Obtaining your driver’s license after the age of 40 means enrolling in a driving school where you know you’ll be the odd one out and where all the other students, who’ve only just turned eighteen, will look at you slightly suspiciously. Why didn’t he get it when he should have? And why is he trying to get it now, if he’s managed to survive two decades without it? The central character of No me gusta conducir (I don’t like driving) has to face precisely this deficiency, along with the tiresome need to have to explain it again and again, when all he wants to do is pass the test, get the hallowed license and move on with his life. But it won’t be that easy, of course, because otherwise there wouldn’t be a series.
Borja Cobeaga has drawn on his own personal experience as the basis for this bittersweet, six-part comedy. The central character is Pablo Lopetegui, a pompous university professor who never gives anyone 10 out of 10 but on the inside is eaten away by the belief that he’s the most mediocre of all. He once aspired to literary glory but instead got stuck in a rut. His father died recently and left him the dubious legacy of a beat-up car that Lopetegui would feel bad taking to the junkyard if he hadn’t tried to drive it first. Also relatively recent was his separation from his wife, which has left him in a bit of a gray area given she still has the keys to the house, and he still often needs her to chauffeur him around town.
This is the context that Cobeaga harnesses to examine some of the idiosyncrasies of Spanish culture with his customary irony and also a degree of fondness. But this time he does it with more introspection than he did in Spanish Affair, the hit film that shot him to fame. Two characters are integral as catalysts in the chain of circumstances leading to a bit of a shake-up for the rather unpleasant professor Lopetegui, played by Juan Diego Botto in a sober but effective way. One is his driving school instructor, a rather simple but good-hearted guy, who never shuts up and peppers his chatter with empty phrases, clichés and bad jokes. In other words, he has just what it takes to drive the erudite professor nuts. Then there’s Yolanda (Lucía Caraballo), one of his university students, free-spirited and smiley, who will end up showing him that, sometimes, things are simpler than they seem.
It would have been too easy to play the romance card with the scruffy but still attractive professor and the bright young woman looking for a surrogate for the pathetic father figure she has at home. But Cobeaga prefers to avoid the cliché and instead simply place both characters in the absurd situation of having to learn to drive at the hands of an instructor whose mindset is as if he was plucked from the Spain of decades ago. The clash between the two personalities is fertile ground, delivering interchanges that end up being the most outright funny moments of the series. And David Lorente’s portrayal of the driving instructor is simply superb.
That some of the action occurs in Cuenca reinforces the feeling of being in places where the steamroller of civilization – along with frozen yogurt and kombucha – has not yet wreaked havoc. Lopetegui is himself trapped in the past due to the childhood trauma of seeing the series La segunda oportunidad (The Second Chance), broadcast by TVE in the late 70s, which depicted very graphically that an accident can easily reduce a car to a heap of mangled metal. His character seems stuck in the era of the Seat 127.
But it’s far from a grim series. Cobeaga applies a tender eye and, though he likes to play with stereotypes, he always does it with affection and is never wantonly cruel. It’s clear every character, even the antagonists, was written with a fond smile on his face. And the fact that there are top-notch actors alongside Botto, such as Leonor Watling and Javier Cámara, makes for a very solid result all in all. Although it works well as a six-episode series, it could easily be converted into a two-and-a-half-hour long movie. This self-restraint has helped earn it four nominations in Spain’s Feroz awards and made it a favorite in the comedy category of these critics’ awards.
Midlife crises have been common fodder for series writers. But No me gusta conducir has the distinction of having a protagonist who doesn’t get involved with a girl half his age, and nor does he buy a Porsche to boost his self-esteem. The title of the series refers, in a literal sense, to the challenge of driving a car when you don’t particularly feel you want to. But taken more symbolically, it’s clear that Cobeaga and company are addressing the need to take the wheel in your own life when your parents are no longer around. Beneath the commentary on Spanish customs, there’s a certain existential sigh.