4 Reasons Why 'Scandal' Is A Telenovela. And A Good One : Code Switch ABC's Scandal is so much more than a prime-time television drama — it's a stealth telenovela.
NPR logo 4 Reasons Why 'Scandal' Is A Telenovela. And A Good One

4 Reasons Why 'Scandal' Is A Telenovela. And A Good One

A shot from Scandal. We could caption this image, but it would be all spoilers. Eric McCandless/ABC hide caption

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Eric McCandless/ABC

A shot from Scandal. We could caption this image, but it would be all spoilers.

Eric McCandless/ABC

Editor's note: If you're not caught up, you may feel that some plot references below are mild spoilers. Fair warning.

As Scandal careens toward its midseason finale, I am remembering the moment last year when I finally got the show. When I finally understood why about 10 million of us are hooked every Thursday and why we generate more than 300,000 tweets that are seen by 2 million people.

It happened in bed.

No, I was alone. I had too many pillows and nothing to drink. My roommate was in his room playing a version of online Chinese poker. I was bingeing on old episodes of Scandal and reading tweets on my phone. The tweets made me laugh some of the time, and other times, they made me pause in that way you do when your best friend has made a joke about race politics that's hysterical but also incredibly sad. I leaned back on my pillows and began to feel that the whole setup was familiar. The over-the-top plot twists. The community chatter. The sense that every Thursday night I am not just watching television but I am a part of something much larger — a show that every other woman of color is probably also watching. Why did it feel like I had been here before? Because, in fact, I had.

I grew up on telenovelas. Spanish-language soaps, like Scandal, happen at night. I watched them with my mother and sister and aunties, and when a good telenovela came on, we all knew that so-and-so next door and over across town was also tuned in to the same episode. A fabulously good telenovela made you think about the turns life takes. It gave you pause and dreams and, most of all, it gave you a sense of community. We might have been growing up in a country that didn't want immigrants, but for an hour each night, the women in my family and I joined a community as well as the conversations and shared stories that came with it.

Is Scandal a telenovela? Shonda Rhimes, the show's creator, might not think so. She told Vulture and other outlets that it pisses her off when the show is compared to a soap or referred to as a "guilty pleasure." She considers that to be a backhanded compliment. But a successful telenovela is different from its English soap-opera cousins.

There are four reasons Scandal qualifies:

1. The Famoso Prime Time

Kerry Washington plays Olivia Pope on Shonda Rhimes' political drama Scandal, one of TV's most talked-about broadcast shows. Danny Feld/ABC hide caption

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Danny Feld/ABC

Kerry Washington plays Olivia Pope on Shonda Rhimes' political drama Scandal, one of TV's most talked-about broadcast shows.

Danny Feld/ABC

Many people make the mistake of thinking that Spanish soaps and English ones are twinsies in different languages. They're not. They do both have plots that center on romance, intrigue and murder, but unlike their English cousins, telenovelas snag the prime-time slots coveted by advertisers. The telenovela is the cash cow of Spanish-language television. Last week, for example, the top prime-time shows on Spanish-language television were telenovelas. Their English equivalents would be The Big Bang Theory, Dancing With the Stars and, of course, Scandal.

In other words, to qualify as a good telenovela, a show needs more than just romance, sex and absurd plot twists. It needs reach. Lots of it. The kind shows get only on prime time. Yes, we have telenovelas on during the day, but the real ones — the good ones — come on at night. Like Scandal. As Brenda Salinas recently pointed out: "Telenovelas are much more popular than soap operas." An estimated 5.6 million people watch telenovelas every night. That's almost double the number of folks watching daytime English soaps, according to Nielsen, and they're not even counting our primas and tías in Latin America.

So when Rhimes says Scandal is not a soap, she's right. It's not a daytime English soap. It's a prime-time telenovela.

2. La Power Lady

Spanish soaps might conjure up images of a doe-eyed Latina who is white and virginal (yes, notice the conflation of race and morality) and who pines after a powerful man. While that is true for many telenovelas, it does not speak for all of them and especially not for the good ones that you remember 10 years later.

The lead female character in the telenovela Simplemente Maria didn't "marry up" but instead started her own fashion design firm.

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A number of telenovelas have actually starred Olivia Pope power-type mujeres. The telenovela Simplemente Maria aired in the late '80s with a lead woman who didn't go from rags to riches by "marrying up" but by starting her own fashion design firm. The telenovela Yo Soy Betty, La Fea boasted a young woman good at math and leading a company (even if she did have a beauty makeover). And more recently, La Reina del Sur featured a lead character as the queen of a drug cartel.

Part of the appeal of these power telenovela women is that they are also still essentially "good women" at heart. And the same is true of Olivia Pope. Yes, a recent episode had her "handling" a situation like her infamous Papi Pope, and yes, she is sleeping with a married man and keeping another on call. But at the end of the day, for all her complexity, Olivia still has a good heart. Think about it. She defends the survivor of domestic violence and gets a single mom elected to Congress. She persuades Fitz to talk about gun control in a personal way to the nation. She might not be the woman you want your niece to become, but Olivia Pope still has enough good about her that we would want her on our side if we were in the Beltway.

3. Black Twitter: A Shared Cuento

The Latino/a literature guru Ilan Stavans recently called for the creation of "telenovela studies" in colleges because the genre's roots lie in literary works. La Reina del Sur, for example, is based on a novel by Arturo Perez-Reverte, and the canonical One Hundred Years of Solitude relies heavily on telenovela tropes of "political intrigue, extramarital affairs, tragic downfalls." Not only do telenovelas come from a written narrative, however, but they also inspire new communal narratives.

Part of the appeal of a good telenovela is the sense of joining a party, a larger story we tell about ourselves. The joy is the chatter as much as it is the characters and the plot twists. This community experience is possible with Scandal because of Black Twitter (the communities of black folks tweeting and taking ownership on that platform). In fact, you can only appreciate Scandal as a telenovela by watching it with live tweeting. As Gene Demby has written: "Watching Scandal is a deeply edifying, profoundly communal experience."

For Latinas in the United States, telenovelas have provided a shared cuento, or story. We have a communal narrative, for example, about class inequities and the move from campos to cities thanks, in large part, to telenovelas. In similar fashion, Scandal, by way of Black Twitter, is providing a shared story for people of color. We might not have a Papi Pope (thank the Lord), but when Daddy Pope lectures Olivia yet one more time about all he has sacrificed for her, a collective sigh of recognition can be heard around Twitter. What black and brown person born post-1975 hasn't felt the burden of his or her parents' journeys and sacrificios? What woman hasn't been torn between the direction her heart indicates and the insistence of an elder who thinks he knows better?

Scandal, like a good telenovela, takes up these issues, and we tune in to see ourselves magnified for better and for worse. And we hop on Twitter to make sense of what we're watching and thinking and feeling. Little by little, we start shaping new ways of talking about our communities.

4. Social Issues 101

When Junot Diaz was drafting his Pulitzer-winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, he knew it was going to be a history of the Dominican Republic. How to make that digestible for readers? He spotted his mother and sister watching a telenovela and realized his book had to have a love story. In other words: the touch of a telenovela.

In Latin America, telenovelas have tackled issues of class and politics and gender for decades. A woman goes from the slums to literacy classes and running her own company. Or she discovers that her value is not just as a mom and a wife. She can have her own dreams. Telenovelas have even been used for awareness about everything from diabetes to mental illness.

Scandal has followed suit. Last month, amid midterm election battles over gun rights, Scandal's writers inserted a message promoting tighter gun control. It came by way of a presidential speech (at the recommendation of Olivia, of course). Whether that translates into political will in real life, it's impossible to say. But around 10 million people heard an impassioned plea for controlling the number of guns in this country.

Scandal, in fact, has taken up an insane number of social issues. Abby, the press secretary, explained recently why, despite all the progress we've made to raise awareness about domestic violence, it's still hard for a woman in a public role to admit that she's a survivor. Mellie has had a wake-up call about what a first lady could be doing in the White House (leaving some of us to wonder if this is a commentary on Michelle Obama). Who can forget the end of Season 3 when Daddy Pope called Fitz a "boy" and delivered a scene that was nothing short of a sermon about the achievements and struggles of the black community after the civil rights movement?

None of this is to suggest that we are watching Scandal for social justice messages. But as with any good telenovela, Scandal's creator and writers know we will pay attention because the absurd plot twists, fast pace and ridiculous characters have already won us over.

Daisy Hernandez is the author of A Cup of Water Under My Bed: A Memoir and co-editor of Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today's Feminism. She is a visiting writer in the creative writing program at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.