A Vacation Possible for 2020: A Stay at the Gran Hotel

In terms of television, 2020 will likely be remembered as the year of the re-run. With production on new shows indefinitely halted and hours upon hours of unexpected free time needed to be filled, rewatching an old favorite show can be both comforting and an easy way to pass the time. However, as much I have enjoyed binging my old favorites, they’ve had a hard time fully capturing my scattered attention and  cultivated a nagging feeling that I am somehow in high school again. Stumbling upon a new show, that is not just mildly entertaining but completely engrossing, then, felt like finding a gold mine — or grabbing the last packet of yeast at the grocery store. The charming characters of “Gran Hotel,” and the drama and scandal they constantly find themselves in, have become the bright spot of my quarantine, and I hope that this show can similarly bring a respite from this train-wreck of a year to you. 

Taking place in the first decade of the 20th century in a luxury hotel on the Spanish coast, the show follows the lives of its employees and the aristocratic family, the Alarcóns, who own the titular Gran Hotel: a destination which somehow manages to retain its luxurious reputation, despite people consistently dying on its premises. The show opens with Julio Olmedo securing a job as a waiter at the hotel, with the underlying motive of investigating the disappearance of his sister, Christina, who had worked as a maid at the hotel until a month prior. In his search for clues about his sister’s whereabouts, Julio quickly realizes that Christina vanishing is just one of many suspicious events that have occurred at the hotel recently. He finds an ally for his investigation in Alicia Alarcón, one of the daughters of the hotel’s owner, who has her own suspicions about the circumstances surrounding her father’s recent death. Although the Gran Hotel has enough murders that occur in it to be the setting for a horror movie, the show is not solely focused on mystery and crime. While Julio and Alicia’s investigative work, frequently aided by a pair of mismatched local detectives, is the central plotline, the show also follows the personal lives and antics of the hotel’s staff, the Alarcón family, and a rotating cast of guests, which provide more drama as well as much needed comic relief. As no drama would be complete without a pair of star-crossed lovers, Alicia and Julio’s reluctant alliance develops slowly into a frustratingly tumultuous will-they/won’t-they relationship, which is complicated not only by their difference in social status but also by Alicia’s upcoming arranged marriage to the hotel’s director. 

With a combination of crime, mystery, romance and humor, “Gran Hotel” already has all of the ingredients for addictive television, but it is made especially binge-able due to the fact that every single episode ends in a cliffhanger. Although some are more gripping than others, I promise that every episode will close with a new question to be answered in the next. A piece of advice: Stop episodes anywhere in the middle, as once an episode is over it is nearly impossible to resist “just starting” the next one. While this aspect of the show would have been frustrating when free time was a rarer commodity, during the summer of 2020, the  ability “Gran Hotel” has to remain captivating, even after hours of watching, is its greatest asset. 

Another feature of the show that lends itself well to current circumstances is that the show’s audio is not available in English. While initially the thought of having to read subtitles just to watch a show felt like a chore, I soon realized this was the perfect cure for my compulsory need to scroll through my phone while watching (technically, moreso listening) to television. Actually being fully engrossed in a show felt like a vacation away from the anxieties and uncertainties these past months have been filled with.

I will not claim that “Gran Hotel” is revolutionary in any way in its writing, cinematography or design, or that its plot is totally original and does not make use of common television tropes. It’s not a groundbreaking show that spent millions of dollars per episode or uses metaphors to make relevant political statements. It did not set out to bait award shows or become internationally recognized. If you watch closely, there are some less convincing uses of greenscreen, humorous editing mistakes, and, most annoyingly, the use of the same exact music anytime anything vaguely dramatic happens. However, I won’t argue that any of this means it cannot be considered a great show. Series should not be only measured by their budgets, number of awards or viewership, but rather, also, by if they are entertaining and enjoyable to watch, and if they develop characters viewers feel connected to. This last aspect is where “Gran Hotel” truly shines and makes the jump from good to great. 

Although I live on a different continent and in a different century than the world of the show’s characters, I find myself consistently relating to the issues and questions they grapple with. While these characters are entirely fictional, they feel human in a way many other shows struggle to accomplish. So much so, that I predict I’ll remember them as more than fictional personalities, but rather, as my “quarantine buddies” who helped me escape a bleak world to one where all mysteries have a solution. Some characters are instantly loveable due to their loyalty, kind hearts and morality. Others initially have rough and off-putting outer shells, but eventually reveal their inner good-naturedness. Finally, some are downright despicable in their selfishness and unchecked ambition and are seemingly begging to be taken down by the show’s heroes. Although there are always new guests who appear at the hotel, the show keeps its group of main characters tight and consistent, allowing each character enough time to develop and become multifaceted rather than one-dimensional. Even the best-intentioned characters will eventually hurt someone and characters that seem heartless will commit surprising acts of selflessness. 

During this time when the future has seemed painfully uncertain, it has been a bigger comfort than I imagined to look forward to returning to the Gran Hotel every night, a world in which TV magic can always come to the rescue. In a recent episode I watched, Julio and Alicia find themselves trapped in the closet of a hotel room, hiding from the gunman after them. Just as it seems that all hope is lost and their demise is inevitable, one of them knocks a switch on the closet’s back wall, opening a trapdoor that leads to a secret room. It’s probably a sign I’ve spent too long in quarantine that I’m finding meaning in such a fanciful scene, but, recently I have also felt, both literally and metaphorically, trapped in a place with no escape. I want to continue to have hope and believe that even if the world seems backed up against a wall, it is still not too late for, all of a sudden, an unexpected solution to appear. In the meantime, I have many more nights spent at the Gran Hotel to look forward to.