Fans of the cult Spanish series I Know Who You Are have been left in frustration. As they await the climax, LARA WILLIAMS explores what is behind the show’s success
I Know Who You Are, or Sé Quién Eres, is a taut Spanish crime thriller which has gained a cult following since its recent appearance on BBC Four. The series opens as a well-dressed but roundly dishevelled middle-aged gentleman plods down a tree-lined road, accompanied by the sort of dissonant, minor-key music that tells us: something is amiss. Revealed to be suffering from a case of narratively-convenient amnesia – the man (named Juan Elias) learns he is a hotshot lawyer – with a fancy house, wife, and family, none of which he can remember. Also, he is the prime suspect in his niece’s recent disappearance.
His niece Ana becomes a sort of Lynchian Laura Palmer character – superficially, she is the perfect student and daughter: bright, and brilliant, trenchant and headstrong. But there is far more to her than meets the eye, and traces of her blood are found in Juan’s car. Ana and Juan become the central mysteries of the show – and I Know Who You Are takes great care in meticulously unpicking who they really are. It is a patient, densely-plotted drama – with a sharp aesthetic and high-production values. The performances are pin-point observed and acutely nuanced, allowing the viewer to guess at what is really driving these people.
The popularity of Scandi-Noir and the Walter Presents boxsets on Channel Four have given UK audiences the opportunity to connect with European drama. Though European television is now experiencing a renaissance here in the UK, I Know Who You Are seems to have struck a chord beyond this.
Dr Andy Willis, a reader in Film Studies at the University of Salford, puts this engagement down to the savvy production values of the series. He believes I Know Who You Are draws from the sort of high-end American dramas found on Netflix and HBO, alongside European exports which have garnered international acclaim. Together, they make for a compelling cocktail.
‘Offering this sort of long-form television, with a clear influence from US shows is what makes I Know Who You Are accessible,’ he says. There is an emerging trend in European and US television, to tell one story over a longer period of time, over more episodic models, in which viewers are given an element of closure after each viewing – and Spanish television is increasingly responding to this. But while this trend is elevating television in many countries to challenge the supremacy of film, in Spain, the box is still seen very much as a ‘secondary’ media.
‘There is a snobbishness regarding television,’ says Willis. ‘Many of the writers and directors who are working in Spain, might be working in television if they were based in the US. But in Spain they are working on mid-budget films. It is thought that if you are to be a serious writer or director, you should really be working in film.’
The success of I Know Who You Are could be a sign that such perceptions could be shifting. Certainly, Ann Davies, an academic specialising in Spanish culture at the University of Stirling, sees the series as signalling a sea change for Spanish television.
‘Spanish TV is still catching up with changes in the sort of programmes being offered elsewhere,’ she says. Traditionally, its output has a tendency towards a ‘family model’, with different plot-lines representing different generations, and in turn, different viewers. But a rising demand for European noir and crime drama has prompted Spanish television to make changes: with other similar series such as Homicides (Homicidios) and Locked Up (Vis-A-Vis) offering additions worthy of the contemporary TV canon.
One of the factors behind the success of this and other series is the growth of an online culture of post-analysis – with pop culture websites increasingly offering detailed recaps of serialised drama and the proliferation of forums in which viewers can speculate on outcomes.
But another reason I Know Who You Are has perhaps resonated, is because of its complex handling of themes such as gender and power. One of the series’ undeniable strengths is its interrogation of the Spanish judicial system. The show demonstrates the investigative powers judges and lawyers possess in Spain; the ways in which the system is vulnerable to corruption. Davies believes this is typical of Spanish drama.
‘Judges and prosecutors play a larger role in detective fiction and film than they do in the UK,’ she says. ‘Judges make headlines in Spain. As far as UK TV is concerned, the Crown Prosecution Service appears to be a invisible body that serves only to thwart the crusading detective.’
The current series ended on one heck of a cliffhanger, leaving a host of questions unanswered, and many a loose end. Audience members complained the cliffhanger was an unusual note to end on – though might be heartened (or indeed, frustrated) to discover the series was split into two by the BBC and that there are still six episodes to go.
The enforced hiatus has annoyed many viewers, who felt cheated of the satisfying conclusion they had anticipated, expecting to view what they believed to be the conclusion to the first season. Following the anguished outcry, BBC Four, perhaps a little unprepared for the minor controversy its scheduling had unleashed, released a statement stating the series was always meant to be split – it was actually the Spanish broadcaster that had made the decision to show them back-to-back, as one long season.
For fans, though, all will be forgiven once the makeshift second series arrives. And that – so as not to leave any in greater suspense than they are already – will be in November.
Lara Williams is a freelance journalist and author who writes for the Guardian, Vice and the Times Literary Supplement.
Follow her on Twitter @Lara_A_Williams