'Matador' a bit too campy for its own good

El Rey

By Catherine Sulpizio, Daily Arts Writer
Published July 17, 2014

Riding in on the wave of World-Cup mania comes El Rey’s original series “Matador.” Robert Rodriguez’ new network, first carried by Comcast to bolster its stable of minority-owned channels, is great news for anyone looking to find diversity in TV, both on camera and in production. Though El Rey’s website promises a Tarantino-style mashup of kung-fu, grit, and grindhouse for its programming, “Matador” has its fair share of “White Collar” glossiness and sixties spy slickness too.


Series Premiere
El Rey
Tuesdays at 9 p.m.

We first meet Tony Bravo (Gabriel Luna), DEA agent, amid a Baja drug deal gone south. There’s a racial-purist German with a bad accent and an even worse business name for his sausage company (Do Your Wurst) and a meat-cleaver that ends up in the head of a mole by the first 10 minutes. Lest you think this setup is improbable, by the time Bravo has tackled our bloodied German entrepreneur and thrown up the requisite tequila shots all over him, you’ll be on board that this show is having fun with its own ridiculousness.

That’s good, because when I first heard the premise (DEA agent turned CIA turned undercover soccer pro for fictional L.A. team) I winced a little. But the show knows it’s dealing in tropes. CIA handler Annie Mason (Nicky Whelan “Neighbors”) wears head-to-toe black and an asymmetrical platinum bob like an “Archer” character come to life, the good cop to Neil Hopkins’ (“Lost”) chiseled misanthrope, who mutters sideline quips like “It’s a long shot” in reference to Bravo’s chances of making the soccer team. There’s also this B-movie treasure of a line from Annie: “You’re not here to shoot guns, Bravo, you’re here to shoot goals.” Cue stylish soccer montage where Bravo relearns his high school sport against a sultry soccer pro who doesn’t break a sweat (which might’ve smudged her full-face-makeup anyway). It has a gist any viewer will catch onto fairly quickly. The pilot introduces a sinister telecom owner (Alfred Molina, “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “The Da Vinci Code”) who conveniently owns the soccer team Bravo tries out for; there are mentions of an “international syndicate,” “global disturbances,” and undocumented satellite transmissions that NSA’s finest can’t even intercept.

The question is whether self-awareness of all the campy clichés “Matador” revels in is enough. Just because the writers invite the meta-references doesn’t mean they belie any value. For instance, the pilot wanders into a few stale ideas that border on stereotypical. Do we need another sexy spy trotted out in body-con dresses for the sole purpose of distracting a villain, like Annie is? Does Senna (Yvette Monreal), daughter of the L.A. Riot’s owner, need to be a spoiled celebutante who disturbingly tells her father she hasn’t worn underwear since grade school before asking for money?

The spy movies “Matador” nods to reached their peak popularity in 1960’s, an era where women earned 60 percent of men’s wage and National Organization of Women was in its fledgling years. If “Matador” intends to revamp the genre with any originality or creativity, the writers need to be more discriminating with which inherited elements they include. Borrowing mod fashion and deadpan humor is one thing; those features enhance its escapist, purely aesthetic tendencies, the TV equivalent of Jeff Koons (unless you take him seriously). On the other hand, the sexist undertones are not intentional additions. An especially frustrating scene comes when Bravo, in hot pursuit of a diabetic-coma bound villain, sees Senna about to have what looks like a forced threesome with two men. Bravo to the rescue, until it turns out Senna likes her sex that way, including videotaped. All good, right? Not until Bravo paternalistically scolds her for her sexual kink and tells her she better pretend it’s rape by the time the security guard finds her.

It does have redeeming moments, however. Bravo’s not the macho, womanizing James Bond spy of old either, taking on the CIA mission to get his brother out of parole instead of any compulsive need for risk and adventure. He can’t speak Spanish well and detests tequila, which seems to be a conscious narrative decision to eschew stereotypes. Bravo’s easy to like, the type of guy who might not be aware of all his flaws but is still nice enough to hang out with for a while — kind of like “Matador.”