A Guilty Pleasure
Telenovela baddies require incredible acting skill not to evoke laughter at their dastardly deeds.
Years ago, under the pretext of learning Spanish, I became hooked on watching telenovelas in the United States. In those days, long before I envisioned myself living in a Spanish-speaking country, I eked out the storyline from exaggerated body language, typing the Spanish subtitles into Google Translate as fast I could. Later, I discovered online blogs that recapped episodes in English so I could verify what I supposed had happened. The blogs were proof that I was not alone as a fan of this medium.
Telenovelas are NOT a Latin version of the American soap opera. For one thing, each is time-limited to six months or even a year, if popular enough to extend the show. The protagonista who suffers until the final moments of a series will next appear in a different production, this time as the villainous antagonista. Different directors and producers from Argentina, Colombia and Mexico will update, revamp, and adapt previous storylines. A great story is worth repeating.
The United States has tried to capitalize on the popularity of telenovelas with Ugly Betty (based on a 2006 telenovela, La Fea Mas Bella), Jane the Virgin and a series with Eva Longoria called Telenovela. Interestingly, these are comedies. While there are telenovelas that are comedic, the real enchilada of telenovelas is a hand-wringing drama that lures millions of Central and South American fans to watch.
The dramatic element central to every telenovela is an extended family living under one roof with the generations engaging in incredible conflict. Imagine your extended family cohabiting for years and years!
Usually the conflict ensues because either the father or mother (or sometimes a grandparent) is the meanest of the mean. That dominating meddler is determined to ruin any happiness for a son or daughter who inevitably is in love with someone deemed unworthy of approval. It’s Romeo and Juliet on a grand opera scale against a backdrop of incredible family wealth such as a ranch that raises prize bulls for bullfighting, a popular mariachi club in Mexico City, a tequila dynasty or a goldmine.
Also living under the same roof, or perhaps in adobe shacks out back, are a staff of cooks, maids and stablemen with their own conflicts and foibles. It’s Downton Abbey with stock characters whose lives represent class differences played out dramatically.
Typically there are several love stories running simultaneously. Each couple has its own theme song that an orchestra blares whenever the two are shown on screen, sometimes to the point of drowning out the dialogue. Pay attention because these songs are often on the Top 10 playlist that is heard in restaurants, on street loudspeakers, and in tiendas across Latin America.
Telenovelas have rules that offer insights into the Latin culture. First, any prayer fervently offered to the Virgencita (often depicted as Our Lady of Guadalupe) will be answered. There is even a show called La Rosa de Guadalupe that is not a series but singular shows with different characters that are victimized, pray to the virgin, and then are saved by the end of the hour.
A cardinal rule of telenovelas is that any blood connection between parent and child will result in eerie coincidences. A common storyline is a mother or father separated from their child at birth. Paternity is often a big fat question, or a woman is forced to give up her baby that she searches for incessantly. If she has been told the child is dead, contrary to all evidence — including a clearly marked grave — she knows in her corazón that her child is still alive.
When mother and son meet for the first time, just short of recognition, they will feel the call of the blood as they stare deeply into each other’s eyes. If that same son has a car accident and the steering wheel impales his chest, the mother will grasp her heart and feel his pain, even though she is in another pueblo.
In one telenovela, both mother and daughter shared a trait of scratching her arms when upset. Even face to face, both simultaneously scratching their arms to the point of bleeding, there was no lightbulb going off for these two. This is another vital element of every telenovela. What is DUH-obvious to the audience escapes the heroes and heroines for 50 or more episodes.
Heroes and heroines may not always wear white hats, but they display qualities that are admired throughout Latin America. These include an unwavering faith, loyalty to their families, kindness to children and a belief in fairness that transcends class and other differences. Villains, in direct contrast, are adept at using the hero or heroine’s unwavering faith, family loyalty and especially naivety to their evil advantage. The result is a romp of unmitigated evil triumphing over good for months on end, leading to a grand finale where the bad guys get what has been coming to them.
Telenovela baddies require incredible acting skill not to evoke laughter at their dastardly deeds. They commit or hire someone to murder and pillage, escaping retribution until the ultima semana or grand finale. Every waking moment is dedicated to inflicting misery on the heroes.
Villains have been born out of Latin stereotypes: the Catholic zealot, the cruel mother who must have been absent in catechism for the study of the Beatitudes, the drug lord posing as a respectable businessman, and the womanizing government official who has fathered so many now-grown children that a variety of couples in town are perilously close to committing incest.
Most important for pleasurable viewing is recognizing that each series contains a Latin version of karma. The villain you’ve been hissing for months will meet an end equal to his or her evil deeds.
The gorgeous, vain anti-heroine who has snatched away everyone’s husband and killed off her female competitors will have her face burned beyond recognition in a fire she sets. The nasty, who has sent the hero to prison for a trumped-up charge and then paid a prison gang to beat him, will end up in that prison as a favorite on date night with that same gang. One insidious woman was so evil that she was devoured by wolves in the last hour. Another had her tongue cut out (as she had done to someone else) and her hands severed so she couldn’t communicate … the premise being that she no longer would be able to manipulate others with the evil words that had served her well.
At least one bad character will be redeemed by the final show. The trick is to figure out which nasty person is redeemable. Typically, this person has not committed murder but has wreaked enough havoc to merit delivering an apology for his or her sins. They may try to make some sort of restitution, but still will be denied a love interest or the pot of gold they coveted. It’s a watered down form of karma.
The cardinal rule of telenovelas is a last-show extravaganza that checks off all the boxes. These include eradicating the bad guys and holding a wedding, complete with a soaring orchestra playing the main love theme. Each wedding tries to outdo the weddings of other telenovelas — expect a bride carried to the church in a coach driven by white horses, with mariachis on the horses and enough flowers to set off the allergies of the locals. Whatever actors remain alive by the final show episode sit in the congregation. If the wedding occurs two or three years later, the audience is alerted by a “dos años después” subtitle. The wedding is a clever way to tie up loose ends with characters, showing who else has married whom, who has had a baby, and other life events.
A telenovela viewing requirement is to suspend logic, just as one must do with musicals like West Side Story when street gangs break out in song and dance. Despite Mexico City’s population of nearly 21,782,000, characters constantly run into each other in a restaurant or move next door to one another. Pregnancies outside of marriage become public knowledge in the waiting room as some nurse loudly announces the news. When someone is shot or stabbed, instead of calling an ambulance, the characters gather around the injured and shout, “Ayudame.” Those who make it past the Ayudame scene to enter a hospital always wear a neck brace. It is as standard as being shocked by paddles in a North American medical show.
Most exasperating is that much of the storyline revolves around a huge secret that only one of the cast and the audience knows. Out of pride or some other misguided motive, the one in the know keeps silent. Everything could be solved in five minutes if that person would just fess up the true paternity, the murder witnessed or the double identity of a villain.
In many telenovelas, the local priest has heard the villain’s confession but is bound by the sacramental seal not to spill the sacred beans. Why would anyone evil enough to commit murder enter the confessional booth? That is one of many questions too logical to pose about a telenovela.
Over the years, I have come to respect the work of telenovela producers such as Salvador Mejia Alejandre. His love of his native Mexico is reflected in the vibrant colors that splash off the screen, the recipes for the cuisine interwoven into the stories and other cultural symbols.
Product placement is blatant in telenovelas. A sponsor’s product may appear in many scenes. Sometimes social messages are woven into the plot such as the importance of mammograms linked to a character’s struggle with breast cancer. A woman escaping the violence in her home may provide specifics on the availability of domestic violence shelters.
As for learning Spanish from the telenovela, there are wonderful phrases you hopefully will never have the occasion to say. These include “cállate” or “shut up,” “suéltenme” or “let go of me,” and “no me toques” or “don’t touch me.” My favorite — repeated whenever a character is shocked, which is fairly often — is “No puede ser. No puede ser.” (“It cannot be. It cannot be.”).
Fault me, if you like, for devoting so much time to a genre of television that is overacted and often more parodic than lifelike. For me, the telenovela is a temporary escape into a world where bad guys pay the price for their sins, good but not-so-savvy folks ultimately find happiness, and solutions are just a prayer away. It is the ultimate escapism from the current troubles of our planet.