Telenovelas keep view­ers glued to their screens

Pre­dictable melo­dra­matic plots are only part of the en­dur­ing ap­peal Mary Sid­dall has no doubts about her first mem­o­rable te­len­ov­ela: Cuna de Lo­bos — with the evil Catalina Creel as its in­com­pa­ra­ble an­tag­o­nist. Sid­dall was just a tween then, but like many

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“It wasn’t only about watch­ing tele­vi­sion, but rather the bond­ing that oc­curred with my grand­mother,” says the 42-year-old Den­ver res­i­dent, who was 7 or 8 years old when she started watch­ing ’nov­e­las. “Ev­ery­thing would stop at 8 p.m. We’d sit to watch the ’nov­ela while we ate.”

Telenovelas — se­ri­al­ized melo­dra­mas broad­cast in daily in­stall­ments — have kept Span­ish­s­peak­ing view­ers glued to the edge of their seats with overly dra­matic love sto­ries for more than six decades. And while their Amer­i­can coun­ter­parts have seen a ma­jor de­cline in view­er­ship with the can­cel­la­tion of many long-run­ning dra­mas — in­clud­ing Guid­ing Light, which ran for 57 years — telenovelas have main­tained a fol­low­ing, with some even re-cre­ated for Amer­i­can au­di­ences.

The co-view­ing ap­peal and view­ers’ con­nec­tion to the beloved celebri­ties who bring the

sto­ries to life are rea­sons for the genre’s suc­cess, says Adrian San­tu­cho, ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent of Univision Stu­dios. “There’s also the hook, the pay­off, the life lessons learned for all char­ac­ters — espe­cially the evil ones that re­pent — and the happy end­ings.”

Like Sid­dall, New York City res­i­dent Vi­vian Llo­dra, 46, who has been tun­ing into telenovelas for 20 years, re­mem­bers watch­ing the soap op­eras with her Cuban el­ders. With about 100 episodes per se­ries, their binge­watch­ing ap­peal — re­quir­ing less of a com­mit­ment than some decades-long Amer­i­can soaps — is part of their suc­cess, says Llo­dra, who com­pares telenovelas to re­al­ity se­ries. She de­scribes them as “es­cape TV,” draw­ing in view­ers who can step away from daily de­mands for an hour or two and get caught up in the over-the-top ro­mances.

“It’s a sim­ple story,” Llo­dra says, sum­ming up most telenovelas. “Boy meets girl; girl meets boy. They’re des­tined to be to­gether, but first they have to go through the crazy.” That drama can in­clude any­thing from a dis­guised twin try­ing to ruin the ro­mance to a school shoot­ing. “Then it all works out, and they live hap­pily ever af­ter.”

How­ever, telenovelas are no longer just sto­ries of star-crossed lovers who over­come odds to find hap­pi­ness. From re­cent hits such as Tele­mu­ndo’s “nar­conov­ela” La Reina del Sur to such cur­rent se­ries as Univision’s La Doble Vida de Estela Car­rillo, the telenovelas of Sid­dall’s and Llo­dra’s child­hoods have changed.

To­day’s se­ries are more in tune

“They’re des­tined to be to­gether, but first they have to go through the crazy.”

Vi­vian Llo­dra, de­scrib­ing te­len­ov­ela plots

with realities such as racism and il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion. Estela Car­rillo, for ex­am­ple, fol­lows an un­doc­u­mented sin­gle mom in Cal­i­for­nia. In the first episode, she must de­cide be­tween help­ing au­thor­i­ties solve a crime and alert­ing them to her sta­tus. De­spite that progress, Llo­dra points out that LGBTQ story lines are miss­ing from telenovelas, and darker-skinned Lati­nos of­ten are stereo­typ­i­cally cast in servi­tude roles.

Carolina Acosta-Alzuru, a com­mu­ni­ca­tions pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Ge­or­gia who has stud­ied telenovelas for two decades, says the story lines have to be­come more con­tem­po­rary so that view­ers, young and old, can find them more re­lat­able. “These days we like things that have el­e­ments of re­al­ism,” she says.

That’s where the uni­ver­sal lan­guage of love comes in, Llo­dra says. “Fam­ily get­ting in the way of love or jeal­ousy get­ting in the way of love … that’s all re­lat­able,” she ex­plains.

The en­ter­tain­ment value helps sus­tain the genre, but the fam­ily ties keep fans com­ing back.

“(Telenovelas bridge) the gap some­times and keep us from feel­ing iso­lated (from our home­land). It’s just a nice way to keep in touch,” says Llo­dra, who cred­its her mother and aunts for in­tro­duc­ing her to the genre back when there was only one TV in the home. “It’s nos­tal­gia. It’s some­thing you grow up do­ing,” she says. “It brings you warm mem­o­ries.”

A for­bid­den ro­mance of­ten is at the cen­ter of te­len­ov­ela story lines.

Adri­ana Lou­vier and Gabriel Soto star in Caer en Tenta­cion (Fall to Temp­ta­tion).

Rafael Amaya in Tele­mu­ndo’s El Senor de Los Cie­los.

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