Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a ritzy, high-achieving high school. Wealthy teen assholes in prep school uniforms with flawless skin and immaculately coiffed hair. Enter the outsider—one (or a few) working-class kids who, the rich students fear, will jeopardize the delicate social architecture they’ve spent so long constructing.
When it comes to sexy, soapy teen melodramas, this is a foolproof formula for storytelling success. It worked on the east coast with Gossip Girl (Brooklyn kids take the Upper East Side!), on the west with The O.C. (local delinquent moves in with Jewish plutocrats!), and even found a much more creatively inspired (thanks to Jean-Marc Vallée) home in Monterey with the perfect soap opera pastiche Big Little Lies. Now, the timelessly tempting TV recipe has been put to work in suburban Spain with Elite, an alluring new Spanish-language series that dropped on Netflix this week.
The series’s eight episodes follow an array of 16-year-olds who attend an exclusive private school called Las Encinas, where, we learn within the show’s first few moments, a grisly murder ultimately occurs. The trouble all started when three new kids relocated to the fancy school on scholarship after their public school’s roof caved in. Our hero lies in Samuel (Itzan Escamilla), an upright kid with the large, innocent eyes and bushy brows of a made-to-order high school heartthrob. (A Dan Humphrey equivalent minus the droll sense of humor.) Rounding out the transplant trio are cocky troublemaker Christian (Miguel Herrán), whose pierced ears and buzzed hair bespeak his token bad boy status, and the poised Nadia (Mina El Hammani), a self-assured achiever.
“Why were you covered in blood?” we hear a detective ask during the show’s stylized opening—an extravagant blend of slo-mo, flashing lights, and even a hand smearing blood across a glass pane outside the school pool, where the murder apparently went down. The story then flashes back to the newcomers’ first day of school, proceeding from there to chart how their entry into the community led to the traumatic incident. A la Big Little Lies, segments from the aftermath of the enigmatic murder (those lights! that blood!) frame most of the episodes, and interrogations with the chief detective are intercut every so often to punctuate the high school melodrama.
As sexy as this murder mystery sounds, the day-to-day prep school drama is really the juiciest part of the show. In addition to the three transfers, Elite zeroes in on several of Las Encinas’s fiercest and fanciest, spending an especially long time with Marina (María Pedraza), the sole friendly face at Las Encinas who has a health crisis she’s keeping secret. Right off the bat, Marina hits it off with Samuel, and her defiance of the school bullies and self-aware attitude toward her own privilege makes her feel like the only one that he, and we, can trust. Most of the others, including a Blair Waldorf-type mean girl Lucrecia (Danna Paola) and the sly daughter of Spanish nobility Carla (Ester Expósito), are less welcoming. Though the biggest bully actually lies in Marina’s nasty brother Guzmán (Miguel Bernardeau), an arrogant big shot who assumes the chief role of terrorizing the newcomers.
But the most engrossing story belongs to Nadia. A Palestinian woman who was born in Spain, Nadia quickly learns from the school principal that she won’t be allowed to wear her hijab in the building; the school has a policy against “accessories.” Though she unhappily complies, Nadia isn’t one to take anybody’s bullshit. She’s driven, ambitious, and laser-focused on what Las Encinas can offer her: a ticket (given only to the top student every year) to an American program that sets you on track to the Ivy League. Whoever wins the spot also receives an academic trophy—a hideous gold construction that, we learn from the detective during a flash-forward, also happens to be the weapon used later on in the murder. On ominous display in the school hallway, the trophy provides an ideal soapy teen-TV Chekhovian gun.
Given this symbolically loaded choice of murder weapon, you might be tempted to decode Elite as a kind of half-assed indictment of the Darwinian high society’s (literally) cutthroat atmosphere, or possibly just of elite exclusivity in general. As Lucrecia remarks haughtily during her testimonial to the detective: “When a new species is introduced into an ecosystem, it... can devastate the flora and fauna of a place, breed endlessly, or cause more subtle changes which end up perverting everything.”
Putting the nobility to trial for this type of intolerance is a lofty objective for a trashy teen melodrama, but with a name like Elite, there’s a pretty obvious sense of noblesse oblige for the show to do so. Yet the paradox is that watching elite people in elite environs—especially ones behaving badly—will always be inherently juicy. Why else do we return to these storylines again and again?
It’s savvy of Netflix to capitalize on this appeal, and combined with the moody mystery plot, Elite boasts the same bingeability as 13 Reasons Why. The Spanish setting adds an extra enticing dimension, bringing to mind the success of Netflix’s Spanish-language Narcos and Money Heist (the latter of which, as Bustle notes from a March Forbes report, is the streaming platform’s most-watched foreign-language series).
With Euro-cool style and compelling characters, Elite is trashy, diverting fun. It may lack the wry humor and female friendship element that glued watchers to Gossip Girl and The O.C., but it’s still a fresh, foreign update on a familiar brand of teen soap-thriller—the blueprint for which is more time-honored and established than even the oldest Spanish aristocratic lineage.