I didn’t watch daytime soap operas during the very few years I was a stay-at-home housewife with two small babies. After I went back to paid work, I did sometimes collapse exhausted at night to watch with comatose brain some mindless episode of a (non-violent) television series. Retired, I confess to also having been for a short time beguiled by The Good Wife (another woman done wrong but fighting back), but only until what’s-his-name, her office love interest, left the show. However, those were all discontinuous in plot — episodes featuring the same characters but with stories that began and ended in a single sitting.
Then came Downton Abbey, five years running, with a sixth and last season yet to come. This somewhat turgid and often long-drawn-out drama [forgive me, fans], beginning before World War I and now somewhere in the mid 1920’s, has always been at least minimally watchable (if you have nothing else to do on a Sunday night) because of the sumptuous settings, gorgeous and always historically accurate costumes and accoutrements, elaborate meals, Maggie Smith as a tart-tongued dowager and my ongoing curiosity as to whether reed-slim Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) will ever bring herself to eat something. [There was also the mystery of upright, stalwart and fiftyish Lord Crawley (Hugh Bonneville), hitherto devoted to his wife, Lady Crawley (Elizabeth McGovern), suddenly opening his bedroom door one night, pulling in a passing maid, and kissing her passionately. That was about three seasons ago and we haven’t heard anything more about it since. Perhaps the writers decided to abandon this particular plot line as unpromising, but they should know I’m still waiting.] However, Downton Abbey runs only on six or seven Sundays every mid-winter here in the States and is therefore hardly all-consuming.
But now there’s Netflix, an evil blessing. No more waiting from week to week. Netflix makes it possible to stream every episode of multiple seasons of TV shows one after the other (plus hundreds of crappy new movies and many oldies but goodies) — all for $7.99 a month. You can sit pigging out on whatever it is till your eyes burn and it’s the wee hours of the morning. Not that you have to, of course. It depends on your self-control. And what you’re watching.
Unfortunately for culturally snooty me, a well-educated friend emailed a few weeks ago that she and her husband, a retired psychiatrist, were now “in thrall” to an “Iberian Downton Abbey” on Netflix called Gran Hotel. With such a recommendation, how bad could it be? The weather outside was killer damp and hot. The sun was burning the impatiens. The sticky moisture in the air threatened aging lungs and newly straightened hair. The streets were empty of people. I turned up the air-conditioner, drew the blinds and clicked on the set.
Gran Hotel (which Netflix has helpfully translated as Grand Hotel) was a television series that originally ran for three years in Spain, from 2011 through 2013. It reached 18.5% of the viewing audience during its first season; by the third season, between two and three million people were watching each episode. Since then, almost every European country, including Russia and the UK, and several in the far East, have acquired the rights to run it. In America, Netflix has chopped it into 68 continuous episodes (with great cliff-hangers after each), running 45 minutes apiece. That’s 51 hours of viewing pleasure. Give it three or four episodes and, ladies (I’m not sure about the men), you’ll be hooked! After a while, you may forget meal preparation, eating (unless before the TV set), perhaps basic hygiene, certainly bedtime. By season three, it was Bill, clutching my hand, who was saying at 12:45 in the morning, “Let’s just see one more….”
It has nearly everything, including a multitude of mysteries and sub-mysteries involving characters, both upstairs and downstairs, who speak beautiful Castilian Spanish, of which I know nothing. (Although I did learn a few useful expressions during my 51 hours glued to the set. People said “I’m sorry,” “excuse me” and “I don’t know” a lot.) The subtitles are reasonably clear and comprehensive (until the third season when the excitement mounted to a point where the translator began to misspell and leave out a few words.) It’s true that the costuming isn’t quite as elaborate as in Downton Abbey, but the whole thing runs only a year and a half in story time (with a few flashbacks), so styles and hairdos don’t really need to change. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Gran Hotel takes place in 1906 and 1907 in northern Spain near the fictional town of Cantaloa, at the eponymous and equally fictitious Gran Hotel. All the outdoor shots were filmed on the grounds of the Palacio de la Magdalena (representing the hotel) and at several points nearby in Santander. The indoor sets — sweeping entrance hall, dining room, ballroom, yards and yards of red-plush wallpapered corridors where guest rooms are located, and more yards of grey-painted corridors of doors to small plain rooms where the staff reside, as well as the rooms themselves — were probably constructed in a Madrid studio.
The hotel is owned by the Alarcon family, now headed by Dona Teresa, a recent widow, and managed by the suave and suspicious-looking Diego Murquia, who was her deceased husband’s right-hand man. Dona Teresa (Adriana Ozores), will do almost anything to keep control of the hotel. She has three grown children: Sofia, pregnant with her first child and married to Alfredo, a future Marquis, who she hopes her mother will appoint as manager now that her father is dead; Javier, the only son — cute, but a womanizer and an alcoholic; and lovely Alicia, our heroine (Amaia Salamanca), who Diego (Pedro Alonso) wants and will do anything to marry and who our modestly born but literate hero, courageous and handsome Julio Olmeda (Yon Gonzales), loves at first sight. Julio has come to the hotel in Episode One to find out what happened to his sister Cristina, who was working there as a maid and has stopped writing letters home. When he learns Cristina disappeared on the night the hotel went from candlelight to electricity, he lies his way in as a waiter to discover what happened to her.
The hired help consists of a staff of waiters and maids, presided over by stern Angela the housekeeper (Concha Velasco), who is the mother of Andres (Llorenz Gonzales), one of the waiters. Andres becomes Julio’s roommate and buddy. (At every parting, of which there are several farther along in the script, they clasp each other fervently to show the strength of their feeling.) A maitre d’ (different each season, for reasons made clearer as the plot thickens) supervises the waiters. One of the maids is Belen, who sleeps with Diego, as Cristina apparently did too, before she disappeared. Andres loves Belen. Angela, his mother, has no apparent husband. There is also a letter — in a large red envelope so viewers can’t miss it while it “secretly” travels from hand to hand during the first season — that apparently would wrest control of the hotel from the Alarcons (and Diego). That’s enough to get you started.
Be advised my friend was wrong in comparing Gran Hotel to Downton Abbey in at least one respect. Downton Abbey is polite. Gran Hotel flames with heightened Spanish drama and emotion. (And is also, perhaps unintentionally, much funnier.) You will find not only the star-crossed lovers Julio and Alicia, but a serial murderer who kills poor young women when the moon is full with a gold carving knife; an unhappy arranged marriage; a troubling mystery concerning when and how Don Carlos (Dona Teresa’s dead husband) died; the what-happened-to-Cristina subplot; the real skinny on Diego, who isn’t Diego at all; a detective Ayala suspiciously like Agatha Christie’s Inspector Poirot; Agatha Christie herself as a young English hotel guest trying to help Ayala and inhaling ideas for future mystery novels; Houdini performing a water trick at the hotel; a good-looking priest who fornicates with at least two of his parishioners in the confession box, impregnating one of them; an explosion which leaves the main floor of the hotel looking like a war zone; even cholera. There is jealousy, attempted murder, suicide, seeming suicide, good adultery, bad adultery, revenge!
Expect duplicity nearly everywhere. You will see much listening at doors, hiding behind corners, a hidden room; a fall down the stairs; a miscarriage; bloody childbirth with appropriate groans in the kitchen; kidnapping; an underground dungeon; a duel with pistols at dawn; people who come back from the dead; the slim yet physically tough — but sensitive, quick-witted and always handsome — hero fighting like nobody’s business with his bare hands (“Where I’m from, you fight or starve!”); same handsome hero stripped to the waist a satisfying number of times; the lovely heroine’s beautiful blue eyes welling up with tears just as frequently whenever confronted with her no-win emotional situation; many people slapping someone else’s face on the slightest provocation; many a stolen kiss (to swelling orchestral music cueing you in that it’s coming), one in the first season winning Spain’s award for Best Television Kiss and one or more nominated (but not winning) in Season Two. [There’s hotter stuff in Season Two.)
Also overlook a lack of realism. Blood never oxidizes but remains bright red on a knife even days after leaving a body. Shirts drenched red with blood can be rinsed clean white in a basin by a good housekeeper. A baby is born looking three months old. Same baby lies peacefully in his bassinet, never growing as the plot unspools over many months, and can be carried in the arms without movement whenever required by the storyline. A corpse is successfully disposed of in a rolled-up carpet. Another corpse, exhumed long after death, doesn’t smell. Bullets always miss vital organs in good people, and extremely bad wounds that would leave the likes of us lying in bed for at least a month or two heal sufficiently within a day for the victim to be up and about, intent on wrongdoing (if he’s bad) or on saving the heroine (if he’s Julio). Important documents are burned incompletely so that a person may find a scrap that leads to clues or permits attempted blackmail. Other important documents pop up just when needed. Poison and opium lie around where anyone can get at it. I’m sure I’ve left a lot out, but I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you.
And whenever it all becomes too hair-raising, you can rest assured that after 51 hours of watching, the more-or-less good guys, plus Julio and Alicia, will reach a happy ending, and the others not.
I’d watch it again myself, but I already know the plot.