'Baby': TV Review

Concerns that it sensationalizes underage prostitution are unfounded.
11/30/2018

Netflix's new Italian kids-gone-bad drama has shades of 'Elite' meets 'My Brilliant Friend,' without being as literate as the latter or trashy-fun as the former.

The new Netflix drama Baby feels very much like a show of the moment, straddling a middle ground between the tawdriness that helped make Elite into a word-of-mouth favorite for Netflix and the coming-of-age feminism that has made the ultra-literate My Brilliant Friend a critical smash for HBO.

By that standard, of course, Baby is neither proudly trashy enough to completely own a status as guilty pleasure, nor nuanced enough to get by on quality. It's simply entertaining enough for the six-episode first season to zip by especially as the rare Netflix drama to keep its installments between 40 and 47 minutes.

Early buzz on the series tied it to the so-called baby squillo underage prostitution scandal that rocked upper reaches of Italian society back in 2013. Even accepting that the inspiration from the "baby squillo" scandal was always meant only to be loose, that still gives an impression of sensationalism that Baby rarely approaches.

Instead, the collective creating entity of GRAMS — young authors Antonio Le Fosse, Re Salvador, Eleonora Trucchi, Marco Raspanti and Giacomo Mazzariol — and showrunners Isabella Aguilar and Giacomo Durzi have crafted what is effectively a familiar "the kids aren't alright" teen drama set in the exclusive Parioli neighborhood of Rome, like 13 Reasons Why or Skins, only with the Tiber as a backdrop and focusing on a group of increasingly disaffected students at a snooty private school, children of privilege living their every moment of feigned, perfectly composed excess on social media. Despite this illusion of transparency, these kids remain utter mysteries to their parents, who are all too self-absorbed and self-medicated to notice the precipice their children are teetering on.

Our heroine is Benedetta Porcaroli's Chiara, who dreams of running track and studying in America with her Goody Two-shoes best friend Camilla (Chabeli Sastre Gonzalez) and their pal-with-a-predictable-secret Fabio (Brando Pacitto). Sixteen-year-old Chiara admits "ours is the best possible world," while suggesting that living in this kind of fishbowl requires living a secret life. This involves Chiara's budding friendship with Ludovica (Alice Pagani), dubbed a bad girl for having filmed a sex act with an ex-boyfriend, and a crush on new kid Damiano (Riccardo Mandolini), son of an ambassador from an unnamed Middle Eastern country made an immediate outcast for his rough upbringing and his unspecified Arab heritage.

In no time, Chiara is skipping school, staying out late partying and generally alienating her former friends and also her parents, who she discovers are functionally separated, living together only for her temporary benefit. As the story goes along, Chia and Ludo move into a sphere dominated by the ultra-sketchy Saverio (Paolo Calabresi) and Fiore (Giuseppe Maggio), who see dollar signs (or "euro signs," I guess) in the girls' youthful vitality.

Does teenage prostitution come into play? Absolutely, but never as the clear focus or obsession of a story that badly wants to have it both ways. The writers and directors Andrea De Sica and Anna Negri are determined not to make Baby have the sort of "It's Gossip Girl if Gossip Girl could show boobs and butts!" lasciviousness of Elite. Despite the lurid punk slashes of the title font and a synth-heavy soundtrack all meant to call to mind trashy '80s classics like Angel, with its immortal "High School Honor Student by Day/ Hollywood Hooker by Night" tagline, Baby almost never pervs on its attractive young cast, avoiding nudity completely and never showing anything that would be out of place on The CW. This goes perhaps to the point of tipping to the other extreme, one at which "underage teenage prostitution" is just another unremarkable step on the path of rebellion.

Never quite forgetting that Saverio is creepy and Fiore is scarily obsessive, Baby still has a confusing ideology in which it desperately wants us to believe that, up to a point, this is a proactive decision these girls are making, a sign of independence and even a realignment of scales in a society in which men have a sexual freedom generally denied to women. Were the prostitution and its surrounding subplots really the meat of the show, this lack of concern or urgency might be worrisome. Here, it's just another possibly mistaken, possibly progressive rite of misguided passage or acting out, like that time Chuck Bass pimped out his girlfriend for a hotel on Gossip Girl.

With the show barely even gawking at its most unique and voyeuristic hook, the drama struggles to escalate either. Even if Elite probably could have gotten away with its mixture of fish-out-of-water character study and juvenile kink, the show always had a murder mystery to fall back on. 13 Reasons Why probably could have just been a show about teen bullying and the consequences of casual cruelty, but it has become more and more reliant, less and less successfully, on its own mysteries and increasingly cartoonish villainy. Baby is doubtlessly full of vulnerable young people making stupid choices, without ever settling on its ultimate stakes. Frustration at the awful parental caricatures, portraits of dangerous immaturity as their kids grapple with their own maturity, very quickly superseded my concern or investment in what was happening with the main characters. Could this be my own mixture of demographic and cultural values separate from the show's intended demo? Sure!

The understanding of that cultural divide is part of what works best in Baby, which like Elite posits a world in which study abroad in America is the ultimate aspiration, a mirror to the creative world in which successful American teen soaps are the ultimate aspiration. I appreciated the way the Baby directors treat setting, occasionally catching the glimpse of a Roman landmark in the deep background and yet never resorting to a string of familiar postcard location. That you can't always spot the opulence in Parioli is probably intentional, a way to challenge viewer expectations about class divisions and mobility.

The cast, all likely to be varying degrees of unknown depending on the depth of your knowledge of Italian TV, acquits itself consistently well. Porcaroli and Pagani build a nice and complementary friendship that, at this exact moment, can't help but call to mind the Elena/Lila pairing on My Brilliant Friend — one blonde and a little tentative and sensitive, one brunette and more dangerously rebellious. Porcaroli, convincingly going from coltish wallflower to bombshell depending on the moment, is especially good. If she has any English skills at all, I'd expect to see her on casting shortlists on this side of the pond. Mandolini and Pacitto are both solid in a series that, for the most part, isn't nearly as interested in developing its male characters, taking for granted that in a society still dominated by a patriarchy, their path is simpler to navigate. Isabella Ferrari and Claudia Pandolfi are the standouts among the parental generation..

After watching six episodes of Baby, I can't necessarily tell what the second season would be. Is the "baby squillo" scandal and the darkness of prostitution rings going to become more central or does the show have different colors of depravity it has been saving for nonexploitative exploration? I'd be curious to see more to determine whether Baby is satisfied being adjacent to popular storytelling trends or if it has real depths to mine.

Cast: Benedetta Porcaroli, Alice Pagani, Riccardo Mandolini, Isabella Ferrari, Claudia Pandolfi, Paolo Calabresi

Creators: GRAMS (Antonio Le Fosse, Re Salvador, Eleonora Trucchi, Marco Raspanti and Giacomo Mazzariol)

Premieres Friday, Nov. 30, on Netflix.