Telenovela, (television novel) is a short run television serial popular in Latin America, Spain, and Portugal. Often called “Spanish soap operas” due to similarities in over dramatic storylines and terrible acting, true aficionados refer to them simply as novelas. Unlike American soap operas, novelas have a limited run that typically last less than a year. And unlike the critically derided soap opera, novelas are prime time entertainment in Spanish speaking countries. The format has been adopted in Asia where they appear as dramas, and unsuccessfully adapted to American television audiences in the failed MyNetworkTv novelas.
Novelas are kitschy, tacky, over-acted, badly written, and incredibly formulaic. Almost every novela follows a basic premise- sweet, pure, and virginal poor girl from the wrong side of the tracks meets charming, handsome, rich guy whose family usually owns a plantation, a town, or a mega-corporation. His evil shrew of a mother and his equally evil shrewish girlfriend or girlfriend to be or ex-girlfriend try desperately to sabotage the romance. In the end the villainess either reforms, goes to jail, or gets killed (and sometimes all three) and the happy couple lives happily ever after. Side characters include cute wise cracking kid, priest with a secret, and sagely country matron usually played by this lady:
Carmen Salinas, bottomless well of advice and “mijas”
Novelas can come in different subgenres- the period novela, the beach resort novela (popular in the 80s and early 90s), the teen novela, and the kiddie novela. No matter what the genre, the basic plot remains the same.
Growing up novelas were always on. We didn’t gather round the TV and watch Full House; we watched Maria la Del Barrio. As I got older and gained more independence in my television selections, I shied away almost completely from novelas. I didn’t get back into them until I moved to El Salvador and my television selections were limited to old episodes of Judging Amy in Spanish and channels that ran old and new Mexican novelas 24/7. My choice was obvious.
My favorite subgenre of novela is the teen novela which typically features a cast of young adults dealing with the usual teen angst stuff, sex, drugs, school, money, self-identity, and an evil villainess who wants to destroy your life. Popular in the late 90s and early 2000s, the teen novela has seen a substantial decline. The most important of the era were Soñadoras (Dreamers) which aired in 1999 and Amigas y Rivales (Friends and Rivals) which aired in 2002 and featured some of the same cast. Amigas y Rivales was ground breaking TV, it was engaging and thought provoking and included modern issues like AIDS and illegal immigration. You can watch all of Amigas y Rivales on youtube
My favorite novela character however is Itatí Cantoral’s portrayal of insane hyper villain Soraya Montenegro de la Vega Montalban in 1995’s Maria la Del Barrio (Maria of the Neighborhood).
The novela starred musician and mega star, Thalia, as Maria. Maria la Del Barrio was remade in the Philippines in 2011. When I recently re-watched the series and some of Soraya’s more epic scenes, I was totally rooting for her. Maria was super annoying I’d probably pull a Soraya too.These are two of Soraya’s most memorable and unintentionally hilarious scenes: No Me Amenaces (Don’t Threaten Me, subtitled in English)
and Maldita Lisiada (No subtitles necessary honestly)
It is recommended that you watch every episode of a novela. However missing one usually isn’t a problem since most episodes are pointless fillers and recaps are always available prior to the start of an episode. It’s also recommended that you know Spanish or find some English subtitles if you can’t keep up. But sometimes you can feel the raw bottled emotion through eyebrow acting, dramatic close ups, and intense soundtracks. Antics can be enough to sustain you for an hour even if you don’t speak a lick of Spanish, but remember you are watching an art form that is sacred to ti@s, and abuelit@s around the world. So value and appreciate that for many this is sophisticated television at its best.