Reserve Me a Seat for a Tragicomedy

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons attribution A1Aardvark
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons/ Attribution: A1Aardvark

Murder and mayhem rule inside a famed, palatial hotel. Our beloved, good-hearted heiress is stowed away in an underground pirate tunnel; her husband is the treacherous stower. Her brother is married to a woman who talks to dolls. Her half-brother’s existence finally came to light, plucked as he was from the obscurity of servility. He was, sadly, delivered from life for an unjust charge of murder (his wife?) yet wait–was he truly good and dead on the funeral day? And her one sister, well, she is more than confessing to the local priest. Behold their mother, the widow who runs her business with an iron hand and a heart to match. Yet she has lost control of her small empire and her wicked son-in-law is to blame, is he not? But, then, he was always a man with blood money on his mind.

I don’t know the statistics regarding numbers of people worldwide who enjoy soap operas. I haven’t been counted among them. Oh, I’ve glanced at a few here and there–in hospital waiting rooms or visiting a homebound client in the past. Excuse me while I snooze. There are other, more interesting things to do, even when I haven’t worked. Daytime television in general has not tempted me unless I am ill enough to require being still and supine. The simple characterizations and repetitive storylines, the way weekly crises pile up to guarantee more barriers to normalcy–what a bore. I do watch a few other shows off and on–some silly, some more weighty. But soap operas? Not likely.

Or so I thought. Then I discovered a series I could not get enough of whether feeling unfit or well. I needed something to entertain me while my spouse watched his cooking or outdoor survival shows. We have one centrally located TV but there is my computer–and Netflix. I was browsing series, looking for something to capture my restless mind, hold me in its thrall. Foreign film fascinates me and I also enjoy series. Up popped “Gran Hotel”, a story of hotel life in Spain, 1905.

I am currently enjoying the ghastly and heartwarming third season.

Well, obsessively viewing it, is more the truth. Particularly when M. is on a business trip–that tells me it has nothing, really, to do with any monopoly of the living room set. I haven’t felt a desire to see it before evening but I wouldn’t put it past me one of these days.

This isn’t a critical report, a review of the series; I am certain there are a few out there. I haven’t read them. I don’t care what the critics think. I can’t wait to find out how Alicia gets out of the subterranean prison, if Julio manages to separate her safely from Diego, the current majority owner of the hotel, and how Teresa, mother of Alicia and two others (as well as rightful hotel owner) deals with an elegant maitre d’. But that one is another sort of professional altogether. The old maitre d’ was a worse shapeshifter so perhaps he is the better pick.

So, here I am, all caught up in the spell. I knew I was in trouble the day I awakened with sinuous Spanish words in my head. I can’t spell them so won’t try but they have clear meaning to me now and they mean things so beautifully: brother, mother, son and darling. Hate and love, hope and heartache. Wine and tea and babies and God. The dance-like rhythms of speech, the beauty of the characters’ expressiveness–their mellifluous, grating or commanding voices carrying through the rooms. Ah, I have come to know them all.

The men openly weep and hug; they rage and lie. The women are smart and subtler in their trickery. They are stalwart survivors and queenly, too. Everyone wants something they cannot have but will not stop trying to gain. Or they want to be rid of what they ended up with. And are seldom content for more than a short while. Are there several stereotypes? Who cares? Are they and we just people looking for something to value and fight for? Yes.

In part, “Gran Hotel” intrigues because it is about a familial dynasty, displaying well how multi-generational dysfunction operates. Yet there is more. The story covers as much as may be possible in such a format of 45 minutes per segment: struggles with morality; loyalty and enduring love and its loss; the critical importance of friendship; the bonds or lack thereof between parents and children; the dangerous ways resentments and regrets poison a person, becoming hate and revenge. Faith, particularly Catholic faith in the early twentieth century is highlighted and prayer (as well as confession and penance) is a part of everyday life. Yet superstitions are not far off.

There are things to be gleaned from the ways of a woman whose only living son is the secret love child of her old, now dead, employer. She is penitent but full of pride in her son; she is humble but carries herself with implacable dignity; she will do whatever is required to insure his happiness and success in this life and beyond. Angela moves like a dancer and wears her age without rancour. Courageous and ethical, she would make a fine friend.

I do get to laugh out loud. There are intrigues that hinge on foolishness and naiveté, some whose impulsive behaviors lead them to ridiculous ends. Javier is the clown, a drunken son who must marry up to increase the family fortune. The smart and indomitable detective Ayala and his less-savvy sidekick Hernando are a comic duo as they try to navigate crime after crime. I would love to join their investigations. I can each episodeas they tirelessly round up a motley group of criminals.

And the clothes! Both men and women in this series dress very well. I rest my eyes upon the aristocrats’ costumes, am amused by their regal bearing, their sumptuous fabrics swishing on the floor as they go, heads held high. The peasants dress in weighty, textured fabrics and more modest but interesting hats. The servants have their own attractiveness, crisp uniforms not the least bit lessening their own needs and wants, their perceptions and unspoken thoughts.

Just seing how people may have lived in this time and place was enough to draw me in and provoke questions about Spain’s history. I admit; this is secondary at the moment. There are better ways to gather that information. Until then, I want to sit back in a chair in their sumptuous dining room and just watch.

M. wonders why on earth I like this series. I don’t speak or read Spanish (he can, a little). I am supposedly “too well-informed by good literature” for this sort of thing. So he goes his way and I go mine as we tolerate our disparate tastes.

Perhaps I thought I was a bit above it, too, once upon a time. Does it reflect my getting older somehow, my tiring of the real terribleness of the world? Putting off cleaning up after dinner or as a reward for same? Enjoying a break from my own life’s duress, from intellectual and spiritual pondering or creative setbacks? Certainly the series is not (nor are other soapy stories) free of stress and pain. Grief. Longing. But it is manufactured and though we know this, we willingly join in for the duration with a suspension of disbelief.

We find facets of ourselves in each character and empathize. We can feel compassion for the plight of victims and outrage at the acts of monsters. We vicariously enter into someone else’s life for a short time, then get to return to our own selves. And we can count our blessings: our lives are easier, after all, or less complex and more loving than these. Or at least more “boring”, which is not always a bad thing, perhaps.

There is hope each new episode, at the very least, of resolution of life’s problems, little by little. I yearn for the righting of so many wrongs. I cheer for our heroines and heroes as they carry on despite being foiled again. The relentless villains eventually do pay the price for their misdeeds. At least, I hope. The show isn’t over yet. And I think I finally understand why folks like this sort of thing. No, it isn’t the classics but it easily speaks to human enterprise and our debacles. That commoness is just as valid as reportedly finer fare.

The beauty of make-believe, afterall, is that it dramatically, sometimes profoundly reflects life but it is not my life, exactly, and not yours. It is just…another rousing good story. So let me pour an iced tea and gather a few cookies. Julio and Andres, Alicia and Maite are up to something once again.


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