A model. An Instagram influencer. A nightclub proprietor. A TV host who wants to sing. A philanthropist taking some time to focus on her clothing line. The cast of Netflix’s latest reality show are instantly identifiable as the kind of wealthy, trivial, un-self-aware and unserious people who have propelled the genre into a mainstay of popular culture on networks like E!, MTV, and, most especially, Bravo. The twist is that Made in Mexico is, well, made in Mexico—specifically Mexico City, a vibrant capital the B-roll captures with all the neon-streaked reverence of a state-sponsored tourism video.
From the rich-people-existing-around-one-another setup, one might expect all the drink-throwing and GIF-generating that have become Real Housewives’ stock in trade, just with Polanco fresas instead of Upper East Side ladies who lunch. There’s plenty of that over the season’s eight episodes, but Made in Mexico also announces itself on a note of social consciousness. The pilot’s first non-talking-head scene features playboy-type Roby Checa listening to a news clip of Donald Trump promising a border wall on his car radio. “For us here in Mexico, this show is an opportunity,” Checa explains in voice-over. “I am not a bad hombre, and I’m not a bad mujer, either,” argues socialite Hanna Jaff, who grew up on the border and was educated in the United States. Her aforementioned clothing line largely consists of “No Wall” T-shirts.
After competition shows (Nailed It!), makeover procedurals (Queer Eye), and late-night series (Hasan Minhaj’s upcoming Patriot Act), the nouveau riche misbehavior montage is the next logical step in Netflix’s effort to conquer unscripted programming. On paper, Made in Mexico is even something of a multitasker, satisfying several stated Netflix priorities at once. The show is international, with the vast majority of its dialogue taking place in Spanish, helping bolster the company’s sales pitch to would-be Latin American subscribers. And as befits a data-driven tech giant built on algorithms, Made in Mexico feels tailor-made to capitalize on the success of Terrace House, the Real World–like Japanese series that became a surprise stateside hit.
But Made in Mexico pitches itself less as homegrown entertainment for a burgeoning section of Netflix’s global consumer base than an education for Americans, who can have their politically virtuous bona fides and scoff at the stars’ drunken antics, too. The production company, Love Productions USA, is based in Los Angeles, and many of the staffers who can be heard questioning cast members off camera seem to be American. (Love is a division of the company that makes The Great British Bake Off, another Netflix mainstay.) The ensemble includes multiple American expats either born or having spent significant time in the States, who seemingly act as audience surrogates. Many of the vignettes, from an aside about the overprotective tendencies of Mexican mothers to an episode centered on Día de los Muertos, have a decidedly didactic bent. Perceptive viewers can suss out the subtext for themselves, but reality TV is not a genre that traffics in subtlety, so Made in Mexico comes right out and names the elephant in the room: Trump has contributed to an environment of xenophobia and condescension toward Mexicans, and this show intends to set the record straight. “There’s people in Mexico who are completely different, and I want people to get to know them,” declares Carlos Girón Longoria, an aspiring actor who moonlights as a weatherman.
There’s something tantalizing about the idea of fighting fire with fire—an over-the-top reality show to strike a blow against an over-the-top reality host who also happens to be president. Still, even a few seconds’ consideration, let alone hours’ worth of binging, leads to the inevitable conclusion that Made in Mexico does about as much to fight prejudice as a $380 “Poverty Is Sexist” sweater does for feminism. It’s a nice concept, and it certainly doesn’t hurt to have a message as blandly agreeable as “Mexicans are people too” in the world. But somewhere between a man drunkenly riding a bull and a perfunctory spectacle where participants in a highly stage-managed narrative unironically accuse another of being “fake,” it becomes obvious what the audience is really here for and what Made in Mexico is here to provide. This isn’t a morality play masquerading as handsomely packaged schlock. It’s handsomely packaged schlock with a whiff of morality that dissipates just in time for the screaming matches to start.
The good news is that, as schlock, Made in Mexico is devastatingly effective, the kind of show you’ll click on out of mild curiosity and then find yourself resurfacing from a full eight hours later. The appeal of Terrace House, which began as a purely Japanese show and became a Netflix coproduction only in its later seasons, is its sheer difference from anything Americans understand as reality television, with disarmingly low-key sources of conflict and outsized reactions farmed out to a panel. Made in Mexico is, for the most part, exactly like American reality TV. There are lunches that take place in near-empty restaurants and forced interactions between people who clearly wouldn’t spend time together otherwise, à la Housewives or The Hills. The fourth wall is frequently broken to show soundstages and acknowledge producer-laid ground rules, à la hipper fare like RuPaul’s Drag Race. Thanks to husbands and boyfriends who say things like, “You know what women are like,” the show makes a damning enough case against heterosexuality to put The Bachelor to shame.
Mexico City has long been a popular vacation destination among cosmopolitan Americans; contrary to reality shows’ reputation in popular culture, surveys suggest that such educated people with disposable income are precisely the sort who regularly watch them. Made in Mexico feels like a savvy attempt to appeal to this demographic, with any boosted visibility in Mexico itself an added bonus. The show nevertheless includes some stark instances of culture shock: At the age of 32, Checa has just moved out of his family home for the first time; Longoria was once kidnapped and spent months in captivity; there are an uncomfortable number of nameless domestic workers and bodyguards, many of them thoughtlessly called upon to perform emotional labor for their bosses in front of the cameras. There are also fatal contradictions between Made in Mexico’s stated ambitions of acting as a cultural ambassador and its practiced M.O. of allowing its cast to come off as vain, petty, aggressive, and self-absorbed as their medium demands. Then again, the demands of representation can be more like shackles, and once they’re cast off, what arrives in their place is both more interesting and more recognizable than a PSA. The cast of Made in Mexico are just like us, for good and for ill.