Happy fates: Spain's 'Smiley's a fun gay rom-com series

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday January 10, 2023
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The main cast of 'Smiley' (photo: Netflix)
The main cast of 'Smiley' (photo: Netflix)

Do you have the post-holiday blues, a mild case of SAD? Is the January deluge of wet weather, though welcome, getting you down? Here is just the remedy to enliven your spirit and might even make you believe in love again.

The new gay rom-com from Spain, "Smiley," debuted on Netflix last month and is so engaging and uplifting, you will feel sad when you've finished binge-watching all eight thirtyish-minute episodes. It's the must-watch television you didn't know you needed. Don't let the subtitles scare you away from this delectable concoction.

Miki Esparbe and Carlos Cuevas in 'Smiley' (photo: Netflix)  

Call me
Living in Barcelona, Alex (hottie Carlos Cuevas) is a bartender, who despite his winning looks, is unable to keep a steady boyfriend. In frustration, he leaves a long message full of anger and disappointment to his ex, asking why the relationship, which seemed so promising, ended so badly. The problem is that using the landline phone from the bar, he has misdialed the number, mistakenly calling Bruno (Miki Esparbe), an intelligent architect who doesn't think he's attractive. Bruno, whom Alex has never met, is also on the hunt for a lasting partnership but has become so frustrated after being dumped by his boyfriends who find him nerdy and boring, he's deleted his Grindr account.

On a whim, Bruno calls back Alex and after a promising, flirty conversation, they decide to meet. Alex is skeptical but his best friend, lesbian bar co-owner Vero (Meritxell Calvo), reminds him of all the gorgeous disasters he's dated, so urges him to take another chance. Meanwhile, Vero has her own issues with her long-term girlfriend Patri (Giannina Fruttero) as they prepare to move into a new condo but also decide to open their relationship by having joint threesomes.

Once they do meet, Alex and Bruno are total opposites with very different interests. Alex is gym-obsessed, sculpting his abs, while Bruno fixates on classic Hollywood movies, yet they have an underlying undeniable attraction to each other. They have great sex, but misinterpret each other's cues and comments, resulting in passive-aggressive miscommunications, as this odd couple allow their previous experiences of hurtful relationships to negatively impact their current one. They never seem to meet on the same page at the same time.

Frustrated, they will each begin dating other guys. Alex pairs off with Ibra (Cedric Mughisha), a North African émigré, that's initially a casual hookup but matures into something more substantial. Bruno romances an architectural colleague Ramon who is head-over-heels in love/lust with him.

Still, Alex and Bruno can't seem to let go of the feelings they have for each other and the series becomes a will they/won't they scenario as they constantly run into each other often at the most inopportune moments. Can they beat the odds and unite as one?

Meritxell Calvo and Giannina Fruttero in 'Smiley' (photo: Netflix)  

One way or another
The series also skillfully develops several other characters such as Bruno's best friend, straight co-worker head architect Albert (Eduardo Lloveras), an aspiring painter who's going through a rough patch with his wife. There's also the lonely drag queen bar co-owner, 55-year-old Javier (Pepón Nieto), who performs nightly in a snarky comic/musical routine at the bar.

Alex's mother is setting up blind dates for him but she's also visited by a former friend of her late husband, which may or may not spark a new romance. These aren't just side stories but interweaving connections to the Alex/Bruno melodrama and you care about their travails (yes, even the straight ones) because the characters are so compelling and smart despite their all-too-human flaws.

"Smiley" uses every clichéd trope in the rom-com canon, yet avoids being predictable or cloying. In addition to the smiley emoji imagery, the series develops the Japanese legend of the red thread where everyone's little finger is tied to an invisible red string which will lead that individual to another person to which the other end is tied, who will be their true love. This mythology will figure prominently in the final episode, as we are swept into a passionate maelstrom that overtakes the viewers as well as Alex and Bruno.

Pepón Nieto in 'Smiley' (photo: Netflix)  

Picture this
As part of the lighthearted refreshing viewpoints, we see Alex and Bruno simultaneously in opposite panels, a split-screen visually showing their different stances as they talk directly to the audience on camera. It sounds gimmicky but breaks up the pace and prevents the series from taking itself too seriously, even though themes of fidelity, the nature of love, defining masculinity, and stability/destiny figure prominently through the series.

Breadth is prized over depth but there are love lessons for everyone regardless of gender or orientation. The fact that the action occurs throughout the Christmas and New Year holidays adds to the festive, celebratory nature of "Smiley."

While Netflix's "Heartstopper," the winning gay teen school romance from England, remains our favorite queer streamed series of 2022, I would place "Smiley" as my second choice. It is instructive to reflect why these two series from other countries are so successful as LGBTQ rom-coms, while the much-ballyhooed Hollywood "Bros" withers by comparison.

Unlike "Heartstopper" and "Smiley," "Bros" had only one likable character; audiences and critics found the main lead actor/character, Billy Eisner, abrasive and off-putting. Also, "Bros" directly introduced political content into its narrative, especially the contentious issue of teaching second-graders about gay sexuality, which not only felt like preaching to the choir (mostly LGBTQ audiences) but short-circuited the romantic frisson of the film.

In conclusion, "Bros" took itself and its supposed dubious groundbreaking status (about being the first Hollywood gay rom-com with an all-queer cast/crew) too seriously, a self-inflicted fatal wound in this genre.

"Smiley" (not to be confused with the horror films "Smile" and "Smiley"), is hardly perfect, but turns tropes upside down and somehow makes them relevant and entertaining. It's similar to other queer rom-coms that viciously parody dating apps even while the characters are engrossed with them. You will care about all the protagonists and their romantic exploits. We'd welcome a second season renewal. 2023 looks much brighter after watching "Smiley."


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