El Rey’s Soccer Thriller ‘Matador’ Tries to Define a New Network

Matador is El Rey’s second original program — the Robert Rodriguez-created network was only launched this past December — and it’s a nice fit for this strange new channel. El Rey’s only other offering is From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series, which features characters from the film, and while it was a fun watch, it was still standard Rodriguez fare. Matador, in comparison, seems wholly original. The pilot episode, “Quid Go Pro,” is far from perfect, but it’s promising attempt by a network that’s still finding its voice.

The series premiere of Matador, a “soccer-spy drama thriller” is smartly timed: mid-summer, and on the heels of World Cup fever. The show begins with Tony Bravo (Gabriel Luna, who has done quick guest stints on shows like NCIS: Los Angeles and Prison Break) as an undercover DEA agent who is being secretly watched for recruitment by the CIA. The CIA needs someone to investigate the owner of the LA Riot, a professional soccer team, and figure the best way to do it is to get someone to join the squad. As luck would have it, Tony was a skilled high school player!

Is any of this particularly believable? Of course not! But that’s what I like about Matador: the way it manages to tell a completely implausible story with the right mixture of commitment and levity. It commits to its espionage theatrics while also fully aware it’s telling an absurd story. The violence is ridiculous — you can tell Robert Rodriguez directed the pilot, though he’s not one of the four showrunners — and it comes early, when a guy gets a hatchet right in the head. It also has a very Rodriguez-like love for camp and gross, jokey scenes.

The pilot is pure setup. We meet Tony (nicknamed “Matador”) and his supportive family. We meet the CIA agents, the tough and beautiful Annie (Nicky Whelan) — who recruits Tony faster than you can say “will they or won’t they?” — and her partner Noah (Neil Hopkins), who will definitely clash with Tony throughout the series. We also meet the main antagonist: the ruthless billionaire LA Riot owner Andrés (Alfred Molina) and his wild daughter Senna (Yvette Montreal), who loves to screw with the players. There is some quick backstory, hints about the big case at the center of the show, and a training montage that goes on far, far too long. There is some familiar territory, like Tony’s attempt to live a dual life without getting found out, but the execution isn’t terrible.

Matador still has a long way to go before becoming a must-watch show, but it’s a show you’ll want to keep your eye on this summer, if only because it speaks to El Rey’s intentions. El Rey is a self-described “badass” and “fearless” network with a distinct grindhouse/Grindhouse style that runs through the ads and bumpers. It’s aiming to fill a void in TV by offering programs that wouldn’t really fit in anywhere else. It is also, admirably, a network that caters to Latino audiences but airs its programs in English, so it still casts a wide net. The network is exciting, original, and stylistically interesting — and though Matador has a ways to go before it can fulfill those ambitions, it is at least trying its hardest.

From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series eased viewers into El Rey by tackling a familiar franchise. Now, Matador is proving that the network wants to tell gripping — and funny — stories that aim to entertain. It’ll be a while before El Rey is mentioned in the same breath as its cable competitors (it’s not even offered in many cable packages), and Matador is very reflective of the network’s uncertain future. There’s plenty of room for growth, though, and I’d love to see the show (which has already been renewed for a second season) get better.