Since last October, online sales of sewing machines in the country of Spain have shot up a whopping 176 percent. But the sudden urge to sew grew not out of an urgent dressmaking necessity, but as the result of an addictive new TV show about a spying seamstress.
"El Tiempo Entre Costuras" ("The Time Between Seams"), an 11 episode adaptation of the internationally best-selling novel of the same name, broke the record for the most watched TV premiere in Spain. And now, the series is now coming to America at the perfect moment, with audiences in need of some summertime sentimentalism and a little period conspiracy, but with "Downton Abbey" still months away. And starting July 4, international TV streaming service DramaFever will debut the series (which has the adjusted title of "The Time in Between"), on their site as well as on Hulu.
The drama follows the story of a young seamstress named Sira (Adriana Ugarte) who uses her sewing talents as a cover for espionage during the rise of dictator Francisco Franco, the Spanish Civil War and the beginning of World War II. Sira is intelligent, gutsy and resourceful, whose ability to construct stunning garments lands her the posh job of couturier to the Nazi wives stationed in Madrid -- the perfect gig if you want to smuggle coded messages to the British inside the seams of dresses.
The series opens with a particularly striking sequence, in which Sira is having pistols strapped into her undergarment. But while an American series might be able to wrap up exactly how she got there within the confines of the pilot, "The Time in Between" doesn't rush its story. Instead, the first two episodes made available for review are devoted entirely to Sira's young adult life and her search for love.
The series has a particularly lovely "Downton Abbey" flair, with gorgeous period costumes, grandiose set pieces, sweeping instrumental interludes and rebellious women who act in a manner contrary to what's expected of them in the early 20th century. Sira was raised in Madrid by a single mother who taught her practically everything about needlework and clothes-making. As a young woman, Sira gets engaged to a man named Ignacio (Raúl Arévalo) whose promising government job offers plenty of stability, though it's obvious that Sira loves him no more than her own drab clothing. The first time they meet, Sira would rather run home to clean a stain out of her dress than stick around for conversation.
Enter Ramiro (Rubén Cortoda), whose literal entrance in the first episode is accompanied by an overstated score and awkward eye contact so obvious that the English subtitles might as well have read, "Here is the real love interest!" right on the screen. Sira immediately falls for Ramiro and their affair packs in a heap of melodrama -- a telenovela this is not, but that doesn't mean the show lacks any instance of schmaltz. Where "Downton" would remain at a safe, British distance, staying with mid-shots on its characters even during emotionally walloping scenes, "The Time in Between" goes in close, though not always for the best. There is one particularly ridiculous moment when Ramiro wipes hot chocolate off of Sira's mouth -- the camera lingering over her lip until he has wiped away every last drop.
When they run off together to Morocco in episode two, their escapades with sex, drugs and all things Moorish are fun to watch, but it's easy to guess what tragedy this is all heading towards. There's nothing more untrustworthy than a gorgeous man with piercing blue eyes asking, "Do you trust me?" as he whisks you away to a foreign country. But without the peril, we won't get to see the inevitable outcome of how Sira grows from a love-sick girl to a determined woman smuggling guns across international borders.
Much of the show's voice-over narration is unnecessary -- we don't need to hear that little Sira (Angela Romanillos) is wowed by the elegance of the homes of her mother's wealthy clients, we see it in her eyes as she enters their neighborhoods and front doors.
Adriana Ugarte is absolutely engaging as Sira. Her performance captures a bit more subtlety than her co-stars, and her ability to simultaneously play naive and determined makes up for the occasional cheesy dialogue.
So despite its occasional dip into nighttime-soap territory, it's easy to see why the Spanish have gotten so hooked. Like "Downton Abbey," or the novel on which the series is based, "The Time in Between" manages to lure you into needy territory; you end up desperate to find out what happens next. And by focusing on a particularly fraught period in Spanish history, the show is able to combine eye-catching visuals with a compelling heroine and absorbing story. Though the first two episodes linger in Sira's emotional journey, the series will no doubt get more thrilling as the threat of war grows into reality and the intrigue kicks in.
"The Time in Between" premieres on DramaFever and Hulu July 4.