It’s a weeknight in Panama City and my girlfriend and I are at her brother’s place for a family dinner. Even though the food is delicious, it seems to be merely a side dish, with the main course being the dramatic Spanish dialogue, streaming from the TV behind me. I guess some stereotypes are true after all – Latinos do love their telenovelas! I turn around, expecting to see yet another over-the-top tale of impossible love, but I’m surprised to find out that this series on SER TV —Panama’s national television network— is not your typical telenovela. For starters, the actors are Korean.
That was, I later discovered, a typical evening of entertainment in the lives of many Panamanian families. The ‘Korean obsession’ started with Moonlight Sonata when it first aired in Panama a decade ago. “It was so different to all the telenovelas, or in fact, pretty much to anything I had seen,” Jaquecsy Garcia, 25, remembers. “It was so pure, it had real emotions . . . . I was in high school at the time, which made everything all the more relatable. I could watch it with my family over dinner without feeling awkward like during Latin telenovelas with all the kissing.” The world of the Korean high school drama is strikingly different from that of many telenovelas: one in which hand-holding can have a narrative significance greater than that of a kiss, and in which desire is often conveyed through relatively understated glances and gestures.
It’s not just students who appreciate Moonlight Sonata and its characters, just as many are avid watchers of Empress Ki sans any familiarity with 14th-century China. From historical dramas to comedic romances, the appeal of Korean TV shows has proven to be broad and enduring across Latin America, particularly in Panama. So much so that this small nation of four million is categorized as one of a handful of ‘Level 4’ countries by the Korean Foundation for International Culture Exchange — surpassed only by ‘Level 5’ nations, all of which are in Asia. Over 50 Korean series have aired since 2010 on SER TV alone. Delis Nuñes, head of programming at SER TV, confirms the consistently high ratings of Korean shows, and the stronghold they have over Panamanian audiences: “We mostly air Korean dramas during our 9 PM slot, so when there’s a sports event we have to show instead, people call to ask why we didn’t air the series [and ask] when we are going to air it,” she notes. “They say they want to see what’s going to happen next.”
The ratings are all the more impressive when taking into account that the majority of Panamanians keep up with their favorite shows on DramaFever, the world’s largest online platform for K-dramas. “I hate waiting for the next episode [to air on TV],” Erica Sanchez, 31, explains. “I love nothing more than finding a new drama and watching it [all] in 4-5 days. The stories are so addictive.” The platform’s more culturally immersive viewing experience is another draw: “I prefer watching the series in Korean with subtitles,” adds Sanchez. “It feels more authentic.” According to Air Alves Filho, DramaFever’s regional manager for Latin America, Panama’s most-watched Korean series to date is The Heirs (2013), set in a secondary school for the uber-privileged. It possesses, Filho suggests, the signature trademarks of all successful K-dramas: “quality acting, [moral] values, romance, attention to detail, and quality soundtracks.” Panamanian viewers find additional resonances, perhaps, in the show’s thematic focus on the emotional toll of socio-economic inequality.
Interestingly enough though, somewhat similar traits surface in a different TV series currently which streams rapidly into many Panamanians’ lives from yet another exotic culture. Turkey has ranked second in the world in TV dramas export with over $350 million in revenue for 2017. Chile was the gateway to the Latin American market when it first aired the love story 1001 Nights which went on to become a huge hit in nearby countries as well, including Panama.
Similar to Korean dramas, Turkish series are very high-quality products, their production cost ranging from $200,00 to $500,000 per episode. They also rely on narrative to convey romance rather than graphic expressions of affection. What truly sets them apart though is the deep moral conflicts which the entire stories pivot around – to do right by their family, characters are often forced to do wrong by someone else, including themselves. The female protagonist Sehrazat in 1001 Nights spends one night with her enamored boss Onur in exchange for the money she needs for the life-saving operation of her son.
“Any woman in the world would do that. That’s an ethical conflict, it’s a moral and ethical issue in there. A woman has to sell herself, finally, to save her son. That type of story was not common in Latin America,” Juan Ignacio Vicente, Director of Content and International Business of the Chilean channel Mega, explains at the 2017 NATPE conference.
His risk to introduce Turkish series to the uncharted Latin American territories, where family is practically as sacred as God, paid off, and not long after, 1001 Nights spread to the nights of Arelis Sanchez, 37, and many Panamanians alike:
“It got me from the very beginning. The story was so interesting, very, very different. It was much more meaningful,” Arelis remembers. But the moral issue in the story constituted only one aspect of the drama’s allure:
“What made me very interested, too was that her boss seemed very bad in the beginning, but you could feel there’s more to him. And the way he loved her and how their love played out was very romantic. Men in Turkish dramas, in general, are so romantic, they demonstrate their love in all kinds of ways.”
Another way in which romance in Turkish dramas transcends cultures is through one of love’s most universal expressions: music, a facet which ironically Vicente and other producers alike were first worried about.
“I absolutely love the music in 1001 Nights and other Turkish series! It’s so romantic, sad, and passionate at the same time,” Arelis continues. “Again, very, very different.”
1001 Nights not onlypaved the way for other quality Turkish dramas to enter Panama but even started somewhat of a war. Telemetro, the national channel which aired the groundbreaking series, blamed Panama’s other national channel TVN for being unethical because of purchasing the historical Turkish series Magnificent Century which also stars Halit Ergenç who plays Onur in 1001 Nights and is now a household name in the country.
“When they saw that Onur and Sehrazat were a success, they [TVN] decided to do the same… They are like children who want the toy of the others. Women fall in love with Onur, I don’t know if they will with the Sultan,” the popular One Two Telemetro character said.
Sila is another Turkish series that features the type of multi-dimensional collision of fates and interests many Panamanians have brushed against – the clash of the modern and the old-fashioned world on the one hand, and the conflict between demanding national and family traditions and personal desires on the other. The story takes place in a small Turkish village where time doesn’t seem to have made a stop, leaving extremely old-dated customs to reign supreme and force the protagonists into an arranged marriage.
For Elvira Solis, 45, such a tale brings up memories of her mother’s stories:
“My mom has told me she married my father when she was only 20, and they barely knew each other. It was just what their families had decided for them,” she says. And it’s not just her mother’s experiences that Sila reminds her of, but of her own as well: “When I first moved to Panama City [from Chiriqui, a province] it was hard to get used to everything. People were much more open-minded, to say the least. The way many men approached me would have been considered offensive in Chiriqui. The difference wasn’t anything like in Sila, of course, but I can still imagine what it must be like to have such a difference in customs and beliefs.”
With more than 25% of the top programs in Panama for 2016 being Turkish, and none of them American, it seems as if Elvira and Arelis are not the only ones who relate to this type of foreign content. And even though it’s easy to see how such stories would generally attract more women, Beltran Arauz is just one of the many men who are currently looking to replace the hole the Turkish drama Endless Love left after recently finishing. For him, it was the action that the otherwise romantic plot was interlaced with that did it.
“I loved how it wasn’t just love, love, love, like in the Latin telenovelas. There was action, war, and shooting, all because of family and love. It made the whole story much more tense and exciting until the very end. There were also a lot of subplots which were all interesting and important to the story, and in Latin American telenovelas subplots are there just to make more episodes,” he explains.
Men don’t necessarily need action to tune into such idealized, borderline platonic romances either, like Boris Moreno, 28, who not only enjoys Korean dramas but finds them wide-opening: “Korean dramas show relationships I haven’t seen or experienced here in Panama,” he observes.Seasoned viewers are aware, meanwhile, that Korean and Turkish series exhibit their fair share of formulaic structures. The love-hate relationship in The Heirs, for example, between a cocky rich boy and a down-to-earth girl from a lower social class, is a particularly well-worn trope, just like family obligations and moral issues in Turkish dramas always happen to come exactly between two beautiful actors who are otherwise a match made in Heaven. At their most unadventurous, then, Korean and Turkish shows offer Latin American audiences the appeal of a different kind of formulaic-ness — the novelty afforded by clichés in a foreign context. And at their best? They introduce Panamanian viewers to a broadened range of emotional and expressive possibilities. Besides sheer entertainment, then, Turkish and Korean series offer open-minded Panamanians something else: a relatable, yet thought-provokingly different, prism through which to view their own relationships, lives, families, and values.