|Photo Credit: Univision Communications Inc.|
There were two ripped-from-the-headlines series produced in Colombia this year promising the salacious details of the lives of high-end escorts and their relations with the rich and famous, powerful politicians and dangerous criminals: LA PREPAGO and LA MADAME. Perhaps call girls will outpace capos as Colombian exports to US screens this year.
The first to reach the US is LA MADAME which airs at 10 p.m. ET on UniMás. Produced by RTI for Televisa, it is the prostitute project officially inspired by Madame Rochy’s memoir LAS PREPAGO where she described hobnobbing with the most powerful men in Colombia and named several celebrities who allegedly worked for her.
The plot of LA MADAME from the press material: “A beautiful and enigmatic woman known only as ‘La Madame’ runs Colombia’s most exclusive and expensive escort service. When the leader of a dangerous cartel kidnaps La Madame and threatens to kill her, she is forced to give in to his only demand: he wants to know every detail about each one of the escorts she handles, as he suspects that his soon-to-be daughter-in-law has a dark past. And so the stories begin, like a modern day Scheherazade, La Madame reveals tantalizing stories of seduction, manipulation and power.”
Alicia Machado stars as the title character, a change of pace from her previous and best work in UNA FAMILIA CON SUERTE, where her natural affability was put to good use in a sexy comedic role. Roberto Mateos (DOÑA BÁRBARA) looks to be the head of the cartel – I believe his third role of this type in a row.
The series also features Jessica Sanjuan (NIÑAS MAL), Julio Sánchez Cóccaro (3 MILAGROS), Norma Nivia, Margarita Reyes (LOS HEREDEROS DEL MONTE), Pedro Rendón (FLOR SALVAJE) and Jonathan Islas (EL ROSTRO DE LA VENGANZA).
As a teenager, I was a big fan of the short stories of Stanley Ellin, but quickly found myself anticipating and predicting the twist that concluded the majority of his tales. The same anticipation for game-changing twists plagues my enjoyment of SANTA DIABLA (weeknights at 10 p.m. ET), the new thriller from Telemundo and writer José Ignacio Valenzuela.
The audience that saw the writer’s previous LA FAMILIA DE AL LADO and/or its Telemundo variation LA CASA DE AL LADO is prepared for the twists and turns sure to be sprung, which has an unfortunate “Boy who cried wolf” effect – we don’t trust what is being presented on the screen at face value because we know the rug is going to eventually be pulled out from under the characters and situations. This can be enormously fun in stories as meticulously constructed as those by Ellin – the twists, in retrospect, seem natural, even inevitable. But in a story as implausible and full of plot holes as SANTA DIABLA, the revelations and plot reversals feel like cheats – the whoa moments give way minutes later to the realization they don’t make a lick of sense. On a nightly telenovela like SANTA DIABLA, as the implausibilities begin accumulating, night after night, one must choose to either turn off one’s brain, shrug, and go along for the ride or suffer perpetual annoyance.
There is much in SANTA DIABLA to recommend the former choice of action. It is a well-produced telenovela, far better looking than Telemundo’s other two current prime time offerings: DAMA Y OBRERO and MARIDO EN ALQUILER. Also, SANTA DIABLA has a sense of urgency and energy to its proceedings sorely missing from DAMA and MARIDO. As good a telenovela as MARIDO EN ALQUILER often is, it still struggles to keep interest flowing episode to episode – a pair of entertaining episodes in the middle of last week gave way to a crushingly boring one on Friday. Thus far, whatever problems SANTA DIABLA may have, it hasn’t been boring.
Gaby Espino as the telenovela’s revenge seeking heroine in the formal party scenes displays a glamour that suggests 1940s Hollywood noir, her hair occasionally evoking the peekaboo of Veronica Lake. A solid leading actress, Espino has a tendency to recede on screen when paired opposite more dynamic co-stars – a fatal impairment to her previous telenovela, OJO POR OJO – but not a danger here opposite Aarón Díaz. His character seems an awfully wet noodle for the ostensible male protagonist, Díaz makes him mawkish rather than mysterious, and the chemistry between him and Espino or anybody else on the novela is thus far nonexistent.
After playing a pair of astonishingly unappealing protagonists in his previous two telenovelas, PERRO AMOR and DOS HOGARES, Carlos Ponce is finally cast in an antagonist role his screen presence has been screaming for, and it’s his most enjoyable performance in a telenovela that I can remember.
Frances Ondiviela is giving a lovely, sensitive performance as a repressed older woman in love with a young lodger staying in her house with his mother, though her story, like many in this telenovela, is weakened by the speed at which it moves. The emotions and suspense are not allowed to mount up – characters fall in love instantly and are as quick to express it. (It is the same rapidness with which the mysteries are dispensed.) A subplot with Zully Montero as an egregious racist seems terribly crude and dated in this day and age of hoodies, handbags, and the sly, insidious racism displayed on a nightly basis on cable news.
Recent episodes have started relying on character stupidity to drive plot. A character who cuts out letters from magazines for use composing anonymous letters leaves the mutilated magazines on her coffee table where they are immediately found by the man she is sending the letters to. And how are we to take the heroine’s current pregnancy scare? Are we to believe a woman, knowing full well that in her quest for revenge she may have to sleep with a man she detests, is not on birth control or keeping emergency contraception handy just in case she has to do the deed?
The months delay between a Televisa produced telenovela airing in Mexico and its premiere in the US mean the Mexican reception of a telenovela can prejudice our expectations. It can set one up for bitter disappointment when a big hit in Mexico like CORAZÓN INDOMABLE turns out to be kind of terrible; but the inverse can also occur and we can be pleasantly surprised when the lowered expectations for something like LA TEMPESTAD, hampered with disappointing viewing figures and bad press in Mexico, are exceeded.
That is not say LA TEMPESTAD (weeknights at 9 p.m. ET on Univision) is a good telenovela, but it isn’t markedly worse than anything else we’ve gotten in prime time on Univision so far this year. Indeed, for the camp value alone, LA TEMPESTAD is my favorite telenovela Univision is currently broadcasting. If you can’t see the inherent hilarity of Daniela Romo, in search of her long-lost daughter, going undercover as a streetwalker, wearing on her on first trip to the seedy side, a Cher wig circa the “If I Could Turn Back Time” video, on her second trip, a Dr. Frank-N-Furter wig, then maybe telenovelas aren’t for you.
The female protagonist is played by former Miss Universe Ximena Navarrete in her first acting role. She isn’t a bad actress, she is a non-actress, dead in her eyes and flat in her voice. It is unfair to blame Navarrete as she didn’t cast herself, but it is difficult to remember the last time somebody this green was given such a prominent role. The best one can hope is she will improve as the novela progresses – though broadcasting on-the-job training is awfully cruel – to both the actress and the audience.
Male lead William Levy seemed a bit listless in the early episodes, like he’d rather be anywhere else than filming this novela; but his energy level picked up some in the more recent episodes. Iván Sánchez as the principal villain does what he can with a ludicrous role – a human-trafficking violinist obsessed with the heroine ever since they were teenage classmates because she helped him off the ground after some bullies knocked him down.
Laura Carmine plays Esther, a spoiled young woman obsessed with William Levy’s sea captain. Carmine showed in QUIÉN ERES TÚ? she is capable of giving subtle, sensitive performances. She is giving a very broad performance here, but there is something weirdly moving about her. Carmine’s Esther is like a ten year old in a woman’s body, her possessiveness is puerile, her tantrums embarrassing, but there is an ingenuous quality as well, a kind of dopey innocence, a crude simplicity and directness to her wants that make her rather likable despite her deplorable behavior. Her shamelessness takes on an almost ennobling quality - you feel there is no indignity she wouldn’t endure for what she wants. And she is very funny.
As her father, César Évora is in prime bellowing mode. Daniela Romo gives dignity to her character despite being asked to do some awfully undignified material including playing herself in flashbacks that occur twenty-five years in the past. (The secret to taking decades off your age: different wig.) There are some solid, grounded performances from María Sorté, Arturo Carmona, Luis Manuel Ávila and Mónica Miguel. Nora Salinas arrived a few episodes ago as the heroine’s free-spirited aunt and enlivened things considerably.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.