We’re back to non-English media this week, so I have to ask of you to use the blessing of subtitles for this TV show because it’s totally worth it. And no, it’s not Korean.
Umbre is a Romanian TV crime-drama produced by HBO Europe which began airing in 2014. It explores the life of Relu (Șerban Pavlu), a man living a double life as a taxi driver and enforcer for a mob boss, as he tries to navigate his two roles while keeping his clueless family safe. If you miss The Sopranos’ mob dynamics and The Wire’s harsh realism, Umbre is the right show for you.
Here are GD’s 10 reasons to watch Umbre:
1. The story’s been done before countless times, sure, but not in this setting and not like this. Romanian crime, although similar to what you might be used to seeing on TV, has a deeply ingrained feeling of simplicity to it. Although the rich do flaunt their money around with their various properties and the likes, the level of “wealth” and how power looks like in this country hit differently than their western counterparts. Relu’s attempts to navigate pleasing his mob boss and keeping his family safely in the dark is familiar, sure, but the reactions and behaviors of all the other players (the children, Magda and Chuckie, for example) are far from what you might be used to. Umbre maintains a sad realism of Romanian life, which is simply put the lack of innocence in the face of dark truths.
2. The stakes are high and only keep rising as the story progresses. This is how you know a story’s done right, and this is what I, as a writer, still struggle to achieve as well as Umbre does. A story goes nowhere if there aren’t obstacles to face, right? It stalls. The show does an incredible job of introducing hurdles, be they subtle flames set to explode later or bombs set off in your metaphorical face. You know as series progress, the villains get more and more impossibly powerful and you wonder “when it this going to stop, it’s become incredibly unrealistic”. There’s no threat of that here.
3. On the same topic, the conflicts have a neat relatability to them. Of course, some are external conflicts with mobsters and enforcers, cops and other enemies, but others hit closer to home. Arguments between spouses, sibling relationships, romance in unlikely places, devotion are all things viewers can latch onto and relate back to themselves. And of course, with Relu’s internal turmoil at his choices (does he try to get out or enjoy the power he’s slowly accumulating?), Magda’s struggle with depression after tragedy hits, Nea Puiu’s battle with Alzheimer’s, Nico’s struggle with who she’s become and how she sees herself, Umbre doesn’t lack in moral dilemmas and internal conflicts either.
4. The dialogue is brilliantly colorful. It only adds to the charming personalities the characters are given, and makes the experience of watching the show a little less dark. Relu’s wit and humor give him even more likeability despite the horrors he’s made to do at his night-job, and all the lines sound incredibly natural coming from all the cast. A big issue with Romanian media, and the reason why I haven’t really enjoyed much of it, is how stiff actors sound when speaking their lines. The language doesn’t sound natural in a scripted medium for some reason. Umbre made me change my mind, which brings me to
5. The acting. I will accept it and call myself ignorant for not knowing how many incredible Romanian actors are out there. Although Șerban Pavlu is the clear star, I have to use this point to highlight Mădălina Craiu (Magda) and Andreea Vasile (Nico). These two play characters who, is safe to say, go through a hell of a lot of crap, and their performances are so heart-wrenching and immersive, they deserve all the praise in the world. Their natural, real approach to their characters is guaranteed to touch your heart and leave you impressed as you forget they’re even acting.
6. The setting. Bucharest is a very visual city, especially for this kind of show. It offers the perfect contrast between the classes, with poor, trash-infested neighborhoods being only a stone’s throw away from big, towering villas of the rich. Eastern European scenery only adds to the grim realism, and in later episodes we even get to see Constanța and Spain! As the danger expands, so does the space we’re dealing with.
7. It’s HBO, so it doesn’t hide any of the grim and gory. Murder, torture, it’s all shown, and done so in a way that will give you goosebumps. It adds to the harsh realism of the piece’s tone perfectly.
8. The opening is really creative and pretty, and the music is haunting.
9. The characters are diverse and deliciously morally-grey. Look, I love it when you don’t really know what a character’s gonna do in a situation. Black and white, bad and good is overrated. Give me a gangster softly cradling his colleague after an overdose, give me a weak, soft boy letting someone die out of hatred and revenge, give me badass housewife, give me sensitive but sassy and scheming madam. This show will make you root for the bad guys when they show some good, and will leave your jaw on the floor when the good ones let the dark seep in. One person in particular is worthy of note here: Emilian (Laurențiu Bãnescu) is the insane, dark cop other shows wish they could have. He first shows up in season 2 and left me confused as to which side he’s supposed to represent considering his favorite past times with prostitutes, his obsessive stalking, and his unhinged violence led me to think he should probably not be employed by the police. The police agreed with me, but alas, I’ll let you watch the show to see how that’s handled. This is a very difficult character to get right, especially since he’s at such an extreme given the whole unhinged thing, so there’s a risk he could become too much for the audience, but Umbre does him justice and maintains an appropriate balance of crazy and hilariously chill to make him likeable, not exhausting. Well, likeable to a point. I hate him now.
10. It’s flawless from start to finish. It’s relatively short (3 seasons, with 8, 6, and 7 episodes respectively) so it won’t take you that long to get all caught up on it, and its length makes it perfectly devoid of unnecessary fillers or chances for the show to get dull.
I’m very passionate about this show because it seems to be such a hidden gem that deserves more attention and acclaim. It’s available on HBO GO with subtitles (I can’t guarantee they’ll convey the same wittiness of the original dialogue though), and it’s very easy and pleasant to watch despite its graphic content. Honestly, after only an episode I went around recommending it to everyone and now I’m giving it praise here, so do with this what you will.
As always, thank you so much for reading, and I’ll see you next week!