El Rey Delivers More Socko Entertainment With 'Matador'

The premiere tonight on the El Rey network of the new action series “Matador” comes as a genuine breath of fresh air at a time when the sheer volume of high-brow dramas (or those aspiring to that distinction) threatens to crush the audience and the industry alike. It seems that all of a sudden everything has to appeal to the intelligentsia (or those aspiring to that distinction) with storytelling that is dense, intense, top-heavy with serious themes and generally over-thought, if not over-wrought and overdone.

“Matador” is none of those things. It is never going to be placed in the same category as “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men,” “Fargo,” “Game of Thrones” or “Homeland,” to name just a few great shows that have been so popular and so honored that they have influenced the development of a disproportionate number of drama series on broadcast and cable networks. Watching all of these shows all of the time is like dining on fine food exclusively at the expense of enjoying a slice of pizza and a cold beer. Tellingly, an awful lot of newer series that strive for similar quality – including AMC’s “Turn,” FX’s “Tyrant” and HBO’s “The Leftovers” – have fallen significantly short in performance and entertainment value. Perhaps the audience and the industry alike are approaching a saturation point.

That brings me back to “Matador,” a fast-moving round of socko entertainment that offers its audience a roaring good time. El Rey targets Latino audiences, but with shows like “From Dusk to Dawn: The Series” and now “Matador” its appeal is apt to go much broader, especially among young men, the toughest demographic to lure to television under almost any circumstances (except for certain sports events). Filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, the founder and driving force
behind El Rey, knows a thing or two about creating content that appeals to those viewers.

Perhaps certain cable networks might enjoy greater success if they stopped taking such a serious approach to the programming they are developing and instead focused on providing viewers with easy entertainment. There was a popular saying in the late Seventies that sounded something like this: “(Chuck) Art, Let’s Dance!” Sometimes people just want to have fun, but you wouldn’t know it from the rush of new scripted efforts that require viewers to concentrate and ponder and communicate to appreciate the full experience. “Matador’ is a nice antidote to all that, which is meant as a compliment. It’s a true original in every sense.

The premise is simple, and certainly improbable, but in this case that’s a good thing. Gabriel Luna stars as a CIA operative working deep undercover as a soccer player for the fictional team Los Angeles Riot. (Did I mention that the show has a wicked sense of humor?) In that capacity he is uniquely positioned to expose corruption in the sport and in the businesses (legitimate or otherwise) that swirl around it. He becomes a hugely popular superstar player while also maintaining his secret identity. As I said, it’s improbable and odd, but just right for the Rodriguez brand of escapism that doesn’t pretend to offer anything more than easy access to a good time.

Rodriguez truly has a hand in all aspects of El Rey, from business decisions and deal-making to directing episodes of shows on the network. He directed the pilot for “Matador,” which is pretty obvious right from the start, given his distinctive style, but is made undeniably clear when a machete enters the action. I won’t go into details about the sequence, but I think “Matador” needs more of that, since the Rodriguez fan base has come to expect extreme content in his work. Also, given its embrace of such frequently violent and graphic fare as AMC’s “The Walking Dead” and FX’s “Sons of Anarchy” the young male audience (regardless of ethnicity) expects TV to bring the edge.

“Matador” was created by Roberto Orci (“Star Trek,” “Fringe”) among others, and lists Alex Kurtzman (who collaborates with Orci on just about everything) among its executive producers. Talent has taken note of El Rey; so have advertisers and the press. Here’s hoping certain cable systems that haven’t been paying attention will follow suit. At risk of making it all seem mainstream, everyone should be able to enjoy “Matador” and “From Dusk to Dawn” and everything else on this ballsy network – even its great grainy movie promos, which do as much to brand El Rey as anything else.
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