If Netflix and chill was once a hackneyed euphemism for hooking up, it’s now become a way of life for those staying home to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. And now that cinematic borders on streaming services have all but dissolved, it’s easier than ever to experience a different culture by way of a series from around the world, including Latin America. Here are six, in Spanish and Portuguese, from Mexico to Brazil, that you may have missed — from a dark Mexican comedy that upends the traditional telenovela to a Brazilian crime thriller that highlights injustices within the criminal justice system.
‘Nicky Jam: El Ganador’
This dramatization of the reggaeton artist Nicky Jam’s life provides a dose of early aughts nostalgia. Fans of “Gasolina”-era reggaeton probably remember Los Cangris, the Puerto Rican duo made up of Nicky Jam and Daddy Yankee, and their stable of hits, but this show delves deeper to reveal how drugs and violence threatened to derail their rise to stardom.
In flashbacks alternating between the early years of Nicky Jam’s career and his younger years as a boy whose mother struggled with drug addiction, the series traces how the shadow of his childhood followed him throughout his life. Back then, Nicky (played by Darkiel as the up-and-coming artist, and by Nicky Jam himself as an adult) was numbing himself with drugs and sex before getting onstage, and tried to balance his passion for music with the pull of street life. In depicting the impossible odds people must sometimes beat to follow their dreams, “Nicky Jam: El Ganador” is honest, devastating and full of heart.
‘The House of Flowers’
With a vibrant flower shop as its backdrop, this dark Mexican comedy is a soapy escape. An upper-middle-class family’s seemingly perfect facade is upended after its patriarch’s mistress, Roberta, hangs herself from the ceiling of their flower business, the House of Flowers. That’s when the family dysfunction comes to light: their financial struggles, the kids’ personal issues and the full extent of the father’s parallel life, including a cabaret business called — wait for it — the House of Flowers.
The series was a critical success, praised for its inversion of the traditional Mexican telenovela (the drag scene features prominently, and there is some recreational marijuana use). The show, whose three seasons are now available on Netflix, stars some heavy hitters, like Verónica Castro as Virginia de la Mora, the family’s image-obsessed matriarch, but the indie film star Cecilia Suárez is the true heartbeat of the series. The memorable staccato speech she developed for her character (Paulina, the family’s responsible oldest sibling) is delightfully fitting, and she carries the series after Castro’s departure.
‘The Queen of Flow’
This compulsively watchable Colombian telenovela follows Yeimi Montoya (María José Vargas), a once-promising singer-songwriter whose dreams were curtailed when she was wrongfully imprisoned as a teenager. She is released 17 years later, bent on seeking revenge against the man responsible for putting her behind bars: the reggaeton singer Charly Flow (Carlos Torres).
In flashbacks, a teenage Yeimi is seen dancing and singing through her colorful Medellín neighborhood, which is overrun by violence and poverty. The highlight of these episodes is the focus on the working-class characters, like Yeimi’s parents, humble bakers who are being extorted by a druglord, or Juancho, a 17-year-old left to raise his siblings after his mother runs off with a lover.
Music is at the heart of the show, and songs help to narrate the various phases of Yeimi’s life: “Reflejo” is heavy with teenage melodrama, and “Fenix” is a redemption narrative about rising from the ashes like a phoenix. Popular Colombian musicians also appear as guest stars, including Karol G and Sebastián Yatra.
Celia Cruz, the Cuban salsa singer who died in 2003 at the age of 77, was known for her vivacious energy, multicolored wigs, flamboyant outfits and, of course, her catchphrase: “Azucar!” But this series based on her life introduces us to a quieter Celia (played by the Puerto Rican actress Jeimy Osorio), before she became an international star with an infectious persona.
The show, now streaming on Hulu, follows Celia as a young woman living with her parents in 1950s Havana, working as a teacher but harboring dreams of stardom. Her biggest obstacle is her father, a strict but flawed man who strongly opposes her musical ambitions, which he views as unfit for a respectable lady. Though the story can sometimes move a bit slowly, it’s satisfying to watch the determined Celia prevail.
For a grittier watch, this Brazilian crime thriller delivers a blend of social commentary, family drama and heart-pumping action. Set in 1990s São Paulo, it delves into moral ambiguity raised by inequities within the criminal justice system through the story of estranged siblings, Cristina and Edson (Naruna Costa and Seu Jorge).
Cristina is a successful lawyer, while her brother is a felon serving time in prison. When Cristina compromises her job to help Edson, she becomes embroiled in a mission to take down the Brotherhood, a criminal faction he founded. That’s when things start to get murky. As Cristina gets deeper into the organization, the lines between right and wrong are blurred. What’s most compelling about the series is the juxtaposition of the extreme abuses in prison with the less severe, but equally life-altering injustices facing Brazilians every day.
‘La Reina del Sur’
Fans of “Narcos” might enjoy this series, based on a book of the same name, which is set in the drug trafficking world but features a strong cast with complex female characters. When a cartel boss kills Teresa Mendoza’s husband, she must flee to avoid the same fate. She escapes to Spain, where she ends up running her own drug operation.
This series was Telemundo’s most-viewed show when it was released in 2011, and last year the network released a second season that picks up eight years after the first. Both seasons are available on Netflix. “La Reina del Sur” (“The Queen of the South”) is a refreshing twist on the drug cartel genre because of its razor sharp focus on women’s perspectives and its complex portrayal of a bisexual woman as seen through Patricia O’Farrell (Cristina Urgel), a type of character rarely depicted in Spanish-language television.