Melodrama is a genre that can be perceived in two ways. Firstly, as a manipulative structure of storytelling that appeals to your primal emotions to elicit a response. This form usually contains heroic heroes, gut-churning villains, and oversimplified visions of the world that elicit emotional speeches. Alternatively, melodrama can be seen as a way of heightening the theatrical elements of a narrative, creating a deliberate distinction between the universe of the story and that of the audience. In this form, it can contain monstrous villains, noble heroes, and evoke emotional reactions, but it also allows for the audience to engage with the story on a more nuanced level. Villains can be fascinating and sympathetic, heroes conflicted and flawed, and the world less simple, which provides an opportunity for the audience to reach a more intelligent conclusion than mere “good will triumph over evil.”
Sometimes you just need to let yourself be wowed. In Latin America, people tend to gravitate towards projects that are high in production value and dramatic impact because they are tired of the mediocre quality of the dominant medium in the industry: the Mexican-style of telenovelas, which are mostly focused on a single character or a small group of leads that are subjected to relentless suffering at the hands of cartoonish villains until they finally have their happy ending. This is in contrast to the Brazilian style of telenovelas, which have an ensemble cast of dozens that play characters that run the entire D&D alignment matrix, with bittersweet endings and stunning production values. Latin America could have enjoyed this approach if they had paid attention to the glory days of the Sabatini-Rencoret telenovelas of the 1990s and 2000s. Unfortunately, since Mexico, Colombia, and Venezuela were the dominant players in the market, Latin America received a steady stream of these samey-samey productions that lacked innovation and were not interesting.
Somewhere between these two models of melodrama lies the Argentinian telenovelas. These productions are usually closer to a comedy of mannerisms and have achieved international success in Spain, Italy, Chile, and Argentina. However, they were never as dominant in a market that also had a robust output of high-quality movies and TV series in the weekly format. This gives Argentinian filmmakers and writers a broader range of mediums and genres in which to develop their ideas.
The Kingdom shows what you can achieve when you use the resources of melodrama well and consciously. In this series, Emilio Vázquez Pena (played by Diego Peretti) is an influential, wealthy, and magnetic evangelical pastor from the Greater Buenos Aires area. His interpersonal charm, popularity, and charity work with street children have shielded him from any public inquiry and pushback. He is selected by Armando Badajoz, a mainstream right-wing politician, to be his running mate for the Presidency of Argentina. However, during the campaign’s kick-off event, Armando is murdered, and Emilio is propelled into the running. With powerful international interests supporting him and a wife (Elena, played by Mercedes Morán) fully embracing her Lady Macbeth role, his chances of winning are pretty strong.
At the same time, the murder investigation, led by the one of few honest policewomen in Argentina (Roberta Candia, played by Nancy Dupláa) helps Emilio’s right hand, Julio Clamens (Chino Darín, yeah, like that Darín) to unearth the scope of the depravity in which Emilio is involved with. And when I say depravity, I mean it in the English-language sense, with a sprinkle of the Spanish-language sense (perversion). At the center of the power play is an orphaned street boy nicknamed “El Pez” (“The Fish”, hint, hint) and Tadeo Vázquez (Peter Lanzani, also in Argentina 1985), a reformed ex-con, left-wing hand of Emilio and a man with a heart and a voice of gold, who might be the only righteous person in the pastor’s sphere, and the only one who can out trick him.
The second (and final) season of The Kingdom opens two years later, with Emilio as the president of Argentina. (Production values are epic, as they are allowed to film at the Presidential Palace and Residence.) However, his term has been a complete disaster. He has failed to push forward his reactionary, dominionist agenda, while his neoliberal reforms have wreaked havoc on the Argentinian economy and protests against him have been relentless. He barely has any command of his own cabinet and has lost the confidence of the true power players, represented by the sinister Rubén Osorio. His wife chastises him for not going full theocrat, and Julio Clamens ran from his control alongside his youngest daughter, Ana, and their baby daughter. He feels abandoned by God, but the thing that consumes him the most is that Tadeo has managed to hide and protect Jonathan “El Pez,” the young boy who maybe-probably is the second coming of Jesus, and whom Emilio desires in a disturbing way.
The second season follows the inevitable clash between three forces: Emilio, helped by Daniel Botardi, his chauffeur and head of security, starts planning a theocratic self-coup, supported by far-right members of the police and military. Meanwhile, Osorio, ostensibly working for US interests and the Argentinian oligarchy, sees his control over Emilio slipping away and tries to catch up with him, haunted by visions of the people he has had killed through his maneuvering. But it is Tadeo who becomes a revolutionary figure for the disenfranchised in Argentina as he travels with Jonathan through the Argentinian Interior, accompanied by a ragtag group of friends. These storylines make for a compelling narrative, but the show also crams a few more storylines that don’t make sense for its short running time, including the machinations of Celeste, wife of the Vázquez Pena useless son; the fracturing marriage of Julio and Ana, and Osorio’s growing obsession with his psychologist.
These other storylines would have made sense if the show had another season to work with, but within these time constraints, they take away from the lean and mean political and religious plotlines. The political and religious plotlines hit hard and portray Argentina falling into a theocracy realistically. Emilio’s brownshirts replicate the same script that, during the 70s, preceded the dictatorship, by killing prominent left-wing figures and attributing the violence to a generalized moral decay and left-wing violence. The chapter where the theocratic terrorism takes place is a gut punch, and so is the finale, which is satisfying in exactly the way an ambiguous downer ending can be.
For all its flaws, mainly in that it needed more episodes to fully develop its storylines and the inclusion of Magical Realism elements, The Kingdom is a fairly Christian series, but not like those bad faith movies evangelicals keep churning out. It’s ultimately a celebration of the radical, revolutionary, humanist, and “socialist-curious” beliefs that were always supposed to guide Christianity. They are contraposed to the emptiness and narcissism of whatever televangelism and the “personal relationship with Jesus” is supposed to be. “The Kingdom” is also a good primer for people trying to process and counter the growing threat of theocracy in their countries, like in the US or Israel.
Alberto Cox really recommends you brace yourself in episode 3 of this season. That’s all I’m going to say.