My grandmother would usually pick up my brother and I from school every afternoon. We were kids and in all probability annoying as hell but she pretty much gave us run of the house- baseball in the back yard, board games in the patio, action figures and toy cars…
We seldom got in to trouble but when we did she certainly reminded us who was in charge. All afternoon she even gave us control of the TV. But that ended as soon as evening came and it was time for the novelas. My aunt would stop by. Mom would be over to pick us up after a long day of work. But before we left they had a cup of coffee and maybe some pan dulce and stopped to see something that could not be found on American television.
For a nation that is relatively wasteful in so many ways, we are sure to squeeze every last bit of value out of out entertainment. Some stick, like the 20+ James Bond movies out there. Some, like the last couple of seasons of Friends, hang around perhaps a bit longer than their sell-by date. And still others run the gamut until they become a parody of their origin; shows like The Real World and its spin-offs, or The Bachelore(tte). This is not the case with the telenovelas (novelas for short) that one will find on Univision or Telemundo. Though there have been some attempts to adopt the model for American audiences it is extremely difficult for consumers and providers to walk away from a hit show.
Here is how novelas work: by definition they are on a limited run, usually lasting less than a year. That might seem like just any old mini-series you’ve seen anywhere but the content differentiates the genre from that of a typical min-series.
Novelas are always convoluted love stories with twists and turns in the plot. Generally you will see a couple kissing in the first few minutes of the program and something will happen to drive them apart. 120 episodes later they will be kissing again in the final scene.
So you won’t find epic wars fought as in Battlestar Galactica, nor will you find stories of brotherhood as in Band of Brothers. The content is completely relegated to the soap opera type of plots with steamy love scenes and tales of lust and revenge. Again, unlike a typical soap opera there is a designated end planned from the very beginning. They can be period pieces or take place in a contemporary setting but the one thing you can count on is that it will end. You may fall in love with the characters and demand more but that simply isn’t the way these work.
American studios have tried to emulate the model of the novela on various occasions but the results have been rather disastrous. A small television unit called MyNetworkTV tried to use the format but interest fell off quickly after their first season. That may be because audiences weren’t interested in investing their time in something they knew would be over in a matter of months, or it could be because the shows simply weren’t any good. It takes an act of God and a bolt of lightning for a show to have a successful run even if it has major star power and a great time slot. Anyone remember the Cosby Mysteries? Or that one show Michael Richards had after Seinfeld? Whatever the case, the American attempts could not copy the success of their Latino counterparts.
This isn’t to say that the genre has not had a profound influence on American television. While shows like 90210 and Melrose Place were essentially prime time soap operas with characters whose histories the audience followed no matter how outlandish the plot might be, prior to the early 90s I am hard pressed to think of many shows with a season long story arch. Sitcoms like Three’s Company or Cheers were essentially stand alone half hour shows that could be plugged into the season in any order. Occasionally there were two-parters or very special episodes that would have some lasting effect that might be referred to in a later episode.
But there wasn’t really a sense of the show being mapped out for the season with a specific goal that the audience is searching for. Moonlighting had the basic premise of a guy and a girl who should be together but were not… And audiences watched it in hopes that they would finally get together, not because they knew that’s what was supposed to happen at the end of season 2. Fast forward to the early 2000s to the appearance of Heroes, Desperate Housewives and 24. Both of these shows had a very specific story arch that would find a conclusion at the end of the season while setting up events for the season that followed. Audiences were captivated by the notion that their time spent in viewership would be rewarded with a conclusion to the story. Had any of these shows simply ended after their first season they would be regarded as culturally significant events that captivated a nation. Instead they are being milked for all they’re worth and have fallen into mediocrity, a step away from oblivion.
Ugly Betty was originally supposed to be ABC’s attempt at an American novela but they decided they would rather ride it out until it eventually got cancelled due to dwindling ratings. Twice.
Like soccer, I’m not entirely sure why novelas won’t catch on in America. I guess it’s the same reason we have a fourth Indiana Jones movie and those last three Star Wars abortions. If we can squeeze a few more bucks out of a character, we probably will line up to see it.