Dave Soltysik, Head of Media Studies and A Level Examiner
In this blog post I will explore some initial approaches to Money Heist, a new foreign language television drama being added to the A Level Media Studies specification from September 2023.
Long Form Television Drama (LFTVD) is a particularly engaging topic as it allows students to integrate all the theoretical aspects of media studies. My students are especially enthusiastic about this topic as they can immerse themselves in the analysis of characters, themes and representations, and consider a range of semiotic approaches. The synopticity of this unit also means that students get the whole picture, as institutional factors, as we know, have a major influence on representation and the construction of meaning.
Students must study the social, cultural, historical, political and economic contexts of the chosen television dramas. It’s important to consider all these contexts in relation to their significance on constructing representations and influence on codes and conventions in long form television dramas. Contexts should not be considered in isolation. Areas to explore could include social attitudes (and changes in them), ideologies, national culture, the impact of historical events on LFTVDs, political views, and the opportunities and constraints that affect long form television dramas.
There are many articles you can use to aid teaching of contexts – for example, this Washington Post article discusses the importance of Netflix in broadening the popularity of Money Heist to reach a global audience. The Netflix Top 10 Analytics offers interesting insights into the popularity of different shows in relation to factors such as genre, geographical region, and audience demographics.
You may also want to consider that when Money Heist was initially released in Spain on Antena 3 it garnered a following but did not reach the level of international success it enjoys today. This shows the power of streaming platforms in the contemporary television industry. Netflix’s acquisition of and investment in the series allowed for higher production values and a broader distribution platform. Money Heist became a flagship programme for Netflix and as a result it was able to reach a global audience.
Students could research the Spanish 2011 anti-austerity movement as a political and economic backdrop to the narrative and its influence on the themes and issues within the show – such as the motives of the criminals in the context of a post-2011 Spain. The Professor is a significant figure to consider as he is depicted as the principal ‘criminal mastermind’ who orchestrates the robbery, while representing the concept of being anti-establishment and fighting against a system that has failed its people.
Money Heist offers a blend of several conventions of heist and crime dramas including assembling a team of specialists, meticulous planning and symbolic costuming. This document identifies some key conventions of the heist genre, mapped out against a range of films.
Money Heist makes intertextual references to several heist films including Inside Man (2006), specifically the scene in which Denver and Moscow break into the money vault, Reservoir Dogs (1992) through the use of aliases, and, most notably, Ocean’s Eleven (2001), which is perhaps one of the most influential films in setting genre expectations for contemporary audiences. The intertextual references in Money Heist have several purposes. They pay homage to previous works and by extension enhance the narrative by connecting it to larger cultural and historical contexts.
The narrative devices used by the show are another noteworthy media language element to consider with your students. In the rapidly evolving age of streaming platforms the non-linear narrative is particularly significant as it offers audiences an in-depth progression of the plot through flashbacks, while also having thematic significance. For instance, a flashback unveils the Professor’s intricate plan, which would otherwise remain unclear.
Tokyo’s first-person voice over adds another interesting layer from a narrative standpoint as it provides insight into the character's motivations and offers a privileged viewpoint for the audience. From a representational perspective it may work to subvert the male-centric nature of the typical heist drama, potentially showcasing a more pluralistic representation.
The show’s representations may be seen to reflect social and cultural attitudes that resonate with both national and international audiences. The anti-hero characteristics of characters like Tokyo and The Professor are worth exploring. You might also want to consider the influence of Tarantino on the show’s representations, such as the stylised violence and portrayal of gender.
Gender representation in the show can usefully be considered in relation to several characters. For instance, the portrayal of Tokyo as the heist’s leader contrasts with the more patriarchal depiction of The Professor as the ‘mastermind’ who acts as a mentor to the team.
Additionally, the binary opposition between characters like Berlin and Denver or Moscow and The Professor highlight contrasting traits, such as the impetuous and aggressive behaviour of the former compared to the more thoughtful, strategic, and composed characterisation of the latter. This article in Critical Studies in Television explores gender representation in Netflix Original series including Money Heist.
An element I haven’t discussed in this post is the worldwide success of the drama, leading to a South Korean remake in 2022. The show has also been cited as a cultural phenomenon influencing political activism. For instance, the Salvador Dalí mask has been worn by protestors, while the song ‘Bella Ciao’ featured in later episodes has become synonymous with the show’s protest themes.
Of course, there are numerous other approaches to explore the show. This blog provides a few initial starting points for Money Heist which, I’m sure, is likely to be a popular choice for many centres.
Share your thoughts in the comments below. If you have any questions, you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, call us on 01223 553998 or tweet us @OCR_Media_Film. You can also sign up to subject updates to keep up-to-date with the latest news, updates and resources.
Dave Soltysik is Head of Media Studies in a large comprehensive secondary school and sixth form in Hertfordshire. He is an A Level and GCSE examiner and moderator. Dave is passionate about exploring innovative, fresh and relevant approaches to teaching Media Studies and ensuring that it remains a vital part of the curriculum.