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On World Television Day, Consider The Teleserye

The teleserye has often been denigrated and considered to be second-rate entertainment, especially in TV’s ever-changing landscape

In 2014, a literature elective in Ateneo made headlines because of its subject matter. No, it wasn’t anything provocative or risqué, or even anything close to offensive, but it made a lot of people angry. The elective was about the teleserye. It had spurred discourse on the internet: Why was an institution like Ateneo spending this much time on something as worthless as a teleserye, was often the argument. Just a year prior, the school’s Theology department offered an elective on Game of Thrones. The reaction, naturally, had been more positive. 

A few months before the teleserye elective was announced, a viral article about how “Pinoy teleseryes will never upgrade to Hollywood-level” made the rounds on social media. The reasons were as follows: lots of stereotypes, the persistent exploitation of obsolete Tagalog, the obsession with fashion extravaganza, the “theater stage” conversation style, new episodes every night, the “star-studded cast” craze, the “artista look,” and the “larger than life” plot. Five years later, the article is still gaining traction (the three latest comments were posted in March and July of this year, and December of 2018).

This trivialization of the genre—and, earlier, the medium—is an all too popular sentiment. Before we reached the age of #PeakTV, before prestige shows about the human condition became commonplace, before movie stars migrated to shows that often lasted an hour to an hour and a half, television was seen as something lowbrow and unsophisticated. It was called the “boob tube” for a reason: Television was derided by intellectuals, considering it foolish and nonsensical, and relegating it as “entertainment for the masses,” compared to books, newspapers, film, theatre, and radio. 

Television, after all, is the most accessible medium. It doesn’t require literacy. It can be enjoyed in the comfort of one’s home, and only needs to be purchased once. Unlike radio, it can also show what’s happening, rather than just telling it. For the longest time, television was to be enjoyed only as a guilty pleasure, nothing more. There is a deeply internalized disdain for television, until one day, it became cool to like television, after cable shows like The Sopranos and Six Feet Under changed the way people watched. In other words, network television was still looked down upon, but shows that one paid for were viewed as more intellectual, as these often featured a dark, anti-hero with a stark, gritty plot. 

This isn’t to say that there weren’t any good television shows before the rise of cable dramas. There were plenty. In the 1950s, I Love Lucy was the most watched show of the decade, and it also won five Emmys. Later, in the 1970s, sitcoms would dominate the scene, with some of the most critically-acclaimed and decade-defining shows being multi-camera comedies, like All in the Family, The Brady Bunch, and One Day at a Time. Good television didn’t stop there. The 2000s have often been identified as the third golden age of television, after Twin Peaks, NYPD Blue, The X-Files, and Seinfeld improved upon the medium. “The ’90s were the first decade that the ‘TV is better than the movies now’ talk popped up,” says Emily Todd VanDerWerff of The A.V. Club, “complete with a cover trend piece in Entertainment Weekly to solidify this idea in the conventional wisdom.”

Today, we’re in an era of “prestige TV,” with shows like Veep, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, The Americans, Transparent, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Succession previously or currently dominating awards shows. More than ever, TV-watching has become an important part of our culture, brought about by the rise of on-demand streaming platforms and binge-watching. Over the past decade, our viewing habits have immensely changed—gone are the days when we have to wait for our favorite shows to come on, and it’s no longer necessary to record them if we’re ever out and we can’t watch them while they’re airing. 

In the Philippines, our relationship with television is similar to the United States’. It was the Americans, after all, who introduced the medium to us just a few months after the Second World War ended in 1946. In fact, the man credited to have brought TV to our shores, and dubbed the “father of Philippine television”? A white engineer named James Lindenberg. But the first TV station was put up by former President Elpidio Quirino’s brother, Antonio Quirino, after buying shares from Lindenberg. “The programs being telecast at that time,” according to the 1996 KBP Media Factbook, “were usually borrowed films from the foreign embassies, imported old cowboy movies, and actual coverage of a variety of events.”

Our shows were patterned after American shows—if there had been The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Andy Griffith Show, then of course we had The Nida & Nestor Show, starring the quintessential loveteam of the ’60s, Nida Blanca and Nestor de Villa. The ’60s saw the first Philippine soap opera—not yet known as the teleserye—when ABS-CBN started airing Hiwaga sa Bahay na Bato. We had sitcoms, too, with the longest-running and consistently-rated show being John en Marsha starring Dolphy and Nida Blanca. But it would take 37 years before the first-ever teleserye premiered on ABS-CBN. 

Pangako Sa ’Yo, starring Kristine Hermosa and Jericho Rosales promised to be “the new face of the Philippine soap opera for the new millennium,” says Louie Jon Sanchez, the professor behind the teleserye elective in Ateneo. Since then, the term “teleserye” has been used to refer to any local soap opera on any network, and has often been the subject of much denigration. Teleseryes will never be cool to watch, unlike US serials, and they will never reach the same quality as Korean dramas: aesthetically-pleasing, a good amount of romance and kilig. But teleseryes aren’t comparable to US shows or Korean dramas—they’re serialized; our teleseryes, on the other hand, are daily fare. Expecting them to be structured like our favorite Netflix series is a losing battle. Teleseryes are descendants of the American soap opera and the Mexican telenovela, so it’s against their standards and composition that it must be judged.

When Jo-Ed Tirol and Ray Aguas, the professors behind the Game of Thrones elective, were conceptualizing the course, they’d spoken extensively about the usage of pop culture as a tool for academic studies. Tirol believes that “Game of Thrones reflects human behavior throughout time, how the good and the noble fall and make mistakes, the harrowing effects of evil, and how the fallen can rise above their own folly.” Teleseryes, in their own way, do this too. Maging Sino Ka Man examined class struggle and familial issues. Dahil May Isang Ikaw featured a children’s rights lawyer in search of her lost child. Forevermore touched upon the the trials and tribulations of farmers in the Philippines. On The Wings of Love tackled OFW issues. Kadenang Ginto is our take on the classically campy Dynasty. 

This campiness, perhaps, is what turns plenty of people off, but it’s what brings in other viewers, too. The “theater stage” conversation style is nothing more than outrageous and over-the-top acting, which is one of the very tenets of camp. “Personally I think that’s part of the appeal,” says Zia, 23, a casual viewer of teleseryes. She particularly enjoyed On The Wings of Love, Ina Kapatid Anak, and Tayong Dalawa. Her dad, on the other hand, loves the invincible Ang Probinsyano. “Camp is either completely naive,” says Susan Sontag in her seminal essay “Notes on Camp,” “or else wholly conscious (when one plays at being campy.)” Some teleseryes fall under the first kind of camp; some fall under the second. 

Of course, considering all of this doesn’t mean that teleseryes are perfect. The genre’s constant stereotyping and typecasting of middle-aged women is still rampant, with roles for older women usually divided into two: the kind-hearted guardian, or the evil matron. While this chasm has existed in Filipino literature since time immemorial—often referred to as the Virgin Mary and the Mary Magdalene dichotomy—it doesn’t mean that it should persist until today. Much of the criticism against the genre is valid, such as the recycled storylines and the gratuitous violence, often against women, but the same can be said for many Western television shows as well. The rape scenes on Game of Thrones and 13 Reasons Why are often excessive, and our entertainment industry isn’t the first or the only that makes use of tropes and plot devices. 

The Philippine television landscape is changing. While teleseryes still dominate primetime TV, networks are investing more time and money into creating original content that is more attuned to what a growing number of viewers is asking for. Since its re-launch in 2018, iWant, ABS-CBN’s on-demand streaming platform, has released original shows like Babae Sa Septic Tank 3 and Call Me Tita, as well as movies exclusive to the platform, like Glorious and Momol Nights. But the teleserye shows no signs of slowing down. The 19-year old genre is still highly preferred by a vast majority of TV viewers in the Philippines, with Kadenang Ginto’s peak viewership reaching 27.1% in April 2019. Ang Probinsyano is going strong at 1,071 episodes and has been winning almost all of the awards it’s been nominated for, including the PMPC Star Awards for TV, the Gawad Tanglaw Awards, and the Catholic Mass Media Awards. By now, it is a Filipino pop culture staple, launching a thousand memes about its longevity and even its theme song. 

In a 2014 interview, Sanchez said that “we have to remember that the teleserye is a relevant text of our lives.” It dramatizes contemporary life and “implies certain truths about society and culture,” much like what Tirol said about Game of Thrones. The teleserye, like any other kind of literature or art, is a reflection of our country’s history. “It has developed primarily as a genre along with historical changes and events that are obvious in the historical foregrounding of the study,” adds Sanchez. “It may also be said that the teleserye is our history’s parallel world. The teleserye appeals to many because it embodies the way we look at ourselves and the world.” The teleserye, most of all, tells a story that is quintessentially and uniquely Filipino, in a way that is untouched by our colonizers and is developed by no one else but us. 

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