Netflix's Trese Presents a Terrifying and Magical World That Will Leave You Wanting More
Trese is a badass. The six-episode series from Netflix wastes no time in establishing Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo’s comic book heroine as someone not to be trifled with. Debuting in 2005 as a self-funded passion project, the Trese komiks are noir supernatural murder mysteries beautifully illustrated in black and white with the eponymous Alexandra Trese solving each case with the help of her twin demigod bodyguards, Crispin and Basilio.
Trese’s dark world is an analog of the country’s reality.
The opening scene of a broken-down MRT and passengers walking the tracks isn’t merely social commentary but an actual, relatable incidence and the murderous aswangs are merely analogs of murderous forces running rampant in Manila. Trese’s version of Manila may be darker, grittier, and full of magic, but the dysfunctional city at the heart of a dysfunctional country run roughshod over by politicians and military leaders pursuing their own agendas is all too familiar. Trese is terrifying because it’s real.
Trese is real not in the literal sense-although every Filipino has heard versions of the tales spun from our creatures of myth and superstition-but it’s so allegorically real it doesn’t require much suspension of disbelief. When Mayor Santamaria capitalizes on the tragedy of the MRT to aggrandize himself and campaign for re-election, Filipinos will simply nod and think, yes, that’s pretty much expected. When Santamaria makes deals with the aswang, re-envisioned in the Treseverse as a criminal syndicate, it’s just par for the course.
In a way, that’s the true horror and tragedy of Trese, which lifts most of its backgrounds from actual photographs of Manila. Watching it is like looking directly at a dark reflection that every Filipino has seen in some shape or form. It’s an unqualified joy and point of pride to see so much Filipino culture and iconography in an internationally streamed series, but there’s also an unspeakable shame to its familiarity and how close it comes to home.
Tan and Baldisimo didn’t create Trese to be political or social commentary. Trese has always simply been about the stories behind the stories or news events we heard growing up in Manila. Tan wanted to weave an origin story of sorts for the characters in those tales. The white lady of Balete Drive is an enduring ghost story that is passed on in a very Filipino way, an oral tradition so familiar that we’re all almost certain it’s real. Like all urban legends, it has happened to a friend of a friend.
Trese, the series, adds vibrancy and action beyond the comics.
The true and stellar genius of the Trese komiks is in its deconstruction of Philippine folklore, urban legends, and current events and reweaving them into a rich and beautiful universe that works for Filipinos on multiple levels because of our familiarity with both the supernatural elements and the stories that inspired them. In the Trese komiks, there are tales inspired by real-life events like the rape of Pepsi Paloma or urban legends like the snake underneath Robinsons Galleria. The creative pair even put their tragic, supernatural spin on Mars Ravelo’s Darna.
It’s this freedom and creativity to play with so much familiar material that has made the comic so popular. The Netflix series takes only some of these elements while adding others as Trese leaps from the page to the screen. The first and most striking difference is the addition of color. Baldisimo’s signature, striking chiaroscuro was always a genius workaround of economic constraints, when Tan and Baldisimo would produce a limited number of photocopied ashcans of stories they never imagined would explode in popularity. That limitation became a strength as Baldisimo’s art played with blacks and whites in a way that no other Filipino komiks had done before.
Netflix infused the world of Trese with color without negating the noir but rather enhances it. There’s palpable darkness and melancholy in the world that seeps into every frame, even during the daytime scenes. Showrunner Jay Oliva, whose work as a storyboard artist has led to helming several critically acclaimed animated series, infuses the world of Trese with vibrancy and action that goes beyond the scope of the comics.
Writer Tanya Yuson, a fan of the comic who has championed the property for over a decade and pitched to numerous outfits with producer Shanty Harmayn before landing on Netflix, grew the Trese mythos into something far more grandiose than was ever on the printed page. Tan and Baldisimo weren’t consulted for the direction of the animated series but rather sat down for a one-day meeting with Oliva and the writers whom the pair felt had a masterful enough grasp of the characters and world to be given autonomy. Netflix breathed life into Trese in magical and colorful ways that exceed the expectations of longtime fans and even the creators themselves.
Trese’s local dub reminds you that Filipino is a beautiful language.
The series is wonderfully animated, with expertly and beautifully drawn characters who exude so much personality. The world is textured and nuanced, with a script that Yuson insisted retain Filipino for the incantations. One of the most amusing things to do while the series is to watch it in different languages and pay attention to the parts where Alexandra Trese speaks in Filipino. Liza Soberano does an excellent job disappearing into the character while Shay Mitchell, who plays Alexandra Trese in the English dub, expectedly has an accent with her Filipino.
That’s the thing. The English dub deliberately cast Filipino voice actors who have an accent and it’s incredibly jarring. Although Mitchell speaks in perfect English, everyone around her speaks with a stilted tone that isn’t even consistent with what most would consider as a Filipino-American accent. Netflix should’ve just cast Jo Koy imitating his mom and called it a day. Instead, characters like Anton Trese, who looks to be of Chinese descent, have the confusing accent of a Latino pretending to be Filipino.
It might have been Netflix’s attempt to emulate the way second-generation Filipino-Americans talk in perfect English-Manny Jacinto as the Tikbalang prince Maliksi and Darren Criss as Marco talk just fine-but the older generation, such as Matt Yang King as Captain Guerrero still have accents. The idea is sound on paper, but in practice, the English dub is simply all over the place and can be grating to watch as a Filipino. It’s a shame because the comics were written in English and the scripts were written in English. Insisting on Filipino accents felt somewhat counterproductive.
On the other hand, the Filipino dub is surprisingly really, really good not merely because of excellent voice work but because the translation is beautiful and poetic. Trese is an unexpected triumph and celebration of the Filipino language from material originally written in English. The best way to watch Trese as a Filipino would be in Filipino without the subtitles because for some reason the closed captioning isn’t verbatim and it makes for a confusing experience. The Filipino dub is refreshing and reminds us all that Filipino is a rich and beautiful language.
The series might have worked better with eight episodes.
Trese is a quick binge with only six episodes under 30 minutes each, but it really should’ve been eight. The season finale is something of a letdown after five perfectly paced episodes as nearly half of the last episode is guilty of what The Incredibles’ Syndrome would call a villain monologuing. For a series that did such a perfect job showing us a dark and terrifying world for five episodes, the finale stumbles and just tells audiences what happens with way too much exposition.
It’s as though the series forgot it was leading up to something grand and just catches you up with Cliffs Notes of the apocalypse. So much of the story is lost and more questions are raised than answered, although that might’ve been intentional leading up to a second season. Adding credence to this would be the end credits stinger that promises more after the finale.
Although the finale is weighed down by exposition, it makes up for it with the most epic action and gravitas. It’s the episode where Oliva gets to flex his mastery and experience with animated DC superheroes as Trese and her allies have a magical showdown with the series’ big bad. It’s flashy, it’s fantastic, and it’s more than a Filipino fanboy can ask for. It also has the most emotional weight as family ties break, friends fall, and sacrifices are made, which is quite a lot to cram into 30 minutes. A bit too much, actually, but we’ll take what we can.
Trese is a rich world that will leave you wanting more.
Netflix has struck a goldmine with Trese and its rich, wonderful world. Audiences will hunger for more about the creatures who make brief appearances on the show. There are so many stories to tell in this world and it’s a tremendous honor to have the streaming giant choose a Filipino property to have as one of its first non-Japanese anime. We can only fervently hope that this opens doors for other Filipino creators such as Carlo Vergara and his ZsaZsa Zaturnnah or Arnold Arre and his Mythology Class or Andong Agimat. Who needs the Avengers or Disney+ when Netflix has such a deep, deep well of creative properties to tap?
Trese is a celebration of all things Filipino and, for that alone, it’s worth the watch. But Trese is also a really good animated series in its own right and it shows enough glimpses of an interesting and exciting world that audiences would want to visit again and again.
Trese is now streaming on Netflix.