White Lines begins with a central, gripping mystery. The ostensibly strait-laced Zoe Walker (played by The Capture’s Laura Haddock) flies to Ibiza after the dead body of her free-spirit black sheep brother Axel Collins (Tom Rhys Harries) – who fled the family 20 years ago to pursue a career as a DJ before disappearing – is found. Determined to discover what happened to him, she’s drawn into a web of oddball ageing ravers, drug dealers and club owners. “The librarian investigator – there’s a series in that!”, jokes a character knowingly at one point. With hedonistic parties and orgies that make Caligula resemble The Great British Sewing Bee, it starts off brilliantly like if somebody gave Broadchurch a dodgy pill.
But there’s more to White Lines than that. An audacious pan-European co-production, it unites the makers of The Crown with Álex Pina, the maverick creator behind Money Heist, and his high-octane rollercoaster thrills, tonal-juggling and penchant for the surreal are ramped up to 11 here. In the first episode, washed-up 40-something DJ Marcus (a standout performance from Line Of Duty’s Daniel Mays, relishing each scene like a fine Rioja), with a side hustle in dealing takes delivery of an inflatable banana boat filled with cocaine which ruptures, before his dog eagerly laps up its contents, leading to a comedic chain of events that involves him having to perform CPR on the mutt. And from there – we’re off! – slaloming through a series of well-executed set-pieces, grisly and inventive deaths, cliffhangers and jet-black humour.
Despite a plot that’s more bonkers than Elon Musk and Grimes’ baby name shortlist, Pina keeps all of his plates spinning, and uniformly accomplished performances – from a cast which mixes newcomers with underrated British TV stalwarts like Angela Griffin (devastatingly good as Anna, a friend to Axel, Marcus’ ex-wife and the host of elite sex parties) and Spanish talent – anchor everything with an emotional realism. The narrative ping-pongs between the sepia-tinged past of the 1980s/1990s, tracing a group of music loving-teenagers – Axel, Marcus (the young version is portrayed by Cold Feet’s Cel Spellman), Anna (Kassius Nelson as the teenager) and David (Jonny Green) – who have their illegal raves in Manchester raided by the police, and butt heads with their own families, before fleeing to the white isle – and the present. Beautifully shot and with a killer soundtrack, it captures the drabness of provincial town life versus the anything-is-possible sunny liberation of your first time abroad.
A masterclass in soapy escapism, everyone in the sprawling ensemble is harbouring secrets, which spill messily out like candy from a piñata. As Laura retraces her sibling’s footsteps, she finds herself casting aside the shackles of her domestic married-with-a-kid existence back home, as she tries to experience the Dionysian highs she feels she missed out on – which includes having a passionate holiday romance, which unfolds like Shirley Valentine with a bodycount. In these lockdown days, it’s the high quality trash TV (think: Desperate Housewives/Footballers’ Wives with added gurning) tonic we need.
In an age of nostalgic clubbing experiences like Haçienda Classical, the assortment of ex-ravers grappling with middle age are well-drawn – including Laurence Fox (reminding everyone after his descent into Question Time pub-bore controversialist that he’s actually a decent actor) as the older David, who spent time in India, and returned to Ibiza with a spiritual outlook on life, a love of frog-based acid trips – and who owns a literal sacred cow. Axel was involved with the powerful Calafet family, including Oriol (Juan Diego Botto) and his mother Conchita (Belén López) – a matriarch who strides around with the queenly galleon of Joan Collins in her Dynasty heyday and isn’t above wanking off a priest to get what she wants – who both have a creepier mother-and-son relationship than Norman Bates.
Like Ibiza’s non-stop partying ethos, White Lines is lavish in its excess. It boasts a big budget – and the plot is pulpy, OTT, addictive and isn’t afraid to take risks, or trespass over the lines of taste. Yet it mixes its zest for entertaining outlandishness with fine acting and a solid script to pull together the entire story with a degree of emotional complexity and honesty.
Spanish TV seems to be having a moment on Netflix (see also Elite) and White Lines confirms Pina is at the top of his game. It’s a 10 episode head-rush that never pulls a narrative whitey – and a satisfying conclusion won’t leave you with a post-binge comedown.