Review: Manufacturing Reality in Netflix’s ‘Made in Mexico’

Posted September 27, 2018 3:47 p.m. EDT

Maybe it’s the people of Mexico who should be chanting, “Build that wall!” After they see the new Netflix reality series “Made in Mexico,” which premieres Friday, they may wish they hadn’t allowed such a free flow of manufactured drama, self-promotion and crocodile tears across the border from the United States.

Focusing on nine young socialites (Netflix’s word) living intertwined lives in the wealthier precincts of Mexico City, “Made in Mexico” is an aspirational-reality show that sits about halfway between “Real Housewives” messiness and “Terrace House” tidiness. In the two episodes available for review, violence is limited to some clumsy bull-riding and the dramatic knocking over of a glass of water.

That has something to do with the subjects, who are generally well mannered and thoughtful and don’t appear to do much drinking (except for the one who does). But it also may have to do with the show’s makers, Love Productions USA, the Los Angeles-based American arm of the company best known for “The Great British Bake-Off” (retitled “The Great British Baking Show” by PBS).

Like all reality shows of its type, “Made in Mexico” presents a parallel world of artificial intimacy and fabricated intrigue. In this case, though, the cocooning effect is more noticeable.

The show moves in a glitter-zone of skyscrapers, luxury apartments, expensive restaurants and family horse ranches. The non-glamorous are kept in the background. One of the socialites, who claims to be descended from an Aztec emperor, says of her circle, “Mexico City is very closed” — the metropolitan area’s 21 million other residents apparently slipped her mind.

Would a Mexican or other Latin-American production company have done things differently? Perhaps they wouldn’t have used such obvious cultural signifiers as Aztec dancers in the Zócalo or the gondolas of the Xochimilco canals to add local color.

But they probably would have been just as well versed in the international language of docureality, which here includes the usual mix of minor media celebrities, influencer-models, night life pros and miscellaneous rich kids engaged in a familiar T array of marital, parental and procreational conflicts.

And everyone knows how to play the game. When Liz figuratively shivs her new acquaintance Chantal in conversation, suggesting Chantal’s longtime boyfriend ought to have proposed by now, Chantal calmly returns the favor a subsequent interview, offering her sincere wish that the pressure Liz is putting on her fiancé “hopefully doesn’t end in divorce.”

That exchange could have taken place anywhere in the world, but other aspects of “Made in Mexico” feel more culturally specific (at least to an American viewer). Establishing family bona fides is key — various ancestors are credited with being Kurdish royalty, “the patriarch of the Lebanese in Mexico” and a man who “changed the course of this country completely.” (The dialogue is mostly in subtitled Spanish.)

The problems particular to the world of “Made in Mexico” include the agony of being a blue-eyed blonde in a mostly brunette environment. When two of them get together to commiserate, it’s hard to say what’s funnier: the statement “It took me a solid eight months until I was happy here” or the response, “Wow, that’s a long time.”

The cast that carries out the show’s story lines — in addition to the usual get-to-know-you brunches and bar crawls, the opening episodes include a blind date at a baptism and two bros engaging in competitive bidding at a charity auction — is strikingly attractive and actually surprisingly endearing, even when things get catty. So far, the breakout star seems likely to be Columba Diaz, an opinionated, charismatic model who calls people out for their chauvinism and classism and gives an excellent side-eye.

And there’s a villain, of course: Hanna Jaff, with her backyard fencing lessons, her wall of framed degrees and awards and her name-drop of the TED Talk she gave in Kurdistan. In keeping with the spirit of “Made in Mexico,” though, she isn’t turned into a cartoon — her ego is matched by her dignity and determination. “No, I am not a bad hombre,” she says in one of the few direct references to Donald Trump’s imprecations against Mexicans, “and I am not a bad mujer, either.”