In the new Gossip Girl revival on HBO Max, queen-bee-turned-influencer Julien (Jordan Alexander) maintains her reign largely through the prowess of ladies-in-waiting Luna (Zión Moreno) and Monet (Savannah Lee Smith). The duo are the true masterminds behind Julien’s schemes and also the ones who seem more concerned with power in the first place. Yet for all their barbs and one-liners, they don’t care to take control themselves, explained only by some vague notion that propping up Julien’s brand will land Monet a coveted internship—as if she couldn’t get it herself.
Their one-dimensional characters represent just one symptom of the problems plaguing the season’s first half. Power plays have no emotional weight. Debauchery waters down into brand sponsorships.
But in Netflix’s Élite, there are no minions. Every messy, hedonistic teen is a player in their own right.
Premiering first in 2018, the Spanish show blends Gossip Girl’s teen soap sensibilities and luxury with a Big Little Lies murder-mystery plot. This latter connection is strengthened through the show’s dual timelines that cut back and forth between the past and present-day police interrogations. The premise goes as follows: After a high school collapses, the construction company bankrolls scholarships for three working class students to attend Las Encinas, Spain’s most exclusive private school. Suffice to say, the school’s uber-wealthy don’t take kindly to the newcomers, and the resulting clashes culminate in murder.
Class divide provides Élite’s thematic backbone, as the show revolves around power and privilege: who has it, who doesn’t, and the lengths people will go for it. But what keeps the series entertaining is that while the protagonists might masquerade as adults, they’re still teens at the core. It helps that most of the actors are in their early 20s and look the part (attractively, of course). They feel deeply and dramatically and can’t help making bad decisions, especially when it comes to their love lives. This is a show where first-time anxieties coexist alongside casual blackmail.
Élite also makes use of character tropes that will feel familiar to anyone who’s seen either Gossip Girl iteration (or any other teen soap, for that matter). There’s the self-proclaimed nice guy outsider, the power couple whose relationship has grown stale, the queen bee who wants it all, the smarmy daddy’s boy with a tortured side, the bad boy with a protective streak. Yet the show works to add new dimensions to these archetypes.
Season 1 juggles an ensemble of 11 main characters across the eight 50-minute episodes, and does an impressive job crafting an intricate web of relationships and shifting loyalties. While the initial “have” vs. “have nots” conflict gets complicated by new attractions and jealousies, by the penultimate episode (the bluntly titled “Everything Explodes”), the bloody conclusion comes into sharper focus, and nearly every major player has a believable motive.
To start: unlike his nice-guy friend Samuel (Itzan Escamilla), slacker newcomer Christian (Miguel Herrán) has no interest in blending in—although his classmates view his Instagram thirst traps and class clown behavior as more tacky than charming. But he’s also quick to understand the unspoken rules of the game, leveraging his participation in the voyeurist-turned-throuple activities of Carla (Ester Expósito) and Polo (Álvaro Rico). Lucrecia (Danna Paola) aligns closest to Blair Waldorf in her determination to be the best, butting heads with newcomer Nadia (Mina El Hammani) in an academic competition for a scholarship she doesn’t need. Still, she can’t help her weakness for Guzman (Miguel Bernardeau), who continually sidelines her to a friends-with-benefits role.
Élite also considers other social topics beyond the class divide, from polyamory to drug experimentation to the earnest coming out story between star-crossed lovers Omar (Omar Ayuso) and Ander (Arón Piper). Nadia, the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, is forced to remove her hijab upon threat of expulsion, reminiscent of xenophobic laws making recent headlines in Europe. Marina (María Pedraza) plays like the typical rich girl rebelling against her overprotective parents, but the cliché relationship deepens when it’s revealed she has HIV and refuses to act like the victim they paint her as.
But make no mistake: this is no “hot button issue show” or a faux-gritty drama trying to serve as a generation’s voice. Élite knows exactly what it offers—pure, unadulterated chaos—and is all the better for it. Compared to other recent teen fare, the show also stands out for its lack of uber-referential dialogue. Instead, the melodrama simply comes through to entertaining effect. (Note: Watch in the show’s original Spanish for max enjoyment.) For example: “My mom’s a wine-making marchioness and your moms are a pair of rich and influential lesbians. You and I are anything but normal.” Well, ok then! Tell me more!
Not everything works. Nadia’s arc, particularly her increasingly strained relationship with her conservative father, enters stereotypical territory for Muslim representation. Marina and Samuel’s burgeoning romance is a core arc of the show, but their lack of chemistry means we never quite have a selling point for their relationship. (Don’t worry—Samuel goes full-angst in Season 2 and gets much more interesting in the process.)
But as far as the “rich teens behaving badly” genre goes, Élite follows Gossip Girl’s lead that doing too much is far preferable to not doing enough. By the end of the first episode, there’s already a Cruel Intentions-esque seduction plot set into motion. Brothers backstab brothers. Blackmail is the hottest love language. At Las Encinas, subtlety is overrated, and the first season pulls off big moments without ever going into Riverdale territory.
Each season follows its own central mystery, and Seasons 2 and 3 explore the murder’s fallout to diminishing yet still entertaining returns. It’s worth noting most of the main cast leaves after Season 3, but new blood rejuvenated the show for a fourth season (and there are two more seasons on the way).
“Guilty pleasure” is an outdated way of thinking about our media consumption (if you like something, you like it!), but Élite embraces what the phrase brings to mind: obsessive fun that doesn’t require thinking too hard. I hope the Gossip Girl reboot finds its footing when it comes back from its mid-season break, but if it doesn’t, I won’t be too upset. Constance Billard already found a successor in Las Encinas.
Annie Lyons is a culture writer from Austin, Texas who loves all things coming-of-age and romantic comedy. You can find her on Twitter @anniexlyons probably debating another Moonstruck rewatch.
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