Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Birth of The “American Telenovela”

By Robert T. Wood.
Originally published in Latin Heat.

According to a 2014 Nielsen report on Latino TV viewership “Latinos represent 47 million traditional TV viewers in the U.S. and growing,” with a taste for telenovelas, which dates back generations, and not just back to the “old country”, it’s second, third and even fourth generation U.S. Latinos who still watch. However, increasingly the telenovela allure extends beyond Latino viewers and it’s in English.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines telenovela as “a soap opera produced in or televised in or from many Latin-American countries”. NPR’s Brenda Salinas draws distinctions between telenovelas and soap operas, arguing that the Spanish-language productions are “television novels” more akin to mini-series given their prime-time airings, finite number of episodes, and self-contained storyline.

While telenovelas share a plethora of commonalities with the soap operas of the Anglophone media landscape, a few key differences distinguish them. While American soap operas can run for decades– in some cases, half-centuries– Latin American telenovelas produced by companies such as Televisa in Mexico or Radio Cadena Nacional in Colombia typically air for only one year and run on average between 120 to 170 episodes. Telenovelas are often filmed on a quicker schedule, shooting more scenes per day than many U.S. television productions.

If you came of age before the turn of the millennium, you might remember a time in which American soap operas dominated the daytime airwaves. Long-running serial narratives that centered around the travails of a family were popular throughout the second half of the twentieth century and launched the careers of countless actors who became successful in the world of film and television. And if you can imagine a world in which the murder of a television actress by her co-star attained more national attention than the impeachment and ousting of the head of state, you can understand the immense social and cultural impact of the telenovela in Latin America.

The aforementioned incident took place in Brazil, one of the three countries laying claim to the invention of the telenovela. When the first U.S. soap opera, "The Guiding Light"made its debut on June 30, 1952, the first Latin American telenovelas had already broadcast in Mexico, Cuba and Brazil. "Sua Vida Me Pertence" was released in São Paulo, Brazil on December 21, 1951. "Senderos de amor", the first novela of Cuban origin, was broadcast in the very same year. "Ángeles de la calle" was Mexico’s first telenovela and aired from March 1952 to July 1955.

Creative Crossroads: Novelas and Dramedies

As the decades went by, the previously disparate worlds of the U.S. one-hour drama and the Latin American telenovela began to collide. One of the telenovelas featuring a cross-cultural element was Televisa’s "Dos mujeres, un camino" (1993-1994), a story exploring the love triangle between a Mexican trucker, his wife, and a woman he meets while transporting goods from Mexico into the United States. It was a first for a Televisa telenovela to cast a U.S. talent in a telenovela and it proved to be a hit with  former TV star of "ChiPs", Erik Estrada playing the male lead.

Arguably the most renowned and most successful crossover began in 1999 when Fernando Gaitán wrote "Yo soy Betty, la fea", catapulting the career of Ana María Orozco and leading to numerous adaptations. Televisa produced their own version, "La fea más bella", for Mexican audiences. This proved to be a great crossover to the U.S. and the longest-running adaptation as the American "Ugly Betty", which was executive produced by Salma Hayek and Silvio Horta who also wrote the adaptation. In the lead role of Betty was América Ferrera (Real Women Women Have Curves).

"Ugly Betty" merged the serial narrative of a Latin American telenovela with the sensibilities and style of humor of an American sitcom. Co-starring an array of Latino actors in regular roles such as Tony Plana, Ana Ortiz, and Mark Indelicato, "Ugly Betty" was lauded for its blend of humor and drama and for Ferrera’s performance as Betty Suárez, an intelligent, creative, and thoughtful young Latina whose multifaceted characterization contrasted with previous one-dimensional portrayals of Latinas. "Ugly Betty" was awarded an Emmy in 2007 and ran for a solid four seasons on ABC.

Another show straddling the conventions of a telenovela and the American primetime soap opera is "Devious Maids", a series inspired by the Mexican novela "Ellas son… la alegria de hogar". Starring Ana Ortiz as the main character, "Devious Maids" features a vast Latina cast with Judy ReyesRoselyn SánchezDania Ramírez, and Edy Ganem alongside Anglo soap opera veteran Susan Lucci. "Devious Maids" demonstrates the appeal of a telenovela-inspired English-language dramedy on cable: the series has been on Lifetime for two seasons and was recently renewed for a third season.

"Ugly Betty" and "Devious Maids" may be the first wave in a rising tide of telenovelas aimed at English-speaking audiences, but more are in the pipeline. It was recently reported that the USA Network is developing "The Queen of the South", an adaptation of Telemundo’s "La reina del sur" about a woman from Mexico who becomes the most powerful narcotrafficker in Spain.

Then in 2014 "Jane the Virgin", a loose adaptation of the Venezuelan telenovela "Juana la virgen" created by Perla Farias, ran away with critics’ acclaim as the “best show this fall season”.  It is headlined by Gina Rodríguez who won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of the young woman who is artificially inseminated, a premise that seems ridiculous but has garnered millions of fans nonetheless.

Will a turn towards telenovela-inspired works entice content creators continue to look towards Latin America for inspiration?

Eva Longoria has been in talks to produce four new series, one of which is a one-hour drama chronicling the behind-the-scenes struggles of producing a Spanish-language soap, simply titled "Telenovela". Even upcoming films underscore the growing relevance and appeal of the novela genre. This February, Georgina Riedel’s new feature Ana María in Novela Land presents a protagonist, played by Edy Ganem, who becomes stuck in the world of her favorite telenovela.

Every generation or so, a popular show will redefine the conventions of its genre, setting the standards for its successors and earning a place in the memories of many. "Hill Street Blues"'s characterization and storytelling blended the distinctions between comedy and drama and paved the way for not only other crime procedurals but the modern one-hour primetime series, leading CNN’s Todd Leopold to call it “the most influential TV show ever”. "Seinfeld" defied a multitude of existing comedy conventions to run for nine seasons, win countless awards and was named the greatest television show of all time by TV Guide in 2002.

The CW’s "Jane the Virgin" is this generation’s defining TV show. With a large telenovela weened Latino audience clamoring to be represented, and its critical acclaim, "Jane the Virgin" is already redefining the conventions of the TV sitcom and “steering new standards for its successors”, and becoming to be known as the Great American telenovela.

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