30 Coins

2 out of 5

Created by: Álex de la Iglesia

If the first word used to describe a series is “batshit,” that’s… potentially promising! There are weird shows out there, but rare are those that cross the line into batshit territory. Of course, that comes with the possibility of going down an American Horror Story alley: in which all the over-the-top stuff seems to be for its own sake, and thus quickly loses its effect. So we need a qualifier to go along with such a term. Unfortunately, in 30 Coins case, it’s an extreme 180 adjoining adjective: boring.

Álex de la Iglesia’s 8-part HBO series has an appealing campy gloss to its proceedings, and very much goes for the throat with its opening and title sequence. In the former, a man is mind-controlled and sent into a building to commit mass slaughter and procure a particular item – torrents of blood, grand guignol fashion – and in the latter, we witness Judas Iscariot getting his titular bag o’ coinage for betraying a maniacally smiling as-he’s-nailed-on-the-cross Jesus, with occult imagery flashed and slo-mo blood once again a’flyin’, before Judas follows this up by hanging himself – zombie Roman soldier are charging toward us the whole while – and then we slam into the titles. This is cheeky stuff; it makes an impression.

And from episode to episode, things like this admittedly continue to occur: indeed, the general structure of each episode could be said to be a buildup to the batshit-thing-of-the-week employed by the bad guys in order to track down these 30 coins which will something something cause the end-of-the-world. These attempts are all mostly focused on a small town, and the badass priest – Padre Vergara, played by Eduard Fernández – and local vet – Elena, played by Megan Montaner – who’ve come into contact with the items.

None of this sounds bad, and Iglesia and team very amusingly go for broke with some of this batshit stuff. It can look a little janky at times – big, massive, demonic creatures beyond the budget – but the passion and competence is there to give it energy, further fueled along by the generally bonkers heightened tone of the series.

Unfortunately, after a couple episodes of this… nothing much links it all together, beyond the outlining premise. This extends to all aspects: the characters, the subplots, the scene-by-scene structure. Because the craziness seems rather unhindered by any logic, and because it comes and goes at a whim – hey, here was a child, borne from a cow, and it’s unbelievable and a sign of evil! …Until a few minutes later, when we don’t care – the inevitable effect is that these scenes absolutely don’t matter. That heightened tone is for naught; there are no stakes. Meanwhile, attempts to inject drama into the moments inbetween just lead to a set of rather uninteresting leads. Not unlikeable, necessarily, but they have no clear agendas, making them all rather wishy-washy and undefined. Sometimes Elena wants to solve the mystery of the coins, sometimes she doesn’t care. Sometimes Vergara wants to be bold and protect his flock, sometimes he wants to run scared. Again, if something linked these attitudes, such that they flowed from events in the episodes, sure, but it more seems like whatever was needed to create tension was how the parts were written on that day. Sprinkle a passionless will-they-won’t-they on this, between Elena and town mayor Paco (Miguel Ángel Silvestre), and it equates to a complete lack of character work – that is, we’re already losing interest in the batshit stuff, and the bits that are intended to hold our attentions inbetween also fail to do so.

That’s not to say these people aren’t capable actors – Fernández especially is eminently watchable, and looks damned rugged handsome with the best beard in the world – but it’s more like a puppet show than a script, having everyone scurry around and parrot something trite that gets us from A to B. Similarly, there are plenty of beats that work throughout the show, where just the absurdity of what we’re seeing clicks in the moment, or Iglesia executes a pretty funny bit of dark humor; the cumulative effect, though drags. I’m not even sure the motivation for getting the coins is ever stated so much as assumed; this can be seen as a rather telling affect of the show: there seems to be a general assumption of audience investment without ever actually taking steps to try to establish it.

So, yes, read some descriptions of episodes, and just watch that first scene: batshit. But then try to sit through a couple of episodes yourself, and maybe pause to think if you can explain why X, Y, or Z is happening, or why whichever character is doing what they’re currently doing. And when you find yourself distracted from answering that due to looking down at your phone, or at your computer, while some hopefully attention-grabbing nonsense is happening on screen…. it might register that 30 Coins, batshit though it may be, is also quite boring.