By now, the beats of an aspiring-musician saga are as familiar as those of a fairy tale. There’s the hungry young artist who seems marked for stardom long before the rest of the world has caught on. There’s the crappy starter apartment, and the glitzy industry parties, and the boardroom meetings with labels who don’t quite get it. There’s the moment when the hero hears his own song on the radio, and the moment when he caves to the temptations of fame, and the moment he’s made to decide to be true to himself.
Sometimes, in the darker iterations of this story, there’s also the spectacular crash after the meteoric rise; in the more thoughtful or incisive versions, there might be conversations about the limitations of his art or the compromises it demands or its impact on the world. But Neon is not that tale. The Netflix comedy prefers to stick to the sunny side, even as Santi (Tyler Dean Flores) faces his share of challenges on his way up Miami’s reggaeton scene. And if its relentless optimism lacks for edge or depth, Santi and his friends prove winsome enough to make you remember why this fantasy can be so alluring to begin with.
The Bottom Line
A sunny but surface-level journey.
Airdate: Thursday, Oct. 19 (Netflix)
Cast: Tyler Dean Flores, Emma Ferreira, Jordan Mendoza, Courtney Taylor
Creators: Shea Serrano, Max Searle
Perhaps it makes sense that Neon seems so bullish about the business, considering creators Shea Serrano (Primo) and Max Searle (The Ranch) have stuffed the season’s eight half-hour episodes with recognizable stars of the genre. Daddy Yankee serves as an executive producer and Tainy as an executive music producer. Another half-dozen boldface names pop up onscreen as themselves, including Ken-Y, Jon Z and Jota Rosa. All their appearances are announced with the sort of effusive fawning that, sure, befits Santi and company’s status as newcomers to these rarified circles, but also occasionally makes Neon come across like an extended PR campaign.
But if Neon loves its stars, its heart lies with the nobodies. Just hours after Santi and his childhood besties, music manager Ness (Emma Ferreira) and filmmaker Felix (Jordan Mendoza), arrive in Miami, they meet for lunch with Mia (Courtney Taylor), a label rep who casually mentions that their waiter is himself a “really good” artist who simply never made it. “That’s every restaurant here,” she warns, and she should know. The closing minutes of the premiere reveal that she’s not the record exec they’d presumed her to be, but an assistant desperate to prove herself to an indifferent boss (Santiago Cabrera). She’s a dreamer just like them, and Neon is nothing if not a celebration of those with the hustle and passion to get things done.
Over and over, seasoned veterans advise Santi and his friends to calm down, to stop looking so impressed, to act like they’ve been there. And over and over, their failure to do any of those things makes for one of Neon‘s most endearing qualities. Santi is defined by an irrepressible confidence that might read as annoying if he weren’t so darn charismatic — Miami’s neon lights are no match for Flores’ million-watt smile. Yet he’s never too cool to squeal with his friends over a new gig or a hot date. Ness practically stalks Celeste (Alycia Pascual-Peña), an influential critic, until she agrees to attend one of Santi’s performances: “I figured if you try and kill me, at least it’ll make a good story,” Celeste deadpans upon arrival. In time, their collective enthusiasm proves infectious to just about everyone they encounter, up to and including this TV viewer.
In fairness, Neon‘s Miami supplies them with plenty to marvel at. There’s the stereotypically awesome shit, of course — the private jets and the paparazzi and the mansion parties stuffed with beautiful people in shiny outfits. But there’s also the weirder, funnier, sillier stuff. An episode sees the gang descending upon Art Basel, where a performance artist pretends to shoot his own dick off every 40 minutes. Real-life musician Jhayco has a recurring role as Santi’s more successful rival Javier, who’s desperate to relaunch himself as a “mugician” (musician-magician), to the comical befuddlement of his peers. An affectionate Moonlight riff yields both one of the season’s funniest moments and one of its most unexpectedly touching. No wonder our protagonists look so perpetually wide-eyed, and no wonder they seem to be having such a blast.
Despite Mia’s early warning about how few people succeed in the industry, Neon never lets in much doubt that Santi will; its earnest vision of the American dream won’t allow for someone with as much talent and drive and pure intention as Santi to fail. (And Santi is apparently very gifted, although no one seems to be able to come up with a compliment more specific than “once-in-a-lifetime good.”) The good-vibes-only has its limits. Tensions between Santi and Ness and Mia and Felix either get resolved almost as soon as they begin, or eventually fizzle into nothing. In the season’s most awkward tonal shift, a subplot involving a gun-wielding drug trafficker (Jordana Brewster) struggles to muster up enough menace to make an impression.
More frustratingly, Neon‘s glossy positivity limits its portrayal of the reggaeton world to the surface level. For all its gushing over its celebrity cameos, the series spends very little time exploring what makes the genre unique — why specifically it speaks to Santi, what sets this corner of the music industry apart from the ones chronicled in, say, Dave or Atlanta or The Idol or the similarly Miami-set but much grittier Rap Sh!t. Nor is there much exploration of any conflicts and contradictions within the scene. The closest it gets is a storyline about a Cuban American pop star, Isa (Genesis Rodriguez), who tries to commandeer Santi’s authentic connection to his Puerto Rican roots as a PR move for herself. But what could have been the start of a conversation about appropriation, appreciation and Latin identity gets smoothed over into a more generic storyline about industry bloodsuckers taking advantage of new artists.
But if intellectualizing isn’t Neon‘s thing, having a good time is. That, it pulls off with flying colors, delivering an endless party set to danceable beats, and populated by characters worth giving a damn about. So what if Santi’s debut single “Exagerao” sounds like something less than the groundbreaking, reputation-making smash we’re told it is, and so what if Neon is better at replicating the rise-of-a-star formula than reinventing it? Sometimes, it’s enough to play the hits.