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eforeAsesinato! eforeLujuria! eforeTraicion! [Murder! Lust! Betrayal!]

The avid sinning, the pious contrition, the wild sensationalism -- a telenovela holds a viewer in guilty yet pleasurable thrall.

October 05, 2003|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

The withdrawal symptoms started several weeks ago: restlessness, grumpiness, a vague sense of disorientation beginning around 9 o'clock every weeknight. I feel as if I'd fallen asleep on a cross-country flight and woken up staring down at some unknown landmark. I'm fighting the urge to ring Jennifer Lopez and beg her to sing "Que Ironia" to me over the phone.

The truth is, I miss my telenovela.

Now, before you start asking how a fortysomething Anglo-German-Irish-Huguenot male can get hooked on a Spanish-language soap opera aimed at 25-year-old Pacoima hairdressers and Guadalajara housewives, let me explain. This wasn't just any telenovela. This was Univision's heavily hyped "Entre el Amor y el Odio" ("Between Love and Hate"), a gripping six-month saga of greed, betrayal, murder, mistaken identity, child-napping, family feuds, kinky sex, macho posturing, female martyrdom and enough cheesy dialogue to stock a Gruyere outlet mall.

Not to mention a belly-dancing femme fatale, a Jacuzzi party in which the main villain gets parboiled alive (don't ask) and -- holy mixed messages! -- a cameo by Juan Diego, the recently canonized Indian peasant whose vision of the Virgin of Guadalupe opened up the New World to Roman Catholicism nearly five centuries ago. The beloved saint showed up in a blaze of light and canned music, just in time to inspire a young paraplegic to rise miraculously from his wheelchair and rescue his mother from being raped. This, by the way, constitutes the basic telenovela cocktail: a triple shot of sex, violence and sensationalism, followed by a stiff chaser of moral uplift.

In other words, pure melodrama. And why not? Back in the days before the Age of Irony descended across our land like a shroud, melodrama was the lifeblood of American popular culture -- novels, stage plays, penny dreadfuls, folk tunes and, later, movies and television. Today, sophisticates roll their eyes at melodrama unless it's tarted up in the playful campiness of a John Waters flick, the knowing poignancy of a Pedro Almodovar film, or the hyper-real grit of "The Sopranos." But un-self-conscious melodrama still rules in serialized telenovelas like "Entre el Amor y el Odio," which climaxed in a gruesomely lurid, ludicrously over-the-top -- and compulsively watchable -- finale that played like a 17th century revenger's tragedy in leather jackets and skintight jeans.

It wasn't just the baroque subplots and operatic emotions that turned my wife and me into "Entre el Amor y el Odio" addicts. For roughly the past decade, the two of us have been studying Spanish. During that time we've found that one of the best ways to get a foreign tongue to stick in your ear, so to speak, is to listen to lots of radio and television. And few programs can match telenovelas in their ability to impart colorful colloquialisms while opening a window onto another culture.

Like their U.S. and European counterparts, Spanish-language soap operas convey the tensions and contradictions of the societies that produce them. In Latin America, they hold up a cracked mirror to countries that in many cases were in the grip of military dictatorships or one-party oligarchies until recently and are wrestling with issues of tradition versus change, familial duty versus individual freedom, and with evolving models of male and female behavior. Most telenovelas are curious hybrids, mixing the consumerist trappings of the post-NAFTA world with social attitudes that in some cases haven't changed much since the 16th century. You can learn a lot if you watch closely.

You also can indulge in a first-rate guilty pleasure -- with the emphasis on "guilt." Telenovelas hide the stern face of moral instruction behind a mask of titillation, simultaneously proselytizing and pandering. In the telenovela worldview, no bad deed goes unpunished, while redemption is only a fervent prayer away. In last year's "Vale Todo," for example, all manner of dark deeds from adultery to homicide were committed before the just deserts were finally doled out in the final episode. In Latin-American countries with large Roman Catholic populations, telenovelas let their audiences share vicariously in transgressive behavior before steering them back to the confessional. Typically, telenovela characters spend the first 55 minutes of an hourlong episode gleefully sinning away and the last five in misty-eyed pleas for divine absolution.

As connoisseurs of the genre know, many telenovelas follow a classic Cinderella story line: Woman of humble origins meets man of a higher social class. Woman and man fall in love. Woman temporarily loses man to a scheming bruja, frequently the man's ex-wife, second wife or former flame. Endless complications ensue, and after many ups and downs our heroine prevails and wins her man back. The End.

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