Alexandra Trese in Netflix's Filipino animated series "Trese".

The Sorcerer Detective We Need — “Trese”

As I started watching “Trese”, I immediately became worried. It paints its world broadly. The titular Trese tells us who she is a few times in a row in case we missed it. The animation obviously doesn’t have the largest budget. The supernatural “case a week” genre feels overdone by this point. Then Trese steps on the gas. Literally, at one point.

The minute the action happens it all starts to click. Disparate elements fall into place smoothly. Alexandra Trese cuts through monsters from the underworld at lightning pace, but not in a flashy, overstated way. She can take advantage of various magical powers and spells, but each of these is limited. It usually comes down to her and a knife that can harm monsters out of Filipino legend and myth.

Trese is a lakan for humanity, a leader and sorcerer tasked with maintaining peace between humans and a hidden underworld of mythological creatures. She alternates between investigating cases and kicking ass. She has a host of supernatural contacts, some explained and some not. One exchanges information for candy and, perhaps, simply because it’s fun. Others mix information with misinformation. Some respect an old balance between humans and underworld clans that Trese is solely empowered to maintain. Some seek to overthrow those agreements.

Neither is Trese a desperate vigilante. She follows a set of rules agreed upon between a council of underworld leaders. Some trust her, some fear her, some are simply betting for or against her. Many don’t like that she wields such power, or that she’s the one who’s upholding the balance after the death of her father.

She doesn’t protect humanity without question, though. A police friend often calls her in on supernatural cases, but corrupt officials and police are as much of an obstacle for her as any monster from the underworld.

Let’s go back to that action for a second. “Trese” takes advantage of its budget limitations. The whole thing feels animated on the off-beats, in other words at 12 frames-per-second in a style that values the intimation of movement over actual movement. It’s hard to get right. We’ve seen this recently in a big-budget animated film like “Into the Spider-Verse”, but the way “Trese” does it is reminiscent of one of the only animated projects even more hallowed: “Batman: The Animated Series”.

The more obvious comparison that every show like this gets might be “Supernatural”, but “Trese” is pretty far afield from that. Trese is a detective at work, hard-nosed and extremely serious, and the series leans far more into a noir-horror atmosphere. It’s also about the work of doing the job at hand; there’s almost no interpersonal drama. That Filipino myths haven’t really been featured in storytelling that’s made it to the U.S. also helps “Trese” feel unique to a viewer like me.

That’s about more than something simply coming from a foreign place. Horror often draws on myth that’s been built and retold for hundreds of years. American horror only has a few hundred years to draw on. During most of that time, it’s relied on racism, misogyny, ableism, and classism. As it’s forced to rely on those themes less and less, there’s really not much of a historical well left to draw from.

Horror from the U.S. goes a few different directions at this point. To do anything else, it needs to start inventing horror out of religious concerns, or more often co-opts horror from indigenous or exterior cultures in a way that often misunderstands it and strips it of the context that makes it frightening and meaningful. When horror from the U.S. is successful, it’s very often a meta commentary that corrects or critiques a past failure of American horror – think “You’re Next” and its inversion of the home invasion horror, or “It Follows” and how effectively it toys with sexual awakening horror.

It’s not just that Filipino folklore feels unique and different because we haven’t been exposed to it much here. It’s also that it feels different in “Trese” because it’s being told by Filipino creators and actors in a Filipino world that keeps the context of all that folklore intact. It hasn’t been adapted and stripped of what makes it unique. That is something we’re not very used to getting in the U.S.

I want to stress it’s not the style and content that remind me of “Batman: The Animated Series”. It’s the fights and pacing that do. “Trese” follows a solid pace of: she meets with her police contact, picks up the case, gathers evidence, follows a lead, talks to an informant, connects evidence to that information, tracks down where she needs to be, prepares for shit to go down, chaos ensues. That is, to a tee, the pace of any Batman-centered episode of “Batman: The Animated Series”.

That’s not really unique to those two series. A lot of series do this. What’s unique to them is that they both do it so well. It’s difficult to pull off because it’s a very streamlined approach. It requires the central character to be a complete and consistent anchor for a viewer’s trust. It also means that every interview with an informant or witness needs to be unexpected and tense. That requires an absolutely elite rogues gallery of unexpected characters and spaces in which to meet them. “Trese” has that in spades.

The setting needs to drip with so much atmosphere that you develop a sense for what you might see, hear, and feel off-screen. “Trese” can be a little inconsistent on this element at the beginning of some episodes, but the more she has to leave the mundane behind, it escalates into some superbly intriguing places.

The other part of this is that every time the chaos starts, there has to be something so strange and unexpected that it suspends your disbelief that the hero can handle it. Sometimes they don’t, and the solution is just as unexpected as the problem. Sometimes the hero is just a witness, the clean-up, a second too late in understanding something key. Someone gets away. A villain can only be warned, not stopped.

This adherence to story progression at a certain pace might seem strict, but it necessitates so much creativity within those strict spaces. You know the shape of the storytelling space every single time. What you don’t know is what’s going to be inside it. That carries its own intrigue and anticipation. You know how the story’s going to go, you probably know who’ll be standing at the end, but you don’t know everything you’ll see along the way, or what more you’ll understand about the world by that point.

“Trese” isn’t without flaws. The larger story arc to the season itself can slow down when an explanation is at hand, but it’s bolstered by a series of flashbacks strung as episode prologues through most of the season. This history builds Trese as a character for us, and into one of my favorite characters going in a series right now. Those flashbacks shape the larger arc, but they also shape our understanding of Trese, the accords she protects, the people around her, and the world we’re stepping into.

I mentioned at the beginning that the writing is often broad. Dialogue can feel generic in places. I think it works for the most part because we’re hearing those familiar phrases between characters such as a horselike god who disguises himself as a car and a sorcerer detective who kickboxes ghouls. The broadness of the dialogue is noticeable at times, but it also does a lot to ground us in the middle of so many other elements that are unfamiliar.

The more intimate fight scenes play best – a fight in a warehouse or restaurant, stalking through an abandoned studio. The larger a fight gets, the more it can get away from Trese as our anchor within it. This starts to involve powerful creatures and magic spells more, which is exciting but also feels more ordinary in a superhero-saturated market. It’s those more personal conflicts in tighter spaces that really escalate characters’ motives, talents, and tactics.

“Trese” is a good series. I don’t know if it’s a great series, but it’s great at all the things I want a series like this to do. Where it falters, it has enough built up around it to carry that moment through and still make it matter. I never felt my investment in these characters waning, and I was always engrossed in the world it depicts. In particular, Trese as a character quickly goes from a no-nonsense private eye archetype into being one of the more believably complex leads I’ve seen in an animation – not because she changes, but because the series catches us up with her complicated history.

One tip when you watch it: don’t skip the intro. The opening credits are genius. They house you within the show’s mood immediately. The visuals and music are fused perfectly. The opening carries both a sense of threat and enigmatic beauty that got me settled in the exact mindset I wanted to be in to enjoy each episode. I watched the opening credits every time, and I’m glad I did.

“Trese” is both ambitious and imperfect. It can take a minute to understand and sync into its pace and animation style. Once it gets going, though, it is beautifully unique and exciting.

Just as importantly, it fixes a problem in the genre. Many supernatural shows like this have worlds that are wishy-washy and fungible and chiefly exist to bring out the characters’ charm and wit, which in turn can make thin characters who feel less consistent over time.

“Trese” is a story that’s fully intact with its world, and grounded to Trese’s experiences. It’s not piecemeal, and for how structured it is, it doesn’t feel episodic. Instead, it feels like visits to a place, like uncovering a story as you read more, anticipating the next chapter. It asks us to learn about it as we go, which is what a supernatural show housed in mystery should do. Moments should be awe-inspiring, profound, intimidating, and Trese’s knowledge about these things should be impressive. The answers aren’t readily served to us, they’re caught up with – sometimes before we fully understand them. That’s the kind of exciting supernatural show I want, and that’s what “Trese” does best over its six half-hour episodes.

You can watch “Trese” on Netflix.

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