Some years ago, a Peruvian man who heard I wrote for “One Life to Live” told me he’d learned English by watching the show. When I started studying Spanish a few years ago, I decided to follow his lead and reinforce my Spanish lessons by watching a telenovela.
I began my foray into this literally foreign territory with a show called “Mundo de Fieras” (“World of Wild Ones”) because it was just beginning and aired at a convenient time in the evening. I confess I understood very little dialogue in the premiere episode – ¡Ay, caramba! They talked fast! – but I was basically able to follow what was happening on screen. It was about a struggle between twin brothers (I guessed the smiling one with a loving family was good and the snarling one with the eye patch was evil), and about their love for two women (I supposed the brunette leaving a convent was good and the one with the heavy eye makeup and the long curly blonde extensions was evil). Within a couple of weeks I’d picked up some useful vocabulary, like the oft-repeated embarazada. I wondered why one female character was constantly embarrassed, and why everyone else kept talking about her embarrassment until I understood that embarazada means “pregnant.” I wasn’t learning quite as much Spanish as I’d hoped, but I was getting an education. Though I knew telenovelas differed from American soap operas in that they aired for a finite time, generally six to nine months, and so progressed toward a predetermined conclusion, I discovered that the differences go far deeper.
Perhaps the biggest difference is that while American soaps are struggling to keep their audience, telenovelas are watched by an estimated two billion people in a hundred countries. What makes these shows so wildly successful? From what I can tell by having now watched several different telenovelas, they’re pretty predictable; the star-crossed lovers introduced in the first episode will get together in the last, the villain will be punished. The “good” characters will find their faith in God rewarded, the comic couple will marry. There will be some public service message, like on one episode of “Destilando Amor” when every character recycled his or her trash in appropriate bins (yes, seriously). Why, then, do viewers not only faithfully watch each episode of one telenovela but excitedly anticipate the premiere of the next one? Is it just a cultural phenomenon? Is it the structure of the telenovela itself, Dickensian in nature, a serialized drama with a satisfying ending? Is it seeing the same actors in different roles – a chaste heroine in one show transformed into a murderous vixen in another? (For example, actor Maurice Benard going from mob boss Sonny Corinthos on “General Hospital” to priest on a new show.) Is it that telenovelas air not only in the daytime, but also in the evening, when there’s a greater audience at home to watch, both male and female? Is it the variety these shows offer – one show may be a period piece, one a gritty urban drama, one a bodice-ripper romance? And is it something American television producers can co-opt?
I don’t have the answer to any of these questions, but as the American soap opera continues to struggle for survival, I think the producers of daytime television might be wise to look toward their cousins south of the border and study the secret of their success. As for me, I’m looking for the next telenovela to watch. Bit by bit, my Spanish is improving. But some things need no translation. Whether it’s an American soap or a telenovela, if two characters are simultaneously embarazadas, there’s a 100% chance those babies are going to get switched.