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One Good Thing: The brutal beauty of Veneno

I need everyone to watch Veneno, a stunning HBO Max series about storytelling and survival.

Daniela Santiago in Veneno.
Courtesy of HBO Max
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Sometimes, when we’re lucky, we get a TV show like Veneno — the kind of show that jolts you awake and makes you pay attention. The kind that makes you think about the countless ways we tell stories and all the possibilities we haven’t yet staked out. The kind that gives you the power to see the world differently and makes your senses tingle. The kind that makes you want to talk about it with anyone and everyone.

This kind of TV show, unfortunately, doesn’t come around often enough. And that’s why, I suppose, I’m writing about Veneno, an eight-episode, one-season HBO Max original series that I fully believe is the best television show of the last year.

Veneno, in practical use, is the Spanish word for venom. But it’s also the nickname of one Cristina Ortiz Rodríguez or “La Veneno,” a real-life, Spanish transgender singer and celebrity who rose to prominence in the mid-’90s after appearing on one of Spain’s popular late-night TV shows. Veneno is about her life, and all its joys and complications.

“Sultan, courtesan, Indian-like Pocahontas, but with a shark,” she tells a reporter when she’s asked to describe herself in the first episode (the show, which is in Spanish, is available to stream with English subtitles or English dubbing). “The shark … It’s between my legs. What else would the shark be?”

What Veneno makes clear is that at the time, sex work was one of the only acceptable professions for trans women. So on the margins of society, Cristina created her own life where she could be La Veneno and write the rules of her own existence. Within that existence, she can be whoever she wants to be — a sultan, a courtesan, Pocahontas — in ways that broader society would never accept (and maybe she didn’t always have the courage for).

Fantasy and beauty are redemptive; they are power.

Daniela Santiago in Veneno.
Courtesy of HBO Max

Veneno is very much about Cristina as it chronicles her childhood, the trauma she endured, how she learned to overcome said trauma, and how she built a persona and wielded a sense of lethality to survive. But the series also examines her effect on other people: what this uncontrollable woman meant to the queer community, particularly transgender men and women, who watched her fight so many of their own internal and external battles in the public eye.

That perspective materializes through the eyes of a teenage Valeria Vegas, a college student who seeks to learn what happened to the La Veneno she saw on television as a kid. She catches up with La Veneno, whose glamour and glitz have given way to older age and a purple bathrobe she wears in the daytime. Valeria is not fully out herself when she meets her hero, and the show explores their parallel journeys about finding acceptance and what we learn from our chosen families.

Through flashbacks and shifts to present day, the two relive La Veneno’s life: the regrets, the joys, the excitement, the nemeses, the embarrassments, the volatility, and maybe — finally — the peace, because Vegas wants to write La Veneno’s biography.

That biography — ¡Digo! Ni puta ni santa. Las memorias de La Veneno (Not a Whore, Not a Saint: The Memories of La Veneno), which the real-life Vegas published in 2016 — serves as source material for the series. Vegas is credited as a writer on the show’s eight episodes and some of La Veneno’s real-life friends even play themselves.

Perhaps fittingly, the larger-than-life adult Cristina is played by three outstanding actresses, each one covering a different time period in her life. Jedet Sánchez, Daniela Santiago, and Isabel Torres play three largely different roles (Santiago gets to embody La Veneno at her splashiest, right when she becomes a star), but each one imbues her with dignity and humanity. Torres, in particular, will take your breath away as an older Cristina, wistfully looking back at the life she lived but never letting it slip into unmitigated sentimentality.

In many ways, Veneno is already groundbreaking just by its existence because of the way it confronts an utter lack of representation in the status quo. Shows about the trans experience and primarily about trans characters are few and far between (trans actors play the trans people in Cristina’s story). We’re still at a point where cisgender actors are stumbling through apologies for considering and taking transgender roles in movies and on TV. Sex work is still a topic the media struggles to get right. That Veneno is a breakthrough for television is both a compliment and an ugly truth about the progress the medium still needs to make.

But the revelations in Veneno don’t stop at representation.

Thematically, Veneno has a lot in common with the recently released It’s a Sin and the earlier FX series Pose (the latter of which accounts for the bulk of trans representation on TV). Emotionally, I’d also compare it to director Pedro Almodovar’s movies. One of my friends said it was like Tim Burton’s Big Fish, if Big Fish was about Paris Is Burning and directed by Almodovar — a perfect description, provided you’re familiar with all those references.

And yet, Veneno is quite simply its own beautiful thing.

Creators Javier Ambrossi and Javier Calvo have found a way to tell a story that so specifically nails the complexities of queer identity and insecurity in a way that feels so familiar to people who have lived that experience. It’s evident in moments as slight as Valeria’s body language, which tightens when she’s around her family, contrasted with the way she unspools when she’s in Cristina’s apartment. But it’s also present in scenes that are weightier and more honest, like the ones that depict the destructive ways Cristina copes with grief.

Their magic is finding a way to portray these difficult emotions without compromising the depth of Cristina’s lived experience.

The series is never cruel to Cristina, but it doesn’t paint her as infallible either. Veneno realizes that Cristina, like all of us, are architects of our own lives. The way each of us sees the world is a result of how we discern between reality and fantasy.

For queer people especially, that fantasy becomes more important when faced with a reality that doesn’t have space for you. Perhaps, like Cristina, you embrace the strength of storytelling to become the courtesan, the sultan, or the shark and find your own power — to invent your own legends about having affairs with princes, to will yourself to believe in magic and happily ever afters, like living for eternity on a Grecian island.

Ambrossi and Calvo acknowledge Cristina’s fantasies as such, playing with magical realism one moment and flanking it with the starkness of reality the next. The disconnect between our actuality and our dreams is purposely harsh, and maybe even painful. But at no moment do they ever deny how important fantasy is to La Veneno’s existence, and how understanding it is vital to understanding our own.

Veneno is streaming HBO Max. For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the One Good Thing archives.