How do telenovelas – idols of entertainment and popular culture – exist in the name of agendas they attempt to escape?
As the popularity of Latin American telenovelas expand into English-language markets – from everything between Netflix’s Narcos, to the re-making of La Reina del Sur and the English dubbing of El Chavo del Ocho – , so does their influence on levels far exceeding entertainment.
The recipe of successful Latin American telenovelas follows several ingredients that transcend time, industry and more than ever international audiences.
The diverse socio-economic statuses of characters, every day ambients in extraordinary situations, symbolic icons of fashion and strength, and the championing of national identity keep the telenovela at a consistent top-of-the-industry spot in entertainment news coverage and revenue, but perhaps most importantly on a big-picture scale, cultural imitation and thus impact.
Indeed, the true magic of novelas is their ability to provide escapism to millions of viewers by entrenching plots in the very realities that viewers are at times ironically attempting to escape.
Series featuring life’s most desirable qualities – adventure, love, strength, beauty, entertaining social dynamics, status, satisfaction and comedy – are more than not surrounded by reality’s lesser desired counterparts – crime, corruption, poverty, psychological abuse, social inequality, fragmented familial dynamics, moral tribulations and job insecurity.
Yet as highlighted by the recent success of Narcos, audiences can’t get enough. And those who make money and positions of power over these audiences can’t either.
Therefore, how do telenovelas – idols of entertainment and popular culture – exist in the name of agendas they attempt to escape?
(Note: While Brazilian telenovelas play an influential role in the Latin American entertainment industry, due to time and length constraints, only Spanish-language novelas are covered in the following analysis).
How Telenovelas are Born
The show comes on television. Millions of eyes watch. Millions of ears listen. Millions of minds sway between judgment, pathos and at times emulation.
But who puts on the show? And most imperatively, why?
Novela concepts are optioned for television depending on numerous factors.
Marketability, budget, content and so forth are just some of the aspects reviewed prior to beginning production. Funding, stakeholders and advertising agreements also serve as three indispensable pillars to not only how, but why the following novelas transcended their statuses from concept to cult following.
Knowing the current alliances of a given production team and network are crucial to hypothesizing the influences behinds popular programs.
No secret that the entertainment industry and political and other influential third party institutions have made brilliant strategic alliances in the past.
This dynamic can be particularly observed in programs bound to be followed by millions of multi-purpose audiences, be it to promote certain products…or electoral results.
While some programs are quite public about certain agendas, more often than not, the most influential underlying messages are quiet and yet fundamental.
Mexican-American 2013 narco-novela La Reina del Sur portrays one woman’s rise to head a powerful cartel roughly based on real world institutions and tactics. Several years later, interest in the program achieved different heights when allegations began to emerge of star actress Kate del Castillo’s ties with real world counterpart Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, leader of the Sinaloa Cartel. Speculated ties included permitting the popular show’s coverage of sensitive topics, to funding the celebrity’s side business ventures and soliciting more personal supporting activities.
In Argentina’s 2013 romantic-musical-comedy Solamente Vos, toward the beginning of the series, the two star-crossed-lovers-to-be (portrayed by Natalia Oreiro and Adrian Suar) continuously reunite on account of electrical shortages in Buenos Aires. At the time, such power issues were blamed on insufficient facility and budgeting management by the incumbent Peronist government – local and national. 2013 was also the first year of preparation for the upcoming Presidential elections.
Peronist President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and Peronist Buenos Aires Governor Daniel Scioli were in office and overseeing such dilemmas at the time. American-Jewish-Argentine Solamente Vos actor Adrian Suar – also the show’s production company’s owner -, is a personal friend and business associate of opposition candidate and later President Mauricio Macri, who beat Scioli in the 2015 presidential elections’ second round by 2-6%.
More than a decade earlier, also Solamente Vos Uruguayan actress Natalia Oreiro starred in another hit novela, Argentina’s 1998 Muñeca Brava. Muñeca Brava was another “novela rosa “- poor girl meets rich guy – , but became a multinational sensation. Beyond the Americas, it particularly hit a chord in post-Cold War Eastern Europe and Russia, where to this day Oreiro continues to tour. The show has since aired in over 40 countries and is widely listed as one of the top 100 best Latin American novelas of all time.
While popular novela rosas are hardly unique, its particular coverage of championing the working class and repetitively criticizing the insularity and injustices of the Argentine ultra-elite came at a time of center-leftist political party Radical Civil Union’s return to the presidency, as well as associated with certain production bodies and celebrities synonymous with such politics on the national front.
While the cross-industry correlations of programs such as Solamente Vos and Muñeca Brava remain much less publicized than La Reina del Sur‘s ordeal, are they any less significant?
Subtly Is Key, Blood is Old and the World is Small
Other programs have adopted even more subtle, over arching mannerisms to avoid public speculation while keeping loyal to stakeholders – overt or covert.
Wildly popular – within and beyond Mexico – and what is widely considered to be timeless Latin American TV show, El Chavo del Ocho, featured adult actors portraying impoverished children in outwardly innocent, underlyingly telling circumstances beloved for its irony. Around its cult followed slap-stick comedy, it featured the consequences of failed social programs – including insufficient affordable housing, low quality educational facilities, veteran compensation benefits debate, high food prices, classism, consumerism, propagation of bullying, the struggles of single parent households and difficult job market. It also showcased socio-economic corruption during an era when – as with Solamente Vos – local elections were taking place and opposition was marketing itself as an alternative against the incumbent social program struggling ruling administrations.
Hypothesis of the widespread commercial legacy of El Chavo del Ocho have also been speculated due to different indicators, including the main cast photographed traveling to Colombia to entertain members of the Medellin Cartel at leader Pablo Escobar’s daughter’s birthday party. A similar deal was also allegedly made for Cali Cartel leader Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela (aka “El Ajedrecista”).
Ironically, Rodriguez Orejuela was believed to have contracted also Mexican singer Juan Gabriel for his 50th birthday several years later. The Cali Cartel and its Mexican narco-alliances have been rumored to have financially and security-wise supported both entertainment moguls, and Juan Gabriel’s musical successes have long been rumored as aided by the Juarez and later Sinaloa Cartels.
Narco origins – however of the more oppositional stand point – apply to Colombia’s 2009 Pablo Escobar: El Patron del Mal (the local predecessor of Netflix’s bilingual Narcos), featuring the world famous drug lord’s rise and fall through violent feats. The program’s general producer was Juana Uribe, niece of Medellin Cartel assassinated opposition presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galan. The show was assisted by Camilo Cano, son of also Medellin Cartel assassinated ex-Director of opposition newspaper El Espectador.
Uribe and Cano teamed up with production allies who had pushed other narco-novelas to stardom. Thus, they joined an already established marketing platform with a forum of political agenda upheld by what became the country’s most expensive and one of the most internationally popular Colombian productions of recent times.
Reality Better (or more lucrative?) than Fiction
Another way political and other powerful third party institutions have the ability to gain and implement influence through telenovelas is marketability of the familiar and emphasis of broad issues that can or cannot be directly implicated with promoted agendas.
In Argentine 2003 Resistiré (and later 2006 US adaption Watch Over Me), the protagonists are classically enveloped in a complex battle for true love. However, they ultimately discover that the surrounding problems exceed romance when the antagonist is revealed to be a multinational mafia don and organ trafficker. The lead female protagonist also discovers that her father is aiding the antagonist as a means to ensure her safety as the antagonist’s official girlfriend and uphold funding of his scientific endeavors.
Resistiré’s darker tone – including it’s hard rock theme song, dramatic cinematography and edgy short hairstyle / independent mannerisms adopted by actress Celeste Cid, all characteristics notably atypical for a general telenovela – became a hit for its timeliness. It was aired during the end of the crippling 1998-2002 Argentine economic crisis and the beginning of the South American commodity boom, where criminal and legitimate organizations alike continued to be accustom to making morally troubling decisions in order to survive.
Meanwhile, the then Peronist President Nestor Kirchner’s new government was championing many anti-trafficking, scientific innovation and gender equality related initiatives. Protagonist actor Pablo Echarri was a known hardcore Peronist at the time, and a Peronist criticized by incumbent right-wing President Mauricio Macri’s administration today.
Similar stories can be said for Colombia’s 2006 Sin Senos / Tetas No Hay Paraíso (and later Mexico’s 2008 remake) – the tale of a teenager who attempts to breach poverty at the cost of selling her body and dignity – , and wildly successful 1999 Yo Soy Betty, La Fea – the tale of a physically ugly, psychologically amiable young woman seeking professional and personal fulfillment. The beauty industry coupled with demanding traditional cultural aspects made both shows also among the top 100 most popular Latin American productions in history, airing in approximately 180 countries and 25 languages.
Mexico’s more recent Tres Veces Ana (2013) / a remake of Lazos del Amor (1995) – covering the story of triplets forced into polar life circumstances and personalities – also serve as expose to the consequences of extreme clasicismo and socio-economic segregation of the same body, literally.
In Argentina’s 2003 (and later Mexico’s 2013 remake) Durmiendo Con Mi Jefe, a suddenly bankrupt business mogul must board with his lower-middle class employee. Utilizing the humor genre, the commercially successful show challenged the dynamics of traditional deep socio-economic barriers in daily life, Spanish and Italian cultural-ethnic stigma in Argentina, and starred centrist Deputy Luis Brandoni in one of the lead roles. Durmiendo Con Mi Jefe also took place directly after economic crisis in both countries.
Meanwhile, Mexico’s 2013 Hotel Todo Incluido also satirizes cross-class (and sexual orientation) interactions via the lives of a fictional luxury hotel staff. Colombian-Mexican comedian, TV host and actor Adrian Uribe portrays multiple characters of different levels, light-heartedly emphasizing fundamental similarities of imperfection in outwardly polar individuals.
Mexican-American on-going 2008 La Rosa del Guadalupe openly promotes Catholicism on multiple allegedly non-partisan TV stations. It criticizes through religious messages real-life state issues, including incarceration of minors, insufficient cracking down on narcotrafficking, public insecurity, limited medical infrastructure, student debt, etc…
Falling Stars = Rising Stars
The concept of reality better than fiction also stretches into covering real-life individuals of fame, such as Narcos and El Patron del Mal‘s coverage of a fictional Pablo Escobar. More recently, covering other types of late celebrities has become an increasing trend.
In 2016 alone, prolific Mexican singers Joan Sebastian and Juan Gabriel landed prime time novela-styled shows. Dying from stomach cancer last year, the high publicity trend lived long enough to usher in a show about Joan Sebastian’s career and demise, Por Siempre Joan Sebastian into critical acclaim, especially when starring the celebrity’s real-life son as his father.
Juan Gabriel’s show about his rise to fame – Hasta Que Te Conocí – was Executive Directed by the entertainer himself. The first season’s finale aired the same day of the celebrity’s real-life death of what is being publically claimed to have been a heart attack, although his remains were incinerated prior to extensive examination. After the highly publicized death, Disney Latinoamerica signed for a second season.
The singer’s character is portrayed by Colombian actor Julian Roman, beating Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal to the role. Like Garcia Bernal (Diarios de Motocycleta; Amores Perros; No; Mozart in the Jungle), Roman has interpreted numerous other high profile – more openly controversial than Juan Gabriel – names in film and TV. This list includes Colombian paramilitary leader Carlos Castaño aka “El Comandante” in the 2013 narco-novela Tres Caines. Roman claims to have had his life threatened for portraying the role. He is also set to play another character named “Carlos” and aka “El Comandante” in the upcoming El Comandante – a show about Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s death. There has been speculation that Roman was to portray Chavista-ally Diosdado Cabello, whose political opposition alleges is also a narco-trafficker. Roman denied this claim via Twitter, asserting that any portrayal is purely “fictitious”.
Sin Alianzas no hay Paraíso
The Latin American telenovela industry and political and other third party institutions have made brilliant strategic alliances in the past, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
Whether the stake-holding agendas that influence beloved shows’ plots and are coveted by audiences is necessarily “good” or “bad” is telling of one’s role in the industry – active, passive or neutral.
Business 101 stipulates that successful projects need successful partners.
Where symbiotic harmony can be achieved, and the mutual fruit procured and not only sold, but embraced by millions of followers as an iconic cultural influence, is the fabric of a hit telenovela.