In the opening scene of Smiley, Netflix’s new Catalan-Spanish holiday romcom, bartender Àlex (Carlos Cuevas) leaves a despondent voicemail for his recent ex-boyfriend, who has shattered his belief that he would one day be able to find true love. But he has dialed the wrong number, and the message lands in the hands of Bruno (Miki Esparbé), a lonely architect similarly disillusioned with Barcelona’s gay hookup culture. The love story that tumbles out of this chance connection between strangers is a predictable yet delightful diversion that warms the heart with just the holiday spirit that we needed this season.
Smiley’s two thirty-something heroes come from different worlds. While Bruno works a 9-to-5 job in a prestigious architecture firm, Àlex spends his days hooking up with men from Grindr and his nights serving margaritas at a popular gay bar. Àlex is a health-obsessed hunk who belongs to not one, but two gyms (the arm machines at the first gym just aren’t quite good enough…), while Bruno is content to cuddle up each night with his dog on his lap and an old romantic movie on TV. Each man hates what the other stands for, but they share a desire to find love in a world where true human connection always seems just out of reach. That it takes eight episodes for Àlex and Bruno to realize that they may have found what they have been looking for is the result of all the usual romcom hijinks: misinterpreted text messages, denied attraction, second-best love interests, and dramatic goodbyes en route to the airport.
While Bruno and Àlex’s winding path towards love is entertaining (in large part thanks to an energetic, emotional performance from Cuevas),Smiley is best when exploring the two other relationships, longstanding but complicated, that lie at the series’ center: that of Àlex’s coworker Vero (Meritxell Calvo) and her longtime girlfriend Patri (Giannina Fruttero), and that of Bruno’s coworker Albert (Eduardo Lloveras) and his wife Núria (Ruth Llopis). Portraits of what happens when new love fades, these engrossing side plots are bolstered by excellent performances from Calvo and Lloveras, whose characters are the truest-to-life of the series. While most of Smiley is straightforwardly optimistic, these stories provide nuanced and complicated accounts of settled life when both parties are going through the motions of love rather than feeling it. With the holidays bringing a spirit of reckoning—and of beginnings and endings—to both couples, they are forced to ask themselves an important question: when is love worth saving?
Unfortunately, given the stellar ensemble performances, many of the series’ characters feel less like full personalities than stand-ins for identities in conversation with one another: the hunk, the nerd, the semi-closeted lesbian, the polyamorous lesbian, the repressed older gay man. If the thesis of Smiley is that love can take root regardless of how different people seem, the series isn’t doing itself any favors with its reinforcement of the social categorization that it purports to disrupt. Perhaps a more nuanced approach to the development of Bruno and Àlex could have allowed Smiley to be not just a story of a hunk and a nerd who fall in love against all odds, but rather a story of two people who, together, refuse to be categorized in a world that seeks to put them into boxes.
That being said, Smiley is just a holiday romcom, and the series does an excellent job of infusing some feel-good energy and hope into an amusing story. With the new year on the horizon, it seems like maybe even the spinster drag queen who works at the bar (portrayed with charisma by Pepón Nieto) will finally find someone to love. Even if predictable, Smiley winds its way towards a joyful—and surprisingly thoughtful—conclusion, a reminder that every ending is the beginning of something new.
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