Welcome to Up Next, a column that gives you the rundown on the latest TV. This week, Valerie Ettenhofer reviews Sky Rojo, the latest thriller by the team behind Netflix’s international mega-hit Money Heist.
In 2017, Netflix dropped the first season of the Spanish heist thriller series Money Heist (a.k.a. La Casa de Papel) to little fanfare. A few years later, it had become one of the streaming giant’s biggest hits to date, breaking the record for the most-watched non-English language series with its third season. Now, Money Heist creator Álex Pina and writer Esther Martínez Lobato are back with Sky Rojo, a Netflix original series that has all the fixings required to become a flashy but flawed success.
Sky Rojo follows a trio of sex workers who must flee the club where they’re forced to work after an altercation gone wrong ends with their pimp bleeding out on the floor. It’s worth mentioning early on that, while the series describes these women as prostitutes, some are actually human trafficking victims, and all three are mostly disgusted by their line of work. Anyone looking for a positive portrayal of consenting sex workers will have to look elsewhere, as Sky Rojo is firmly entrenched in the exploitative and violent side of Spain’s multi-billion dollar trade.
Despite their brutal situation, the three women are close-knit friends. The leader of the group is pill-popping Coral (Verónica Sánchez), the series’ mysterious protagonist who came to the club after a past life as a housewife and biologist. She’s joined by wide-eyed, optimistic Cuban trafficking victim Gina (Yany Prado), as well as Wendy (Lali Espósito), who left Argentina in hopes of making enough money to start a better life. Viewers meet the three just moments before the act of violence that will change the course of their destinies, an altercation with club owner and pimp Romeo (Asier Etxeandia). Soon, they are on the run, and their backstories are slowly revealed as they’re chased cross-country by two vicious henchmen brothers.
Pina’s previous Netflix hit took obvious cues from films like Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, and with its trio of beautiful women being hunted on the road, Sky Rojo bears a passing resemblance to another of that director’s films, Death Proof. Although its neo-exploitation influences are clear in everything from its leads’ sequin-studded miniskirts to its in-your-face shiny chrome logo, Sky Rojo is its own beast. The series features a unique blend of dark humor, serious violence, and heightened drama that its creators have called “Latin pulp.” So far, it’s neither as deep nor as clever as it thinks it is, but the thriller seems more concerned with being addictive than being perfect, and on that front, it succeeds. Sky Rojo is packed with twists that come at viewers a-mile-a-minute, and with only half of its eight-episode run available to screen for review, it likely has some closely-guarded surprises up its sleeve.
Sky Rojo’s greatest strengths are its leads. Sánchez plays Coral as a sexy mess with hidden strengths that have yet to be revealed; she often calls to mind Mary-Louise Parker’s performance as a housewife-turned-drug-dealer on the series Weeds. Espósito’s Wendy is a firecracker, quickest to anger but also fast to show affection. Prado is the most obvious revelation, sensitive and endearing as young Gina. In a flashback, Romeo casts all three characters in the fantasy brothel roles he thinks fit them. ”Above all, a pimp is a psychologist,” he says, dripping with narcissism and misogyny. It’s clear early on that the women are much more than the controlled roles they’ve been cast in, and they recognize the complexity in one another even if no one else does. However much they must endure — and in the tradition of pulp fiction, it’s certainly a lot — they find deep wells of resilience in one another. The three lead actresses form a solid foundation on which to build a series, and their characters, whose backstories are doled out in deliberate small increments, have plenty of room to grow in the future.
Unfortunately, not every character in Sky Rojo is as engaging as the core group. The criminal brothers tasked with recovering the women — hothead junkie Christian (Enric Auquer) and secretly sensitive Moisés (Miguel Ángel Silvestre) — are given an obnoxious amount of screen time. Between burying bodies in the desert and tracking the runaway womens’ phones, the two goons bicker about the best way to care for their aging mother and talk begrudgingly about their feelings. These moments seem like crude attempts to humanize the villains, either for the sake of adding to the series’ mostly-successful streak of dark humor or because we’re actually meant to empathize with two torturers. Either way, their frequent scenes are repetitive, unfocused, and not nearly as engaging as anything involving the women they’re after.
Like any modern work that takes its cue from exploitation and pulp, Sky Rojo is bound to court controversy and get people talking. Yet with a great core cast and a fast-paced, twisty plot, it’s an entertaining series that has the potential to become more than just a cheap thrill.