El Recluso is a violent and sleazy soap opera-style thriller about a Mexican prison. Good fun, with no pretense towards hidden depths.
El Recluso (AKA The Inmate) is a thirteen episode TV show about a Mexican prison. The story focuses on an ex-marine, Lázaro Mendoza (Ignacio Serricchio) who goes there undercover to discover the whereabouts of the kidnapped daughter of an American judge. A blend of thriller and soap opera, The Inmate also includes the politics and culture of gangs in the prison (one of which is suspected of arranging the kidnapping), corruption in the prison staff, mystery, betrayal, tattoos, muscles, and violence.
The characters in The Inmate are brash, colorful and exciting. The over-the-top nature of some of them seems somewhat stereotypical to me, and it’s impossible (here on my middle-class British sofa) to know how authentic they are, and how much is exaggerated for the drama… I suspect lots, but part of me doesn’t care: the show is addictive, the drama works! But about those characters…
Lázaro (known as Dante once he’s undercover) is intelligent, tough, and a straightforward good guy at heart: it doesn’t come naturally to him to present as a murderer, nor to be away from his son, and the conflict hurts him at times. But hey, the sooner he can figure out where Linda is, the sooner he can go home, right? Linda Morris (Isabella Castillo) is a university student, who panics at her incarceration at first, though gradually we see that she can be resilient, clever and loyal to those who help her. Mariano Tavares (Luis Felipe Tovar) is the godfather, of both the mafia-style gang and of another inmate, Santito (David Chocarro); between them, they manage the drugs and other contraband goods in the prison, as well as relations with some of the staff, primarily the warden. The warden is Peniche (Flavio Medina), ambitious, egotistical and utterly corrupt. The other staff member with a prominent role is Frida Villarreal (Ana Claudia Talancón), morally pure in comparison, though that also gives her some dilemmas, working with the people she does.
There are some serious themes in The Inmate, such as civil rights of prisoners, and decent pay and conditions for prison staff; these are not explored in any depth, though, but rather used as blunt plot devices. I did say it’s as much soap opera as thriller after all: soap opera in style, and thriller in content. As you might expect from a Days of their Lives-type soap opera, the characters are not terribly complex, and both their personalities and appearances are a little exaggerated (the men all swagger, the women all skirt and flirt). Equally the plot lies on the fine line between believable and slightly far-fetched. This thriller storyline is the device to keep the series contained in a finite format, and the story arc does have a proper structure: there are some small elements left open (ideal for a second season), but the main plot line has a conclusion. And in perfect thriller style, there is action and a pretty consistent pace all the way… along with sex, bad language and violence aplenty.
Interestingly, there are only two characters which do not come across as far-fetched, and these two also have the best actors. Something tells me this is so it’s nice and clear who the good guys are. One is Lázaro/Dante and the other Frida. Ignacio Serricchio (who plays Dante) may be familiar already from General Hospital or Lost in Space, and he handles very well the range of emotions and situations his character has to go through. Ana Claudia Talancón (who plays Frida) is already known for some fairly serious drama (such as Love in the Time of Cholera) and is a perfect choice for the “moral compass” of the show.
The Inmate is an unusual beast; at least it seems to me to be one. I watch a lot of foreign language films and TV shows here in the UK (both at the cinema and on streaming TV), so was drawn to The Inmate as another Spanish language thriller show. But Spanish language though it is, The Inmate is American. It was first broadcast by Telemundo, and it is an unusual beast to them, too: they produce many long telenovelas, and other content largely for Latin American audiences in the United States and worldwide. The Inmate was indeed written and produced for such an audience, but significantly shorter, at thirteen episodes; it is Telemundo’s first short-format series, aimed at ease of distribution around the world… The Inmate reached my attention via Netflix. It was originally broadcast daily, in September and October 2018, and that release format makes sense, having seen the fast-moving nature of the plot.
The Inmate is based on El Marginal (created by Sebastián Ortega), an Argentinian show, which is now into its third season. Funnily enough, both are available on Netflix worldwide. So… if there are two Spanish-language shows about a prison and a kidnapped girl on Netflix, which one do you watch? It’s all about the style, really: the plots (at least for season one of El Marginal) are virtually the same. The American show is much more glamorous and sleazy, with sharp production and energetic music; the Argentinian one a little more serious in style, its characters are more everyday in their appearance, and the production and cinematography more gritty. Even the sex scenes are frankly grubby. I’ve only seen a few episodes of the original but from what I can see, both are great shows: it’s a matter of personal preference with regard to the style.
Some have said The Inmate is a bit like Money Heist: perhaps the language, and the pace, but that’s about it. Some have said it’s a bit like Prison Break: only superficially. The Inmate is great fun, a bit of light-yet-violent escapism (I lost count of the fights and casual deaths). I recommend it, especially if you enjoy Spanish language shows, but want something shorter than Ministry of Time.