TV to See

TV to See: Foreign Soap Operas

October 02, 2008
by Shannon Firth
American viewers looking for an alternative to “Young and the Restless” or “Days of Our Lives” might want to look outside the U.S. Foreign soap operas have helped launch the musical careers of talented artists. Others springboarded new actors to stardom on the big screen. Each show listed here has a following not limited to its native country, and many of the programs can be bought on DVD.

Australia: Neighbours

The Australian soap opera “Neighbours” began by telling the stories of three middle-class families living in Erinsborough, a fictional suburb of Melbourne. The characters deal with life’s ordinary problems in their small businesses, schools and medical centers in storylines that focus on community issues as well as secrets. The show first aired on Australia’s Seven network, but was sold to The Ten Network in 1985, which enhanced the original show by improving the sets and adding sexier, more glamorous characters. Pop stars like Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan boosted its ratings. The show is also exceptionally popular in Britain.

Information about recent episodes, photos and interactive features are available on the “Neighbours” official Web site; unfortunately, users outside Australia cannot watch the videos.

Colombia: Yo soy Betty la Fea

The popular American sitcom, “Ugly Betty,” whose third season premiered on September 25, has its roots in Colombia, as the telenovela “Yo soy Betty la Fea,” or “I am Betty the Ugly One.” The show’s producer, Fernando Gaitan, wanted to create a show with more depth than the usual soap, that captured the difficulty of being unattractive in a world of wealth and beauty and focused on a modern woman who uses her business skills instead of fluttering her eyelashes to get ahead. However, many fans felt Gaitan eventually undercut his message to women by concluding the saga with the “same old Cinderella story.” After a magical makeover, Betty wins her boss’s affection and overlooks his many flaws. Sandra Hernandez of Salon wrote, “In the end, Gaitan gives us the same old message: Women can’t find true happiness alone; they need a man to help them realize their dreams.” Despite such criticism the American show, “Ugly Betty” starring America Ferrera garnered a huge following in the U.S. and Spanish speaking countries. The Mexican version of “Ugly Betty,” “La Fea Mas Bella,” is so popular in Mexico that in 2007, its viewing audience exceeded that of the Oscars.

England: EastEnders

The long-running English soap “EastEnders” follows the lives of working-class neighbors living in Albert Square in East London. It was created to compete with another celebrated drama, “Coronation Street”; and has succeeded in that aim, winning numerous awards. TV Rage provides a list of current cast members as well an exhaustive list of recurring guests. The BBC’s official “EastEnders” site provides news and other information; however, the videos can only be viewed by inside the UK. Many PBS stations broadcast “EastEnders”; check your local station’s Web site for airdates.

South Korea: Dae Jang Geum

A soap-opera adaptation of a true story, the Korean series “Dae Jang Geum,” or “The Jewel in the Palace,” is a complex tale of a young woman who works as a kitchen maid in a palace during the 16th century. A monk predicts that Jang Geum will cause her father’s death but save thousands. Through perseverance and wit and with help from her advisor, Lady Han, Jang Geum rises to the sought-after position of head cook. While others in the kitchen conspire against her, Lady Han and Jang Geum’s suitor, Captain Min help Jang Geum gain favor with King Jung Jong and his queen, and ultimately, a position as the king’s personal physician. The show aired from 2003 to 2004 and enjoyed exceptional ratings.

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