Santo has all the hallmarks of a streaming hit, but its frenetic pace and scattershot approach make it a show that requires a little more patience than some will be willing to invest.
This review of Netflix’s Santo season 1 is spoiler-free.
Santo feels, in many ways, like something engineered in a lab to be the ideal Netflix release. It’s a co-production between Spain and Brazil, tapping into two of the streamer’s most vital markets; it’s a large-scale crime thriller with twists and turns and a hint of occultism for good measure; and it’s a breezy six episodes, each running under an hour, making it the perfect binge-watch proposition. If you were going to design a streaming hit, this is very much what it’d look like.
But there’s something off about Santo that I can’t quite put a finger on. Sometimes it feels as if it’s trying to have its cake and eat it by cycling through so many genres and structural elements. The pace is breakneck sometimes to its own detriment, and the supporting cast occasionally feels like backdrops for the main players to perform in front of. The limited episode order amounts to a lot of chaos – more than seems ideal for a show that relies so heavily on what is essentially a case of whodunit.
Here’s the thing – the titular Santo is the world’s most notorious drug dealer, who’s being hunted on both sides of the Atlantic, but nobody has ever seen his face. So, he could be anyone, which in this kind of show means he’s inevitably going to be one of the main cast. You spend the whole time trying to guess who, being fed red herrings, and trying to piece together a trail of clues that often feels messy and confounding for no good reason.
The two sides of the law-enforcement coin are represented by two traditionally troubled cops – Millan, a corrupt officer in Spain, and Cardona, a scarred undercover agent from Brazil. Both are intimately tied to Santo and the trail of bloody, bizarre cult rituals he’s leaving in his wake, which includes children cut into pieces with their brains removed. The two parallel stories are brought together early on when Cardona finds himself in Spain with a chunk of his memory missing and having last been seen with Santo’s favorite mistress, Barbara.
Needless to say, there’s a lot of mystery in this premise, and that helps to offset how rote the genre motions can feel; the suspense of being undercover, the moral justifications of corruption, the gruesome satanic rituals, the personal stakes, and so on, and so forth. Santo feels like many other shows, and often several at the same time, which prevents it from really carving out its own identity but also from really satisfying on its own terms. People throw around stuff like “action-packed” and “pacey” as though they’re exclusively compliments, but when that’s all there is, the overall effect can be tiring.
Ultimately, this is a series that thinks it’s a little more clever than it really is and often tries to show it at the expense of the viewer’s understanding and/or enjoyment. It’s worth persevering with since the reveals persist all the way through and you won’t get a full picture until the end, but it’s also a show that requires more attention and effort than a laidback weekend binge ordinarily might. There’ll be an enthusiastic audience for sure, but one can’t help but feel that Santo bites off a little more than it can chew.