Downton Abbey: A Mexican Telenovela in Fancier Dress?

Photos thanks to ew. com (Entertainment Weekly) and to Televisa.com

My girlfriend and I are learning Spanish. An important component of our studies is a nightly viewing of at least one Mexican telenovela, with Spanish subtitles. Currently both of us are watching Univision’s El Hotel de los Secretos, but she’s more dedicated than I and she’s just told me that Pasión y Poder, which comes on after Hotel, has gotten very wild, wooly, and watchable since its 60th episode. Crikey! I had given up on Poder somewhere in the 30s because of physical problems: the characters were making me ill. Well, now I’ll have to go back and binge-watch at least enough episodes to catch up to where she is.

But this weekend we took a break from our Spanish shows to binge-watch everything but the last episode in Season 6 of Downton Abbey, the highbrow drama that appears on PBS. But despite Downton’s incredible production values, I still feel that the events of the finale are pretty well fixed and predictable. SPOILER ALERT: PREDICTIONS COMING (BUT NOT BASED ON HAVING SEEN THE FINALE) — Edith and Bertie will get married, Mary will get pregnant, Anna will have her baby, all the “maybe couples” will get together (including Tom with that cute editor at Edith’s magazine), Thomas will get better, and everything will be tied up in a pretty pink bow. I was thinking that the Downton Abbey estate itself would be threatened, but there doesn’t seem to be enough time left to bring that development into play.

Why, this seems as predictable as a telenovela, I thought. So here I’ll compare and contrast the show from PBS, aimed at well-educated, erudite elites (or, as many of us refer to them: Brits) vs. a typical lowbrow trashy novella aimed at ,well, the rest of us (who speak Spanish, that is, or who watch Spanish shows).

Telenovelas are often equated with U.S. soap operas, but they’re different in that they have a story arc of somewhere between 100–140 nightly episodes, which means a series lasts around five-seven months. There are different types, but we watch the adult relationship-oriented ones, as opposed to say, the narco dramas. After all, I watch telenovelas to learn Spanish, and the opportunity to say “Eat lead, stinko!” doesn’t present itself as often in my life as “What do you want now?” or “How dare you treat me like a child? You’ll pay for this, woman!”

Telenovelas get a bad rep. They’re often characterized as cheesy, overly dramatic, with ridiculous, yet predictable plot lines, played out by one-dimensional character types. And some of these criticisms are at least partly justified. But I thought it would be fun to compare the impeccably coiffed Downton Abbey with the mohawked telenovelas, at least in regards to some major story elements.

1. Setting: The telenovelas we watch center upon large families who live in a ridiculously posh mansions with an undetermined, yet seemingly low, number of maids/workers. How their houses and grounds stay so immaculate is beyond me. The adult children live with their parents until they’re married, and often after they’re married.

->Downton Abbey is quite similar in this regard, though on a far more opulent scale. There are far more servants/workers. But again I don’t see how those many acres of land stay so pristine.

2. The acting: Yes, at first glance, one would have to say the acting in Downton Abbey is of a higher quality. Then again, how hard is it to act repressed and stiff, as so many of the characters seem to be? (Oh, I might get some hate mail on that.) Say what you will, some of the Latino/a actors are superb, with some of the slimiest villains you’ll find anywhere. I mean, turn-your-face-away-from-the-screen-revolting. Please name a villain from Downton Abbey who truly frightened you. (Actually, though not technically a villain, Mr. Bates comes to mind.)

3. Telenovela plots focus most on the lives of the rich characters, though there are often subplots involving the employees, who often turn out to be — Surprise to almost everybody! — related to the owners. At least one or two of the help serve as important confidants/sounding boards for their employers. The contrasts between the upper and lower economic classes are emphasized heavily. Several famous series (including Rubí and Teresa) follow the plans of young (and beautiful, of course) women who want to escape poverty in almost any way possible. (Hint: their looks don’t hurt.)

->Downton Abbey divides its attention more equally between the owners and servants, perhaps because the servants in many cases are more interesting than the people who live upstairs. Again, servants’ advice is often sought by the estates’ owners, particularly in the case of women. And though there are no surprise heirs among the employees, Tom the chauffeur does marry Sybil (a daughter of the patriarchal couple).

4. In a telenovela, the line between good and bad is pretty certain. Often the couple destined to end up together has a theme song that plays when they’re locking eyes and bonding. On the other hand, the villains often have their own Jaws-type themes that quickly follow their appearance on camera (if they’re about to get down and dirty). And you definitely know what’s in store for the villains: they will pay dearly for their general a**holeness, almost always in the last week or two with the main two or three villains coming to ignoble ends in the penultimate or even ultimate episode. (In Pasión y Poder, however, the two male leads are far more nuanced. The one who started out as evil is now actually in therapy (OMG!) and his abused-for-20-years wife is now totally in love with him. And the formerly pretty good guy is showing some very rough edges as of late.)

-> No, Downton Abbey is a bit more subtle than that. Characters are definitely more layered in terms of good vs. bad qualities. And it took years for me to figure out who would end up with whom.

5. Perhaps because of the more black-and-white moral nature of the telenovela universe, I find myself actually yelling at the screen when characters do stupid stuff or continually vacillate over decisions that seem obvious to me. Sometimes, the galán (the chivalrous stud lead) and the lead lady break up and get back together, oh, I don’t know, five or six times during the series. Oy, vey! (Note: that isn’t Spanish.) Are these couples really in love or do they end up together because the plot calls for it? The fact that so many of them fall in love at first sight without having had as many as three coffees together makes a real romance suspect.

-> Downton Abbey also can be accused of having a definite lack of chemistry between some of their couples. Oh, the characters tell each other how madly they love someone. But to me it seems that their love is closer to just getting along pretty well. Does Mary really seem enamored of Henry? Edith of Bertie? Mrs. Hughes of Mr. Carson? (Oh please! on that one. Mutual respect, yes. Habit, yes. Love, naah!) This last show, I was fuming at Edith with her hide-the-truth shenanigans toward Bertie. Tell him already! If he dumps you, it’s better to know now than have him find out later. Fool!

6. Wild and improbable coincidences rule when it comes to telenovelas. Open or porous doors are everywhere so people can listen in on others’ conversations. But in many cases, shouting matches can erupt and no one in the whole building seems to have heard anything.

People show up at just the right second to save someone or money appears out of nowhere from previously unknown relatives to sweeten a character’s life. Miracles are a standard plot device in telenovelas.

-> It’s the same in Downton Abbey. That overheard conversation trope is used often, but not as much as in telenovelas. Bates and Anna are saved by a woman magically appearing and confessing to a crime they had been accused of. A not very ambitious land agent inherits an estate bigger than Monaco (see Bertie). Mr. Spratt turns out to be a comic genius (and from a ladies’ point of view!) From way back, Matthew’s paralysis from the waist down — and with it, the loss of the family jewels — disappears! (The paralysis, not the jewels.) ¡No puede ser! (It can’t be!) Ah, it was a misdiagnosis. Those wacky doctors. How convenient for the story!

7. A great percentage of the central family members in a telenovela seem to have very little work to do but they sure do have a lot of money. Some of them must sit in their rooms or at their work desk fiddling around until they have an interaction with whomever (meaning they have to show up for a scene). They don’t seem to read, they don’t watch television, they just.. I don’t know… they just.

-> It seems much the same in Downton Abbey. (Some of the characters do at least read newspapers.) For years I couldn’t figure out what the Earl of Grantham actually did. Characters have to show up for dinners or to have tea with visitors. Such responsiblities! The ladies don’t even bother to get up for breakfast or comb their hair. The servants do all that for them. Even rich Mexican people don’t go that far.

8. The main characters in telenovelas are white and European looking. I never knew there were so many blonds in Mexico until I started watching telenovelas. Also the rich young men are often genuine hunks. Think Magic Mike. But there’s never any evidence that they work out, beyond pursuing love interests.

->In Downton Abbey the characters are also white and European looking, but I think I’ll give them a pass on that. And the guys do not look like steroids are one of their main food groups. Maybe things were different in the 1920s.

9. Although it seems to be changing a bit, telenovela women usually define themselves to a great degree in terms of who their husband is. For the Mexican men, the double standard is often accepted, even paraded.

-> In Downton Abbey, it’s very different. Maybe we can credit Queens Elizabeth and Victoria, but the Downton ladies tend to be strong-willed, often more so than the men. In addition they’re often smarter. The show gives great emphasis to the growing power of women in the 1920s (and also to the growing power of the working class).

10. The Mexican rich are portrayed as wildly fearful of gossip and scandal. They will be ruined, they tell you, if word of all their peccadillos becomes public. But there never seems to be any real consequence in the public eye for any of their actions.

->Pretty much the same in merry old England. There certainly have been a number of love trysts discovered, an illegitimate baby born, a mixed-race romance. But who’s been permanently hurt by any of these?

11. The language in Mexcian telenovelas is relatively clean, almost family friendly. (The physical action, though, is not even close. Is it hot in here or is it just the TV?) You hear an occasional hell or damn or even bastard, but not much worse than that. You can discover countless ways, however, to call someone a slut. You could write a vocabularly pamphlet on that epithet alone.

-> The language in Downton Abbey, of course, is mostly exquisite and usually grammatical (at least upstairs). But in this last episode Edith delivered her long overdue Mary, you’re a bitch! speech so maybe I need to research that more.

Just a few more:

12. In Mexico, if you can believe telenovelas, the police are less than useless. Laughable (and very frustrating for the viewer seeking justice).

->Not quite as bad in 1920s England, I guess. The popo still don’t seem overly competent though and almost serve as comic characters. This is definitely not CSI Yorkshire.

13. Mexican car crashes always result in a life-threatening fire.

-> England? Ditto.

I could go on, but the last few I can think of tend to put the telenovelas down a notch. Oh okay, I’ll mention a couple of them. Babies being switched/kidnapped at birth. (A woman commented on the CarayCaray forum about La Sombra del Pasado, a novella we recently finished, “If the mother is told her child was born dead and it was a girl, you can be sure it’s alive and it’s a boy.” Another stereotype I just saw in La Sombra: throwing acid in someone’s face. Still horrifying though, and the actor milked it. Though not so much as she was, I was definitely in tears.

So, my final conclusion? Okay, I must admit that Downton Abbey is more worthy of writing, directing, and acting awards, and has higher production values than Mexican telenovelas. But dinner at a fancy French restaurant would obviously be considered better than burgers, fries, or pizza, yes? But does that mean you’re going to deny yourself those salty, guilty pleasures? Which would you prefer tonight?

So, as soon as I post this, it’s time to put Pasión y Poder on the Apple TV and lose myself in a world that will , I hope, entertain me and help my Spanish improve. I mean, I really wouldn’t want to live like the rich people in Downton Abbey. Their lives seem rather dull. I’d rather be a galán in a telenovela. They’re rich, gorgeous, and they always get the girl. I got no quarrel with that.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Daniel Berenson’s story.