FYI: "Cable Girls" Is A Deliciously Decadent Melodrama
Period dramas are all the rage, but they have a tendency to tell the same kinds of stories over and over again. Whether it’s Downton Abbey or The Great Gatsby, The Crown or Boardwalk Empire, the way we see the past depicted tends to overwhelmingly favour the UK or the US. Netflix’s Cable Girls creates the same kind of lush historical narrative, but with Spain at its heart, telling a gorgeous and nostalgic story of Madrid’s first ever telecommunications company.
Of course, there are some differences from your typical period piece. Rather than dealing in realism as far as story and character goes, Cable Girls leans hard into its telenovela (or more specifically culebrones – the word for specifically Spanish soap opera) roots. Instead of stuffy plots involving aristocratic upper-class villains and plucky servants operating below stairs, the first season packs in everything from murder and mistaken identity to heists and criminal histories. When crime is utilised, it is not the hyper realistic and high stakes affair you might expect, instead it is sensationalised to the point of farce. Some heinous crimes seem to be forgiven within days, arrest can be avoided by batting your eyelashes at the inspector, and escaping the country is as easy as putting on a wig.
Normally in shows with such cliché and melodramatic plot beats, it can feel as though you’re watching the same archetypal stories play out repeatedly. However, what sets Cable Girls apart is its willingness to introduce modern and even progressive elements into its plot twists, even if those elements stretch your suspension of disbelief. For example, it might seem out of place to see a working class lesbian romance play out in 1920’s Madrid, but that doesn’t stop the show from depicting a queer relationship with all the tact and nuance it would be treated to in a modern setting. Not only that, but the show goes even further to represent marginalised stories and identities, even going so far to tell the story of a trans man and a proto-polyamorous relationship. Often it feels as though these stories are an attempt to resolve plot threads in a way audiences could never predict, but they are still given due care and attention, making the show a somewhat unexpected champion of representation.
Season three at first seems to deviate from these themes in order to focus on that of female empowerment and the role motherhood plays within it, but the scope of the show soon makes it clear that it plans to tackle everything at once. The same spirit of melodrama is alive from the very first shot, where we are forced to guess which of two men protagonist Lidia (also known as Alba – it’s complicated) has chosen to marry. One major conflict tumbles into another as the church bursts into flames around her just minutes into the first episode, starting a season long quest to rediscover her lost/stolen/dead (again, it’s complicated) baby Eva. The fire sends shockwaves through the entire principal cast, a one size fits all device that manages to make each and every character re-evaluate where they are in their own personal arcs. Relationships are strengthened or shattered, work is put before family or vice versa, and characters are reaffirmed in their conviction that freedom is worth whatever it takes to achieve.
On their own, each of these separate arcs are mostly satisfying, especially those dealing with the fight to give both straight and queer women a right to agency and dignity. Even the crime portions of the show are suitably nail-biting, with the absurdity of the situation thankfully undercut by the writers’ willingness to kill off any character at any moment. Combined though, and it seems a little like too much of a good thing. The lightning fast escalations and resolutions, combined with the sheer number of balls in the air, can feel at times like watching multiple shows on multiple screens at once. Blink and you miss a hugely important reveal, look away to focus on something else and at least one of the key pairings has changed. Add to that the gorgeously detailed sets and costumes, the glitz of the cabaret club and the sumptuous interiors of the houses and central company, and what should be a feast for the eyes becomes a lumbering overstuffed beast.
That’s not to say that Cable Girls is not worth watching, only that you might want to limit your binge viewing to a couple of episodes at a time. The show’s format actually lends itself to this, since every episode on Netflix is functionally around three. Also, if you do decide to marathon the show then using the English subtitles over the English dub is essential – as the American voice acting is less than stellar and adds a cartoonish atmosphere that really takes away from the more emotional scenes. Overall though, it’s a huge but rewarding undertaking that never resolves itself the way you expect and manages to organically escalate seemingly exponentially. I personally can’t wait to see where they go with season four, since season three was a ride that kept me guessing until the very last frame.