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.
- 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 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 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. Jay eventually gets into it.
- 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 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.
- An early episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer shows the Scoobies raptly watching a Hindi soap opera and braiding Willow's hair, utterly unable to understand it. Well, Willow understands it and explains.
- Durring the events leading up to Captain Vorpatril's Alliance, Rish gets hooked on several Komarrian Holo Dramas while in hiding in her apartment.
- 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.
- In The Amazing World of Gumball episode "The Remote", Richard wants the TV remote so he can see the season finale of La Casa de las Lagrimas. He even camped out in front of the TV all night to make sure he'd keep it.
- Steven Universe: In "Log Date 7 15 2", Peridot is introduced to a Canadian soap opera called Camp Pining Hearts, which she quickly dismisses as drivel. She then spends 78 hours straight re-watching and over-analyzing the same episode. Later episodes show that she has since seen the entire series, and even gotten Lapis Lazuli hooked on it, too.
- In The Looney Tunes Show, Cecil Turtle, who works at the cable company, tampers with Bugs Bunny's cable plan, so he's only able to get a Spanish speaking network. Speedy Gonzales, initially scoffs at how ridiculous the telenovelas are, but he ends up getting caught up in it. It helps that he can actually speak Spanish so he understands what's going on.
- Rocko's Modern Life, Really Really Big Man is watching a telenovela when he gets a call that a monster is terrorizing the city (really just a 300 foot tall Rocko). Before he leaves, Big Man laments, "This always happens when the good shows are on."
- In one The Wild Thornberrys episode where they're in Russia, Debbie becomes addicted to a Russian soap, explaining "the language of soap opera is universal."
- Star vs. the Forces of Evil: In "Bam Ui Pati!", Pony Head drowns her sorrows over losing her horn in a fight with Miss Heinous/Meteora by binge-watching Bam Ui Pati ("Party of the Night"), a Korean soap opera about a pop singer and her vampire lover. Unlike most examples, the show does include subtitles.