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Review: ‘Who Killed Sara?’ and the Art of the Netflixnovela

“Who Killed Sara?,” the popular Mexican mystery series that returned for a second season May 19 on Netflix, is a little like an early-1970s Toyota Celica: an import offering an attractive package of sportiness and reliability. It overheats but it keeps moving. It and its excitable Spanish-language Netflix compatriots like “Money Heist” and “Elite” may not take over the American market the way Japanese automobiles once did, but cars have the advantage of no subtitles.

“Who Killed Sara?” is a puzzle, as its title suggests. Alex (Manolo Cardona), released from prison 18 years after being found responsible for the death of his sister, Sara (Ximena Lamadrid), in a suspicious parasailing mishap, is obsessed with proving that she was murdered and identifying the culprit. Having somehow gained an impressive mastery of surveillance technology, bomb making and other dark arts while in jail, he sets out to investigate and harass — both psychologically and physically — the members of a wealthy family, the Lazcanos, who used to be his and Sara’s intimate friends.

As Season 2 begins (three of its eight episodes were available for review), he appears to be further away from an answer than ever, a circumstance that encapsulates the show’s melodramatic method and indicates whether or not you might enjoy it. After a first season spent giving everyone in sight plausible reasons for wanting to get rid of Sara, the second season doubles down, putting forward new suspects while also advancing the idea that she might have caused her own death.

The style is telenovela-breathless, with the emotional temperature slightly dialed down for a general American audience. There is a superabundance of plot, but in some ways “Who Killed Sara?” barely bothers telling a story or creating characters. We rarely see how people get from Point A to Point B within a scene — they’re always at Point B, with a bomb exploding or a gun being pointed or an anonymous correspondent texting enigmatic clues.

The writers, led by the series’s creator, José Ignacio Valenzuela, have constructed their puzzle box with sufficient ingenuity to explain the show’s Netflix Top-10 status during its first season. The mystery has just enough interest, and the bare minimum of plausibility, to justify your attention. It’s the necessary binding agent, but your devotion to or dismissal of the show will be determined by how you respond to the soap-opera flourishes: the pregnant surrogate who masturbates while spying on her baby’s gay father in the shower, say, or the sociopathic master of the universe who impregnates his own daughter-in-law. (A lot of the appeal of this type of show is guessing along with it, so pat yourself on the back if you predicted, many episodes ahead, that the son had had a vasectomy.)

It may be that “Who Killed Sara?” also strikes a chord with its depiction of how the cynicism and corruption of an older generation of the Mexico City elite — the Lazcano father and mother, César (the excellent Ginés García Millán) and Mariana (Claudia Ramírez), compete for evil-parent honors — wreck the lives of their gentler and more enlightened offspring.

The greatest continuing improbability in the show is the romance between Alex and Elisa (Carolina Miranda), the daughter of the hated Lazcanos, who was a child when Sara died. (Whether that rules her out as a suspect remains to be seen.) It’s a way of humanizing the humorless Alex, who’s otherwise kind of a drag. But whether the filmmakers intend it or not, the circling, ever-complicating nature of the story also helps to mellow him out — since the show can’t, for the foreseeable future, come any closer to real answers, Alex’s dramatic arc has partly shifted from single-minded revenge to an almost comic frustration.

That need to stretch the story becomes even more apparent in Season 2, as scenes are replayed from different perspectives and in slightly different time frames for no reason beyond giving us tiny increments of new information. Like a lot of things about “Who Killed Sara?,” this can wear at your patience while you wait to see if your own pet theory turns out to be right. I’m rooting for either no one killed Sara or Alex killed Sara, but all options remain open.

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