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Adapting telenovelas for American TV is nothing new (see: Ugly Betty, Jane the Virgin). But on Monday, NBC attempts to put a new twist on an old trick with Telenovela, a half-hour single-camera comedy set behind the scenes at, you guessed it, a telenovela series. At a time when the entertainment industry is trying desperately to increase diversity, Telenovela is notable not just for its all Latin cast and its use of subtitles, but also the humor the series mines from its subject. The star of a Spanish-language telenovela (Eva Longoria in her first starring role since Desperate Housewives) who doesn’t know how to speak Spanish? Check!
In advance of Monday’s special preview, The Hollywood Reporter spoke with showrunners Chrissy Pietrosh and Jessica Goldstein about their telenovela research, what storylines they borrowed from Longoria’s life and how they created a “love letter” to telenovelas.
The show went from being called Telenovela, to Hot and Bothered, back to Telenovela. Why the switch back to the original name?
Chrissy Pietrosh: We always thought of it as Telenovela so we were thrilled that it went back to the original name. I think we were just waiting for it to go back to Telenovela all along.
Jessica Goldstein: It’s a word that’s out there but for some people, there was concern: would people know that this is an English comedy and all that. At the end of the day, it is what the show is.
We’ve seen a lot of remakes of telenovelas, but what made you want to do a show about a telenovela?
Pietrosh: We have an overall at NBC and so we were at a meeting…
Goldstein: …it came up: What would you guys think about a show with Eva Longoria set behind a telenovela?
Pietrosh: Because we’re writing partners, we’re never allowed to agree to something in the room without talking about it first. So we were kind of like, ‘OK, we’ll think about it.’ So then we were on the elevator after the meeting, we were both like, ‘Oh my God, we have to do this.’
Goldstein: Then we found out it was not a comedy and life went on. Then, NBC decided to redevelop it as a half-hour and they matched us up with Eva.
Pietrosh: We were never going like, will we be great as Ugly Betty? Will we be compared with Jane the Virgin? We didn’t think of any of that. All we thought was, ‘God, this could be really funny.’ Honestly, from the elevator to our golf cart back to the office, we pitched out the entire pilot. Jokes that are in the finale of the series…
Goldstein: …We came up with on our golf cart ride.
Pietrosh: It was just such fertile ground and so exactly what Jess and my sense of humor is and what we would want to do. Like get to do a world where you get to have sweet moments… but because of the situation and the world, you get to do some crazy, crazy things. It’s everything we’ve ever wanted.
Why do you think the pacing of a half-hour worked better than an hour-long comedy like Jane the Virgin or Desperate Housewives?
Goldstein: We felt like it did have to be big and fun. What you would want out of a telenovela, we were looking for for behind the scenes.
Pietrosh: We had two mantras this year. One was: small stories, big moments. We thought because we’re going to tell stories that are relatable – friendships, divorce, etc. – that we get to have big moments that maybe are not as relatable like getting stuck in a well or having your evil twin come back. And our other mantra was always beautiful people doing silly things. (Laughs.) We thought those were two things that kept us in the idea of what do people like when they watch telenovelas.
How do you figure where the line is before the moment gets too heightened or over the top?
Goldstein: I think just tonally when we do something big, all of our characters acknowledge, “this is crazy” as it happens the way we would say, “this is crazy.” Nothing that happens couldn’t happen in real life. We just do big versions of things.
We have a later episode where Mimi’s ex-husband comes out of prison and he’s a new man and he’s hot; like prison changed him. It starts out as just a romp-y story about her being tempted by her ex-husband, but it’s that really relatable story that everybody has either gone through or helped their friends through where they want to get back together with an ex who isn’t good for them and they’re making excuses about whether this person has changed or not. … It’s a very real story but it’s just done in a silly way.
Eva Longoria is an executive producer on this show. What was it like working with her and blending her vision for the show with your vision for the show?
Goldstein: First of all, she’s like the hardest working person in show business. She’s just so smart, so involved in everything in a great way. With the three of us, it was this nice fusion of… Chrissy and I are used to working with another person and always being in sync, it’s what we’ve done our whole careers, but teaming up with Eva, it was like a third person where we were all on the same page creatively which was refreshing.
Pietrosh: Whether it’s good or bad, Eva, Jess and I all saw the show exactly the same. … She directed one of the episodes and the idea of your star directing an episode is something that occasionally does not work out very well. It was the absolute best week for Jess and I had because we 100 percent trusted everything. We weren’t at set very often because we knew Eva knew exactly what we wanted and how to get it.
Goldstein: There was a nice shorthand between the three of us.
She played such a well known character on Desperate Housewives. How important was it to differentiate this character from Gaby Solis?
Goldstein: I would say there was an awareness. We wanted to make sure that they were different. We were just really developing the character. It probably came up a couple times where we made sure to lean away from something. But it wasn’t a major concern because the character Ana Sophia, she just came about pretty organically from everything else we were talking about.
Pietrosh: There’s a lot of Eva in Ana Sophia so I don’t think we were thinking as much about Gaby on Desperate Housewives as when we were developing it, we were thinking about what can we take from [her].
Goldstein: She’s great with stories from her own life. She remembers all these funny things and it was a lot of taking from that.
What kind of research did you do for the show? Did you spend a weekend binge-watching telenovelas?
Goldstein: There was a lot of fun binge-watching and YouTube-ing.
Pietrosh: Our cast member Jencarlos Canela was actually in a lot of telenovelas so we got to hear stories from him. We got to go to Telemundo in Miami, which was extremely helpful. We always wanted to make sure we were never trying to skewer telenovelas.
Goldstein: We wanted to do it respectfully and honor them, and craft kind of a love letter to telenovelas.
What was their take on what you were doing?
Pietrosh: Everybody there was extremely helpful. They did not know Jess and I personally, but they knew enough about Eva to know that all of our intentions were nothing but as positive as they could have been. They were making an hour of extremely high-quality programming every day – they’re so impressive. It was just a constant thing of, ‘We cannot let those people down.’
Because it’s a telenovela, the show has some subtitles here and there. How much of a concern was it to use those?
Pietrosh: Originally there was a ton more. The original pilot started in Spanish, like the first couple of minutes.
Goldstein: It was the first couple minutes of that show-within-the-show. It was a fun start but it was a lot of subtitles so we decided to use it more sparingly so we could introduce people to it but it wasn’t going to require people sitting and reading.
Pietrosh: We tried to figure out how to make it as dramatic as we could with the least amount of subtitles as we could.
Goldstein: We didn’t want to isolate anybody and we really loved being in that world, but we use it kind of as a backdrop.
Eva’s character doesn’t speak Spanish. Is that part of the reason for that twist?
Pietrosh: Part of the reasoning, sure, was that we thought it was a good way of saying — in the most blunt terms — it’s OK those of you that don’t speak Spanish. You can be part of her world because she doesn’t speak it either. Another part of it is, as with all of the characters, just spending time with the actors and talking to them and hearing their stories, gave us so much.
Goldstein: That’s from Eva’s life. She isn’t a native Spanish speaker.
Pietrosh: That was a long time ago. Now she’s great.
Goldstein: Now she is, but she had plenty of moments where she was struggling to speak Spanish and people assumed she could speak it and it was uncomfortable and funny. There are so many people like her we thought it was a fun situational story.
Pietrosh: Hearing her stories about being in situations where people assumed she could speak Spanish where she thought she was saying the right word and she wasn’t, that was a no-brainer. We were like, “That’s got to be in there.”
I think 10 or 15 years ago we wouldn’t have seen a network comedy with subtitles like this. What do you attribute this to that it isn’t as much of a concern today?
Pietrosh: I would like to think that, as with everything, with time brings progress. Hopefully the country is more willing to realize that not everybody is the same. It’s OK to read a couple of words if it’s for a funny joke.
Goldstein: It totally makes sense what you’re saying, that there are more subtitles than what you would think. For us, we limited it to seconds per episode so it will be interesting. Hopefully people will embrace it.
Pietrosh: When Jess and I got involved in this project, we were thinking we wanted to make a funny show and for us, the telenovela aspect of it just added to it. Of course we’re going to do that, because it’s funny. These questions were never thoughts in our heads. It’s not like we were going, “We want to make sure that there’s a show out there with more Latinos and Latinos are represented,” and all that stuff, but it’s a nice benefit to it.
We had a test screening and some Latinos stood up and said, “My family’s from Mexico. I don’t speak Spanish. I’ve never seen that on television.” It’s nice seeing the added benefits to this show. The fact that there’s even a little bit of subtitles in Spanish and it’s on a network moves anything forward even a little bit is awesome. It’s not like that was our intent but it’s really friggin‘ awesome if that’s the case.
Telenovela premieres Monday at 10 p.m. on NBC.
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