'Pan y Circo': TV Review

Pan y Circo (Amazon) - Diego Luna- H 2020
Courtesy of Amazon Studios
Needs more meat.

Diego Luna headlines a Mexican political discussion series to stream on Amazon.

Here's a bleak litmus test for how desperate for company quarantine might have made you: Would you attend a "dinner party" in which the guests pontificate on ultra-serious but impossibly broad topics as they chow down on five-star meals that you yourself won't be able to try for at least the next year? On the plus side, none of the guests get embarrassingly drunk or hold forth on a subject they obviously know too little about. But on the minus side, none of the guests get embarrassingly drunk or hold forth on a subject they obviously know too little about.

The forced pause on dilettantish dinner parties seems to me one of the pandemic's few upsides, but Amazon apparently believes there are enough viewers hungry for them — and who are either fluent in Spanish or willing to read subtitles — to import Diego Luna's political discussion series Pan y Circo ("Bread and Circus"). Playing the gracious, peacemaking host (who doesn't quite rise to the role of moderator), Luna himself seldom contributes to the Mexico-centric gabfests about abortion, climate change, the Drug War, the Central American migrant crisis and intra-national racism and colorism.

Running between 35 to 40 minutes apiece, each episode invites six dinner mates to Luna's table, and may or may not represent opposing points of view. Hailing from all over Latin America but mostly from Mexico, guests range from fellow celebrities like Luna's longtime friend and collaborator Gael Garcia Bernal to activists, scholars, government officials, even a Nobel Peace Prize-winning former president of Colombia. A chef of the week presents their ostensibly thematically inspired dishes to the table, and it's with them in the kitchen, on an one-on-one basis, that the retiring Luna appears most relaxed.

Shows like Pan y Circo depend on the suitability of the topics for group conversation and the chemistry of the guests — and unfortunately, the producers mostly flounder on both counts. The episode on femicide, for example, finds the panelists debating fruitlessly about the origins of patriarchal violence. The only figure who cuts through the haze of righteous but wooly outrage is the grieving mother of a young woman whose body was found on one of Mexico's most prestigious college campuses, and whose death police initially ruled a suicide before an autopsy attributed it to strangulation. The case emblematized the refusal by Mexican law enforcement to take violence against women seriously, but because Pan y Circo is defined by its refusal to commit to any perspective or policy prescription, the conversation quickly moves on to budget cuts to a government agency dedicated to women's welfare, then to a possible economic explanation of femicide that comes and goes and makes little sense.

There is, of course, no justifiable "both sides" to the killing of women, and thankfully the series doesn't bother to offer disagreement for the sake of disagreement. More surprisingly, the same goes for the episode on abortion, whose most conservative panelist is a pro-choice priest. Of course, it's not particularly compelling to watch a group of people agree with one another, which makes the episode about the Drug War in Mexico, featuring extremely knowledgeable people from very different backgrounds and experiences, one of the series' few highlights.

For non-Mexican viewers, Pan y Circo offers an invaluable perspective too seldom offered in mainstream English-language media: How do (largely left-leaning) Mexicans talk to each other about Mexican issues? The Drug War episode, for example, brings a great deal of complication, albeit haphazardly presented, to the legalization argument that's often trotted out as a silver bullet to cartel violence. The ethnic, linguistic and geographical diversity within Mexico — and the historically brutal ways that diversity has been erased or ignored — is showcased in an episode that ends in an uneasy detente between proponents of development and those of indigenous independence (though the nuanced context that one academic tries to bring is undercut by a guest who claims reverse racism against mainstream mestizos by the marginalized).

But the single best episode of Pan y Circo — the only one where the show's format really works, at least for this American viewer — deals with Mexico's role in the Central American refugee crisis. It was truly fascinating to hear Mexican points of view on this humanitarian catastrophe, which, according to at least one panelist, challenged Mexico to exhibit the kind of compassion for outsiders that many Mexicans wish Americans would display toward their own countrymen. In this regard, Mexico, in his estimation, has failed wildly. (News footage shows a few anti-refugee activists in Tijuana wearing MAGA hats to underscore their xenophobia against the migrants.) Even if the guests don't take too seriously the concerns of one NIMBY activist who seems to have legitimate reservations about the government's plans for a refugee shelter in her neighborhood, I'd happily attend that dinner party. As for the rest? Maybe lockdown will have me feeling differently by deep winter.

Premieres Friday, Aug. 7 on Amazon