The hardest episode to get right in a prestige television series is the pilot. How does one introduce their vast complex world to an unknowing audience in the span of an hour while also being just entertaining enough to ensure that audience comes back for more? Only the wizards of TV know the answer, but today I come to you to say that the perfect pilot episode does exist and it is waiting for you on HBO Max. Veneno is based on real events and follows the lives of Cristina La Veneno Ortiz Rodriguez (played by Daniela Santiago and Isabel Torres) and a young journalism student, Valeria Vegas (played by Lola Rodriguez), who would go on to co-write the memoir that serves as the basis for the series, Not a Whore, Not a Saint: The Memories of la Veneno.
The first episode and the remainder of the series are set in 1996 and 2006, highlighting the beginning of Veneno’s television career and her return from obscurity after she’s found by one of her biggest fans, Valeria. In the ‘90s, Veneno was a trans sex worker stopping cars in a park with, as my grandmother would describe it, las tetas pa’ fuera, when she is discovered by a TV reporter for a late-night show called Esta Noche Cruzamos El Mississippi. The reporter, Faela, sees Veneno as a gag, someone who can bring shock value to the show and then be returned to whence she came. But Veneno and her friends know that she is a star in the making, and a one-time TV appearance becomes the start of a cultural shift in Spain’s understanding of trans women.
Jumping into 2006, as the show does several times seamlessly, the audience is introduced to Valeria, who is struggling with the decision of when to begin transitioning herself when one of her close friends spots an aged Veneno on the street. They track Veneno down to her home after searching for her at a known sex worker hangout, ring the doorbell and meet the legend for the first time. Valeria, who at this point hasn’t shared with her friend that she wants to transition, cannot hide from the knowing eyes of Veneno, who almost immediately asks when Valeria plans to start taking hormones.
Every single centimeter of this first episode is beautiful. The understated costuming for the reporters and regular people juxtaposed with the over-the-top dresses worn by the group of sex workers, the music, the way scenes are lit, and the coloring of the frames that allow Veneno to be the brightest point in any room—it is incredible. It’s the kind of end result a team can only achieve when they truly care about the subject matter.
The show, created by Spanish actors and directors Javier Ambrossi and Javier Calvo, is a finely crafted emotional rollercoaster. In a matter of a few minutes, viewers go from the high of Valeria meeting her hero to the low of watching the moment that Valeria realizes no one has ever truly seen her before Veneno, and the fear of what comes next for both of the show’s central characters. What comes next, of course, isn’t a surprise to anyone who read the book or followed Veneno’s life, but as the show lays out at the onset, some events have been added or fictionalized for the series, so in a sense anything can happen.
But something the pilot of Veneno is able to do that most shows based on books cannot is open the world to those who have never interacted with the source material. There is a fine balance between light exposition on Veneno’s status—who she is, why she’s important—in the 2000s and not overstating the obvious: that she was a sex worker chewed up and then discarded by Spanish media, which fans would already know. Much like Veneno herself, the show is not asking you to watch it or even like it, the show simply exists in all its beauty and grit and allows you to decide for yourself who is the hero, who is worth your time as a viewer.
The single hitch in this giddyup is, of course, on the part of HBO Max and the layout of its app. When I first pressed play on the episode I was surprised that some of the characters were speaking English before I realized it was just an English dubbing of the original Spanish audio. There is no way to change this setting while still in the actual episode. HBO Max is hosting two versions of the show, one dubbed in English and one with original audio, so you have to choose the Spanish version before pressing play or the English will automatically start. Remember, even if you don’t understand the language, everything sounds better when it is not in English. Veneno will run for eight episodes and I plan to laugh, cry, and mutter “this bitch” through each and every single one, as should you. Television is good again!