Berlin 2023 TV series

Berlin

2023 - Spain

‘the best thing about it is that it is not really trying to be another Money Heist’

Berlin review by John Winterson Richards

After a slightly disappointing initial broadcast in its native Spain, the crime thriller La Casa de Papel, literally "The House of Paper" but streamed in English inexplicably as Money Heist, was a sleeper hit on Netflix. This was due mainly to its skill at ramping up tension and its intelligent characterisation - remember those two points: we will get back to them.

The "break out character" was the experienced criminal, known at first only by his code name "Berlin," who commanded the strike team. Written initially as a sleazebag, he became such a surprising success with viewers that he was resurrected, at least in flashback, for a continuation commissioned by Netflix directly. The flashbacks built on his popularity, making him far more sympathetic than his actions in the original run had suggested. From there it was an obvious move to extend the flashbacks even further, all the way to his own prequel show.

So we meet Berlin in, er, Berlin, aka Money Heist: Berlin, a few years before the events in Money Heist, just as he is being dumped by his third wife. He seeks distraction by putting together a heist of his own in Paris, a setting that flatters his self-image as a great romantic.

Berlin 2023 TV series

Berlin's appeal is as difficult to explain as it is to deny. Much is owed to the stylish performance by Pedro Alonso, apparently channelling Jeremy Irons. Yet there is also a strange familiarity about him. One sometimes meets such men - they are almost always men - in real life whose weaknesses are all too obvious but who nevertheless exert a strange fascination on others. Although their vulnerabilities are not far from the surface, they seem determined to ignore them and throw themselves into everything they do with a reckless energy that is hard to resist. Berlin aspires to be the classic swaggering Spanish alpha male, but falls just those few inches short. At some level he is aware of this failure and that internal conflict, between the man he is and his idealised portrait of himself, makes him far more interesting than the blustering bully of the early Money Heist. He grows from being an occasional antagonist and occasional comic relief into something of a tragic anti-hero.

The Berlin we meet in Berlin is not the unreliable subordinate, always challenging the man in charge, that he was in the early Money Heist, but the man in charge in his own right. This time he is the visionary who has the basic idea for an audacious theft, and who brings the gang together using his personal knowledge and connections. It comes as something of a surprise that he is actually a very good leader in some ways. His authority over his team seems absolute, which was not the case in Money Heist, and, most surprising of all, he really seems to care about the people he is leading. This puts his constant challenging of the leader in Money Heist in a completely new context: perhaps he wanted to take over the leadership role because he knew he was genuinely good at it.

Berlin 2023 TV series

However, Money Heist also showed that the details of meticulous planning are not exactly Berlin's strong suit. So to fill the more technical role assumed by "the Professor" in Money Heist, he brings in a Professor of his own, an actual University Professor played by Tristan Ulloa - the padre with a past in Warrior Nun, but almost unrecognizable here as an apparently sensible middle aged married man who could not possibly look less like a criminal. He seems to have a real friendship with Berlin, providing the voice of reason when the latter is getting too carried away on his flights of fancy, but also finding comfort and support from him when his own life takes an unexpected turn. That the compulsively egotistical Berlin is actually capable of human sympathy is another pleasant surprise that makes us like him more than we really should.

The production also benefits from bringing in two of Alonso's cast mates from Money Heist, Itziar Ituno and Najwa Nimri, reprising their characters as Spanish Police officers. They seem a lot closer and friendlier here than they did in Money Heist, which is a little jarring, but they form a good triple act with their French counterpart, played by Rachel Lascar, and the trio give the project a much needed jolt of energy when it begins to flag a little.

Berlin 2023 TV series

For here we come to where Berlin does not quite live up to the standards set by Money Heist in terms of tension and characterisation. To be fair, the original was always going to be a hard act to follow in these regards, and Berlin actually succeeds quite well whenever Alonso or Ulloa or the Police ladies are on screen.

The problem is that there is not enough of them. Too much time is spent with the juvenile cast, who are nothing like as compelling as their equivalents in Money Heist. Indeed, despite having watched the show with great attention only a few weeks ago, your ageing reviewer already finds it very hard to remember much about them. Let us just check online for a second... Ah yes, there is a nerdy girl who is good with computers... There is a party girl... There is a chap who is supposed to be good with locks or something... And there is another chap who is not very bright and whose only function seems to be to hook up with the nerdy girl in accordance with John Hughes High School film tradition.

Money Heist

It is not the fault of the actors that these are caricatures, not characters. All are, of course, unfeasibly good looking, which seems to be their whole point, but their predictable couplings are uninvolving, mainly because the people are uninvolving, as well as because - a common fault in forced television romances - one cannot imagine these couples staying together long in real life.

Worse of all, they are stupid. We are told that this is supposed to be a crack team of specialists, and the actual heist is indeed handled well. However, this takes place only about halfway through the season, so that the rest consists of the thieves having to deal with the consequences of avoidable mistakes. When Berlin tells the youngsters to stay in the hotel for a few hours, and just not go out under any circumstances, in the immediate aftermath of the theft, you know exactly what is going to happen. This is of course necessary for the plot to develop, but it is also irritating and it undermines our investment in the characters.

It does not help that, as in Money Heist, their leader himself, even more than his followers, abandons the tight discipline necessary for success that he has imposed. Berlin being Berlin, he is smitten by the wife of the director of the auction house in which the MacGuffins he is stealing are located, and, Berlin being Berlin, he acts on his impulse. The writers undoubtedly missed a great opportunity by not having her see right through him. As it is, they have her fall for his rather clumsy seduction. It turns out that she is also something of a romantic narcissist.

It could be argued that most criminals are actually like this, impulsive and lacking in discipline, and that this is why they become criminals in the first place and why they are usually caught. Most major crimes are solved and usually because the perpetrators make stupid mistakes. The great criminal mastermind who never gets caught does not exist outside crime thrillers like this. All this is true. Yet this is such a crime thriller and we are therefore invested in the notion of the great criminal mastermind. In Money Heist "the Professor," for all his mistakes, remains true to the type. Berlin does not and it is slightly frustrating.

Berlin 2023 TV series

Even more frustrating is the final episode in which everything is wrapped up in a very unlikely and disjointed fashion with everyone making decisions that make little sense. One gets the impression that the production team was having a lovely time filming around Europe only to realise that they were running out of time and had to rush to put some sort of ending together.

Most frustrating of all is that this collapse in the plotting in the second half spoils what could have been an outstanding show. It certainly had many of the elements of success, and, if one judged it on its own terms rather than compared it with Money Heist, one might well say it was a very entertaining show. However, the fact that it is built in the Money Heist name invites the comparison and many fans of the original expected more.

That said, in one respect it improves on Money Heist by adopting a deliberately lighter tone. In Money Heist death was always on the line and it could get a bit too dark on occasion. Berlin has more of the classic 1960s "caper" movie feel to it and as such is a much easier watch.

Some delightful location work, especially in and around Paris, helps a lot, but then when has Paris failed to add something to any production? The project also benefits from a clever soundtrack emphasising Berlin's high romanticism.

Berlin 2023 TV series

Above all it is good to spend more time with Berlin himself and explore different aspects of his complicated personality. This is the project's main selling point and it does deliver on it. If the character's own seduction technique is, viewed objectively, more than a little cheesy, it is still difficult for the viewer who is fully aware of this to avoid being seduced a little in turn - in the non-romantic sense, of course. Berlin's friendship with the Professor opens up a new dimension. So does the relationship between the Police trio.

There is a lot of potential here, and this remains the case despite the show not quite living up to it so far. It is therefore welcome news that, even as this review was being prepared, a second season has been ordered. If that plays to the show's established strengths, especially the leading character's magnetic presence, while tightening up the plotting and perhaps reviewing the juvenile roles, Berlin might actually turn out to be a better show than Money Heist. Indeed, the best thing about it is that it is not really trying to be another Money Heist and if it has the self-confidence to stay on that track we might end up with something refreshingly original.

Published on March 1st, 2024. Written by John Winterson Richards for Television Heaven.

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