When Robert Rodriguez started his El Rey cable network this year with one original series – an adaptation of his own vampire film, “From Dusk Till Dawn” – it seemed wise to take a wait-and-see approach.
Would El Rey function as anything more than its boss’ personal television sandbox?
Now there’s a second original show, “Matador,” a spy-and-sports mashup dramedy created by a team that includes Roberto Orci, who’s had his hands in “Alias,” “Fringe” and the “Amazing Spider-Man” movies. But this doesn’t necessarily disprove the sandbox theory: Rodriguez is in the credits, too, as an executive producer.
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And “Matador” (beginning Tuesday night) fits somewhat comfortably into Rodriguez’s vision for his network, in which he’s a partner with FactoryMade Ventures and Univision. El Rey has been put together to reflect his taste for genre, grindhouse, B-movie, splattery entertainment. (On Tuesday, before the “Matador” premiere, its schedule includes four vintage kung fu movies and eight episodes of the syndicated courtroom reality show “Texas Justice.”)
“Matador” is definitely B-level – serviceable dialogue, not-quite-cartoonish characters, gimmicky editing – but it’s not grindhouse. It’s closer to a jokey, glossy USA Network crime drama, with a story that recalls USA’s undercover-agent series “Graceland” and a tone similar to that of “Covert Affairs” and “White Collar.”
Gabriel Luna, in his first starring TV role, plays Tony Bravo, a drug-enforcement undercover agent who is dragooned by the CIA into a special mission. Bravo, a former athlete, is tasked with trying out for a professional soccer team called, in one of the show’s better jokes, the Los Angeles Riot. The team’s owner also controls a telecom giant named Unafonica – presumably a dig at Rodriguez’s corporate partner – and he’s suspected of a conspiracy to blah blah blah.
There’s a lot of plot, but it matters less than the details, like the 1970s porn mustache that Bravo’s CIA nemesis wears on a stakeout, or the spaghetti Western music that plays when Bravo gets angry. Flourishes like that, along with a fast pace and the occasional funny line, may be enough to attract some of the young male viewers El Rey is after, and the supporting cast includes notable performers like Alfred Molina, Elizabeth Pena and Jude Ciccolella.
They’re fighting an already wearying accumulation of clichés, though. On a network born out of Comcast’s commitment to carrying minority-owned channels, did Bravo’s brother have to be in jail and his sister about to hold her quinceanera? Did the team owner’s daughter have to be a sexy firecracker? Maybe “original” isn’t the right word.