I did not see any great telenovelas broadcast in the US this year, but there were a number of decent ones. The return of Brazilian telenovelas to our network television was a welcome change after an absence of a few years and bolstered an otherwise mediocre year. While I don't think Lado a Lado or Avenida Brasil are great telenovelas, they are substantially better than the product reaching our screens out of Mexico, Colombia and Miami.
Lado a Lado is a Brazilian telenovela produced by Globo in 2012 that reached our screens this year thanks to MundoFox. It is the story of a profound friendship forged between two women of different backgrounds who dare to live their lives in ways that conflict with the misogynistic and racist society of Rio de Janeiro in the first decade of the twentieth century. Isabel, played by Camila Pitanga, is a black woman ostracized when she becomes pregnant with a lover's child while her fiancé is missing, unbeknownst to her, locked in jail. Laura, played by Marjorie Estiano, is the daughter of a conservative ex-baroness, played by Patrícia Pillar, who wishes to work outside the home rather than settle for the confining role of housewife her social class and mother demands of her, who later faces the additional stigma associated with divorce. The performances by Pitanga and Estiano are richly detailed and moving. Camila Pitanga has the beauty and aura that make her character's international stardom when she introduces the Paris art world to samba believable, and Estiano's cheerful hoyden is the warmest, most likable soul depicted in a telenovela in a long time.
As the friendship between the two women is the central relationship in the telenovela, their love interests, by necessity, take a secondary role. Only one of the love stories really works, the pairing between Estiano and Thiago Fragoso as her patient, sympathetic husband. The chemistry between Estiano and Fragoso is very strong and their relationship is richly developed. Rather less successful is the pairing between Pitanga and Lázaro Ramos, which after an initial dinner, skips ahead a year, meaning all of its development occurs off-screen. Ramos is an excellent actor, but he is saddled with a dull role as the white-hatted, virtuous hero.
Lado a Lado relies too heavily on conniving villains setting out to ruin the lives of the heroines, perfectly reasonable devices in most telenovelas, but clashing with the loftier ambitions of this telenovela. The stereotypical villains detract and distract from the telenovela's true conflict between the heroines and the racist and misogynistic society as a whole. Better is when a conflict stems from an otherwise moral character, such as when the kind French lady employing Isabel, who arranged for her to be wed in the same church deemed worthy by the ex-baroness for her daughter's wedding, fires her after discovering the baby she is carrying wasn't fathered by her fiancé.
The Lado a Lado that aired in the US is unfortunately an international, dubbed version that loses about half its length. This robs Lado a Lado of its epic quality, and while the central stories are still mostly intact, it loses a lot of the politics, subplots with the siblings of the main protagonists, and comic relief mostly to do with the theatrical company. While the Spanish dubbing from Globo remains first-rate, it is a shame to lose Marjorie Estiano's quirky and characterful vocal performance, and the dubbing of child actors is still problematic which hurts scenes in the latter part of the telenovela.
Avenida Brasil is another Brazilian telenovela from Globo that premiered in 2012 that finally reached our screens this year airing afternoons on Telemundo. The decision to air Avenida Brasil in daytime was a curious one as Avenida Brasil is the biggest international hit of the decade so far and had Telemundo aired it in primetime it probably would have been their biggest hit of the year, though it also would have shown how ersatz their own product is in comparison. I confess Avenida Brasil remains a telenovela for which I have more respect than affection due to my apathy for revenge plots, it being just the umpteenth retelling of "The Count of Monte Cristo" which also inspired recent telenovelas La Patrona and Corazón Indomable as well as the ABC series Revenge. That familiarity of plot is no doubt one of the reasons for the popularity of Avenida Brasil; though the biggest reason, I think, is the phenomenal performance of Adriana Esteves, the best in a telenovela this year. Esteves so dominates the screen, it throws off the telenovela's equilibrium and a good deal of needless effort is spent toward the end to extenuate her horridness via sobby backstory. The plot essentially climaxes around episode ninety, but goes on for another hundred episodes or so, but it moves fast. There are some weird excursions into the Grand Guignol that border on the ridiculous, but it wouldn't be "Monte Cristo" without the ridiculous.
Lo Que La Vida Me Robó, produced by Televisa and aired on Univision, was the most entertaining Mexican telenovela I saw last year, a present-day retelling of Bodas De Odio that worked surprisingly well. It is still, at its core, a bodice-ripper with all the pleasures and problems that genre entails in the depiction of its central romance – the alpha hero whose overwhelming virility ultimately conquers the heart of the heroine despite a marital rape during the “odio” stage of the relationship. The fiery screen chemistry between Sebastián Rulli and Angelique Boyer, best when their characters' relationship is at its most vitriolic, can camouflage the thornier, more offensive aspects of the story. Lo Que La Vida Me Robó is probably an overlong telenovela and the protagonists seem to run out of story about two months from the finish line. Luckily, Lo Que La Vida Me Robó is brimming with entertaining and compelling subplots and secondary characters, in particular, five morally gray characters played by Luis Roberto Guzmán, Osvaldo Benavides, Ferdinando Valencia, Lisset and Grettell Valdéz who provide the emotional core of the telenovela. There is also good work from Ana Bertha Espín, Gaby Rivero, Verónica Jaspeado, Margarita Magaña, Alexis Ayala, an angelic and warm Ilithya Manzanilla and a genuine camp performance from Daniela Castro as the lead villain. Mention must be made of this telenovela's very poor finale, a deeply unsatisfying episode, both dramatically and emotionally, seemingly produced to spur internet chatter rather than satisfy the viewing audience.
La Malquerida, from Televisa airing on Univision, starts poorly, focusing too heavily on subplots and an over scaled performance by supporting actress África Zavala which makes other characters seem foolish for not immediately recognizing her obvious distress. The telenovela is salvaged via a plot coup about two-thirds of the way in its run, a revelation made only to the audience that radically shifts their sympathies toward the three principal characters – the husband played by Christian Meier, his wife played by Victoria Ruffo, and his stepdaughter played by Ariadne Díaz – in a way I don't think I've ever seen in a telenovela. The telenovela becomes compelling from that point on, with leading man Christian Meier's performance finding greater focus. There are colorful supporting performances from Alberto Estrella, Guillermo García Cantú and Sabine Moussier, good romantic subplots featuring Osvaldo de León, Gimena Gómez and Gonzalo Peña; and a very amusing comic turn from Fabián Robles as the telenovela's bad conscience.
La Promesa (CMO, aired on Telemundo) – the writing is lax, particularly in the second half, but this harrowing Colombian production about sex trafficking features some of the best acting in a Spanish production to reach our screens this year, particularly Christian Tappan as an alcoholic cop trying to track down the missing girls, and Julieth Restrepo and Nicole Santamaría as two of the kidnapped women. The cinematography and production values are first-rate as we've come to expect from CMO.
Manual Para Ser Feliz (RCN, aired on MundoFox) – A low key, quirky office comedy following a nebbish accountant played by Ricardo Leguízamo who finds the courage to romance a fashion designer played by the superb Marcela Mar from a corny self-help book. It's a charming, shaggy dog telenovela depicting a mundane world populated with appealing, oddball characters well-played by the likes of Constanza Camelo, Andrés Suárez, and Rodrigo Candamil; all set to a rock soundtrack of classic Sandro cheese.
Por Siempre Mi Amor (Televisa, aired on Univision) – This telenovela probably belongs on the worst list, but I confess enjoying it enormously despite, or perhaps because of, its often astounding silliness. There are sequences that defy sense, as when the heroine enlists her very pregnant friend to seduce her daughter's much older boyfriend to prove he is no good. Or how about Ana Martín as a biker granny. The goofy is offset with sequences of genuine emotion, mostly courtesy the excellent Susana González as the telenovela's heroine.
|Ramses Ramos and Malena Alvarado from |
El Día de la Suerte.
Qué Pobres Tan Ricos (Televisa, aired on Univision) - Mark Tacher and a couple double acts: Ingrid Martz and Raquel Pankowsky and Sylvia Pasquel and Diego de Erice.
De Que Te Quiero Te Quiero (Televisa, aired on Univision) - Cynthia Klitbo and Marcelo Córdoba had the most sizzling chemistry in a Mexican telenovela this year; also a lovely performance from Marisol del Olmo and a precocious kid done right by Fernanda Sasse.
El Chivo (RTI, aired on UniMás) - Diana Hoyos and Eileen Moreno as sisters, one married to a monster and the other his obsession.
Camelia la Texana (Telemundo) - The best cinematography for a Telemundo telenovela since FLOR SALVAJE.
La Impostora (Telemundo) – The best ensemble in a Telemundo telenovela this year (despite a queer zombified lead performance by Lisette Morelos) headlined by Christian Bach and Manuel Landeta.
Quiero Amarte (Televisa, airs on Univision) – The run of this telenovela is caught halfway between 2014 and 2015, but its cast deserves mention, particularly José Elías Moreno, Diana Bracho, Flavio Medina, Hernán Canto and Cristian de la Fuente.
WORST TELENOVELAS OF 2014
I don't find it possible to reconcile the glamorized sympathetic depictions of drug lords in the narco-novelas of this year with the real-life atrocities committed by cartels, so the worst telenovelas of this year are Señora Acero, El Señor de los Cielos 2, La Viuda Negra and El Capo 3.
These four narco-novelas mark an unfortunate step backward following the breakthrough of Escobar el Patrón del Mal in 2012, the masterpiece in this genre and a deeply moral work that consistently took time to humanize the innocent victims of its drug lord: the law enforcement officers, judges, politicians, journalists, even random bystanders caught in the title drug lord's wave of violence.
Señora Acero, El Señor de los Cielos 2, La Viuda Negra and El Capo 3 marginalize the innocent victims of narco-violence with countless faceless, dehumanized police officers murdered by the narco-heroes. These four narco-novelas are profoundly dishonest works that utilize the trappings of melodrama to extenuate the crimes of their narco-protagonists. The violence committed by the narco-heroes is justified in the narratives as acts of self-defense or revenge; to this end, all of these narco-heroes have an endless supply of mothers, lovers, and most importantly, children, to be threatened, kidnapped, and murdered.
Señora Acero (Telemundo) – this victimization of the narco-hero is taken to new lows in this telenovela. The narco-heroine is endlessly getting kidnapped, raped, beaten, threatened, tortured by police, imprisoned, is given a sickly son to also be threatened with guns to his head and endure countless medical crises, and unbelievably, given not one but two loves of her life to be murdered. The overkill victimization of the narco-heroine meant to extenuate her crimes becomes downright comical in Señora Acero because she is played by Blanca Soto, the worst lead actress in telenovelas today. Videos of her performance should be distributed to acting schools to show novices what not to do. Everything in Soto's performance screams phony and artificial – the staccato growls of anger, the flaring nostrils, the rolling eyes in “woe is me” plaintiveness, the hideous fake cry face that remains tear-free despite the most strenuous face scrunching, the wacky big-eyed “I'm crazy” face when she holds a gun, the literal stroking of her chin when her character thinks – just ridiculous. Soto isn't alone, Señora Acero is full of buffoonish, stupid performances from terrible actors like José Luis Reséndez and Lincoln Palomeque, mediocre actors like Litzy and Marco Pérez, even good actors like Damián Alcázar, Alejandro Calva and Rebecca Jones are terrible in this telenovela. In addition, the production looks amateurish with poor lighting and the dullest camera setups imaginable. The plot is equal parts plot holes and contrivances, little more than a pretext for the tedious gunplay, torture scenes and bloodletting.
El Señor de los Cielos 2 (Telemundo) – repugnant trash. The first series, while mediocre, at least had some entry points for viewers who refused to sympathize with the narcos via the undercover cop played by Carmen Villalobos infiltrating the cartels. This second series drops any pretense of portraying the cops as anything but incompetent losers so the telenovela can fully worship its narco-hero played by Rafael Amaya. El Señor de los Cielos 2 combines the constant victimization of its drug lord protagonist who has his young children threatened with a knife to their throats, his mother shot, loses a baby, his son shot, his daughter kidnapped and his ex-wife shot – so he is always the wronged party and his violent acts are shown as justified - with constant lionization of his virility as the female cast is confined to the role of harem. Whatever was interesting in Fernanda Castillo's character in the first series was wiped away here as her character is reduced to Telemundo's stereotypical whore/murderess – the Aylín Mújica speciality - though Castillo isn't as good an actress as Mújica. Ridiculously, the central conflict of El Señor de los Cielos 2 is between rival drug lords who never even share screen time together, perhaps a good thing because it would show just how monotonous and tired Amaya's portrayal is compared to that of Mauricio Ochmann as his rival. Embarrassing bad acting, mostly absent from the first series, crept into this second series with the dreadful Marlene Favela and Carmen Aub as a narco-princess, perhaps the worst conceived and performed character of the year.
La Viuda Negra (RTI, aired on UniMás) – this telenovela has the gall to romanticize the life of notorious cocaine godmother Griselda Blanco through a plot that is almost complete fantasy. At least the producers of El Señor de los Cielos changed the names in their Amado Carrillo fantasy. The production values, cinematography, editing, music and acting are all vastly superior to the similar productions from Telemundo, and for about fifteen episodes, La Viuda Negra is actually a compelling and exciting telenovela which makes its descent into stupidity all the more infuriating. It never recovers from its ludicrous prison sequence where all sense of reality is destroyed.
El Capo 3 (Fox Telecolombia, aired on MundoFox) – the first El Capo series in 2009 was one of the better telenovelas of this type. While introducing one of the first narco-supermen protagonists, the character was made palatable thanks to his philosophic self-awareness, clever performance by Marlon Moreno, and because the story finds him on the run, the chickens home to roost, his empire lost. It also featured superior production values and actors creating indelible characters. The second series was pointless and this third series was even more so. The clever plot from the first series could only be a one-off, in its place is the typical good narco versus bad narco conflict that plagues all the above narco-novelas; and most of the better supporting actors exited after the first series.
La Gata (Televisa, aired on Univision) – Maite Perroni is fairly appealing as the title heroine, but the scripts are a disaster. It is a train wreck telenovela that constantly manages to top itself in stupidity. Nothing anybody does in this telenovela makes sense, even as you listen to the characters spell out their motivations in the dialogue, you remain baffled. Alliances between the many villains form and break from episode to episode – one character can be drugged and kidnapped by two others in one episode and then be conspiring with those same two characters a couple episodes later with no explanation. An ex-con can reclaim his wealth, lose it when an associate lands in a coma, then be gifted another fortune when a dump dweller wins the lottery, only to lose it again. It is the type of telenovela where the villainess kidnaps the heroine's baby and leaves him in a forest for a random apathetic wolf to devour.
En Otra Piel (Telemundo) - the worst acting of any telenovela this year with a trio of appalling, cartoonish performances from its principals: María Elisa Camargo, David Chocarro and Vanessa Villela. A new adaptation of El Cuerpo del Deseo, done on the cheap in Telemundo's Miami studios with their shoddy, over-lit sets that obliterate any sense of mystery or magic in this supernatural tale of swapped souls. The story stalls out around episode thirty with a ludicrous revenge plot with elements unfortunately reminiscent of the schlock movie The Screaming Skull (1958). The whole enterprise would have been far more compelling if Laura Flores was the protagonist and the soul of streetwise Camargo entered the body of the Flores's concert pianist.
Reina de Corazones (Telemundo) - another moronic runaround from writer Marcela Citterio in the same vein as her Corazón Valiente and Aurora. There isn't so much a plot as an incoherent accumulation of incidents – there is always another secret, shooting, stabbing, kidnapping, rape, twist, villain, turncoat – logic be damned – the stupidity bombards the audience. In what passes for originality, Citterio jumbles telenovela clichés with sci-fi and action movie clichés, but the action set pieces are far beyond the capacity of Telemundo's Miami studios to execute. This is one of the cheapest Miami telenovelas I've seen with whole episodes entirely studio bound, like an American soap opera. The cast is better than usual for a Miami novela and it's a shame to see the likes of Paola Núñez, Laura Flores and Catherine Siachoque wasted in this dreck. Juan Soler is laughable as the antagonist – fey and ineffectual – he is about as threatening as Paul Lynde.
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 email@example.com.