TELENOVELA WATCH: PABLO ESCOBAR, ROSA DIAMANTE Premiered; Plus, UNA MAID EN MANHATTAN, UN REFUGIO PARA EL AMOR & POR ELLA SOY EVA

ROSA DIAMANTE and PABLO ESCOBAR: EL PATRÓN DEL MAL premiered this week on Telemundo, two productions that could not be farther apart on the telenovela spectrum: the former, an assortment of fairly traditional telenovela story elements such as an abandoned newborn, wicked matriarch, corporate power struggle, and deep family secrets; and the latter, a big-budget docudrama about the rise and fall of a notorious cocaine trafficker.  About the only thing the two shows have in common is they both offer a welcome respite from Telemundo’s Miami studio productions which have dominated the network’s schedule this year, with ROSA filmed entirely in Mexico and PABLO mostly filmed in Colombia.

PABLO ESCOBAR: EL PATRÓN DEL MAL (weeknights at 10 p.m. ET on Telemundo) is obviously intended as a prestige production from Colombian television network Caracol.  The sheer scale of the production distinguishes it from every other series Telemundo has aired; ESCOBAR features cinematic production values, seemingly shot entirely on real locations with throngs of extras to inhabit the Medellín slums, ranches, mansions, prisons, and country clubs.

The series opens in 1993 with Escobar, on the run from the law, frantically pacing the room he’s holed up in, a title card saying these are his final moments.  During this scene, there is a montage and references to some of his most notorious atrocities, like a macabre medley of his greatest hits before the story flashes back to his childhood.

Pablo as a young boy (Hernán Mauricio Ocampo) exhibits traits that will be consistent to the character throughout – bullheaded courage and resolve, an ability to gab his way out of tough situations, and willingness to take audacious risks to get what he wants.  In a rather flimsy bit of pop psychology, the show suggests his mother is responsible for instilling in him the underpinnings of his psychopathic ruthlessness and criminal nature.  When little Pablo is caught cheating on an exam in school, his mother is more angry at the fact he got caught than the cheating.  In another scene, she speaks adoringly about Pablo’s grandfather and the way he smuggled alcohol into the town in a coffin, telling Pablo the world isn’t for fools, but for the clever.

The second half of the first episode depicts Pablo as a young man (now played by Mauricio Mejía) as he rises from petty crimes to become a right-hand man to the head of a major smuggling operation.  From the second episode forward, Pablo is played by Andrés Parra, the action moving quickly as Pablo sets out on his own with his family to get into cocaine trafficking, his trips to prison, murders of cops, and eventually making use of contacts to sell his product in the US and hit it big.

There is a concern that a production such as this will glamourize its subject, but thus far, it seems the creators have worked diligently to avoid this from happening.  It is telling that the first murder the show depicts Pablo setting up is of a harmless old man, a neighborhood shopkeeper who knew Pablo since he was a kid, but had the misfortune to witness Pablo holding up a bank and turned him in.  While Pablo dominates screen time, enough attention is paid to that shopkeeper; to a pair of police officers, shown to be competent and dedicated to justice, who manage to arrest Pablo and are ultimately murdered for doing their jobs well; and to a judge overseeing Pablo’s case, a single mother who is threatened and harassed; the portraits of these victims may be brief, but they are vivid and in their scenes, the actors in these parts manage to bring their characters to life, making the violence and threats perpetrated against them meaningful.

This refusal to risk romanticizing the subject, while commendable, unfortunately, also casts a certain coldness and monotony over the production as a whole.  Scenes unfold in a no-frills, almost clinical manner and the desultory structure through the first five episodes, hopping from event to event with little payoff or reflection, with I believe every episode so far featuring at least one jump forward to “sometime later,” almost gives the impression that the writers were following a checklist of the major events in Pablo’s life, giving the production the feel of a rudimentary CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED comic, the bullet points only version of events rather than delving deeper beneath the surface.  The outstanding performances of the cast, the high technical quality of the cinematography and direction, the vast canvas upon which the story is being told, and the fascinating true crime subject at the center of it all certainly makes PABLO ESCOBAR compelling viewing, but through the first five episodes, for me, the pleasures are largely on the surface level and surprisingly shallow; hopefully that will change as the show proceeds.

It is difficult to make any kind of meaningful assessment of ROSA DIAMANTE (weeknights at 8:30 p.m. ET on Telemundo) based on the limited sampling of the first week.  Telemundo’s decision to air the telenovela in half-hour installments until UNA MAID EN MANHATTAN finishes its run means we only got two complete episodes this week.

I found the premiere episode, spanning two nights, refreshingly straightforward and relaxed in comparison to the premieres of Telemundo’s last two productions, CORAZÓN VALIENTE and RELACIONES PELIGROSAS, which, in their hyperactive efforts to wow the audience, largely came across as desperate and overblown.  ROSA’s premiere did feature a ton of plot, some of which I’m not sure I completely grasped or was even supposed to grasp at this point; no doubt the murkiness will be clarified in future episodes.

Rosa is abandoned as a baby at a prestigious boarding school for girls.  The principal of the school, Miss Margaret (Luciana Silveyra), is given a bagful of diamonds to take care of Rosa and to pay for her room, board and education at the school with a pink diamond to be given to her when she is eighteen.

Rosa (Carla Hernández) grows up best friends with Eva (Thali Gracía), also orphaned at the school after her parents die in a car accident.  Eva’s grandfather owns the largest lingerie company in the country.  In a coincidence, a scion of the family owning a rival lingerie company, José Ignacio (Mauricio Ochmann), a contemptible womanizer, attempts to seduce the two girls on separate occasions using the same corny pick-up lines and aggressive kiss.  Shrewd Rosa responds to the kiss with a slap, naïve Eva responds by falling in love, and despite Rosa’s efforts to convince her friend of José Ignacio’s deceitful nature, sleeps with him.

The action in the telenovela thus far is split between the boarding school located in San Miguel de Allende, and Mexico City, where Eva’s family, the Sotomayors, and José Ignacio’s family, the Altamiranos, reside.  The storylines introduced in the Mexico City parts of the telenovela haven’t interested me so far, with the exception of Lupita Ferrer as the matriarch of the Sotomayor family, who is feigning blindness for some reason not yet specified to the audience.

I’d rather wait a few weeks before I form any concrete opinions regarding the leading actress, Carla Hernández, though my initial impressions, not having seen her in anything before, are largely favorable; and Mauricio Ochmann is talented enough to make his Lothario character alternatingly charming and despicable.  But if anything is the star of the first week of ROSA DIAMANTE, it is the city of San Miguel de Allende; the location footage at the city is some of the finest in a Telemundo production in some time, a special highlight are the scenes in a café providing a vista overlooking the entire city.

UNA MAID EN MANHATTAN (weeknights 8 p.m. ET on Telemundo) is nearing its finale and while a few of the subplots seem resolved such as Victor and Yaya’s redemption and Tarek’s imprisonment, there was still a mad dash quality to this week leading to some awfully clumsy plotting.  It really is inexcusable, from a story standpoint, how Marisa ultimately got the evidence tying the two big villains, Sara and Estanislao, together: Sara’s mislaid cell phone is discovered by one of Marisa’s pals who then decided to answer a call that just happened to be from Estanislao.  You really want to see the heroine ensnare the villain through ingenuity, not dumb luck and coincidence.

Nevertheless, this week did treat the audience to one of the supreme pleasures telenovelas afford: the public exposing of a villain who is on the cusp of victory.  UNA MAID EN MANHATTAN relied on a wolf in sheep’s clothing plot for its villain Sara Montero (Vanessa Villela) with the audience and Marisa and her friends aware of her true wicked nature, but the male lead Cristóbal (Eugenio Siller) and his parents blind to it.  A wolf in sheep’s clothing plotline can be extremely frustrating for an audience, especially one maintained for months – this one has been sustained from the beginning of the novela.  This type of plot often makes those duped look extraordinary dim and requires the villain to operate with unbelievable luck to pull off nefarious scheme after nefarious scheme, month after month, without getting caught.  When the villain is at last revealed to those duped characters, the moment can seem cathartic to the audience, a release of the pent up frustration brought about by all the close calls, escapes and dopey plotting.

In a remarkably common set piece telenovelas and their American soap opera counterparts share, the revelation of Sara’s misdeeds occur at her wedding ceremony to Cristóbal, the comeuppance made all the grander for the closeness to which the villain was to attaining her goal, only for it all to come crashing down.  Vanessa Villela’s performance during this scene was wonderfully raw and desperate, like a cornered animal snapping away, all pretense dropped, a beauty transformed to beast.

On UN REFUGIO PARA EL AMOR (weeknights at 7 p.m. ET on Univision) the protagonists Rodrigo (Gabriel Soto) and Luciana (Zuria Vega) are headed into separation mode after the villainous plot cooked up by Rosaelena (Laura Flores), Gala (Jessica Coch) and Julie (Frances Ondiviela) revealing Luciana’s trumped-up sordid past succeeded in turning Rodrigo against her.  The expected furious accusations, misunderstandings, angst, tears and suffering followed.

I’m normally annoyed by this type of rupturing of the supposed true love of the protagonists by outside manipulation.  I usually find it terribly contrived when a set of characters hatch a plot and then the audience sees that plot unfurl, step by step, and the targets of the plot fall predictably right into the traps set for them.  That niggling aside, I think this turn in the plot mostly worked for me, due in large part to the performances by Soto and Vega, who did some of their finest work thus far in the novela, but also thanks to a key scene between Rodrigo and Luciana where it was made explicit that it isn’t Rodrigo calling the shots for the divorce, but Luciana.  It is ultimately not Rodrigo falling for the machinations of his mother and Gala that is ending the relationship, but his failure to protect Luciana from the attacks of her enemies.  In an amazingly heartbreaking scene, Luciana rebukes Rodrigo for saying nothing as she was being torn apart by their accusations, that in the worst moment of her life, the man she loved did nothing.

Another recent scene I loved involved a powwow amongst the villains Gala, Julie, Lastra and Don Aquiles to discuss their scheme against Luciana.  As Gala and Lastra badmouth Luciana, Don Aquiles gets angrier and angrier finally deciding to leave the conspirators.  He is called back and shown the damning photographs of Luciana in her devil costume at the Infierno Club, which he stoically rips up.  It was such a surprising little scene as the blustering, bullying ignoramus, for a brief moment, at least, exhibited a dash of rustic chivalry.

The Jaime Camil and Lucero comedy POR ELLA…SOY EVA premieres Monday, July 16th at 8 p.m. ET on Univision.  In a prime example of the ongoing back-and-forth that goes on between Univision and Telemundo, in an attempt to steal thunder from Telemundo’s premiere of ROSA DIAMANTE, Univision decided to broadcast a “special preview” of POR ELLA…SOY EVA opposite it.  It was amusing watching the flurry of twitter activity from the two networks directing viewers to their channels as the clock ticked closer and closer to 8:30.

What was not so amusing, unless my attention simply wandered and I missed it, is it looked like Univision cut a scene from UN REFUGIO PARA EL AMOR to make room for the POR ELLA promo.  It seemed a fairly minor plot point: Jana and Melissa, to guilt-trip Rodrigo, ordered Luciana’s wedding dress and had it delivered to his house.  The day-ahead promo featured footage of Rodrigo weeping into the dress, a scene I believe Univision cut from the episode.  Again, maybe not a major loss, but still annoying for the cavalier manner the excision was made and because characters, in other scenes, are making reference to a ploy the result of which the audience was not allowed to see play out.

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R.G. Morin writes a weekly column for We Love Soaps, "Telenovela Watch: A weekly look at the world of telenovelas for non-Spanish speakers." For feedback or questions, you can email R.G. Morin   at argeemorin@hotmail.com.

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