INTRODUCING THE MOST UNDER-RATED TV SHOW OF 2015: CLUB DE CUERVOS
As Christmas is nearly here, along with those strange few days between Christmas and New Year - or “Twixtmas” as some now call it - which often prove a perfect time to sit back and binge on TV and box sets, I thought I’d highlight a much neglected gem (in the UK at least) that also happens to be Netflix’s first foreign language original programming: Club De Cuervos. It’s also interesting to look at what this means for how Netflix is likely to grow as it expands its global reach.
Launching all 13 episodes at once in August 2015 in the usual Netflix way, Club De Cuervos is a 13 part comedy-drama set in the fictional Mexican town of Nuevo Toledo. Starting with the death of the family patriarch and local industrialist who has built his football club (the “Cuervos”) up from scratch to compete in Mexico’s top division, the show then focuses on a power struggle to assume control of the club between his son and daughter. This is backed up by a range of great supporting characters – players, staff, fans etc – and accompanying sub-plots, appearing to also satirise a range of Mexican attributes along the way (although I have to be honest that I’m speculating here), providing the immersive experience of a unique, self-contained world that we’re now accustomed to from series created by the likes of HBO, AMC and Netflix itself of course.
Now, two strong alarm bells may be ringing here based on my description above. Firstly, the use of the term “comedy-drama” (or even worse “dramedy” but I didn’t use that slightly clumsy portmanteau). Usually, I find that “comedy-drama” programmes are often neither, but that’s definitely not the case with Club De Cuervos, which boasts lots of genuinely hilarious scenes plus a strong narrative with many twists and turns which don’t feel bolted on; a problem that many sitcoms trying to be “dramatic” can suffer from. Together with the otherness of being set in Mexico, this gives Club De Cuervos a hugely unique feel and makes it incredibly watchable - so a warning here: if you like this show, you are probably going to binge watch all 13 episodes in 3 or 4 sittings based on my and a few others’ experiences.
Alarm bell number two would be the subject of the show: football. Despite being a huge football fan, I acknowledge that previous TV dramas with football as a background have been of fairly low standard, such as ITV’s Footballers’ Wives and Sky’s Dream Team. That said, I’ll always stick up for Jossy’s Giants and Murphy’s Mob and not just for their great theme tunes, although of course watching football programmes as a kid is very different (and make no mistake, Club De Cuervos is not suitable for children). It’s therefore worth stating that football is just a backdrop for the action here, in the same way that an interest in docker politics or Baltimore’s education system is not required to find The Wire a masterpiece. That said, a passion for football will help with a viewer’s enjoyment, especially with the introduction in the series of an intriguing character clearly intended as a hybrid of Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Intriguingly, Club De Cuervos’ creative team is a Mexican/American mix, with the American Jay Dyer (an industry veteran of shows such as Californication) acting as showrunner in tandem with Mexican show creators Gaz Alazraki and Michael Lam. Gaz Alazraki is the writer/director of Nosotros los Nobles, the highest domestic grossing ever Mexican film, but wanted to tap into the American experience of making high quality cable programming. As Jay Dyer explains: “Alazraki and Lam wanted to hire an American writer, and specifically a writer who had an American cable sensibility. Over the last 10 years in American TV, there’s been an explosion of great cable shows, but there’s been no real equivalent explosion in Mexico”.
It’s also interesting that Netflix have used the global game of football as a way into new markets while also appealing to established territories. So, when Netflix launched in Spain in October, Club De Cuervos was prominent in its promotion, as their sole original programme purely in the Spanish language, while the reaction in Mexico itself has been generally positive, also helped by its authentic local feel. As show creator Alazraki says: "We are enjoying the success of 'Club de Cuervos,' we are the first company in the world that hires Mexicans at an international level ... and we're really happy”.
It is notoriously difficult to get hold of viewing figures and other indicators from Netflix but Club De Cuervos certainly seems to have proved popular since its launch in August; it was confirmed in October that a second series has been commissioned to screen in 2016, while negotiations are also already underway for four more series in total. According to Hollywood Reporter: “Club de Cuervos has helped the streaming service establish itself in new markets — particularly Mexico. Further working in Club's favour is that 25 percent of the show's viewers are U.S. subscribers. Sources say the streaming service has also upped the show's production budgets as it looks to capitalize on [lead actor Luis Gerardo] Mendez's popularity as arguably Mexico's biggest box office draw”.
So, it appears that Club De Cuervos is being watched in Netflix’s core market of the US, likely helped by the fact that one American in six is now hispanic. However, 25% of viewers being American is a much lower share than would usually be expected; of Netflix’s 65m subscribers worldwide, 40m are in the US, so a show could typically expect around 60% of viewers from the US. As an aside, the UK is apparently Netflix’s next most popular market, with an estimated 4.5m subscribers (approx. 7% of total).
Using the internationally popular game of football as an important theme for a way in has therefore probably proved invaluable for Netflix’s streaming service penetrating further into South America and Europe especially, backed up of course by a very enjoyable show itself. Although not likely to be of as much interest to many American viewers, Club De Cuervos may ultimately prove more relatable and popular in many other countries than the Washington machinations of Netflix’s original flagship show House Of Cards.
Anyway, in what has been another great year for TV series, Club De Cuervos would definitely sit in my personal top 10, if not top 5. OK, it’s no Better Call Saul, Fargo or Peep Show but Club De Cuervos is certainly a whole lot more fun than series two of True Detective for example (or so I imagine, having given up on that fairly early on). With a second series planned for 2016 and Netflix having announced more “local” shows coming soon as it doubles its production of original series in 2016, this is a hugely welcome development for TV binge watchers interested in stories from outside the US. It will also be fascinating to see if this wider international scope is followed by competitors such as Amazon Prime; one suspects it will be.
With all this in mind, I feel it’s a great shame that Club De Cuervos seems to have been noticeably absent from any “TV best of 2015” lists in the UK, be that across all channels/formats or even Netflix round ups. Therefore, why not rectify this by relaxing with the Club De Cuervos in Nuevo Toledo to escape from the cold wasteland of the UK between Christmas and New Year? I'd also love to hear any thoughts about the show or other favourites from 2015...
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