It can be hard to find good shows to watch in languages that aren’t English. While the movie world has robust foreign film industries to compete with Hollywood, and even the Oscars honor foreign language films, there are less television shows that bring stories in other languages to life with the same amount of worldwide reach.
The one major exception to this? Spanish language TV. Throughout Latin America, Spanish language programming has been prominent for decades, but recently, it’s been experiencing a major boom. Telenovelas aren’t just campy soap operas: they are increasingly becoming a diverse and rich trove of innovative storytelling and comedy. With studios making content available on streaming services and adding subtitles for foreign audiences, anyone can watch them, regardless of whether or not they know Spanish—and everyone should. If you’re new to the wonderful world of Spanish language TV, here are a few must–watch pics to get started with:
If you loved Breaking Bad or Narcos: La Reina del Sur
Love a good crime thriller? Like your protagonists complicated? La Reina del Sur, one of the most explosively popular telenovelas of the last few years, is just as addictive as any of its American drug–themed counterparts. Teresa Mendoza starts out as a poor, innocent woman who seeks protection after her drug trafficker boyfriend is murdered—but she works her way up in the criminal underworld until she herself is a force to be reckoned with. In the male–dominated world of the drug trade, La Reina del Sur is a feminist story of a different kind, a stunning character arc for the main character, and a wild ride from start to finish.
For a dark, sexy period piece: Gran Hotel
If you think all telenovelas are campy and over–the–top, think again. Gran Hotel is the story of one man, Julio Olmedo, and his quest to investigate after his sister dies under mysterious circumstances while working as a maid in one of the most renowned hotels in Spain. Far from being ridiculous or unbelievable, the show is just as tasteful and gorgeous as the hotel it takes place in. Gran Hotel offers hidden identities, affairs, murders, lies, passion, and sexy Spanish accents against an elegant early 20th century backdrop.
For a sweet and tender rom–com: Yo Soy Betty, la fea
This one might feel familiar to American viewers who remember the series Ugly Betty—which was actually a remake of Colombian show Yo Soy Betty, la fea (literally “I am Betty, the ugly one”). The original program was so popular that the American remake . Yo Soy Betty is the story of a girl in the fashion industry who is smart, hardworking, and talented, but is continually passed over professionally and personally because her looks are lacking. When she is hired by Armando Mendoza, a new boss with a new way of doing things, they work to save their company—and fall for each other in the process. Yo Soy Betty is laugh out loud funny in a way that all rom–coms should be, but rarely are. It’s impossible to walk away from the show not loving Betty, whose character provides one of the most refreshingly honest takes on a “career woman” that have ever been on screen.
If you love music or high–school drama: Rebelde
How do you solve social inequality and teenage angst in one fell swoop? If you’re Rebelde, you do it with pop music. This gem about an elite prep school is about teenagers trying to reconcile the class divides of the school’s students by rallying around a shared love of music and starting a band. Between the outfits and the (actually decent) original songs, Rebelde will make you nostalgic for the mid–2000s Mexican teenage years that you never had.
If you just love drama: El Internado
Hopefully, by now, it’s evident that not every Spanish–language TV show is over the top dramatic—but if that’s what you’re looking for, El Internado is one that is. El Internado takes place at a boarding school that is (for some reason) in the middle of the woods, as far away from civilization as possible. Every character has a crazy backstory, from mothers who stalk their babies after they’re sold by evil boyfriends, to orphans whose parents disappeared mysteriously while their parents were sailing around the world. I’m not entirely sure I understand El Internado all of the time, but coherence is not the point—it is crazy, and you’re going to love it anyway.
For sports lovers and dark comedy fans: Club de Cuervos
Netflix has started to make a foray into producing original movies and shows in Spanish, and Club de Cuervos is its best one yet. Club de Cuervos picks up after a business magnate in Nuevo Toledo, Mexico, unexpectedly dies, leaving his two children—no–nonsense Isabel and playboy Chava—to manage the town’s soccer team: the Cuervos, who always seem to be the underdogs. It has its share of crazy subplots, from pregnancy drama to prostitution, but it’s witty and refreshingly irreverent. Club de Cuervos is a brilliant exploration of family, business, the allure of power, and the way that people around the world go absolutely crazy for fútbol.