TELENOVELA WATCH: Best Telenovelas Of The Year

A rundown of my favorite telenovelas of 2012 with a qualifier - that aired in the US on a broadcast network:

(1) FLOR SALVAJE
(2) UN REFUGIO PARA EL AMOR
(3) AMOR BRAVÍO
(4) LA QUE NO PODÍA AMAR
(5) UNA MAID EN MANHATTAN
(6) A MANO LIMPIA
(7) ESCOBAR: EL PATRÓN DEL MAL
(8) EL SECRETARIO
(9) RELACIONES PELIGROSAS (first 30 episodes)

Performances I liked in telenovelas that played in the US in 2012:

Lead actor
Jorge Salinas, LA QUE NO PODÍA AMAR
Andrés Parra, ESCOBAR
Tony Dalton, FLOR SALVAJE
Gregorio Pernía, LAS DETECTIVAS Y EL VICTOR
Gabriel Soto, UN REFUGIO PARA EL AMOR
Jaime Camil, POR ELLA SOY EVA
Michel Brown, LA MARIPOSA
Juan Pablo Espinosa, EL SECRETARIO

Lead actress
Mónica Spear, FLOR SALVAJE and LA MUJER PERFECTA
María Adelaida Puerta, LA MARIPOSA
Silvia Navarro, AMOR BRAVÍO
Ana Brenda Contreras, LA QUE NO PODÍA AMAR
Zuria Vega, UN REFUGIO PARA EL AMOR
Lucero, POR ELLA SOY EVA
Litzy, UNA MAID EN MANHATTAN
Carla Hernández, ROSA DIAMANTE
Marimar Vega, AMOR CAUTIVO and EMPERATRIZ

Male villain
Gregorio Pernía, FLOR SALVAJE and OJO POR OJO
Gonzalo García Vivanco, RELACIONES PELIGROSAS
César Évora, AMOR BRAVÍO
Martín Karpan, EL SECRETARIO
Aarón Díaz, EL TALISMÁN

Female villain
Laura Flores, UN REFUGIO PARA EL AMOR
Susana González, LA QUE NO PODÍA AMAR
Jessica Coch, UN REFUGIO PARA EL AMOR
Leticia Calderón, AMOR BRAVÍO
Vanessa Villela, UNA MAID EN MANHATTAN
Aylín Mújica, CORAZÓN VALIENTE

Supporting actor
Flavio Medina, AMOR BRAVÍO
Tommy Vasquez, LA MARIPOSA and ESCOBAR
Christian Tappan, ESCOBAR
Roberto Blandón, UN REFUGIO PARA EL AMOR
Roberto Manrique, FLOR SALVAJE
David Ostrosky, UN REFUGIO PARA EL AMOR
Paulo Quevedo, UNA MAID EN MANHATTAN
Jorge Consejo, RELACIONES PELIGROSAS
Constantino Costas, ROSA DIAMANTE
Fabián Ríos, CORAZÓN VALIENTE

Supporting actress
Vicky Hernández, ESCOBAR
Katherine Vélez, EL CAPO 2
Carolina Gaitán, FLOR SALVAJE
Cristina Umaña, EL CAPO 2
Ana Layevska, RELACIONES PELIGROSAS
Norkys Batista, FLOR SALVAJE
Viviana Corrales, FLOR SALVAJE
Liz Gallardo, UNA MAID EN MANHATTAN
Ana Soler, OJO POR OJO
Ximena Duque, LA CASA DE AL LADO and CORAZÓN VALIENTE

Younger actor
Brandon Peniche, UN REFUGIO PARA EL AMOR
Jorge Eduardo García, UNA MAID EN MANHATTAN
Sebastián Vega, A MANO LIMPIA
Óscar Priego, RELACIONES PELIGROSAS

Younger actress
Julieth Restrepo, A MANO LIMPIA
Mariana Van Rankin, AMOR BRAVÍO
Ilean Almaguer, UN REFUGIO PARA EL AMOR
Zulma Rey, A MANO LIMPIA
Mariana Villalvazo, ROSA DIAMANTE

(1) FLOR SALVAJE (RTI/Telemundo) A beautiful and sad tale set in a small Colombian town corrupted by oil called Nueva Esperanza. A bedraggled homeless young woman named Amanda (Mónica Spear) marches into the 4P, a bar where women are paid to entertain the oil workers, first on stage, and then in bed, and brazenly demands an opportunity to work there, hoping to provide for her three younger sisters. She becomes the object of obsession of Don Rafael Urrieta (Tony Dalton), the cruel dissolute oil man who owns the town who agrees to provide for her sisters if she becomes his exclusive prostitute, her 4P stage name, Flor Salvaje. So begins this haunting, perverse telenovela brimming with depth and a complexity of characterization, employing the breadth and time the telenovela format enables to the utmost to take the characters and audience on an unforgettable journey. Thematically, FLOR SALVAJE sets up a series of dualities: innocence versus corruption, wilderness versus civilization, good versus evil – most applicable to protagonists Amanda and Don Rafael, but trickling down through secondary and tertiary characters, and even Nueva Esperanza itself.

Amanda’s first love, Pablo, is murdered by Rafael. In order to avenge his death, Amanda attempts to suppress the innocent side of her, to fully become Flor Salvaje, the hardened prostitute, and lure Rafael into a trap, but in attempting to destroy Rafael, she ends up saving him, changing him, making him a better man through his love for her, and ultimately, she falls in love with this newly ennobled demon. It’s a Gordian knot of twisted character motivations, internal conflicts and contradictions, little of it verbalized, but played on the face, and Spear does marvels - following her performances in a trio of Venezuelan novelas beginning with the lovely MI PRIMA CIELA and culminating with her impressive turn LA MUJER PERFECTA as a young woman with Asperger syndrome, Spear has to be considered amongst the finest telenovela actresses of her generation.

A good telenovela develops character arcs for its principal protagonists, a great one like FLOR SALVAJE manages to take dozens of secondary and tertiary characters on individual arcs as well, strong subplots that both stood out on their own and interweaved convincingly with the central story, the themes and variations reverberating throughout. Whole telenovelas could have been centered upon Carolina Gaitán’s Malicia, the most polished stage performer at the 4P, a woman with stars in her eyes and talent, falling in love with a fellow artistic soul, a painter from a rich family played by Alex Gil, only to lose him due to a catastrophic blunder on her part which sends her spiraling into addiction – the woman so confident and alive on stage, diminished by drugs to a fragile shell, devastatingly vulnerable, like an exposed nerve; or Viviana Corrales as Rocío, a young woman whose brother, played by Gregorio Pernía in a brilliant villain turn, roguishly charming in public, harrowingly violent in private, harbors an incestuous fixation on her and kills her first love, and so to punish herself for not dying with her love and to punish her brother, who can’t stand to see her with another man, becomes a prostitute, giving herself to all men; or Norkys Batista, the best she’s ever been, as Zahra, the ex-prostitute who manages the 4P and acts as mother hen to the girls and sees Flor receiving the affection from Rafael she always yearned to receive.

The writing from Perla Farías consistently aimed for the complex, the morally ambiguous, good people make mistakes, bad people can do good, actions are motivated and have consequences, and most gratifying of all, her characters are always ultimately allotted some measure of dignity, good or evil, right or wrong, their depiction adheres to a deeply humanistic sensibility.

(2) UN REFUGIO PARA EL AMOR (Televisa, aired on Univision) I liken this telenovela’s excellence to mastery within a strict form, like a great sonnet; UN REFUGIO PARA EL AMOR is a traditional Mexican novela traditionally told, but with a consummate proficiency that elevates the familiar to the extraordinary. The story, first made in 1977 with a couple other major adaptations since, is basically a Cinderella variation, a poor young woman (Zuria Vega) leaves her small town for the big city, becomes a maid in a rich household, catches the eye of the oldest son (Gabriel Soto) to the torment of his mother (Laura Flores) – standard telenovela tropes, but here, exquisitely rendered, with every plot revelation and climax seemingly played as to provide the greatest emotional payoff. The writing was excellent giving the full ensemble – the cast, top to bottom, was second only to FLOR SALVAJE in distinction – strong material to play, starting with the principal protagonists, Zuria Vega and Gabriel Soto, each as good as they’ve ever been; and trickling down through the supporting players including a sensitive, moving breakout performance from Brandon Peniche, expert shrewishness from Jessica Coch, an appealing juvenile couple in Ilean Almaguer and Erik Díaz, and a host of excellent veterans like Roberto Blandón, David Ostrosky, Humberto Elizondo, Harry Geithner, Luz María Jerez, Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez and Maricruz Nájera. Largely driving the plot was Laura Flores as the best villain of the year, outwardly a dignified Junoesque matriarch, but harboring dark secrets of past crimes, obsessively attempting to control her children while adopting ever more hyper religiosity, eventually casting herself as a warped martyr, a play at redemptive suffering and false atonement.

(3) AMOR BRAVÍO (Televisa, currently airing at 10 p.m. ET on Univision) The US airing of this novela is only near the halfway point, but even if the production falls apart from here on, that would not negate the enjoyable ride thus far. The Byzantine plots and counterplots for ownership of a ranch called La Malquerida enacted by a refreshingly proactive group of protagonists against a host of antagonists who, to add to the fun, alternately collaborate and backstab each other. The goodies (Silvia Navarro, Cristián de la Fuente, Fernanda Castillo, Alex Sirvent, Alan Estrada) have a convivial, loosey-goosey chemistry amongst themselves that is enormously appealing; and the baddies are a formidable love-to-hate group headed by veterans César Évora in prime Mephistophelean mode and Leticia Calderón as a bleached viper and deadliest of the bunch; with Laura Carmine as the heroine’s amusingly materialistic bad egg sister; and my favorite, Flavio Medina in a wired performance, a mass of psychological hang-ups stemming from his relationship with his domineering mother, Medina manages to be first repulsive, then piteous – there’s a Gollum quality to him. To appropriate something James Agee once wrote describing Mel Tormé – he reminds me of something in a jar.

(4) LA QUE NO PODÍA AMOR (Televisa, aired on Univision) Another traditional Mexican telenovela from a story told a few times previously, this new version wound up a Beauty and the Beast variation about transformative, redemptive love. At the center is a soulful performance from Jorge Salinas – the best of the year – as Rogelio Montero, the cruel, embittered owner of a hacienda, confined to a wheelchair after an accident, cracking his riding crop at the world. Winsome Ana Brenda Contreras played the woman who would change his life – her radiant performance elevating her to the upper firmament of actresses in Mexican novelas. The third standout of this telenovela was Susana González as the principal antagonist, Rogelio’s sister Cynthia, who had a sort of frazzled desperation, alternately infuriating and sad, an embodiment of consuming solipsism.

(5) UNA MAID EN MANHATTAN (Telemundo) The Cinderella myth so prevalent in telenovelas is subsumed with the American Dream in this story of a Mexican immigrant (superb Litzy) and her young son (Jorge Eduardo García) setting out for themselves in the Big Apple. The handsome prince charming is a senatorial candidate (Eugenio Siller) from a prominent family; but the “marry rich” Cinderella theme is deferred as the heroine improves her station first through hard work and initiative. She can’t make it on her own, though, it ultimately takes a village, and the warmth in the relationships between her co-workers and friends (Liz Gallardo, Maite Embil, Jeimy Osorio, Henry Zakka, Marisela González) is what made the show so appealing night after night. Also of note were Paulo Quevedo as the heroine’s alcoholic ex struggling to right his life, villana Vanessa Villela with her expert bitch-faced glowers, and Karina Mora, sexy and funny in a comedy bimbo role.

(6) A MANO LIMPIA (RCN, currently airing weekdays at 4 p.m. ET on MundoFox) I’m not typically a fan of telenovelas focusing on teenagers, nor do I care for boxing – so I’m surprised how much I’ve enjoyed this Colombian telenovela largely centered on those two very elements. A psychology student (Valentina Acosta) from a wealthy family and an ex-con street fighter (Claudio Cataño) attempt to improve life in the barrio where he lives by starting up a gym to act as a community center – the kids in the neighborhood can work out and learn to box, those not interested in boxing busy themselves with creative pursuits like dancing, writing songs, and painting. The episodic plot is structured as a series of moral quandaries confronting the young characters and there are times when the novela succumbs to after school special didacticism; but more often the telenovela is terribly moving in its portrayal of poverty and the ways the characters cope with it while dreaming of a better future. The canvas on which this story is limned is vast allowing for an elaborate and detailed depiction of the neighborhood and its people, which also means most all the members of the large cast are given their chances in the spotlight.

(7) ESCOBAR: EL PATRÓN DEL MAL (Caracol, in its final chapters weeknights at 10 p.m. ET on Telemundo) The life and times of the notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar is rendered with big production values and fantastic performances that more than compensate for the banality of the scripts, a shallow and monotonous, CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED comic book version of Pablo’s Greatest Hits. The show works best in its too few domestic scenes between Andrés Parra as Pablo, Cecilia Navia as his wife, and Vicky Hernández as Pablo’s mother, who steals every scene she’s in (though a baby elephant can be birthed in her pregnant pauses).

(8) EL SECRETARIO (Caracol, currently airing weekdays at 10:30 a.m. ET on Telemundo) Hidden away in a morning time slot, then reduced to half hour episodes, and unfortunately with no English friendly options, this Colombian comedy from Caracol deserved better. An office comedy that is slick and fun, with amiable and charming performances from the leads Juan Pablo Espinosa and Stephanie Cayo, camp from Martín Karpan and Fabián Mendoza, and steam from Andrea López.

(9) RELACIONES PELIGROSAS - first 30 episodes (Telemundo) The most frustrating telenovela of the year, RELACIONES PELIGROSAS was a fascinating failure, promising much, but ultimately delivering little. This novela about the relationships among high school students, their parents and teachers was hit and miss from the start - to explore “controversial” issues effectively probably requires a greater verisimilitude than Telemundo Miami is capable of mustering. Initially there was at least an honest attempt to create something new by the network and push the envelope, looking at “youth issues” like drugs, racist and homophobic bullying, child abuse and anorexia nervosa. The novela shifted into something far more conventional in the final two-thirds of its run, eventually deteriorating into typical Telemundo bunkum, though the shifting amorality played by Gonzalo García Vivanco as the principal antagonist, the indefatigable comic inventiveness of Ana Layevska, and the amusing dickish smarminess played by Jorge Consejo kept RELACIONES reasonably entertaining to the end.

(I) LA MARIPOSA (Fox Telecolombia/RCN, currently airing weeknights at 9 p.m. ET on MundoFox) As only fifteen episodes of this series have aired in the US, I’ve given it an “I” for “Incomplete;” but on the merit of those fifteen episodes, LA MARIPOSA is the best show MundoFox has aired in the network’s brief existence: a stylish and exciting caper about an undercover American agent (Michel Brown) infiltrating a complex Colombian criminal cartel and falling in love with the enigmatic, seductive money launderer (María Adelaida Puerta) at the center of the operation. It’s largely escapist fare with a fast moving plot, suspenseful twists, palpable sizzle between Brown and Puerta, and strong supporting performances from Tommy Vasquez, Ana Wills, Salvador Zerboni and Enersto Benjumea.

WORST TELENOVELAS OF YEAR
It was a pretty good year for Televisa - their worst telenovela, DOS HOGARES, was like THE CHERRY ORCHARD compared to the following trio, the worst telenovelas to air in the US this year, in no order: EL TALISMÁN (Univision/Venevision), CORAZÓN VALIENTE (Telemundo), and EL ROSTRO DE LA VENGANZA (Telemundo). Even that sorry trio afforded some marginal enjoyments to be gleaned: EL TALISMÁN featured a smoldering ham performance from Aarón Díaz – all ginormous belt buckles, cheap booze and hilariously inappropriate chemistry with his onscreen sister; Fabián Ríos and Ximena Duque had a fun, joshing romantic chemistry that helped make CORAZÓN VALIENTE tolerable until the sheer stupidity and repetitiveness of the proceedings (whose turn is it to be taken hostage tonight?) became too much to bear; and EL ROSTRO DE LA VENGANZA provided its viewers an all-natural nightly remedy for insomnia.

RELATED:
- TELENOVELA WATCH: AMORES VERDADEROS, UN REFUGIO PARA EL AMOR, AMOR BRAVÍO, ROSA DIAMANTE (November 17, 2012)
- TELENOVELA WATCH: UN REFUGIO PARA EL AMOR Finale Airing November 30; Plus, AMORES VERDADEROS, ROSA DIAMANTE & CORREO DE INOCENTES (November 24, 2012)
- TELENOVELA WATCH: UN REFUGIO PARA EL AMOR's Final Week; EL CAPO 2 Finale; AMOR BRAVÍO; ROSA DIAMANTE; Premieres: CORONA DE LÁGRIMAS, LA MARIPOSA (December 1, 2012)
- TELENOVELA WATCH: First Thoughts On CORONA DE LÁGRIMAS & LA MARIPOSA (December 8, 2012)
- TELENOVELA WATCH: Strong Start For LA MARIPOSA; LOS REY Loosely Inspired On DALLAS (December 15, 2012)

R.G. Morin writes a regular 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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