Thursday 24th April 2014,
Televisual

What Can U.S. Series Learn From Telenovelas?

Aymar Jean Christian January 28, 2010 uncategorized 3 Comments

Thanks to The Atlantic and Racialicious for linking to this post!

Gawker has a post about the cancelation of Ugly Betty, lamenting the end of a “once-great” show that, they say, lost its punch and became de-camp’ed and Americanized as it progressed (Betty glammed up, became good at her job, got a promotion, a man, etc., American myth of success, etc.).

They then make an interesting argument about the cycle of American television shows, and how many shows do not benefit from the U.S. “series” model: where shows go on ad infinitum until the ratings plummet, once everyone hates the show.

Gawker’s suggestion? Make U.S. series like telenovelas, focused on stories with specific end points. Each season would bring the same or similar casts, but new writers and brand new plots:

Before more of our favorite shows pass their “watch by” date and congeal into stinking messes of curdled pixels, let’s get the ball rolling. How about a mysterious, character driven sci-fi show with a graduation date? Think Lostif it only had twenty episodes. This type of thing has a built-in audience, and it would get plenty of cross-over from people who want something to watch but don’t want to be marched down a palm-lined path through five years of mystery feeling like there is no end in sight and there is no pilot flying the burning plane.

This would obviously, in my opinion, work for some shows and not others. Sitcoms, for one, do fine with serialization. The narratives do not change much, the characters really aren’t supposed to grow. Primetime soap operas like Dallas and recently shows like Desperate Housewives, in my opinion, also manage to keep their mojo.

Meanwhile, a number of series on U.S. television today work with this model. Damages has a limited number of plot points that continue from season to season, but, by and large, each season is a self-contained and tightly wound story. This has not helped in the ratings (but probably benefits the quality). Meanwhile, 24 already operates on this principle; while it’s ratings have slipped a bit, the show has been strong for years. Its model allows people like me to jump right in (I’m watching now after a 6-7 season hiatus).

Still, Gawker probably has a point that a closed-narrative season (as opposed to a miniseries model) might help shows stay fresh and feel like “events.” One-hour comedies like Ugly Betty are especially vulnerable to writer fatigue and audience boredom. For broadcast networks trying to grapple with a fickle and fleeing audience, novel-based programming might just be the solution. Heroes would have done well to learn from this model: every season, the world should be on the brink of collapse (and clearly stated as such in episode one), with the heroes trying to save it each time. Instead, the series has dragged on, devolving this season into meaningless side-stories and frivolous character development at the sake of the first season’s clean, unambiguous plot.

I do think, however, Ugly Betty had some very specific issues related to its slide in the ratings. The first is its effort to be both comedy and drama. Its inclusion of drama meant its characters needed to be taken seriously: this made Betty’s perpetual “ugliness” get old quite quick and made me (and likely others) desire her character to “grow” and “do better.” Betty’s professional and physical transformation happened too late and too awkwardly, and when it did, it wasn’t funny. Sticking with the “ugly Betty” premise meant it needed to stick to camp and wit. But camp flies in the face of other tendencies in U.S. one-hour dramedies: making characters relatable (here, Betty, through drama), making outsiders (Latinas from Queens) eventually fit in and become successful, and making both narratives and appearances neat and “pretty.” American audiences don’t want to look at something “unattractive” each week unless it’s sufficiently ridiculed, ironic and unbelievable, emotions which are hard to sustain dramatically. How else has Desperate Housewives, which has a similar sensibility, managed to keep (a good amount of) its audience? Those ladies are still hot!

Could Ugly Betty survived under a different story structure? Probably. But I’m not sure if the culture of U.S. television easily allows for such imaginings. Despite being quite popular in Europe, Asia and Latin America, telenovelas do not work well in America (in English). Ugly Betty remains one of very few telenovelas — if not the only one — to successfully crossover to the U.S. market, and its decline probably has more to do with an awkward and ill-planned cultural translation than larger structural issues.

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About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.

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