El Marginal

Juan Minujín stares down one of the many obstacles to getting out prison in  El Marginal .

Juan Minujín stares down one of the many obstacles to getting out prison in El Marginal.

Have you seen Netflix's El Marginal? Jonesing for a show that's gritty, has well-written characters, and plunges you deep into a world you only want to visit via your TV screen? With the election now over wouldn't you rather  inhale the fumes from the dark side in hourly increments instead of watching the country slowly die on the evening news and your Facebook feed? Then this is the show for you until the next season of Better Call Saul shows up, or whatever eventually replaces Breaking Bad as the national fix for brutal, fictional nastiness. 

El Marginal is yet another prison drama (what's up with all of these?), but you need to look elsewhere if you're looking for another OITNB. This is more like the first three seasons of Wentworth on steroids taking place in City of God. Set mostly inside an Argentinian prison (yes, it's in Spanish, with subtitles), the plot centers around Pastor Peña (Juan Minujín), a former cop who enters a notoriously corrupt prison as an inmate to help locate the kidnapped daughter of a judge. The kidnappers have the judge's daughter holed away inside the prison. Why? Because the judge ripped them off for $3 million, and they want it back.

On the inside, Peña has to navigate his way through the razor-thin space separating the gang that controls the prison and the scrappier one that lives in the prison's courtyard. The leader of the inside gang is Borges. Outwardly Borges (Claudio Rissi) appears to be a tired, disheveled, overweight and aging man who whose only desire is to maintain the lucrative status quo gained from smuggling anything and everything into the prison (his gang lives a life in jail that's like a more squalid version of Henry Hill and his friends in Goodfellas) . But Borges' calm exterior masks a viciousness without bounds -- rape? murder? cannibalism? -- it's all on the table if it gets him what he wants. He's got plenty of accomplices in that game, including the prison's warden Antín, the guards, and his younger brother Diosito (Nicolás Furtado), a psychopath whose sexual orientation is as unsteady as his temper.  

The gang in the courtyard lives there 24/7 in a makeshift tent city where it's safer to eke out a means of survival on the scraps tossed to them by Borges' gang than it is to be stranded inside a cell. This is where Peña lands, trying to maintain his cover while straddling a neutral place between both just long enough to get the job done. It doesn't take long before he realizes he's not actually getting back out.

The chess game between the levers of power within the prison's completely corrupted system drives the show's riveting plotline, but what makes El Marginal worth watching is its characters, a colorful menagerie of empathetic crooks, losers, and very bad guys. The show also has a worldview with a much grayer sense of morality than typically exists in most English-language dramas, giving it the potential to build a narrative arc as satisfying as The Wire and Breaking Bad. That might be a premature assessment, since there's only one season available, but it already looks resistant to the kind shark-jumping that ultimately derailed House of Cards and Wentworth after a few seasons. Binge on it.

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