Created By: glisglis on May 30, 2013 Last Edited By: glisglis on June 4, 2013
Troped

Addictive Foreign Soap Opera

Characters can't stop watching a soap opera in a language they don't understand

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Trope
You've seen this somewhere before in an American sitcom: A character is portrayed raptly watching an undubbed and unsubtitled foreign-language soap opera with a box of tissues and some popcorn even though s/he doesn't understand the plot. Then, queue the canned laughs. Telenovelas are most often used, but this trope definition covers any foreign-language melodramatic series. Invariably, these soap operas are excessively caricatured, with scenes of fights between jealous lovers and adulterous couples.

This is fundamentally a twist on Daytime Drama Queen, with the enhanced humor arising out of the perceived over-emotionality of such soaps and the incomprehensibility (both cultural and linguistic): foreigners are just funny and unintelligible languages can be exploited for their comic value.

The characters' own reactions and responses which can mostly be typified as "humorously bemused" to foreign-language soap operas have a lot to do with the American audiences' relationship to them in real life. Exploiting the comic potential of Americans' superficial familiarity with Spanish-language soaps, David Letterman spoofed one (in Spanish) on his Late Night show as early as 1990, and has also featured clips of South Korean soap operas starting in 2003. The trope has shown surprising resiliency in sitcoms from the early '90s until 2011 and in American animation series from that time to the present day.

The trope is mostly Played for Laughs, but sometimes it can be used to add to the characterization of the figures or used as a plot device.

The underlying structure is of a Show Within a Show. Necessarily, in this trope, Reality Has No Subtitles and the character's perceived unfamiliarity with the language portrayed in the soap opera are prerequisites. Oftentimes, explaining the soap compounds the humor.

Examples

Live-Action Television
  • Northern Exposure. In the first episode of the flanderized second season, Shelly receives a satellite dish from her husband and becomes addicted to a telenovela, which is both Played for Laughs and used to help set up her realization that she has become disconnected from reality and the things she cares about.
  • The pilot episode of Friends finds the gang intently watching, attempting to understand and providing commentary on Tres destinos, a Spanish-language soap, which seems to show that the group enjoys a good laugh together about pop-culture.
    • Another episode of Friends had Ross' monkey Marcel change the language on Monica's TV, so they are forced to see all their shows in Spanish.
  • On Modern Family, Jay and Gloria watch a Colombian telenovela called Fuego y hielo ("Fire and Ice"; or according to Jay, "Big Hair and Loud Yelling"). While Gloria does speak Spanish, Jay does not; she is making him watch.
  • Supernatural (7/3). Dean is shown raptly watching an unidentified telenovela as the episode opens.
  • In Will and Grace (8/13) Jack alludes to the fact that he watches "Spanish soap operas."
  • In The Nanny (5/9) Niles and C.C. watch a telenovela together without their being able to fully understand the plot, which is played for laughs.
    C.C.: Why the hell are you watching a Spanish soap opera?
    Niles: Quiet! Something big just happened.
    C.C.: What?
    Niles: I have no idea. [Audience laughter]
  • An episode of Psych shows that a telenovela that's watched by pretty much everyone in Santa Barbara, even characters who do not speak Spanish (and it isn't shown with subtitles). Shawn even gets a role.

Western Animation
  • The Simpsons throughout its history has shown the characters watching Bumblebee Man in particularly over-the-top, Spanish-language television shows. There are examples of him in telenovela parodies that appear as shows within a show that are viewed by other characters in-universe.
  • In King of the Hill, there is a recurring Spanish-language Show Within a Show, "Los Dias y las noches de monsignor Martinez," which is sometimes watched by the central characters.
  • In a Phineas and Ferb episode (3/1), Dr. Doofenshmirtz attempts to rain out a soccer game that is scheduled to preempt his favorite telenovela.
  • In an episode of As Told by Ginger, Hoodsie and Carl clean a house. Hoodsie is shown watching a telenovela, which Carla turns off.

Community Feedback Replies: 26
  • May 30, 2013
    TheTitan99
    Not sure if it fits as a Soap Opera exactly, but...

  • May 30, 2013
    randomsurfer
    Letterman also had "Korean Soap Opera Clip of the Night" as a semi-recurring segement in more recent years.
  • May 30, 2013
    StarSword
    It's spelled telenovela.
  • May 31, 2013
    TryinaD
    Watching A Telenovela?

    If talk show hosts showing telenovela clips counts:

    Live Action TV
    • The Soup has a recurring segment called "Clippos Magnificos", where the host Joel McHale shows an untranslated clip from a telenovela and comments about it.
  • May 31, 2013
    Magiphart
    Are you sure this isn't too specific? Anyway I think I remember this happening in Phineas and Ferb, can't remember the details.
  • May 31, 2013
    glisglis
    Whether it's too specific I'd leave up to everyone here. I think that the way that Spanish-language telenovelas are used in these shows conveys a message that's fairly consistent throughout the entertainment landscape. It's almost always used to humorous ends. It conveys the same message about the characters that Daytime Drama Queen does, but it does so using specifically American cultural notions about foreign-language soap operas, which does represent, IMHO, a significant difference. It's a more extreme version of Daytime Drama Queen. What does everyone think? Too specific? Maybe the title should open it up to foreign-language soap operas.
  • May 31, 2013
    StarSword
  • May 31, 2013
    TonyG
    • Another episode of Friends had Ross' monkey Marcel change the language on Monica's TV, so they are forced to see all their shows in Spanish.
    • On Modern Family, Jay and Gloria watch a Colombian telenovela called Fuego y Hielo ("Fire and Ice"; or according to Jay, "Big Hair and Loud Yelling").
  • May 31, 2013
    Larkmarn
    ^ Does that Modern Family one count since Gloria speaks Spanish and is presumably making Jay watch?

    • An episode of Psych shows that a telenovela is watched by pretty much everyone in Santa Barbara, even characters who do not speak Spanish (and it isn't shown with subtitles). Shawn even gets a role.
  • May 31, 2013
    TryinaD
    Well, probably it should be named Teary Korean Drama, just a suggestion.
  • May 31, 2013
    Larkmarn
    ^ ... why?
  • May 31, 2013
    crazysamaritan
    I feel like there's another supertrope at play here, where people watch/listen to a work from another language, and don't bother to learn what it means in English. I'm not sure what specifically Spanish or specifically Soap Opera does to affect the work.

    Example: The Shawshank Redemption - Andy puts an opera singer on and Red (with the rest of the prison) just listen to the music. Red wants to believe she is singing about something too beautiful for words.
  • May 31, 2013
    captainpat
    The description kinda long for something so simplistic. I'd cut the second paragraph. Not much of a need to get into why a trope is used.
  • May 31, 2013
    glisglis
    Good idea. The last sentence of the second para is important because it shows the connection to other genres, but I can work that into the final paragraph where it fits more logically.
  • May 31, 2013
    captainpat
    I'd cut the second to last paragraph as well. We don't need a history lesson of the trope and most of that stuff looks like it belongs on the example section.
  • May 31, 2013
    crazysamaritan
  • May 31, 2013
    randomsurfer
    The Simpsons' Bumblebee Man isn't (usually) on a telenovela; he's a parody of Spanish-language comedian Chespirito, specifically El Chapulin Colorado.
  • June 1, 2013
    glisglis
    What I'm going for in the description is some sort of time-frame: that's why the historical cultural references are there in the definition. I'm going to leave that in, because it shows what function the trope might have in the context of the works.
  • June 1, 2013
    crazysamaritan
    How does knowing Jay Leno parodied a South Korean soap opera in 2003 show the function of Shawn Spencer starring in a telenovela on Psych?
  • June 1, 2013
    glisglis
    Because Letterman's showing these soap-opera clips shows that there's a pretty wide perception of these foreign-language soap operas in Letterman's audience as being humorous. When you see a character doing it in-universe, then, you can better interpret just where the writers are coming from, what they're expecting the audience to think. From that you can infer, in turn, a function. I'm thinking that the reason these writers put Mexican soaps in their shows is to provoke get a laugh from the audience solely according to the Rule Of Funny or maybe to somehow lend to the characterization of the person. The cultural perceptions are important. And I can't put the Letterman references down in the examples, because they're strictly not in-universe examples, but I need them nevertheless.
  • June 1, 2013
    crazysamaritan
    How is Letterman showing a soap opera to his studio audience NOT an In Universe example for a Talk Show?
  • June 2, 2013
    glisglis
    The way I understand it, 'In Universe' refers to the way "audience reaction is used within the story." But audience reaction tropes used in-universe have to be audience reactions to a trope in "a fictional story." I guess you could argue that a talk show is in some ways 'fictional,' that there's a storytelling aspect there. For example, the shows are structured like a story, the live-studio audience is sometimes stacked with actors who play a part in a skit in the show, that there is an applause sign that the producers use to drive the story along, etc. But, I was trying to keep it simple and confining it to more straightforward fictional stories like sitcoms, animation, etc.
  • June 4, 2013
    AgProv
    the Welsh language soap opera Pobol Y Cym has devoted fans in England, despite the fact they can barely speak a word of Welsh....
  • June 4, 2013
    glisglis
    I don't think that exactly counts, because the trope has to be within the story.
  • June 4, 2013
    foxley
    • In Generator Rex, Rex is addicted to one particular telenovela, although he at least speaks Spanish. However, several other characters who don't speak Spanish get drawn in whenever Rex is watching it.
    • One episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer had the Scooby Gang watching Bollywood movies without subtitles and trying to guess what the plot was.
  • June 4, 2013
    crazysamaritan
    ^^ you will get that sort of misuse. Especially since you put Real Life examples within the description. Letterman isn't Real Life, it's Talk Show, but you mention the trope in Real Life context as if the reactions of the American audience is part of the trope.
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