Binge-watching telenovelas is an endurance test. The kind that I grew up with were aired daily every evening for a year or a year and a half. Café con aroma de mujer, which was the first Colombian novela I remember obsessing over when it aired back in 1994 (I was just a kid, please don’t do the math), consisted of 135 hourlong episodes. These long-running serialized dramas often centered on impossible love affairs that were tested time and time again by fate, family, class and villainous (if fabulous) women. To watch a pair of lovers day in and day out meant you truly got to know and root for them. But they also were ephemeral and designed in a way that allowed you to miss a day or two should your schedule call for it. There was a slowness to their plotting which meant you could spend an entire week watching a wedding play out.
As a genre, they seem the least fit for the age of streaming. Yet, there’s something rather radical about a service like Netflix dipping into celebrated 21st century telenovelas for its roster (talk about endless content!). And while their selection of novelas is quite limited, it makes for a great cross-section of what’s worked for the likes of TV Azteca, Caracol, and Telemundo in the last two decades. Offering both classic tales of will-they-or-won’t-they alongside grittier more drug trafficking-focused stories, you can spend weeks (literally!) watching these 10 telenovelas below.
Before Netflix’s Élite there was Rebelde, which, lest you forget, was set at the Elite Way School. This private school-set telenovela – which is a remake of Argentina’s Rebelde Way – had iconic uniforms, catchy 2000s music (which launched RBD!) and a slew of questionable plot lines befitting high schoolers’ melodramas. To revisit this mid-aughts telenovela, which starred Anahí, Dulce María, Alfonso Herrera, and Christian Chávez among others, is equal parts cringey and delicious. There really hadn’t been a teen soap drama that captured the fresa lifestyle quite like this one, and there may never be another.
Sin senos no hay paraíso (2008-9) AND
Initially a bestselling novel (the title of which translates to “Without Breasts There Is No Paradise,” AKA, you need big boobs to make it big) and then a Colombian telenovela, Sin senos no hay paraíso was Telemundo’s remake of this story about a young woman named Catalina Santana (Carmen Villalobos) whose ambition is so strong she’ll risk her life in order to get her breasts augmented so as to attract drug lords and have all the luxuries in this world. As befits a telenovela, things quickly escalate – so much so that this story required a sequel (in itself based on the novel’s follow-up) all about Catalina’s younger sister, whose good heart proves to be just as dangerous as Catalina’s ambition all those years ago.
Señora Acero (2014-19)
If there’s one trope to be found in 21st century telenovelas is drug trafficking. Cartels and kingpins were all the rage in long-running dramas all over the continent. Many of them, as Kate del Castillo can attest, involved women at their center who by happenstance or by design, find themselves climbing the ladder of success within this most violent of environments. That was indeed the case in Señora Acero, which for its first two seasons centered on Sara Aguilar (Blanca Soto), who goes from housewife to drug trafficker and money launderer. Its third and fourth seasons switched gears and focused on Vicenta Acero (Carolina Miranda), a coyote helping immigrants cross the border.
Dueños del paraíso (2015)
If there’s one name that’s become synonymous with 21st century telenovelas, it’s Kate del Castillo. In Dueños del paraíso, and perfecting the kind of role she’s honed these last two decades, she plays Anastasia Cardona, who is marked by violence and whose ambition leads her to use drug trafficking as a means to become one of the most powerful women of her time. Anastasia finds in the illicit business of her husband, the businessman Nataniel Cardona (Guillermo Quintanilla), the wealth that he always dreamed of and ends up learning the hardships of betrayal and the impossibility of living out a happily ever after.
Rosario Tijeras (2016-)
In that same vein, novelas like Rosario Tijeras (yet another book-to-small-screen adaptation – this one is based on Jorge Franco’s bestselling novel) became unlikely hits, demanding both a Colombian iteration and later a Mexican remake. Like in its original Medellin-set premise, the TV Azteca version revolved around a young woman growing up in Mexico City who makes a living as a hit woman in the most dangerous neighborhoods of that city. Offering a kind of Latin American riff on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Rosario Tijeras tackles sexual assault and violence against women, all the while setting up its own romantic triangle with Rosario at its center.
Nothing beats a good old-fashioned period drama. And what better example of this than this most recent attempt to recreate the life of one of South America’s most famous figures, Simon Bolívar himself? Featuring three people in the title role (Maximiliano Gómez as a boy, José Ramón Barreto as a young man, and Luis Gerónimo Abreu as an adult), Bolívar traces the life of the Venezuelan liberator and hopes to push beyond the image of him as a heroic fighter, focusing instead on his more down-to-earth traits. That means there’s plenty of attention on his relationship with his wife, María Teresa del Toro (Irene Esser), and his lover, Manuela Sáenz (Shany Nadan), in addition to the battles he waged as he fought for independence from Spanish rule.
Pasión de gavilanes (2003-4)
Starring a who’s who of mid-aughts Colombian telenovela up and comers, including Danna García, Paola Rey and Natasha Klauss, Pasión de gavilanes has the kind of title that gets at the heightened sensibility that characterizes many of Caracol Television’s output. Roughly meaning “Hawks of Passion,” this remake of iconic Colombian telenovela Las aguas mansas is set at an hacienda, where Norma (García) lives with her sisters, parents, father-in-law and husband, Fernando (Juan Pablo Shuk). Her sham of a marriage, the result of her family’s need to conceal a sexual assault (!) is but the first inkling of what’s in store in this provincial tale of forbidden desires and conservative familial bonds.
Sometimes all you need for a telenovela premise is “an ambitious woman of humble background and stunning beauty is determined to change her poor situation, using her seductive skills on a millionaire doctor.” That is definitely the case in Rubí, which starred Bárbara Mori as the titular character, who finds herself needing to battle her own ambition with true love when she falls for Alejandro (Eduardo Santamarina), a young man who may not be as wealthy as Rubí believes him to be, all the while seeing how her rich BFF Maribel (Jacqueline Bracamontes) plays out her own romance with a dashing millionaire. Intrigue, rich people, gorgeous bodies. Rubí truly has it all.
Despite what some people may believe, telenovelas encompass all sorts of genres. They’re not all melodramatic sudsy soaps about pretty people. Some, like the Brazilian Z4 are about what it takes to create the latest boy band. The teen-skewing drama follows José “Zé” Toledo (Werner Schünemann) who’s trying to rekindle his magic touch when it comes to launching music acts. To do so, he recruits Luca (Pedro Rezende), a famous YouTube influencer; Enzo (Apollo Costa), a spoiled rich kid; Paulo (Gabriel Santana), a former dancer, and Rafael (Matheus Lustosa), an endless romantic who loves writing love songs. Together they make up the eponymous boy band that’ll go through its share of ups and downs as they seek success.
La reina del flow (2018)
Bringing together arguably some of the most well-worn tropes and mixing them together with some contemporary flourishes, La reina del flow is a perfect hybrid of 21st century telenovelas. On the surface, this is a flashy music-driven story about a music producer called Tammy Andrade (Carolina Ramírez) and a Maluma-like singer who calls himself Charly Flow (Carlos Torres) – two characters whose careers intersect not just with each other but with narcos and drug traffickers. But their back stories and their relationship add a delicious layer of melodrama worthy of the best of the genre: it involves a lyrics-filled notebook, a doomed schoolgirl crush, a double murder and yes, even a 17-year prison sentence.