Lights, Camera, Controversy: ‘Neon’ and the Struggle for Authenticity

NEON. Tyler Dean Flores as Santi in NEON. Cr. Francisco Roman/Netflix © 2023

As a Puerto Rican and Cuban girl from the East Coast, hearing about Netflix’s new show Neon had me all amped up. The comedy series that premiered in October created by Shea Serrano starring Tyler Dean Flores, Emma Ferreira, Jordan Mendoza, and Courtney Taylor follows an emerging reggaetonero who moves to Miami with his friends on a mission to achieve stardom.

Growing up Cuban-Rican, splitting time between Jersey and the 305, the show’s pitch was on point for me. I was ready for a peek at my culture, with the tunes that got me teased in Miami taking the spotlight. Reggaeton’s been the beat of my life – blasting through NYC and NJ streets, even sparking heated debates with Miami Cubans who swear “every song sounds the same!” I was excited at first, but turns out, behind the scenes at Neon, the representation I craved was MIA.

It started before the show even came out with sources on both the mainland and in the archipelago, particularly Boricuas in film, ablaze with insights. They highlighted the dearth of representation in the writers’ room, a white showrunner (Max Searle) lacking an understanding of our culture, and the decision to use Puerto Rico as a Miami stand-in driven by the tax incentives provided under Act 27.

NEON. (L to R) Emma Ferreira as Ness, Tyler Dean Flores as Santi, Jordan Mendoza as Felix, and Courtney Taylor as Mia in NEON. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2023
NEON. (L to R) Emma Ferreira as Ness, Tyler Dean Flores as Santi, Jordan Mendoza as Felix, and Courtney Taylor as Mia in NEON. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix ©2023

In the vast landscape of television and film, Puerto Rico often finds itself relegated to a backdrop, a cinematic canvas upon which stories unfold, but rarely a protagonist in its own narrative. In Bad Boys II (2003), Goldeneye (1995), and Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights (2004) it doubles for Cuba. In The Resort (2022), it’s a stand-in for Mexico. And in Captain America: Civil War (2016), it even plays Nigeria.

The archipelago’s vibrant culture and history are getting lost in the shuffle. Netflix’s new show, Neon, is just another player in this game, and it’s not changing the tune. Puerto Rico’s sidelined once again, signaling the same old struggle for representation in the entertainment biz. It’s like déjà vu with a remote control.

While the tax incentives make filming in Puerto Rico a logical and cost-effective choice over Miami, I have a question for Neon—why not make the archipelago the intrinsic backdrop from the start? With reggaeton deeply embedded in our culture and the Bad Bunny phenomenon offering an ideal narrative, the island presents the ideal setting to showcase the come-up from a perspective fans already know. The allure of Miami’s “neon,” with its parties, sex, drugs, vulture opportunistic investors, and palm trees, is just a tempting canvas for crafting additional jokes about excess and cocaine use—a temptation that Neon unfortunately succumbs to swiftly. It teeters on the edge, donning a Kangol hat and cornrows, coming off as a parody of Don Omar’s music videos from the early 2000s.

NEON. (L to R) Tyler Dean Flores as Santi, Emma Ferreira as Ness, Jordan Mendoza as Felix, and Courtney Taylor as Mia in NEON. Cr. Francisco Roman/Netflix ©2023

The timeline in this story is as confusing as figuring out which abuela’s recipe to follow – completely baffling, ¡qué lío! Characters seemingly arrive in Miami, and through a kind of mystical Miami metamorphosis (which, let’s be clear, doesn’t exist in reality), they miraculously become famous within a mere couple of months. This speedy climb to stardom, skipping the usual hitches and hurdles on the way up, feels like a novela plot—so unbelievable, it’s got me side-eyeing the whole story’s credibility. I’m left wondering if this meteoric rise to fame, even with internet magic in the mix (because, let’s be real, going viral usually takes years of hustle), is just too good to be true.

Beyond my double dose of heritage, I was all in for the show, especially since it reminded me of my days as a broke promoter in Miami. Picture me hustling, booking musicians in a city that’s notorious for being a tough coco to crack, with venues vanishing left and right. Yet, Neon somehow misses the mark on showing the real struggle of Miami’s sketchy booking scene. They skipped the gritty reality check!

While Neon attempts to portray the struggle of affording Miami’s rising housing prices, the main group of young adults manages an implied Miami Beach apartment with Allapattah-level resources. Why allocate for a $250 lamp when an efficiency in the sunshine city that never sleeps costs nearly $2,000 a month? Where’s the portrayal of scraping by, hustling through clubs in Little Haiti, selling tickets for a small payout and performance time (a scenario familiar to anyone who has navigated Miami’s music scene)?

While the show does its best to Miami-fy Puerto Rico visually, it sort of misses the city’s true vibe. Instead, it goes for the classic move of dropping characters in and recycling those overdone jokes about Miami’s cocaine cowboys—a storyline that’s been hanging around since Tony Montana introduced us to his “little friend” in Scarface (1983). There’s a quick peek at a strip club scene that does trigger memories of wild weekends, and the crazy contrast and saturation in some scenes perfectly capture the feeling of stumbling through Miami with a hangover in the scorching heat—moments where the show unexpectedly hits a little too close to home for early twenties me—who is still kinda wasted from the far too many times we went to PT’s and didn’t leave till 6 am.

NEON. (L to R) Emma Ferreira as Ness and Daddy Yankee as Himself in NEON. Cr. Francisco Roman/Netflix © 2023
NEON. (L to R) Emma Ferreira as Ness and Daddy Yankee as Himself in NEON. Cr. Francisco Roman/Netflix ©2023

It’s also puzzling that a show, based in Miami with a Puerto Rican reggaetonero lead, skips over the prominent Cuban culture in the city. I mean, Miami’s practically fueled by Cuban vibes. Let’s also not forget that, “Cuba y Puerto Rico son de un pájaro las dos alas.” Instead of the usual nose candy jokes, they could’ve teased the Miami Cuban coffee obsession—same buzz, smaller price tag. And with Daddy Yankee on board, I was hoping for a legit Miami party scene, maybe even a Pitbull cameo, where he screams “dale” into the camera at a Little Havana club. Sadly, instead, the show evoked memories of my quinceañera, set against the backdrop of a hurricane in a resilient Hialeah banquet hall—a decision stubbornly forged, against my will, despite the warning signs.

In our Latiné reality, we’re often confronted with a tough truth: we have to excel far beyond the norm for only a fraction of the recognition we deserve. Neon can’t afford initial stumbles – like their protagonists, they’re playing in an industry where profit-driven white executives exploit our cultures. Despite Neon cracking a door open, it got entangled in tired Hollywood clichés rather than breaking new ground. Which raises the question: did it unintentionally close the door behind itself?

As Latiné creatives, we need better narratives. By actively creating authentic stories and pushing diverse perspectives, we can bring change. Let’s urge platforms to prioritize shows and films that truly reflect our richness and diversity, both on and off-camera. It’s time not just to open doors but to make sure they stay open for authentic storytelling.

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