Netflix's Salacious, Messy White Lines is Like a Beach-Read You Can Watch

Right about the time you get to the stylized sex scene in the rain, over a makeshift dirt grave, you realize that the new Netflix series “White Lines” is playing with some different rules, different standards than usual. Yes, this messy ten-episode drama from the people behind "The Crown" and "Money Heist" wants to entertain, but most of all it wants to indulge. Its setting of Ibiza, all of its massive subwoofer-thumping party scenes, and all of its hot cast members are just part of an expansive series that aims to be salacious first, and clever second or third. It’s charming in that way to a point, until you’re stuck with a bunch of extra characters whose individual dramas seem to distract from the lead's woman's personal growth. Oh, and there’s a corpse at the center that “White Lines” forgets about for long spans of time.

That very moment of steamy, muddy hanky-panky doesn’t happen until mid-way through the series, which is part of the problem, because it feels out of character for what came before it. Initially, “White Lines” starts off as a mystery—a body of a young man named Axel Collins has just been found after a murder that would have happened 20 years ago. Axel was a beach-blonde, free-spirited DJ from Manchester who ran away to Ibiza to live the party life, and gravitated toward people who were either powerful with their money (like the Calafat family, including both the daughter Kika [played in modern time Marta Milans] and mother Conchita [Bélen López]), or their fists (like a guy known as Boxer). But then one day Axel Collins either vanished or was murdered, and became a repressed memory for all those who were too messed up to recall his last birthday party. His name bears a lot of weight whenever he’s mentioned in the present day, and to emphasize that importance, everyone always says his name in full: Axel Collins. 

But what “White Lines” actually turns out to be, is a fantasy adventure of a lifetime for his traumatized and conservative sister, Zoe (Laura Haddock). After hearing about the body being found, and learning that Spanish law means the case is cold, she ventures to Ibiza to find out for herself who killed her brother, and what he was like during his last few months. Initially, she had been told he ran away to India, and leading to abandonment issues. But now she faces the trauma that initially left her speechless for months as a teenager, and set her on a path more uptight than her brother: she married young to the only guy she’s been with and they share a vanilla sex life; she’s a mom to a teenager; she has the demure of a cliche librarian, because that’s her actual job. 

“White Lines” shows Zoe diving into a mess that’s far bigger than herself, starting with the dark drug dealing business of Axel’s best friend Marcus (Daniel Mays). When Marcus seems withholding about who killed Axel, Zoe decides to hide his stash, which puts Marcus in a big deal of trouble with the Romanians who want their cut—leading to a wacky course of events where Boxer (now burly, bearded, and modified for the best smut) has to come to her rescue, slowly coaxing her out of her shell. That includes an impromptu high-speed chase from the cops, and later a sexual reawakening with Boxer (Nuno Lopes), who proves to be more than just a strong-arm (He paints feet! He boinks like a porn star! He wears glasses while watching Breathless!) 

Zoe recalls many of these wild events to directly to us during episode-bookending, fourth-wall breaking moments, but she’s also talking to an attentive, wisdom-dispensing woman on the other end of a FaceTime. This turns out to not just be a part of Zoe's narration, but part of her changing: by episodes three and four, the focus comes more about how this journey inspires her about who she’s meant to be, and examples of courage. It’s as quaint as the “breathe” tattoo written on her forearm in cursive, or the moment in which she symbolically lets her hair down. And while this is all totally welcome, it’s such a jarring change of tone and focus that it nearly makes “White Lines” feel like a case of false advertising. 

Outside of Zoe’s actions, Ibiza is presented as a land with a lot of parties, drug use, and demons to control. The dysfunctional Calafat family has specifically been trying to clean up the island so that investors will help fund their new casino, an effort that is spearheaded by the fading patriarch Andreu (Pedro Casablanc) and later his uptight son Oriol (Juan Diego Botto). Conchita has her own schemes, and she gets some of the series' most taboo moments. These power struggles, as spiked with some salaciousness and violence, might have fared better in their own story, but “White Lines” very awkwardly frankensteins them with Zoe's story. 

When it doesn’t forget about Axel, it fills even more of its run-time with memories of his parties, and the way that everyone seemed to want a piece of him. In modern time, everyone is slowly digging up memories of him, facing their own problems (like how Marcus can't get over his over his ex-wife, Anna [Angela Griffin], who has moved on to another guy, and has become very eloquent when talking about sex and hosting her own orgies). They also present with Zoe with images that are different than how she saw Axel when she was just 15, and it’s interesting to see in later episodes that there’s a far darker side than Zoe knew. But like finding out who killed Axel, these bits are doled out so slowly that it loses maximum impact. 

"White Lines" is all aesthetics, with little underneath. It’s a beach-read that you can watch, and yes, even escape to, if a sporadically amusing romp in Ibiza sounds like a strong antidote for this weekend. Or, frankly if you’re feeling randy: anytime a person is indicated to have sex in this series, “White Lines” shows it, in part because it has the time, budget, and very broad sense of what makes for satisfying TV. For a series that caps its pilot episode with an orgy set to a jazz-swing cover of Radiohead’s “Creep,” those standards might be more than enough. 

Eight episodes of season one screened for review.

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is an Assistant Editor at RogerEbert.com and is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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