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Mexican TV dares to dial down the sap

New breed of weekly series looks more like HBO than like the soap operas

Ken Ellingwood
'XY' is an hour-long workplace drama set at a men's magazine. Among Mexican TV's most popular new shows, its ratings are still dwarfed by many traditional telenovelas.

MEXICO CITY One weekly drama probes modern manhood in famously macho Mexico. Another show traipses through trendy Mexico City on the heels of not-quite-grown-up grown-ups fumbling with life and love. A third plunges underground, where strange experiments are taking place in the city's sewers. (It's a cop drama, no less.)

If your idea of Mexican television is the sappy soap opera known as the telenovela, think again.

Led by its public-television broadcaster, Mexico is producing a new breed of TV series — sexy, stylized and risk-taking — that bears closer resemblance to HBO offerings than to the telenovelas that have dominated Mexican television for decades.

The new crop of weekly shows has won a growing audience base among Mexicans nurtured on U.S. series such as "Melrose Place," "Friends" and "The X-Files," but who lacked similar home-grown choices. Media-savvy fans swap comments about the shows on Twitter and Facebook and post favorite clips on YouTube.

The trend has also injected Mexican TV with aesthetics and techniques borrowed from filmmaking, and drawn movie workers to a television industry they once avoided. Those in the world of Mexican television say the burst of weekly dramas, though still with modest ratings, is a sign of evolving tastes following more than a decade of exposure to imported American programs. The new shows also reflect social changes in a modernizing Mexico.

"We're seeing the beginning of a new stage in the Mexican television industry — a stage in which TV series are being made in the style of the United States. We didn't make this format before. We were used to making telenovelas," said Alvaro Cueva, the country's best-known television critic, who works for Milenio Television and other outlets.

Much of the credit is going to Once TV Mexico, the previously stodgy public broadcaster that has shaken up television by launching three series offering unusually frank depictions of life in Mexico in the 21st century. The station has been criticized by social conservatives offended by risque scenes and language and others uneasy with taxpayer-supported public television producing dramatic series.

An hour-long series called "XY" is set at a men's magazine bearing the same name (XY, you might remember from high-school biology, is the chromosome pairing for males). This workplace drama goes places Mexican TV has seldom dared, with men kissing each other as lovers do and a straight couple taking an earnest, awkward stab at a sexual threesome.

"Soy Tu Fan," or "I'm Your Fan," a romantic comedy remade from an Argentine series, follows Charly, an unlucky-in-love young woman and her friends in Mexico City. Charly is played by Ana Claudia Talancon, who is also a co-producer. The language is salty and the humor sly. The effect is racy, sweet and realistic at once — "a breath of fresh air," Cueva says.

And in "Bienes Raices," Spanish for "real estate," a pair of female protagonists sell property in Mexico City while navigating a minefield of adult-themed crises, from extramarital romance to cancer. Some have compared the series, perhaps with some overstatement, to the hit "Nip/Tuck."

Mexico's commercial broadcasters have produced their own new series, including TV Azteca's just-launched "Drenaje Profundo," in which science fiction meets police story in an above-ground/below-ground drama that might be the oddest of the new crop. The giant Televisa network has had success with the crime drama "El Pantera," which pioneered the new wave series, and the comedy "Los Simuladores," which was nominated for an International Emmy this year.

"People are asking for something different," said Fabiana Perzabal, who plays Maricarmen, one of the real-estate agents in "Bienes Raices," which is in production for its second season next year. "They want to see telenovelas, but they want to see we can do other things."

American influence

Like a lot of younger Mexicans, the show's 33-year-old executive producer, Marcel Ferrer, grew up watching U.S. programs, which have proliferated here in the past 20 years as cable and other paid television boomed. At least in bigger cities, Mexicans got hooked on shows such as "24" and "Lost." The onslaught, including HBO and Warner, broadened the menu for viewers once largely at the mercy of the two big networks, Televisa and TV Azteca.

"Private broadcasters were used to making telenovelas. They're the ones who dictated programming," Ferrer said, as the "Bienes Raices" crew shot in a picturesque colonial pocket of Mexico City.

Ferrer said the Mexican series remain "about 20 years behind" their U.S. cousins. But he said the new Mexican shows feature more visual and emotional depth than Mexican soap operas, whose characters are often broad-brushed as good or evil and whose plot lines favor a fairy-tale quality.

Much of the next season of "Bienes Raices," for example, will focus on Maricarmen's struggle to balance child-rearing, job and a budding love life as a single mother after the breakup of her 12-year marriage. The split resulted in large measure from her decision to revive dreams of an architecture career foreshortened by family demands. "These are conflicts and stories that happen to any of us," Ferrer said. "A lot of women are going to identify."

Such fare might seem far removed from book talk, nature specials and the other usual staples of public television. Fernando Sarinana, who became director general of Once TV Mexico in 2008, said producing dramatic series is part of a wider effort to draw new eyes to the 51-year-old station, also known as Channel 11.

Ratings were low and the audience divided unpromisingly into two main age groups: those 10 and younger and those older than 55.

"There was a perception that Channel 11 was boring," Sarinana said. He said studies showed that Mexicans spent most of their viewing time on sports and telenovelas — neither a fit for public TV. "The only place where we could do something was the series, where we could attract a different audience," he said. "We brought Channel 11 back to the front of people's minds."

Weekly format is new

The new series may be trendy, but they present little threat to the telenovelas, which remain hugely popular. Ratings for even the most-watched episodes of "XY" or "Bienes Raices" are a fraction of viewership for the successful soap operas. This year's big hit has been "Soy Tu Duena," which stars the famous singer and actress Lucero.

For people accustomed to a daily telenovela fix, the new shows mean waiting a week between episodes.

"The hardest thing is to adapt to the format of the series that is one time a week," said Patricia Garza, who costars in the upcoming season of "Bienes Raices."

If the emerging Mexican shows feel familiar, it's because they have yet to stray far from time-tested role models imported from north of the border and beyond. Baby steps will one day become certain strides, Mexican TV authorities say.

"Mexico is learning. There was a time when it learned to make telenovelas," said Cueva, the critic. "It's a process. That's why it's important to encourage it, so it doesn't slow down."