Covid-19 Is Draining the Suds from Brazil’s Soap Operas

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Brazilians take their melodramas seriously. So when penniless Eliza, the star of “Totalmente Demais”(Total Dreamer), a soap opera spinoff of Pygmalion, runs off to the big city in search of a job and a new life, this nation of couch warriors drew battle lines.

Would Eliza — a tropical Eliza Doolittle — end up with humble Jonatas, a hardscabble street vendor who falls hard for the ingenue  and helps rescue her  from the perils of the urban fleshpot? Or better she surrender to Arthur, the slick fashion impresario who whisked her onto the catwalk with whispers of fame and fortune? Last month as the on-screen rivalry grew fierce, so did the social media frenzy over which pair — “Joliza” or “Arliza” — to ship.

Never mind that everyone already knew the denouement. (She chooses Jonatas.) Totalmente Demais debuted five years ago. Its revival owes not to popular demand but the coronavirus, which has forced producers everywhere to shut down studios, stages and stadiums. Totalmente Demais is just one on a long playlist of reruns that signature Brazilian network TV Globo is counting on to keep the house-bound nation in swoons and tears. Will reheated soaps still juice Latin America’s most demanding living rooms?

Hold the hydroxychloroquine. “The show is more popular now than when it originally aired,” Mauricio Stycer, a television critic for the website UOL told me. But this is where the story line for TV Globo, and culture providers everywhere, gets murky. So intense was the partisan engagement over Eliza’s fate, scores of discontents demanded a new ending, with Eliza going for Arthur. The author demurred; there simply was no way to reshoot the finale in mid-pandemic.  

The message to the entertainment moguls was hard to miss. Yesterday’s favorites may keep screens aglow while families are stuck indoors, but the thrill of the old will fade. Yes, newscasts have plugged part of the programming gap, but viewers cannot live on grim headlines alone. The problem is especially dramatic for TV Globo, the national market leader, which was forced to put 14 primetime soaps and dramatic series on ice as it pored over how to reboot the nation’s most cherished industry. Over the years, seasoned director and writer Ricardo Linhares has seen actors fall ill and suffer heart attacks, with one dying in mid-production. “But we’ve never faced a moment like this when the whole industry comes to a hard stop,” he told me.

This is not just any industry. What keeps Brazilians stoked and talking through good times and bad are its teledramas. (Not for nothing did President Jair Bolsonaro briefly cast veteran soap star Regina Duarte as his culture secretary, though she bombed in the role after just 77 days.) The novela has already suffered setbacks, mainly from on-demand providers like Netflix and Amazon Prime. But streaming services are still too pricey for Brazil’s majority of modest and lower income households, whose go-to pastime is still the broadcast sagas. While the main networks, which are not publicly traded, don’t publish their revenue flows, it’s no secret that novelas are the meal ticket. Before coronavirus, market leader Globo aired four separate homemade telenovelas six days a week during prime viewing hours.

So how to convincingly shoot guy gets girl, or girl gets girl, and still safeguard cast, crew and socially responsible messaging?

Cautionary tales abound. The host of a popular family variety show at SBT, another big network, recently tested positive  a few weeks after the station jump-started tapings in April, and all her crew is under observation. The network has since suspended new shoots. A number of other screen and stage celebrities have also fallen ill.

Globo has rolled out elaborate health protocols for a restart, the date for which is under review. Actors, directors and stage hands will be expected to submit regularly to tests for Covid-19, with temperature checks before every recording. Infectious disease specialists will be on call and even on set. The typically multitudinous cast and crews are to be winnowed, especially child actors, and everyone on set must keep at least 2 meters apart. “A typical novela involves around 400 people, with 120 on the set at any time. We’re going to reduce to 15 or so,” said Jose Villamarim, a director. Such safeguards could add as much as 30% to production costs, according to one report.

Globo has left whether to incorporate the virus into their scripts to its screenwriters and directors. The creators of one interrupted novela, “Amor de Mãe,” which revolves around a mother’s search for a son stolen from her at birth, have decided to meet the challenge by bringing coronavirus into the plot. The rewrite will include scenes of empty streets, characters in masks, families in lockdown and a character who falls ill.

The broader aesthetic challenge may be more vexing. How to tell stories in a cherished genre which turns on intimacy, passion and collective bliss? “The whole novela hinges on waiting for that kiss or for the villain to get a beating,” Nelson Motta, a Brazilian cultural producer said. Forget the crowded family breakfast table and those big fat Brazilian weddings, two cherished novela tropes. “Until they find a way to disinfect everyone and everything, all that’s history,” Motta said.

Fortunately, the pandemic has also stimulated innovation. “The Confinement Diaries” is a comedy series created by a homebound Globo comic actor and his art director wife, who riff on  the frustrations and follies of life in lockdown. Yet these are opportunistic solutions with an understandably limited shelf life.

It’s too soon to know what post-pandemic teledrama will look like. In 55 years of soap-making, Globo faced a shutdown only once, in 1975, when the military dictatorship censored a novela it found seditious. Nevertheless, the producers quickly scrambled to replace that drama and then elude the censors until democracy returned, but the show went on.

With the virus still at large, all bets are off. “No one is talking about a new normal yet,” said Villamarim. Some see computers as salvation. Animated filmmaking, where most of the talent is digital and voices studio dubbed, is on a roll, as are post-production computer graphic artists. One possible workaround: a transparent pane of glass or plastic to separate heartthrobs in intimate scenes, which can be digitally erased by studio wizards. “I’m thinking of patenting this one,” said Villamarim. Call them soap shields.

But it will take more than digital tricks to keep this nation of televoyeurs on the couch. “Otherwise, the only winners will be French cinema, where it’s all blah, blah, blah and nothing happens,” said Motta. Like everyone else, soap aficionados are pulling for a vaccine.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Mac Margolis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Latin and South America. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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