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TELENOVELA WATCH: Thoughts on SECRETOS DEL PARAISO on MundoFox; DAMA Y OBRERO and MARIDO EN ALQUILER on Telemundo; Favorites From PREMIOS TU MUNDO Nominees

SECRETOS DEL PARAÍSO
While it is a custom of this column to focus on English-friendly telenovelas, i.e., those available with English captions, I would be remiss if I did not mention SECRETOS DEL PARAÍSO (weeknights at 8 p.m. ET on MundoFox), I think the best telenovela airing right now in the US, perhaps the best of the year.

SECRETOS DEL PARAÍSO is a very serious, mature telenovela that creates a suffocating atmosphere of tension in its examination of a pair of damaged families, united by a marriage in the first week. The heavy use of flashbacks of the crimes committed by the protagonists’ parents gives an impression of the past forever intruding upon and shaping the present discord in the lives of their children. There is a marvelous sense of impending doom prevalent through the telenovela, of nooses tightening as the relationships between the characters get messier and messier.

The central conflict is played between Juan Pablo Espinosa as Cristóbal, the tortured black sheep son, a glint of danger in his eyes, and Patricia Tamayo as the spiteful, manipulative mother who loathed him all his life for reasons he’s never known. A tortured, reckless soul, Cristóbal is drawn to his brother’s new wife played by Natalia Durán, at the same time is carrying on an affair with her mother played Silvia De Dios, while also maintaining a relationship with his girlfriend played by Linda Baldrich. Yeah, things are going to get uglier before they get better for the guy. The fine cast also includes Iván López, Jorge Cao, Ernesto Benjumea, Carlos Torres, Carlos Hurtado, Alina Lozano, Marcela Gallego and Susana Rojas.

A pair of Telemundo telenovelas that began this summer: MARIDO EN ALQUILER and DAMA Y OBRERO, are both fairly amiable and watchable, with nothing particularly objectionable about them, but nothing particularly remarkable about them either. (The third, SANTA DIABLA, may be of a bit more interest, but I’d rather wait for its second week to conclude before writing about it.)

MARIDO EN ALQUILER
Telemundo’s MARIDO EN ALQUILER (weeknights at 9 p.m. ET) is the better of the two. A Miami-set adaptation of the Brazilian telenovela FINA ESTAMPA, MARIDO EN ALQUILER perhaps struggles at times to juggle the vast multitude of characters common in Brazilian telenovelas – the sense of the community as a whole is a bit haphazard, the larger structure of the piece goes fuzzy, but the scenes taken on their own, individually, tend to be crisp and strong. The novela doesn’t flow smoothly, but features intermittent pleasures.

Sonya Smith stars as Griselda, a vigorous woman who works as a handyman, raising three children on her own after the disappearance of her husband. Griselda is drawn to a kind, attractive and married chef, Reinaldo, played by Juan Soler. The community, poor and rich, spreads forth from these two central characters – encompassing their families, friends, and associates.

Sonya Smith is a good actress, so good she is able to make the character largely work despite, I think, being rather badly miscast. Where she excels is in the more traditional telenovela protagonist aspects of the character – the melodrama and the romance. Smith is very moving playing the sorrow caused by the betrayal of her son, who ashamed of his humble origins, hires an actress to portray the patrician mother he believes will impress his girlfriend and her family. Smith’s loose, seemingly effortless chemistry with Juan Soler makes the couple easy to root for despite the adultery it would entail. (The sympathy for the pair is manipulatively assisted by making his wife a crude, cartoonish and apparently murderous shrew.)

Where the portrayal goes false is in the salt-of-the-earth, common woman mannerisms and vocalizations. Smith naturally conveys such an abundance of elegance, she only manages to half suppress it in this role. The result is the vulgarity and feistiness of Griselda seems largely affected – she’s a woman playing coarse rather than a coarse woman. The exuberant bonhomie she shows after a job well done unfortunately often ends with Smith standing arms akimbo conjuring childhood nightmares of Mary Martin as Peter Pan.

The production perhaps could have gone further is concealing Smith’s beauty. Despite the lack of makeup, manly overalls and pinning and hiding her hair under a cap, there isn’t the least sense of androgyny to Smith’s Griselda. A good scene where Griselda’s ingrate son tells her if she just put in some effort she could be an attractive woman is undermined because Smith’s stunning beauty is too readily apparent in every close up. The themes of the telenovela become warped as a consequence and the relationship between Griselda and Reinaldo is depreciated. No longer does his attraction for Griselda seem aroused by her inner beauty alone – her courage, dignity, honesty – but by her physical beauty as well.

The performances from the large ensemble vary enormously in quality. Some of the broader performances are borderline unwatchable. To focus on the positive, fine work is being done by Sandra Destenave, Paulo Quevedo, José Guillermo Cortines, Maite Embil, and Dad Dager. Gabriel Coronel as the ingrate son has a natural smarminess that undermined his performance in RELACIONES PELIGROSAS where he was meant to be sympathetic, but is put to excellent use here.

DAMA Y OBRERO
After decent, if by-the-numbers opening weeks, DAMA Y OBRERO (weeknights at 8 p.m. ET on Telemundo) seems to have run aground. It got off to a respectable, ho-hum start, introducing fairly clichéd rich/poor protagonists, a pair of antagonistic rivals for the affections of the protagonists, a wicked mother and her goody adversary, the juvenile couple, and secret paternities.

There seems to be a lethargy to the whole enterprise as the action trudges dutifully from plot point to plot point. Unfortunately, the basic situations began feeling repetitive in the first three weeks and have continued since. How often can we see the abusive fiancé of the heroine belligerently bellowing at her or the hero? (With no scenes of happiness or tenderness between the heroine and that fiancé, we can’t understand why she goes through with the wedding in the first place – it makes her seem awfully dense.) Another cliché endlessly overworked: a pair caught in near compromising position by the entrance of a third character; they use that one seemingly in every episode.

The single potentially different, and therefore, intriguing aspect of the opening episodes – the fiancée of the hero being paralyzed in an accident where he was driving, is quickly discarded when it is revealed to the audience that she can in fact walk, reducing a perhaps interesting spoiler character to the central pairing to the level of mere schemer.

DAMA Y OBRERO went off the rails a few weeks ago with a ludicrous impostor storyline seemingly employed to facilitate a recast of a key role. The novela hasn’t seemed to find its legs since. More than a half dozen new characters have been introduced recently in mostly isolated scenes apart from the central characters which makes it hard to care about them. That a pair of the new characters are strippers and a third wears a bikini while washing cars makes it even more difficult to care about them – they just seem to be window-dressing. Thankfully, among the changes Telemundo seems to have ditched the atrocious Roberto Tapia theme song.

Ana Layevska and José Luis Reséndez as the protagonists are a pleasant enough pair with decent chemistry, but they seem strangely removed from the thrust of the action. I always get a kick watching Layevska perform – there is a sense of joy in her acting that is infectious. Sadly, the inventiveness of her villainous and supporting roles at Telemundo is hemmed in here by the banality a prototypical protagonist – the character is a sweet thing, but dumb as a doorknob. Reséndez, thankfully, scales down the annoying Everyman ebullience after the first episode. Fabián Ríos, after being the best thing in CORAZÓN VALIENTE where he displayed a nice, wry comedic touch, is back playing a villain. I haven’t cared for any of his Telemundo villains before and his performance here isn’t changing my opinion – all shark-like sneers and grinding his words with his teeth. Sofía Lama has a very harsh, almost strident vocal quality when playing fury, which her character does a bunch, accompanied by an odd staccato delivery. Felicia Mercado and Tina Romero are paired off as character types we’ve seen them play endlessly before – the bad mother and Jiminy Cricket-ishly wise good mother figure – but the darker hair on Mercado is attractive. Oscar Priego, one of the better of the young actors on RELACIONES PELIGROSAS, is good here as well.

PREMIOS TU MUNDO
The second edition of Telemundo’s award show, the PREMIOS TU MUNDO, airs tonight starting with a red carpet show at 8 p.m. ET. The actual award show begins at 9 p.m. ET and will be hosted by Gaby Espino and Aarón Díaz, the stars of the network’s current telenovela SANTA DIABLA.

The first edition showed the hazards of fan voting as the best novela Telemundo ever produced, LA REINA DEL SUR, was shut out. The nomination process this year, while still heavily flawed and rife with omissions that reek of network politics, was nevertheless a bit broader, even including a non-Telemundo production in the mix.

The Finalists in the novela categories are listed below followed by my personal favorites. I’ve included some write-in favorites where I saw fit.

TELENOVELA OF THE YEAR
ESCOBAR: EL PATRÓN DEL MAL
PASIÓN PROHIBIDA
LA PATRONA
EL SEÑOR DE LOS CIELOS

My head says ESCOBAR is the best, but my heart is with PASIÓN PROHIBIDA. Each has serious flaws. ESCOBAR often requires its non-Colombian audience to do outside reading and research to try and grasp the intricacies of the who, what and why of some of the events occurring on screen. PASIÓN PROHIBIDA never really manages to shed its late 1890s romantic fiction origin, which becomes more problematic in the second half, particularly as to how the character Nina functions in the plot. But it is also that novelistic (meaning literary) approach to characters that seems to separate PASIÓN PROHIBIDA from the psychologically shallow characterizations present in the network’s other telenovelas of the year. I think in the end, I would pick PASIÓN PROHIBIDA for the way it was able to build and sustain its suspense and emotion over its final weeks as its characters marched inexorably toward disaster. ESCOBAR is handicapped by history, the emotional climax – the assassination of Galán - occurs fairly early in the show’s run. The violent acts that follow become ever more monotonous, the audience becomes inured.

LEAD ACTOR
Andrés Parra (ESCOBAR: EL PATRÓN DEL MAL)
Jencarlos Canela (PASIÓN PROHIBIDA)
Jorge Luis Pila (LA PATRONA)
Rafael Amaya (EL SEÑOR DE LOS CIELOS)

Andrés Parra in ESCOBAR: EL PATRÓN DEL MAL

LEAD ACTRESS
Mónica Spear (PASIÓN PROHIBIDA)
Aracely Arámbula (LA PATRONA)
Carla Hernández (ROSA DIAMANTE)
Ximena Herrera (EL SEÑOR DE LOS CIELOS)

Mónica Spear in PASIÓN PROHIBIDA.

MALE VILLAIN
Henry Zakka (PASIÓN PROHIBIDA)
Christian de la Campa (LA PATRONA)
Tomás Goros (LA PATRONA)
Robinson Díaz (EL SEÑOR DE LOS CIELOS)

There was no more chilling presence or riper sense of evil on Telemundo than Anderson Ballesteros as Escobar’s chief assassin on ESCOBAR: EL PATRÓN DEL MAL.

FEMALE VILLAIN
Rebecca Jones (PASIÓN PROHIBIDA)
Christian Bach (LA PATRONA)
Fernanda Castillo (EL SEÑOR DE LOS CIELOS)
Sara Corrales (EL SEÑOR DE LOS CIELOS)

Rebecca Jones in PASIÓN PROHIBIDA.

I also want to mention Begoña Narváez in ROSA DIAMANTE - comedy is always undervalued by award givers, low comedy even more so, and no performer made me laugh more this year than Narváez.

SUPPORTING ACTOR
Diego Soldano (LA PATRONA
Gonzalo García Vivanco (LA PATRONA)
José Guillermo Cortines (EL ROSTRO DE LA VENGANZA)
Raúl Méndez (EL SEÑOR DE LOS CIELOS)

One area where Telemundo’s pre-nominations dropped the ball was in lack of nominations for the supporting actors from ESCOBAR: EL PATRÓN DEL MAL. I preferred the work of Christian Tappan, Nicolás Montero, Jimmy Vásquez, Alejandro Martínez, and Julio Pachón to any of the nominees.

SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Alexandra de la Mora (LA PATRONA)
Kimberly Dos Ramos (EL ROSTRO DE LA VENGANZA)
Cynthia Olavarría (EL ROSTRO DE LA VENGANZA)
Angélica Celaya (EL SEÑOR DE LOS CIELOS)

Again, none of my favorites were even pre-nominated in this category. Erika de la Rosa and Geraldine Zinat gave the only performances in LA PATRONA that I liked. Another bunch from ESCOBAR also deserve mention: Angie Cepeda, Diana Hoyos, Susana Torres, Liesel Potdevin and Luces Velásquez.

COUPLE
Aracely Arámbula & Jorge Luis Pila (LA PATRONA)
Christian Bach & Diego Soldano (LA PATRONA)
Maritza Rodríguez & David Chocarro (EL ROSTRO DE LA VENGANZA)
Rafael Amaya & Ximena Herrera (EL SEÑOR DE LOS CIELOS)

The most glaring omissions from the pre-nominations were Jencarlos Canela & Mónica Spear in the “Favorite Couple” category – so glaring that it threatens to discredit the entire enterprise.

PRIMER ACTOR
Roberto Vander (PASIÓN PROHIBIDA)
Henry Zakka (PASIÓN PROHIBIDA)
Javier Díaz Dueñas (LA PATRONA)
Saúl Lisazo (EL ROSTRO DE LA VENGANZA)

Roberto Vander in PASIÓN PROHIBIDA

PRIMERA ACTRIZ
Rebecca Jones (PASIÓN PROHIBIDA)
Christian Bach (LA PATRONA)
Surya Macgregor (LA PATRONA)
Lupita Ferrer (ROSA DIAMANTE)

Vicky Hernández, utilizing every trick in the bag of a great veteran actress, managed to steal scene after scene amongst an enormously talented cast in ESCOBER: EL PATRON DEL MAL.

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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