Prior to its official premiere on Monday, NBC offered a prime-time sneak peek of two episodes, and an online preview of the third, of its new sitcom, Telenovela. The show takes place behind-the-scenes of a Florida-based, Spanish language soap-opera, where star Ana-Sofia (played by Executive Producer Eva Longoria) is horrified to discover that her new co-star is her cheating ex-husband, Javier (Jencarlos Canela).
Now, I’ve never worked for a telenovela (I don’t even watch them; though my 16-year old son does… it’s for AP Spanish, honest!). But I have spent close to twenty years working in various aspects of production for a soap-opera talk show on E!, ABC Daytime, Procter & Gamble, and the online revivals of All My Children and One Life to Live. I’ve even written a book about them. So I’m kind of an expert on soap-operas. Both in front of and behind the cameras. I was curious to see what aspect of that world Telenovela would get right… and what they’d get wrong.
To start with, there’s the fact that everyone is very, very pretty. After a couple of years of attending/working The Daytime Emmys, I came to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter how much effort I put into my appearance or how great I thought I looked when I left the house. Everyone around me would still be on a whole other plane of attractiveness.
Yet, in spite of all that, these very, very pretty people are very, very insecure about their looks (they are, at the end of the day, their livelihood, after all). Telenovela does a nice job of demonstrating that the men are just as anxious as the women. When leading man Gael (Jose Moreno Brooks) hears a rumor someone may be getting fired, he rips open his shirt to show his abs to the network executive – as job security. His co-star reminds that Gael was once jealous of a horse… until he learned what shampoo the horse used.
“We’re all going to be fine,” Gael insists to Ana-Sofia (and himself) once the news of Javier’s casting is announced. “You don’t see me freaking out because they brought in another hot guy.” He then proceeds to spend the rest of the episode stressfully binge-eating.
But, it is, of course, the women who are the most competitive.
Ana-Sofia’s co-star, Isabella, helpfully explains, “The big gun is bringing in your ex because you can’t carry a show anymore. So sad…”
Viewers learn that “Isabella used to be the leading lady until the day Ana took her place. She did not handle it well.”
In fact, there’s video of Isabella throwing a massive tantrum. Which is exactly what Ana does when she learns that, due to her complaints about working with Javier, “You got your wish. You’re not playing my love interest anymore. You’re playing my love interest’s mom.”
This, unfortunately, is a very common occurrence on soaps. Because of something the fans like to call SORAS (Soap-Opera Rapid Aging Syndrome), an actress in her 30s, who gave birth to a baby on-screen five years earlier, might suddenly find herself playing the mom of a teenager (who, in turn, is played by a 25 year old… some of the age differences between actors on soaps are truly ridiculous. Joan Collins and Gordon Thompson, who played mother and son, Alexis and Adam, on Dynasty, were only 12 years apart in age. Thompson’s Santa Barbara dad, Jed Allen, was merely seven years his senior. And Judith Light is exactly three years older than Mitch Pileggi, who played her son on the TBS reboot of Dallas.)
Many actors believe that once they’re playing the parent of a teenager or – God forbid – a grandmother, their days as a romantic lead are over, and they’ll be relegated to pouring coffee and listening to other characters’ problems (this, as a rule, happens almost exclusively to women. Soap-opera leading men have much longer shelf-lives. As Matthew McConaughey says in Dazed and Confused, “I get older, they stay the same.”). As a result, some daytime divas with enough clout have a “grandmother clause” inserted into their contracts.
As the World Turns star Eileen Fulton (Lisa) told CBSNews.com about her demanding one in the 1970s: “I was involved in a hot romance at the time. I knew… soap-opera grandmothers had no fun.” (Savvy fans, consequently, blamed Fulton for Lisa’s on-screen son, Tom, and his wife, Margo, losing their baby.)
General Hospital’s Denise Alexander (Lesley) followed suit, which is why daytime TV’s best-known couple, Luke and Laura, had no children until Alexander was off the show.
But, the fact is, Fulton was right.
During rehearsal, Isabella snarls, “Let’s get this over with before I forget my one line. Can you believe it? I’m an award-winning actress. I’ve been doing telenovelas for twenty years.” Pause. “Which is remarkable, considering how young I am.”
We learn that Isabella used to be the face of their show… until Ana-Sofia showed up. Now that Ana will be playing a mom, Isabella observes, “I guess they’ll have to change the poster. Again.”
Luckily, Ana figures out a clever way to remind the world of how desirable (and young) she is, and the story-line is scrapped. The co-star who would have played her daughter isn’t upset. “I had too many lines to remember. I have enough trouble remembering to wear underwear.”
But it clearly will not be Ana-Sofia’s last close call. The deck is stacked against her, and Isabella is living proof of what will eventually happen both to her and even to the underwear forgetful ingénue.
Unless, of course, Telenovela is that rare show that might allow all its women to age gracefully – and naturally – on camera, without resorting to downright frightening plastic surgery that makes some soap-opera leading ladies of the last century look nothing like themselves in this one.
That could happen.
But, as Telenovela itself notes, “You guys have been working in Telenovelas too long. You’re desensitized to crazy things.”
Yeah. That would just be crazy….
– Alina Adams