‘Money Heist’ was a thriller. ‘Money Heist: Berlin’ is the opposite.

‘Money Heist’ was a thriller. ‘Money Heist: Berlin’ is the opposite.

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This review contains mild spoilers.

“Money Heist: Berlin” is a slog with no stakes.

It gives me no pleasure to write this. As an unabashed fan of Álex Pina and Esther Martínez Lobato’s frothy, propulsive international hit “Money Heist,” I had hoped the long-awaited prequel, which drops Friday on Netflix, would offer some delightful end-of-year escapism. The eight-episode series covers the period shortly before Berlin (Pedro Alonso), the original show’s ailing, sexually coercive and sinister bon vivant, joins the gang. Alas! The pace is odd, the heist dull, the characters flat. Less a spinoff than a knockoff, the new show can’t even — despite the creator’s extraordinary credentials on this front — generate suspense.

Berlin, a wildly popular character from the original series, was always going to be tricky for the franchise to build a show around. “He’s a misogynist, a psychopath, egocentric, a narcissist, a delinquent, a rapist,” creator Pina told Oprah Daily back in 2021. “But still there are lots of people who adore him, because he values friendship, loyalty or fraternity.”

All true, but “Money Heist” — a bubbly, warmhearted franchise deeply invested in making the bad guys out to be good — isn’t tonally compatible with the complicated moral acrobatics typical of antihero dramas. Despite its characters’ many flaws, the original series isn’t morally gray. It is celebratory, defined by the fantasy that its charming thieves are public-spirited Robin Hoods who know how to party hard (and that the institutions they rob are corrupt).

Still, there were ways one could imagine a Berlin spinoff working. It could have shown Berlin stealing alone, an extrovert struggling to find satisfaction in profitable solitude. Perhaps it could have covered his relationship with his son, Rafael (Patrick Criado), who makes a brief appearance in the original show. The prequel could have explored how exactly its protagonist became the charismatic creep he is, or how he was different before his illness sent him into a nihilistic tailspin.

Instead, “Berlin” takes a lighter, sometimes comedic tone while straightforwardly rehashing the “Money Heist” formula. Berlin wants to steal a stash of jewels from France’s biggest auction house. To that end, he assembles a ragtag group of semi-competent thieves and trains them just as his timid, smarter, more responsible brother did in the original show. Some of the roles are almost painfully similar: There’s a soulful but repressed genius who’s the brains of the outfit (here it’s Tristán Ulloa playing Damián — an older, bespectacled version of Álvaro Morte’s El Profesor), a charming himbo (Joel Sánchez as Bruce, a less textured version of Jaime Lorente’s Denver), and an adrenaline junkie damaged by a past relationship (Begoña Vargas, set up to fail since her character, Camerón, is so clearly modeled on Úrsula Corberó’s Tokyo).

The show isn’t hiding these parallels, and the characters aren’t all derivative; a timid hacker named Keila (Michelle Jenner), for instance, is a fresh addition. But it feels like an in-joke that one character’s name — Roi (Julio Peña Fernández) — is an anagram of Rio (Miguel Herrán’s character in the original series). Despite these extensive borrowings, the new show seems to misunderstand, at a surprisingly basic level, why the winsome original formula worked.

Take the original gang’s trademark red jumpsuits with Salvador Dalí masks — a uniform the crew forced their hostages to wear so the criminals were visually indistinguishable from their victims, and which became a potent symbol people wore at (real) protests all over the (real) world. That a costume intended to hide the guilty among the innocent became a symbol of resistance might sound inexplicable unless you’ve watched the series. There was a canny and creative political dimension (tactically, at least) to the original heist: The Professor saw taking over the mint — an institution the thieves characterized as serving the rich while ordinary people drown in debt — as waging a war for hearts and minds. The gambit paid off, the public saw them as good guys fighting the good fight, and people outside started dressing like them in solidarity.

End of carousel

Berlin, by contrast, has no interest in claiming any moral high ground (and no ability to claim it). He just wants to steal stuff. Neither does the series endow him with any compensating gifts. He isn’t, for example, a good, inspiring or effective leader; he seems barely aware the heist is even happening throughout much of the series because he’s (lightly) smitten with the target’s wife, Camille (Samantha Siqueiros), and (heavily) invested in making her blow up her life for him.

This, too, is a riff on the original series — specifically, the Professor’s unstrategic infatuation with Raquel Murillo (Itziar Ituño), the hostage negotiator he’s supposed to be manipulating. But that unlikely romance is moving precisely because both participants were repressed and coded as “good” and self-abnegating — people saddled with an overdeveloped sense of duty trying to live by a code while the folks around them do whatever they feel like.

A bon vivant whose motto is carpe diem can’t generate that same dynamic. Unfortunately, the anemic romance between Berlin and Camille turns out to be the show’s emotional engine. The series’s central gamble is that we will want to know where Berlin will land as he vacillates between his passion for getting rich through theft and his passion for romance (and his cynicism about love). But because Berlin is characteristically sociopathic in his pursuit of Camille — stalking her, spying on her, lying about who he is and rejecting her unless she rejects her husband — it’s structurally impossible to be meaningfully moved by this storyline.

That leaves the heist. Part of the original “Money Heist’s” charm lay in how amusingly unprofessional its thieves were; they routinely succumbed to passion and impulse instead of focusing on the job. But there were flashes of genuine brilliance and a sense that the gang was truly bonded — willing to sacrifice for each other.

Not so in “Berlin.” Whereas the Professor in the original series is dedicated to his team — supervising them with care and agonizing when someone is in danger — Berlin’s leadership barely deserves the word. His role in the series is to make unreasonable demands, sabotage the plan, endanger everyone and smile impishly at the camera. What little camaraderie develops among various thieves is despite Berlin, not because of him. Not even Pedro Alonso, with all his charm, can make this especially interesting — and it could have been! It would have been fascinating to see Berlin handle a potential mutiny, for instance. Alas, his fellow thieves reward him with unflagging loyalty and care.

It doesn’t help that the team spends much of the series apart, which prevents the ensemble from developing much esprit de corps. Or that the budding romances between various thieves are wildly overdetermined but move at a glacial pace. If the idea was to generate suspense over whether the two couples will kiss — yes, the answer is obviously yes! — the effect is boredom. The viewer’s attention can’t help but wander.

It’s hard to fault Berlin, in other words, for doing the same. If the heist has no philosophical aspect to elevate it into a cheesy cause people can buy into, it is also itself — in terms of scope, technique and target — so dull that you can’t really blame Berlin or his team for losing focus.

Money Heist: Berlin, Episodes 1-8, are available for streaming Friday on Netflix.

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