It’s becoming clearer and clearer that US run television stations are not interested in even trying to keep daytime dramas alive. Prime time is full of soap opera-y shows but if I may say so, many of them are… what’s the word… appallingly bad. Which means that the one place left for us to turn is the delicious world of telenovelas. Fortunately, it is an extremely delicious world. As I once explained to a friend–Latin cheese is spicier. And doesn’t mess around with any of that low-fat crap.
But even though the word “telenovela” is generally translated “soap opera” they aren’t exactly the same. If you’re going to dive into this strange new world there are some things you should know. Don’t worry, It’s My TV, It’s My Peanut Butter is here to help.
Before we go further let me admit upfront some of this information is dated. I live in a horrible, horrible place where the only Spanish language channel you can get without paying exorbitant extra monthly fees is Gol TV. So I haven’t been able to watch telenovelas in several years. Fortunately Telemundo is apparently looking at increasing their online offerings, so there may be hope for me.
“But wait, Kristy!” you say, “Grande problemo! I don’t speak Spanish!” First of all, it’s “problema.” Second of all, you should learn Spanish. If for no other reason than being able to act superior and say, “You know, Shakira’s Spanish language stuff was soooo much better.” Third of all, no hay problema. You don’t really need to know Spanish. You can figure out the gist of things without it. And you can still enjoy the hot shirtless men. Did I mention the hot shirtless men? Why are you not watching these already? But to help you out, here are a few key Spanish words and phrases that they might not have taught you in high school Spanish, but which are important for understanding telenovelas:
“engañar” “to deceive” In telenovelas a lot of people get engañado. It’s usually key to the plot. This word may often be used as a euphemism for “cheated on.”
“cualquiera” One of my favorites though it sadly seems to be falling out of favor. Literally it means “whatever” but in this form it’s usually used to refer to a woman. A woman who is something so low you don’t even want to say it. Because the word probably wouldn’t get past the censors. Example: Me engañaste con esa… cualquiera! (You deceived me with that… whatever!)
“amante” “Lover” Don’t think I need to explain why this one is important.
“La SIDA” “AIDS” Back in 2000 every Peruvian telenovela I saw had at least one character who contracted AIDS. That plotline seems to have fallen by the wayside, probably because it interferes too much with the sexypants times.
“de época” This is a term used to describe a certain variety of novelas that take place in a different historical era. They are their own brand of scrumptious.
“mujer decente” A woman of upstanding moral character. Often our heroine is una mujer decente, but this is less of an absolute than it once was.
“Un trago fácil” Literally “an easy drink.” Here it means metaphorically the opposite of “Una mujer decente.”
“casa chica” The place where a man keeps his mistress and her kids. Keep in mind that last time I checked a man in Mexico could put his mistress and her kids on his health insurance policy. Casa chicas are an institution.
Okay… other things you need to know.
1. Telenovelas tell one story. One horribly convoluted story, but like a novel, they have a beginning, middle and an end. They are by design finite and rarely last more than a year.
2. Because telenovelas tell only one story, sometimes it’s expedient to skip ahead twenty years. They do not recast the adult characters with older versions, so don’t question why said characters have aged remarkably well. Usually shows are kind enough to give you some visual cue that the characters have aged: men may grow or lose facial hair, women may straighten their hair or start wearing it up.
3. Sometimes one character in the middle of a large family will be obviously Eastern European. No, this is not a sign that she (it’s usually a she) is the child of a Russian milkman. You are simply meant to accept this. I’m quite certain this is somehow Trotsky’s fault.
4. The maid generally knows everything. For this reason the “nice” characters are usually smart enough to befriend said maids. The “bad” characters are usually dismissive of them. Fools.
5. Do NOT over think the costuming in novelas de época. You’re supposed to be having fun not commenting that a certain style of petticoat didn’t become fashionable till twenty years later. The most amusing thing about the costuming is that characters only wear period style undergarments when that is all they’re wearing. So get used to seeing our heroine wearing some 19th century gown, clearly not wearing a corset, then suddenly wearing nothing but a corset.
6. Telenovela theme songs are frequently earworms. Sometimes they are better than the novela itself. (See: Vias del amor)
7. The same telenovelas are frequently remade between different countries. The first telenovela I really followed, Cuando seas mía was a Mexican remake of a Columbian telenovela Café con el olor de mujer. (Best title ever!)
8. It was not so long ago that the “good” girl on telenovelas did not have sex before marriage. That’s less and less the case, but it’s still considered “bad” for a girl to have premarital sex. Said rule doesn’t apply so much to the menfolk. But more and more we seem to be getting the “bad girl” heroines who start off skanky then become one man women.
9. You can wear a micro-mini skirt and still be a good girl. You can sometimes show cleavage without sacrificing your virtue. But if a woman wears shorts she is clearly a slut.
10. If you watch American soaps you’re familiar with the powerful, rich, patriarch stock character. The Asa Buchanans, the Palmer Courtlands, the Adam Chandlers (let’s have a moment of silence for them). These guys still exist in telenovelas, but they have a stock female counterpart. The power/money hungry matriarch. She usually has an emasculated husband. She is frequently evil.
11. All women want babies. If a woman does not want babies it is either because she is bad or because she is confused and doesn’t realize she desperately wants babies.
12. Mexican men always have sex with their secretaries. Clearly this statement is not entirely true, but keep that in mind when the woman constantly gives her husband’s secretary the stink eye.
13. American or English men are almost always somewhat effeminate. Live with it.
14. Telenovelas make more of an effort to appeal to men than American soaps. The downside of this is fewer women with an achievable, girl-next-door look. The upside is they still have plenty of super hot shirtless men.
15. Ranching in Mexico seems to consist of men riding around shirtless on horseback a lot. I would totally live on a ranch in Mexico if I lived in a telenovela.
16. Death is slightly more permanent in telenovelas than it is in soap operas or comic books, but only slightly. And keep in mind, even if the hot guy dies in the first episode, he can still come back as his ambiguously evil secret agent identical twin. When he does he will probably have a goatee so you know about his moral ambiguity.
17. In the end, things will almost always end up the way they should. Evil will be punished, good will be rewarded, and the girl will get the boy.