tier universities around the world. After a local public school collapses under suspicious circumstances, three working-class students — Samuel, Nadia and Christian — are given the opportunity to attend, driving wedges into the well-established relationships between the class’s wealthy teenagers. As the school’s web of social conflicts begins to spiral out of control, we as viewers learn more about what led to the grisly opening scene of “Elite” — an on-campus murder.

Throughout the eight episodes, viewers will easily be able to draw comparisons between the series and other well-established teen dramas. You can see “Riverdale,” “Gossip Girl” and a bit of “Glee” in the expansive school halls and the horny, plaid-covered characters who fill them. However, following in the footsteps of Netflix’s hit series, “Thirteen Reasons Why,” “Elite” also examines the toll that the show’s intensifying plot twists take on its young leads. In terms of format, the series arguably borrows the most from older siblings like “How to Get Away With Murder” and “Big Little Lies,” as time jumps and interrogation scenes build to the reveal of what exactly drew the protagonists together at a significant crime scene.

With all of these parallels, what is it about “Elite” that will convince Netflix users to stick with the series past the immediate thrills of its glossy veneer? The answer to that question can easily be found in the characters themselves. Many members of the ensemble are introduced as easily recognizable high school characters. Samuel (Itzan Escamilla) is a wide-eyed everyman who struggles when his erratic older brother (Jaime Lorente) stirs up conflict in his family life. Marina (María Pedraza) is a girl from a wealthy family who may have more secrets than she lets on. Guzmán (Miguel Bernardeau) is a rich jerk with a soft side, and Lu (Danna Paola) is a queen bee who will go to great lengths to get what she wants.

One of the pleasures of watching the show unfold is seeing how the writers unravel these tropes. “Elite” is aware of its own sensual melodrama, which allows the unwieldy, familiar plot beats to unfold with ease as the characters’ individual growth comes into focus. Each member of the principal cast dedicates themselves to the dramatic material they are given with a fervor that is palpable onscreen. Unfortunately, the only actor who is somewhat underused is Escamilla, whose position as an audience surrogate of sorts doesn’t give him much to do until the series’ climactic moments. Still, each character is allowed moments of reflection and intimacy that draw the viewer into the soapy, emotionally fraught corners of their lives.

Like many recent teen shows, “Elite” also makes a point of embedding social issues into the lives of its characters and the ways in which they interact. In one of the show’s standout performances, Mina El Hammani portrays Nadia, a Muslim-Spanish girl who is forced to remove her hijab during school and balance the expectations of her classmates and family with her own desires. Her brother Omar (Omar Ayuso) and tennis star Ander (Arón Piper) are compelled to hide their sexuality and budding relationship from their peers. Topics like sexually transmitted diseases, drug trading and polyamory are also incorporated throughout the first season, giving the more sensational elements of the plot a dose of real-world gravitas.

In the end, the story of “Elite” is not an enormously inventive one — teens still misbehave, a community murder is still solved, and ridiculously lavish house parties are still thrown. Yet, there’s something about the show’s knowing nod to its counterparts, coupled with its sprawling, heartfelt character portraits, that make the series worth a second look.

Edited by Siena DeBolt | sdebolt@themaneater.com

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