Give me a telenovela and I’ll give you a nation

Thoughts on drama, production values, and collective therapy from the director of the transglobal, peripatetic Telenovela Institute, studying the effect of Latin American TV soaps in Eastern Europe and around the world.

Since the first days of the [Telenovela] institute’s research, I began to notice common patterns in the way each country related to telenovelas, and, at the same time, the way in which a country’s relationship to telenovelas revealed something unique about it. A Canadian researcher, Denise Bombardier, described it perfectly with her phrase “Give me a telenovela and I’ll give you a nation.” In general terms, however, telenovelas implement what the critic Tomás Lopez-Pumarejo (my principal theorist at the Institute) described as “the drama of the subconscious”: They are stories that revolve around ontological questions: “Where is my son?” or “Where is my love?”

There is a clear relationship in the way in which the telenovela soap operas explore the social tensions of a country and convert them into collective therapy. This process worked very well in countries that had recently emerged from communism, where people were casting about in a psychological search to deal with the class taboos that had dominated for so long. As a result, a drama centered on the impossibility of love because of social or economic obstacles was extremely powerful. Several studies of the time during which Los Ricos También Lloran was broadcast in Russia indicate that programs simultaneously broadcast from the US (such as Dallas and Dynasty) were popular but never generated the same level of interest, because Russians could not identify with the family problems of an oil millionaire in Texas. The higher production quality of those programs didn’t seem to matter either, and so companies like Televisa did not overly concern themselves with investments in production. It was the drama, the emotions worn on the sleeve, and in part the exotic settings that gave the telenovelas a special attraction.


from “The Global Pandemic of the Telenovela,” by Pablo Helguera, translated by Megan McDowell, Vice Magazine, Vol. 15 No. 8 (July 2008) :: via Utne Reader

Originally published at culture-making.com.

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