Reinventing the Drama

Netflix reinvigorates the artform of the Telenovela and taps into the D.N.A. of Latin America.

2 February 20227 min read

Both in Latin America and in the rest of the world, telenovelas represent the power of entertainment to bring people together. While we love the series’ dramatic dialogue and scores — and protagonists bearing amazingly long names — the genre has also been used as a vehicle for information, bringing health issues to the public domain, and even peace during war. Novelas con N de Netflix is both a tribute to our favorite form, and a reimagining of the beloved genre.

We all knew the armchair in front of the television was my grandmother’s and even when it was empty, no one could sit there. From that throne, Pola reigned over two worlds: her normal life, in which she rested with her knitting, and that of her telenovelas, where she entered alternate realities.

As a child, I spent my evenings hypnotized by both the movement of her knitting needles and the dramatic dialogue of her telenovelas. It was incredible to me that my grandmother could fix her eyes to the screen and still never miss a stitch. Other times she seemed intently focused on her handiwork, but she was somehow completely aware of each moment and every transgression in the stories of love, jealousy, and inheritance onscreen.

Many Latinos have similar memories of telenovelas, illustrating the ubiquitous importance of the genre throughout Latin America and among generations. “If I had been born in Norway, I would be a surgeon, but I was born in Venezuela and grew up with melodrama in my D.N.A., mostly thanks to my paternal grandmother, who had a passion for novelas,” shares Roberto Stopello, a writer and director of original content for Netflix Latin America. “In my country it was called ‘comedy hour’ — even when there were productions with dramatic arcs — and for my grandmother it was very important that I watch with her. We spent hours crying and laughing together. She would shout things at the television like, ‘That man is cheating on you!’ That is where my love of drama, melodrama, and storytelling was born.” 

Andrea Chaparro, Franco Masini, Selene, Azul Guaita, Jeronimo Cantillo from Rebelde play their instruments in a wooden paneled room.

Andrea Chaparro, Franco Masini, Selene, Azul Guaita, Jeronimo Cantillo from Rebelde

The screenwriter, whose more than 25 telenovela credits include such hit shows as Señora Acero, Relaciones Peligrosas, and La Reina del Sur, defines the telenovela as a festival of emotions. “Within a single episode, you might cry, get scared, fall in love. Telenovelas are part of the D.N.A. of Latin culture and the way we see life.”

José Ignacio “Chascas” Valenzuela, a Chilean screenwriter and the creator of Amor a domicilio, La Hija Pródiga and the Netflix hit ¿Quién mató a Sara?, points out that the telenovela is an act of faith. “Telenovelas sell hope. In countries like ours, where we are always on the verge of a crisis, or coming out of one, or deep in the hole of a crisis, you make a contract with the audience and say: ‘Look, I’m going to treat your protagonist badly during 119 episodes, but in Episode 120, I’m going to show you that everything can be solved and that the good guys win, and the bad guys get put away or die.’ Somehow you purge your own suffering and sadness through that,” explains Valenzuela. 

I’m beginning to understand my grandmother: After tending her small stationery shop all day, washing, ironing, going to the market, and cooking, after taking care of nine children and eight grandchildren, Pola hitched her dreams on the protagonists of her favorite series. While sitting in her armchair, she was no longer a housewife. She was a woman who went from having nothing to becoming a millionaire. Or a woman finding love for the first time. Valenzuela recalls that sensation: “During ‘comedy hour,’ Chile was paralyzed. It’s our emotional education: One learns to love and hate through telenovelas.” 

The nurse from Madre sólo hay dos confuses two babies swaddled in pink towels.

Madre sólo hay dos

Stopello and Valenzuela are two of the writers leading the effort to create and promote Latin American telenovelas such as ¿Quién mató a Sara?, Oscuro Deseo, Rebelde, Madre sólo hay dos, La venganza de las Juanas, Pálpito, and Ritmo Salvaje for Netflix. “In ¿Quién mató a Sara? we have a gay couple involved in a surrogacy; in Rebelde we have unconventional teen romances, and in Madre sólo hay dos we revisit motherhood,” says Stopello, “We take local stories and make them feel universal. We allow the stories to be told the way they’re conceived and with a high level of production. Investing in each story is what is important.” 

Novelas con N de Netflix is a modern tribute to the golden age of melodrama, to a way of telling stories that has united families for 60 years. But telenovelas are not only for Latin Americans; the impassioned series have become popular with global audiences.

The telenovela has its origins in twentieth century Cuba, where female workers in cigar factories read aloud stories (typically a Spanish translation of Dickens or Balzac) so they would not get bored during long hours rolling cigars. Later, radio would be added to this oral tradition, giving rise to the radionovela. By the late 50s and early 60s, telenovelas had been born, and a mere 10 years later, the genre was booming throughout Latin America.

But even telenovelas have their critics, though many are now changing their tune. My father did not like watching telenovelas with my grandmother, feeling that they caused her — and others — to see the world through rose-colored glasses. But the sessions with my grandmother took me on the most epic journeys — to the house of María Mercedes (1992), a poor girl who moved her family forward; or the Mexican road where the love triangle of Dos mujeres, un camino (1993) took place, or to the time of the Mexican Revolution with El vuelo del águila (1994). 

Oka Giner from La venganza de las Juanas wears a white shirt and looks through a window.

Oka Giner from La venganza de las Juanas

Years later, I learned that my father enjoyed his own watch sessions with my mother. Together they followed a political telenovela called Nada personal (1996) and Mirada de mujer (1997), in which a woman falls in love with a man 20t years younger. When I questioned my father about this contradiction, he responded with something like, “They’re telling different stories now.” And it’s true. 

Valenzuela explains the change, “In Brazil they’ve adopted a more naturalistic type of telenovela and taken the opportunity to educate people about public health issues.” The Chilean cites Días sin luna (1990) as an example, a melodrama in which the Mexican actress Angélica Aragón portrays a woman suffering from lupus.

Stopello brings Cristal (1985) into the discussion, a Venezualan show created by Delia Fiallo that became a huge hit in Spain, in which one of the characters struggles with breast cancer. “During that year, there was an increase in breast exams because of the telenovela’s story. As a writer, when you have your hands on the keyboard, you have an extraordinary responsibility. You know that what you are writing is going to be seen by millions of people,” he explains. 

It is no exaggeration to say that writers have a responsibility. Series all over the world — not only in Latin America — have had great social repercussions. Venezuelan series Kassandra (1992), also written by Delia Fiallo, came to a divided Yugoslavia in the 90s, when Albanians and Serbs were fighting the Kosovo War. “There was a tacit peace agreement between eight and nine each night, while the show was being broadcast. When rebels took over the channel and suspended the show’s transmission, people called on the Venezuelan ambassador to find a new place to broadcast the episodes from. Without Kasandra, the war would have been worse,” Stopello recalls.

Jorge Poza from Oscuro deseo sits at a table that overlooks greenery.

Jorge Poza from Oscuro deseo

“We are excited about Novelas con N de Netflix because of the opportunity to entertain audiences who love Latin American soap operas and the tribute we are paying to the golden age of telenovelas,” says Valenzuela about their campaign to reach 190 countries around the world.

With regard to expanding telenovelas’ reach internationally, the writer’s taken a somewhat contrary approach: “As a writer, I’ve decided that the way to become more global is to be more specific. There is a saying: ‘Paint your village, and you become worldly.’ The more authentic you get, the more specific, the more possibilities you to have to reach audiences’ hearts. If I touch my own heart as a Latin American or Chilean or gay man, I will be capable of touching others’ hearts.” 

I imagine my grandmother absorbed in her knitting and her Netflix novelas, her heart touched by themes that she would never have imagined. And I see her teaching the protagonists, through the screen, with all the authority in the world because her life, like that of that of any Latin American, was, indeed, fit for a telenovela.