The Action Heroines of Telenovelas

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lareinaThe recent arrival of a large batch of telenovelas on Netflix has opened the window on a new field of potential action heroines. For these Latin American TV series – often (and, admittedly, not entirely incorrectly) derided as soap operas – appear to be featuring an increasing number of strong heroines. Before we get to the reasons for that, let’s have an overview of the field in general. They began in the 1950’s, springing up almost simultaneously out of Brazil, Cuba and Mexico, but there is now hardly a Spanish-speaking country that doesn’t produce them – indeed, the style has also been adopted by non-Hispanic countries, such as Korea. That format differs from soap-opera in that it is less open-ended: rather than an indeterminate run, it is a single story, told in concentrated form, typically daily, or at least multiple episodes per week.

While associated with romantic entanglements, class divides, family drama. terminal illness, pregnancies and extreme over-acting, that is not quite accurate. Yes, there are plenty which feature that kind of thing – the four R’s of the genre being romance, rivalry, revenge and redemption – and even the top-end are still budget productions by the standards of English language television, costing at most $170,000 per 45-minute episode, a fraction of the $1 million per episode spent in Hollywood on even the cheapest of scripted dramas. But an increasing number have become more interesting and gritty, exploring darker themes. There’s even a telenovela version, also available on Netflix, of Breaking Bad, called Metástasis, which is basically identical to the original, right down to a hero called “Walter Blanco”.

In particular, the landscape changed with the unprecedented success of La Reina del Sur in 2011. During its American screenings, even though it was on a purely Spanish-language station, Telemundo, it was often the most-watched program in the coveted age 18-49 demographic, beating the English-language channels. Its finale scored the highest-ever ratings in Telemundo’s history, and was seen by about the same number of people as watched the last episode of, say, Parks and Recreation. [An English language remake, Queen of the South, starring Sonia Braga, will appear on the USA Network later this year]  It was the station’s most expensive production, but it’s the story – a woman who rose from nothing to become the biggest drug boss in southern Spain – which matters here.

rosario2For the new ground it broke, in its depiction of a heroine who could be as tough and ruthless as any man, clearly resonated with the audience. Inevitably, the show spawned a slew of others seeking to imitate its success, with similarly single-minded and ambitious heroines, prepared to gun down anyone who wrongs them, or gets in their way. And it’s this new generation of telenovelas, that we find showing up on Netflix in bulk. But where to start? That’s what this article is for: I’ve watched the series of potential interest to gauge whether they deliver on the potential offered by their covers. Though I give you a caveat. These shows typically run anywhere up to 80 episodes, and watching that would be about three months of the viewing time I devote to this site. So, I’ve based what follows, mostly on the first 10 episodes of each. Full reviews will follow eventually.

Before I break them down. there are some common elements in these shows, worth addressing to avoid having to repeat myself!

  • The glamorization of criminality. The heroines here are not cops, private eyes or other characters on the side of law and order. They are all criminals; some begin as criminals (or their other halves), some become criminals, and others have criminality forced upon them. But the escape from whatever perils befall them inevitably involves illegal activities of one kind or another.
  • Flashbacks R Us. In most of these, we join proceedings at a particularly dramatic moment, and then skip back to see what brought us to that point. This isn’t unheard of in American TV of course – the “24 hours previously” trope – but in telenovelas, this can last for multiple episodes. Indeed, in at least one case, I get the feeling the entire series may be a flashback.
  • Sexual assault as a plot-device. Unfortunate, this one, and also symptomatic of lazy writing, in that the creators can’t seem to think of many other ways to trigger the heroines into action. Want her to move out? Sleazy stepfather tries it on. Need her to get her hands bloody? Rape and revenge! Then again, it kinda makes sense, since they seem to take place in a universe where all men appear to be scumbags with exactly one thing on their minds…
  • Recommended for viewing at about 75% attention. If I actually sit down and watch these, their flaws (such as fairly obviously being shot on video) tend to become a bit too glaring. I’ve found that they’re more palatable watched while doing something else, lightly-engaging – in my case, the daily stint on the treadmill.

Camelia la Texana

camelia1If perhaps the least “action heroine-y” of the shows taste-tested here, there’s a fair case to be argued for the storyline being the most interesting, overall.  The show was inspired by Contrabando y Traición (Smuggling and Betrayal), one of the first “narcocorrido” songs from legendary norteño band, Los Tigres Del Norte. It tells of Emilio and Camelia who smuggle drugs into America, only for him to dump her. Camelia does not respond well: she shoots him seven times and vanishes with the money. It led to a movie of the same name, and has since become embedded in popular Hispanic culture, even becoming an opera in 2013, with Camelia becoming a mythical figure, whether or not she ever was based on a real person.

A three-minute song doesn’t have enough meat for a 60-episode series, so of necessity the show expands the scope significantly. With occasional flashbacks to events during the forties, it mostly takes place in the early seventies, when Camelia (Sara Maldonado) is training to be a dentist in Texas, working part-time at a diner, and waiting for her boyfriend to return from the Vietnam War. In short order, pretty much all of that falls apart, and she is instead thrown together with a well-groomed gangster called Emilio Varela (Erik Hayser), who has been tasked with bringing Camelia back to Mexico, where a drug lord has an inexplicable – well, it’s pretty explicable, actually – interest in her.

If Camelia has not, in the early going, done much to justify the viewer’s interest [thus far, she has mostly been making gooey eyes at her beau], the rest of the show is quite intriguing. There’s a power struggle south of the border between rival gangs, and it’s the women there who hold much of the power, albeit from the shadows. There’s even an occult subplot, involving a blind young girl who can foresee the future – as well as a transvestite shaman who cannot, despite her claims! Add in a good deal of political chess, and there has been enough to sustain interest, while we twiddle our thumbs, waiting – if the series is true to the song – for Camelia to pop the requisite seven bullets into Emilio and, one hopes, head into business on her own terms.

lareina2La Reina Del Sur

Based on a novel by Arturo Perez-Reverte, as noted above, this was the entry which truly kicked off the recent surge in the market. It’s the story of Teresa Mendoza (Kate del Castillo), whose boyfriend is “killed” by his drug-dealing cronies, which forces her on the run. She heads over to Spain, and begins work as a waitress at a brothel in the North African enclave of Melilla, after refusing a more “horizontal” position there, and begins to work her way up the crime ladder. However, her ambition brings her to the jealous attention of a workmate, who frames her for dealing drugs – to avoid deportation, she has to sleep with the brothel’s owner, although this also brings her into contact with the real power behind the local throne, Colonel Abdelkader Chaïb.

I like Teresa’s unwillingness to compromise her ideas: even though she’s on the run, she clearly has a goal, is intent on achieving it, and woe betide anyone who stands in her way. She’s also fiercely loyal to those who help her – and even has a sympathetic streak for her enemies (as we see when the woman who framed her falls afoul of her abusive boyfriend). It’s nice she also finds someone possessing similar moral scruples – smuggler Santiago Fisterra (Iván Sanchez), reluctant to transport cocaine or people, even though that’s where the big money is. Although nothing much has happened between then in the first 10 episodes, I’m predicting a relationship in their future. To be frank, I’m also predicting a return for her original boyfriend, because the way they filmed his death appeared deliberately vague i.e. no actual body was ever seen, to the point of obviousness.

Teresa has been relatively restrained in her actions so far, except for shooting one of her boyfriend’s former colleagues who tried (sigh… inevitably) to rape her. However, she has managed to disarm the jealous counterpart who came at her with a knife, and one senses more to come. I also like that much of this has taken place outside the standard settings of Mexico and Columbia, with the heroine now the one who is maligned for her otherness, and “talking funny”, even if Teresa plays up to the stereotypes as much as runs counter to them. When a friend needs help getting her son from Morocco into the enclave, Teresa basically points out that “us Mexicans are good at crossing borders”! Donald Trump would likely not disagree, but I suspect it’s likely for the best if we keep politics off the site.

tijerasRosario Tijeras

The first one I tried, in part because the title was familiar from a film adaptation of the same novel, which I’d already seen. This one is a little older, dating back to 2010, and like the movie, is also from Colombia. The heroine, Rosario (María Fernanda Yépes), gets her nickname – Tijeras means “scissors” – after an incident at her Medellin school where she cuts off the hair of a teacher who is scolding her. That gets her expelled, but she also catches the attention of a visiting college student, Emilio, who spends many subsequent episodes trying unsuccessfully to track her down. Meanwhile, she also comes to the attention of an underworld boss with a thing for virgins, and he eventually provides Rosario with her first kill – a murder that is gratefully received by his rivals, and allows her to become a full-time assassin.

I’ve actually gone deeper into this one – 30 episodes to date, though that’s still well short of even half way – and it certainly does take its time to get going, with Emilio’s inability to locate her, in particular outstaying its welcome. Despite a tagline which proclaims “It’s harder to love than to kill.” there is clearly a great deal more of the former than the latter, and even though the men are generally more engaging and well-drawn than in some of the other series, that doesn’t stop them from behaving like stags during the breeding season. There’s also a big helping of class divide here, with the show depicting both the working-class lifestyle of Rosario and her family, which is in sharp contrast to the upper-class one enjoyed by Emilio and his chums.

If somewhat short on action thus far, it has still been entertaining viewing, not least by providing a door into a world that’s far removed from anything familiar to me. The split focus helps maintain freshness, and there’s greater depth given to the supporting cast than usual. The show came in for a lot of flak at the time of its broadcast in Colombia for glamorizing the drug traffickers lifestyle, with the main local newspaper sniffily calling the series a “gulp of absurdity, vulgarity, bad manners and a big dose of narco-culture.” Needless to say, that didn’t exactly stop the show from becoming a big ratings hit.

Full review.

senoraaceroSenora Acero

Well, this one doesn’t hang around. Inside the first episode, we’ve seen a wedding turn into a blood-bath, as heroine Sara Aguilar (Blanca Soto) sees her marriage to a Tijuana police commander lead to her own kidnapping and near-rape, her father’s death, and not one but two assassination attempts on her husband – he survives the first, but not the second. Turns out he was actually in bed with the cartel, unknown to Sara, and during a drinking session, unwisely boasted about stealing $3 million from them. [Memo to self: not a good idea] They presume she knows where the money is, and she has to bail with her son for Guadalajara, while fending off others trying to figure out the stash’s location – not just the cartel, also the mayor of Tijuana, and even her own family members, who blame her for the misfortune which has befallen them.

However, despite some cool imagery – Sara riding through the forest on horseback in a tattered wedding-dress – this is likely the most “traditional” of the shows, and is probably the worse for it. There’s an excess of angst-filled family feudin’, and way too much in the way of medical misfortune as a plot device: inside the first 10 episodes covered here, we’ve already had multiple sclerosis, Type 1 diabetes, and a surprise pregnancy – that’s all discounting the plastic surgery disasters overseen by Enriqueta Sabido (Rebecca Jones), who uses cooking oil when there’s no silicone to be found. Unsurprisingly, this leads to a steady stream of dead bodies out the back door of her beauty salon. Frankly, she’s probably a bit more interesting and lively character than Sara, who has spent much of the time so far pouting ferociously and being concerned about her son’s health.

Maybe it’ll pick up down the road. For this was such a success it became one of the few telenovelas to be renewed, getting not just a second season, but a third due out at the end of this year. While not available yet on Netflix, the second series looks like it might be a bit of an improvement going by this promo pic. Absolutely nothing along those lines has yet to show up in the show thus far!

La Viuda Negra

This is, at least nominally, based on a true story, having been inspired by Griselda Blanco, a.k.a. “The Godmother,” who was one of the major players in the boom days of cocaine trafficking into Miami, in the seventies and eighties. Naturally, the actress who plays her here, Ana Serradilla, is considerably less homely than the real person – though since Catherine Zeta-Jones is playing Blanco in an upcoming Hollywood film, we can’t really mock the telenovela for prettifying the character.

In some ways, it certainly pays fast and loose with the truth. It begins with Blanco facing the death penalty in New York, and flashes back as she literally takes her seat in the electric chair. Never happened – indeed, no-one at all in New York state has been executed since 1963. But in other ways, it appears fairly accurate: her first serious criminal activity, kidnapping the son of a rich family for ransom, a crime which ended in her shooting the victim dead, did actually occur. Although she was actually younger in real life: eleven years old, which is likely more disturbing than anything scripted drama can offer.

The best thing about this is its relentless forward progress: going by the frantic early pace, there’s a lot to cover. In the first 10 episodes alone, Blanco goes to Medellin, joins a street gang, escalates to that kidnapping, and is then forced on the run by the victim’s rich parent who is obsessed with revenge. That leads to a lengthy hunt, as well as Blanco shooting her first husband for betraying her. She then heads to Ecuador, teams up with a local drug boss there, and returns to Medellin for revenge of her own, before setting up shop, and beginning her plan to import copious quantities of cocaine to the United States, hidden in high-heeled shoes. While I don’t know whether it can keep this going, so far, this has been among the most enjoyable of the series, and is probably the one I’m most interested in continuing.

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