At the heart of “Élite” is an all-too-simple pitch: “Gossip Girl” meets “Big Little Lies.”
Or maybe it’s “Veronica Mars” meets “How to Get Away With Murder.” Better yet, it’s “Riverdale” meets “Damages.” But even as it also calls to mind “The OC,” “Euphoria,” “Skam,” “Pretty Little Liars” and Mexican telenovelas like “Soñadoras” and “Amigas y Rivales,” “Élite,” Netflix’s high school-set Spanish drama, never feels derivative. Instead, the series, from Carlos Monte and Darío Madrona, self-consciously deploys genre tropes and familiar archetypes to create one of the most addictive teen dramas around.
“Élite,” which returns for its third season Friday, is set at Las Encinas, an exclusive private school with a killer uniform and, as we learn in the first episode, an actual killer. The victim is Marina (María Pedraza), a young redhead who’d always felt out of place among her moneyed and privileged friends. A series of police interviews with her classmates (and suspects) structures the series’ first season, slowly piecing together the events that led to Marina’s bloody murder by the school’s pool.
Of particular note? Three working-class teens, Samuel (Itzan Escamilla), Nadia (Mina El Hammani) and Christian (Miguel Herrán), had come to Las Encinas on scholarships paid for by the construction company — owned by Marina’s father — responsible for their public school’s collapse and received a chilly welcome.
While the question of who killed Marina hovers over its first season, the mystery merely heightened the stakes of “Élite’s” many interlocking teen-drama storylines. The series is unafraid to embrace its genre trappings and gleefully play with them, to smuggle in heady contemporary issues in stories that are seemingly all driven by hormones; its second season, which offered a twist on the revelations that seemingly tied up Season 1’s central mystery, went even further in exploring the role money and status plays at Las Encinas.
Yet every subplot on the show hinges on two staples of the teen drama: sultry sexual urges and shameful, ill-kept secrets, arguably the only two ingredients one needs when telling stories about literate, horny, self-aware teenagers. It explains why so much of the show takes place in locker rooms, pools and house parties, but only rarely an actual classroom: “Élite” is fascinated by those moments when teenage boys think they’re not being watched, when teenage girls wish they were, and when any one of them is forced to reckon with what it means to always be on display.
Marina is the outlier here, finding the likes of queen bee Lu (Danna Paola) and spoiled princess Carla (Ester Expósito) insufferable precisely because they so care about appearances, but her own hang-ups and secrets isolate her too. Her chaste relationship with Samuel, as well as her heated sexual tryst with Nano (Jaime Lorente) — Samuel’s older brother who’s just been released from prison — is but one of “Élite’s” labyrinthian plots, which are all about who wants to sleep with whom and who need not find out.
A voyeur scenario that turns into a threesome that morphs into a throuple. Two buds masturbating next to their passed-out best friend. A steamy hookup in the school’s shared shower stalls, interrupted by a flustered onlooker. An incestuous fantasy finally allowed to become a reality. A locker-room rendezvous that doubles as a coercive argument to confess to a murder. The list goes on and on.
If it sounds outrageous, that’s part of the fun: “Élite” boasts an ensemble cast that looks like an Abercrombie & Fitch ad come to life, which means the students may appear wholesome in their tailored uniforms, but each also exudes the erotic appeal of a magazine centerfold. Its male characters in particular are offered as eye candy; they feel like walking thirst traps, a line that would read much too lascivious were issues about influencers, revenge porn and social media narcissism not so central to “Élite’s” storytelling. There’s a sexual fluidity that runs through the entire school (“Labels are for clothes,” as one character puts it) even as forbidden love affairs and illicit sexual entanglements are the lay of the land. The show’s rotating roster of character hookups make love triangles look like amateur arithmetic.
But the cast members — many of whom were or have since become social media superstars — are more than pretty faces. “Élite” succeeds because the actors walk a fine line, playing both broadly drawn personas (the ambitious influencer, the bullying jock, the scamming Instagram star) and wholly relatable characters (the insecure boy, the anxious wreck, the self-pitying girl). Within the show’s heightened reality, where people party at wine caves and students spout Oscar Wilde aphorisms to one another, it’s an alluring blend.
But if fans across the world have grown attached to the story of Omar (Omar Ayuso), a closeted Muslim teen who falls for tennis star-in-the-making Ander (Arón Piper), it’s not just because Ayuso and Piper scorch the screen with their chemistry. It is because their tender romance hasn’t been bogged down by dull didacticism or wistful wish fulfillment. “Élite” doesn’t imagine a world without homophobia (Marina’s killer joins a long legacy of beautifully coiffed queer villains), but it also doesn’t deny the couple their glittering moments of bliss, like a neon-drenched kiss at a nightclub in Season 2, scored by AURORA’s “Queendom.” That same level of care — alongside season-long arcs about bludgeoned victims and missing students — has been brought to bear on storylines about being outed as an HIV-positive teen, about a Muslim teen girl’s sexual awakening, even a pair of half-siblings who put “Cruel Intentions” to shame.
“Élite”is deliciously trashy and gloriously glossy. The show straddles the line between being an all-out soap opera about unruly sexual desires and a socially conscious, nail-biting thriller about wealth inequality. What keeps the show’s tone from veering too close to self-seriousness — or parody — despite the many sexy pouts, editorial-ready fashion and effortlessly cool needle drops is its conviction that the inner lives of teenagers are fertile ground to paint both the world as is and as it could be.
When: Any time
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)