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'Veneno' — HBO Max's Sexy, Must-Watch Queer Series — Does Vital Work

Veneno on HBO Max

Tracing the life story of a nationally famous trans sex worker, the series is brash, funny, and extremely heartfelt.

With so many streaming services, there's so much new content pushed out into the world on a monthly basis -- weekly even. Given that many of those services (we're talking Hulu, HBO Max, Peacock, Netflix, Disney +, and Amazon Prime) cost meaning that you may have to choose a few as opposed to having them all, it's easy to either miss a new hit or just not have access to it. Whatever you're doing, stop and figure out how to watch HBO Max's Veneno, an eight-part series that serves as a delicious origin tale, an unprecedented trans coming-of-age story, and a spellbinding examination of how fame (and the loss of it) can warp and destroy lives. This, all within a vibrant, intergenerational trans narrative and done via a production team that centered trans talent in trans roles.

With the final two episodes debuting on the service today, Veneno has brought to screen the memoirs of Cristina Ortiz, who shot to fame in the 1990s in Spain after a newscaster stopped her while she was working Parque del Oeste in Madrid to interview her. Her frank, brash, and unapologetic responses about plying her trade -- as well as her inarguable good looks -- became a national sensation. She parlayed that notoriety into a mainstream career and became the most famous trans person in Spain in her time. That she did this with her past as a sex worker being her break into the mainstream consciousness made it all the more groundbreaking. In a series of richly recreated flashbacks, HBO Max's Veneno reimagines the memoirs recounted in the book (and yes there are a few supremely shot sex scenes,) providing this origin story for a then-unparalleled figure in Spanish culture who helped the country humanize and empathize with the entire LGBTQ+ community by inviting her into their homes through their televisions. It also recreates her childhood, casting a series of actors to portray the varying ages. But show creators Javier Calvo and Javier Ambrossi take it all a step further.

!Digo! Ni puta ni santa: Las memorias de La Veneno (I Say! Not a Whore, Not a Saint: The Memories of La Veneno), the memoir on which the series is based, was written by Valeria Vegas. With a deft hand, the creators blend Vegas's trajectory of writing the memoirs with her discovery and exploration of her own identity and transition -- this comes through her friendship with Ortiz. She transitions a generation after Ortiz, making for a different experience, which is put on display in the project. She also transitions in the company of and under the care of other trans women, led in-part by Ortiz. Watching these women mentor her and provide advice, shows a true sisterhood spanning generations which is something that we have rarely seen in this way before on television -- though we've seen permutations of it in projects like Pose.

The writing and storylines of Veneno are heartfelt, unabashedly authentic, and come off just as funny, and sometimes as brash as the aspects of Ortiz that captivated the nation of Spain in that first interview. The stories and characters (even the jokes) are all justly complex and nuanced. It is with the complexity of these characters that we fall in love, and it is those same complexities that the viewer is likely to relate.

Like Pose, production has centered trans actors in trans roles. With the namesake Veneno, there are three trans actresses in fact: King Jedet plays Ortiz during her transition, and was in the process of her own transition during production; Daniela Santiago plays Ortiz not only during the height of her fame but during her three-year stay in an all-male prison which episodes released Thursday will depict; and Isabel Torres plays the Ortiz in her later years, ever-searching for the fame of her youth. In addition to the other trans roles being played by trans actors, production went so far as to cast trans voice actors for the dubs. (Ortiz portrayed in various periods in her life below by Guille Marquez, Marcos Sotkovszki, King Jedet, Daniela Santiago, and Isabel Torres, from top to bottom, respectively.)

Veneno as a child on HBO Max.Veneno as a teen on HBO Max.Veneno during her transition on HBO Max.Veneno as a famous TV personality on HBO Max.Veneno as an adult on HBO Max.

Even without this production information, Veneno is a must-watch. There is a treasure trove of these stories: of women who were out and trans and saw national success like Ortiz in Spain and Roberta Close in Brazil. There's also others like Caroline Cossey who, after being outed, used their moment to go on talk shows and tour the world to push forward the movement. These women have had an indelible impact on the world which has helped create space for the generations who have come after them. To have that work canonized, and portrayed with the richness and complexity of any other historical moment, preserved for all in order for us to continue to say the names of those who came before us, is vital work. That this has been done with intention -- as evidenced by the careful casting -- makes Veneno a must-watch that we are likely to return to over and over as a blueprint for telling these stories moving forward.

Veneno is currently available to stream on HBO Max and is available in Spanish with English subtitles, or in an English dub.

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