One decade ago, I was involved in launching the study known as Los Medios y Mercados de Latinoamérica in eighteen countries. We intended that this study should yield data that are comparable to those already being collected in the United States and Canada. So we sat down and we prepared a survey questionnaire based upon what we had previously done in the United States and elsewhere. One of the questions was this:
Do you regularly watch these types of television programs?
[ ] Action/adventure
[ ] Horror
[ ] Mystery/suspense
[ ] Romance stories
[ ] Science fiction
[ ] Situation comedies
[ ] Talk shows
[ ] Telenovelas (drama series)
This was straightforward enough for us. But when the time came to confer with our local suppliers to translate the questionnaire into Spanish/Portuguese, we were stumped. They asked, "What are situation comedies?" As much and as hard as we tried to describe and illustrate, they had no experience or proper term for this genre. We tried to explain the laugh tracks and the element of social reality. They looked at us with incomprehension. We mentioned programs such as "All In The Family" and "The Jeffersons," but they had never seen them before.
Today, I went back to the 1995 edition of the survey questionnaire and I saw that we ended up with "Comedias" in the Spanish version. This is unfortunate, because that term really means "farce" in the sense of pie-in-the-face slapstick humor. In the Brazilian version, we ended up "Programs humorísticos," and I must say that I was not amused. When the survey was fielded, that item got a low incidence but that was quite right because the genre was not really present in Latin America at the time.
A decade later, I am therefore delighted to read the article If the shtick fits ... by Reed Johnson in the Los Angeles Times (March 13, 2005). It is worth excerpting from this article, because it covers many good points (for example, this is not an instance of globalized imperialism as the programs are being carefully adapted for local realities):
Don't look now, but George Jefferson, that foul-tempered, jive-talking scourge of 1970s white American complacency, is alive and well and living in South America. Only he's pudgier than he used to be and not half as ornery. He runs a carwash business now instead of dry cleaners, but he still has his famously thin skin — a few shades lighter than before.
Oh, and he's got a new name: Miguel Galindo.
In his Spanish-speaking incarnation, he's the star attraction of "Los Galindo," a Chilean remake of "The Jeffersons," the CBS situation comedy that aired from 1975 to '85...
Set in a Bel-Air-like district of this smog-choked capital city, "Los Galindo" echoes the premise of "The Jeffersons," in which a nouveau riche African American clan moved to a "de-luxe apartment" on Manhattan's Upper East Side and embarked on a swanky new lifestyle.
The Galindos don't belong to an ethnic minority, but they do represent a relatively new element in Chilean society: the self-made, middle-class urbanites who've embraced free-market values with a vengeance since the 1990 ouster of Chile's longtime dictator-President Augusto Pinochet. Their ascent is shaking up the social and economic status quo, much to the chagrin of the old-guard moneyed elite. Which may help explain why "Los Galindo," in only its first season, is expected to garner a ratings share of at least 25% when figures are announced Monday, which would make it one of Chile's top-rated TV shows.
"It's very interesting in Chile what's happening with the nouveaux riches. There is a compulsion to consume, to buy," says Luis Dubó, the respected Chilean actor who portrays el Señor Galindo. In modern-day Chile, Dubó says, the "neo-liberal principles" of globalization are "the new Mass."
That gives "Los Galindo" currency, but the quality of the writing, high production values and solidly built setup, borrowed from "The Jeffersons," will make the show a hit, Dubó believes. "It was a very well-realized structure," he says of "The Jeffersons." "It functioned like a clock."
There's a certain irony to a show like "Los Galindo" or "Bienvenida Realidad" — which Sony's Kent describes as " 'Dawson's Creek' for Latin America" — being marketed as home-grown Chilean product. But a 100% original, made-from-scratch program is a rare commodity in contemporary global television, where ideas leap oceans and program formats are bought and sold like hog futures. It's worth remembering that some of the most era-defining U.S. shows of the past 30 years — "All in the Family," "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" — were virtual clones of earlier British programs.
Both Sony and its Latin co-producers say they want their new sitcoms to feel tailor-made for a specific country. Though there's a familiar methodology for putting these shows together, they say, the final product shouldn't look as if it rolled off a Culver City assembly line.
"One of the decisions Sony made a long time ago is, we don't do any pan-regional programming. There's no such thing as a 'South American' person," says Brendan Fitzgerald, a Sony senior vice president of international production who focuses on Latin America.
"To a great extent, American writers have the most experience in how to tell a story in 22 minutes, in 43 minutes, in 87 minutes, or whatever," Fitzgerald continues. "And to a great extent they are also not the right people to write the final shooting script, because the same man or woman who is sitting in the San Fernando Valley, who is an absolute master at crafting this kind of storytelling for this kind of television, simply has not lived the reality."
Defining the current "reality" of a country like Colombia, with its ongoing 40-year civil war, or Chile, with its traumatic and shame-filled recent past, isn't easy for most natives, let alone foreigners. Turning that reality into the stuff of "must-see TV" is harder still.
The right-wing Pinochet regime kept the Chilean media heavily regulated and fearful of controversy, says Harting, comparing the environment to that of Spain during the Franco dictatorship. The country's film and TV industry "was very moralizing, and it was totally over-controlled," he says. Under Pinochet, he adds, an incident like the kiss between two female characters in an episode of "Bienvenida" never would've been allowed. Fifteen years later, with most of the old censorship restrictions gone, Chilean popular culture still must deal with self-censorship, says Mateo Iribarren, a scriptwriter and actor on "Los Galindo" and another Roos show, "Tiempo Final." "We have our internal Pinochet," he says.
Yusef Rumie, Iribarren's writing partner and fellow member of the Santiago avant-garde theater company Bufón Negro (Black Clown), says that through comedy Chileans finally may be able to confront some of the country's political demons. "In Chile we have a saying: At the dinner table we don't speak of God, politics or of football," Rumie says. "The humor is important to be able to enter in these themes."
Judging by viewings of past episodes and a recent live shooting session, the cast of "Los Galindo" appears to be channeling "The Jeffersons' " funky irreverence, with a distinctly Chilean twist. Taking a break between scenes, Carmína Riego, the actress who plays Señora Galindo, says that her big-haired, flouncy character is an exaggerated version of Chilean female coquettishness.
"It's in the look — more hair, more eyes," she says. "The Chilean women are super flirty." Yet because of Chile's long-standing sexual conservatism — divorce became legal barely 1 1/2 years ago — that flirtatiousness had to be expressed in a very "indirect" way, Riego says. Though "Los Galindo" hasn't dealt with the old divorce taboo, other episodes have addressed issues of cultural machismo, class snobbery and Chile's long-held stigma against middle- and upper-class women working outside the home.