Sunday, April 16, 2006

Betty La Fea, the best telenovela ever

A week from tomorrow, Univision is launching the first remake of what I feel was the best telenovela ever made, "Betty La Fea." I'm holding my breath because we all know what most remakes end up doing to the original, and Betty does not deserve that fate. The original "Betty La Fea" (translated as Betty the Ugly) was a perfect blend of perfectly chosen cast with a story that touched both the usual ugly duckling story chords but also a national chord in its home nation, Colombia. The beautiful swan emerged in a country beset with drug corruption and gave viewers a reason to hope for intelligence, sincerity, and honesty winning both economic and romantic success. The secondary characters were like family, dysfunctional mainly, but like family, and the whole country rooted for Betty in ways that made the final Ross/Rachel coupling here look like a quick exit out of the room.

I'm a big telenovela fan, at least in concept. Too many of them are the "two men (brothers, best friends, business rivals) fall in love with the same impossibly beautiful woman" story, with the same interchangeable plots, characters, and, for the women at least, body parts, sometimes in this period, sometimes in some Zorro-looking place (these automatically get unwatched in my household). But when they're done right, with imaginative plots and creative twists, they give you the best of the soap opera (yes, those words appeared together in a sentence) with the emotional closure of a good chick movie (and those words did, too). For all the soap opera elements, telenovelas END. That makes them so much better than these ongoing afternoon laugh riots on US TV. And then you get to see the same actors turn up for another one, now good guys when just bad guys, strong when just weak, etc., and develop your favorites over the years and feel sorry for the ones, more often women, who can't seem to escape playing the inevitable whore.

Do you need to know Spanish to enjoy telenovelas? It helps, I suppose, although I don't know much (but have learned some from watching--ladies, if someone calls you a "fulana," smack them). You'd be surprised just how much raised eyebrows and intonations get messages across (couldn't you really tell what was going on in an American soap opera pretty much with the sound turned off?) You do need to know that, if "Tia" is making moves on "Sobrino," this is not really something you should endorse (and it's happened recently, on "La Madrastra," the umpteenth remake of a particularly successful mystery, my third favorite telenovela of all time, after "Betty" and "La Usurpadora," about two twin females separated at birth without knowing about the other, one good, one evil, the evil one blackmailing the good one into replacing her at home while she goes out and frolics and, of course, the good one falls in love with the noble but love-blinded hero who . . . just think of it as a grown-up "Parent Trap" without the parents and with a lot of short skirts and cleavage, another somewhat attractive feature of the genre.)

The Spanish problem is about to become less of a problem (Telemundo, which did the original "Betty," had already captioned its shows in English). US networks reportedly are about to launch their own versions this summer, to try the format on American audiences, some shows with actual telenovela experience. I'm not sure how that will work, given those networks generally well-demonstrated failure genes and how other imports have such a mixed track record. I'll give them a chance but not invest too much, a skill you learn quickly, separating the telenovelas that will give you something tasty versus the ones that are giving you the same old crap wrapped in a new tortilla.

I feel the same about the "Betty" remake, called "La Fea Mas Bella" (The Ugly Most Lovely). I've seen most of the leads in other shows and frankly question how they can match the originals, but we'll see. Like many remakes, if you didn't see the first, the story alone may carry you through this one, not knowing how much better it was with the better actors. Or, maybe it will be really good, like "La Madrastra," putting in its own touches and saving the gems from the earlier efforts. "Betty" was such a good story and show that, even if this is a paler version, it might still be worth seeing. I'll check in occasionally with reviews and comments. It is certainly likely to outclass almost anything that's on against it right now.