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The Rise of the Telenovela

How soap operas remade TV in their own image.

Illustration by Sean McCabe

“I’m living proof that the American dream is alive and well,” Teresa Mendoza says in the opening moments of Queen of the South, just before she is murdered. The series, adapted from Telemundo’s Spanish-language hit La Reina del Sur, is as violent and unpredictable as such an opening would suggest, but it has more in common with Miami Vice than Breaking Bad. It’s exactly the kind of guilty pleasure that seems, lately, to be missing from American television. The perfect soapy drama doesn’t inspire disdain, as reality TV does, or mind-bending confusion and anxiety, the way prestige cable dramas do. Instead, soaps keep us entertained by whisking us through a series of outrageous tragedies and adventures, all the while remembering that what we really want to see are people’s responses to outlandish situations, rather than the outlandish situations themselves.

Queen of the South is one of a rash of new shows that take their lead directly from Spanish-language telenovelas, a distinctive species of soap that has become unexpectedly popular in the United States. The plot is a kind of matriarchal Scarface: After her drug-dealer boyfriend betrays his bosses and gets shot, Teresa goes on the run from the cartel, eventually beating them at their own game. With its high-stakes action, the show is a far cry from the first telenovela to make the leap to American television, back in 2006: Ugly Betty, which told the story of an unstylish young woman laboring at a fashion magazine. More recently, the CW Network has enjoyed a hit with Jane the Virgin, in which the heroine is artificially inseminated because of a mix-up at the hospital, and decides to carry the pregnancy to term. Now in its third season, the show has garnered Golden Globe nominations and almost single-handedly hoisted the network’s ratings.

While Ugly Betty acquainted viewers with the telenovela’s outrageous, irresistibly sugary combination of melodrama and sincerity, Jane the Virgin took the telenovela into the twenty-first century, with its complicated romp through the struggle between the lure of pleasure and the pressure to be pure. And more adaptations are in the pipeline: the CW recently remade Como Aproveitar o Fim do Mundo as No Tomorrow, a quirky drama about a couple planning for the end of the world. All of which raises the question: What do telenovelas give us that other shows can’t?

Telenovelas differ from English-language soap operas largely in their scope: Most elapse over a few dozen episodes, and wrap up the lives of their characters in some sort of cumulatively satisfying narrative arc. If the telenovela is a novel—premise, complication, conclusion—then the American soap opera is more like a newspaper. Its only real job is to keep going. Soap opera characters go through so many convoluted misadventures, and are passed back and forth between so many writers, that the most basic details of their lives sometimes vanish without explanation: It’s not unheard of, on a soap, for relatives to forget they’re related, fall in love, and—as long as none of the writers remembers a stray fact from a thousand or so episodes ago—get married.

Like American soaps, telenovelas are dominated by trauma and talk—but mostly talk. Something happens to a character. She calls her friend to explain. The two meet and repeat the facts of the incident again. And again. The primary rule the soap opera writer follows is Tell, don’t show, because telling is cheap and easy to write, and can be stretched out forever. It also dulls the trauma of the show’s events, which is a comfort, because no one in a soap is ever allowed to be happy. If you meet the love of your life, he’ll lose his memory tomorrow. As soon as he gets it back, his long-lost half­-sister will appear from nowhere and frame him for murder. As soon as you valiantly get him acquitted, you’ll become the target of Bolivian jewel thieves.

In this way soaps prove oddly comforting for audiences. Beneath all the drama, the characters serve as a stand-in for us: Sometimes life itself seems like a random array of pointless conflicts that just sort of drags on, shapelessly, forever. You can never live the life you want to live but, like one of television’s beleaguered heroines, always have to watch your plans smashed to pieces by the (unusually micromanagerial) hand of fate.

La Reina del Sur and Juana la Virgen—from which Jane the Virgin was adapted—represent not the most basic version of the telenovela, but new directions the genre has only recently begun to explore. Both series were created by the actress-turned-producer Perla Farías, who seeks to unite the dark, character-driven drama of American ­prestige shows like The Sopranos with the cheap, fast, and easy-to-produce conventions of the telenovela. By combining these ­traditions, she hit a narrative sweet spot that viewers have clamored for ever since: realistically drawn characters struggling to survive in a world no nobler or wiser than ours, and even more endlessly chaotic.

Queen of the South, which just finished airing its first season, stars Alice Braga as Teresa Mendoza. She’s a woman in peril, until she’s not, shedding her girlish bearing, forcing her mouth into a thin line, and rising through the ranks of drug trafficking and organized crime. But her rise is a slow and agonizing one. In the first two episodes alone, Teresa is kidnapped, sexually assaulted, and beaten. She’s also forced to watch a cartel member kill a drug mule and slice the drugs out of the woman’s still-warm corpse. In response, Teresa treats her wounds with scorpion venom and swallows 24 cocaine-filled balloons. Tony Montana’s vetting process looks almost painless in comparison.

Queen of the South doesn’t look particularly striking compared to hyper-stylized cable shows like Hannibal and American Horror Story, but it still feels infinitely more cinematic than its inspiration, La Reina del Sur. With a production budget of $10 million, Reina is one of the most expensive telenovelas that Telemundo has ever produced, but its 63 episodes maintain a cheesy cable-access aesthetic, even when the events they depict are ruthlessly violent.

That investment paid off: La Reina del Sur became a cultural phenomenon, and earned its star, Kate del Castillo, the everlasting admiration of El Chapo, the leader of the Sinaloa cartel. (Having escaped prison and evaded capture several times, he already seemed more a character on a telenovela than an actual drug lord.) For del Castillo, the admiration appears to have been mutual. “Let’s traffic with love, you know how,” she tweeted to El Chapo, and set up a meeting with him at his hideout. It was their communications, in fact, that finally enabled Mexican authorities to track him down. “You are not Teresa Mendoza,” del Castillo’s sister cautioned her at the time, but La Reina del Sur is exactly the kind of show that has a way of blurring those lines.

The telenovela is triumphing on American television partly because American daytime soaps have been undergoing a crisis of identity. The tradition of the soap opera has gradually infiltrated prime-time shows that manage to escape the label, while standbys like Days of Our Lives have languished in their daytime slots. Directors have pillaged soaps for their conventions and most intriguing ideas, without risking the artistic Siberia of actually working in soaps. Twin Peaks reassured viewers that they weren’t really watching a soap by showing its characters’ obsession with the fictional soap Invitation to Love; movies like Tootsie circumvented soap opera stigma by adopting the genre’s structure, but suggesting that the real drama was happening backstage.

No longer as profitable or as relevant as they once were, today’s soap operas are embarrassed to own their most compelling traits—even as other television genres scoop up the kind of acclaim formerly reserved for art-house films. The cultural standing of soaps has plunged since the 1980s, when they grabbed record ratings with “issue-driven” plots, most infamously when fan favorite Luke Spencer raped teenager Laura Webber on General Hospital, only for Laura to fall in love with him. The couple married in a 1981 ratings bonanza that attracted 30 million viewers, and prompted Princess Diana, herself a young newlywed at the time, to send champagne to the General Hospital set.

Such daytime success spurred a rush of big-budget, prime-time soaps, from Dallas to Dynasty. These shows were ostensibly about the business world, but they became most notorious for their catfights. No one cared about Blake Carrington’s business troubles, but Krystle and Alexis brawling in the lily pond—that was worth skipping past a football game for. Dynasty knew that no subject is quite as interesting as human relationships. By the 1990s, however, prime time started to cordon off the emotional from the worldly. There were the weepy, trashy shows for kids and women (Buffy, Melrose Place, Beverly Hills 90210), and then there were serious shows like Law & Order, whose characters were so work-obsessed that their relationships were barely even acknowledged, let alone explored.

Both La Reina del Sur and Juana la Virgen—and the English-language series they have inspired—reverse this decades-long decline. They give us complex pleasures but don’t ask us to watch for any reason other than enjoyment. Instead, they offer us the chance to understand what gives us pleasure, and why. Locked into a finite time frame, we don’t want characters to make the same entertaining mistakes again and again—we want them to grow. Queen of the South’s Teresa is not just complex but morally ambiguous, the kind of antiheroine who remains largely absent from American television, which still hesitates to linger overlong on women who function as anything other than nurturers, sex symbols, sidekicks, or ingénues.

The new wave of English-language telenovelas satisfies a deep craving among American viewers: It bestows on soaps the kind of nuance and complexity previously portrayed only in prestige shows. This status boost is long overdue. At heart, the greatest TV shows of the past 20 years—The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Transparent, Deadwood—are soaps. A soap opera can have any level of production quality, and air at any time of day or night. What makes it a soap, in the end, is its conviction that there is no subject more compelling than the furies and desires that bind people together, and tear them apart.