Telemundo recently announced that its telenovela El Señor de los Cielos (Lord of the Skies) will be back for a second season; production began this week in Mexico City. This resurrection sets it apart from almost every other telenovela because, unlike American soap operas, telenovelas have a clear beginning and a definitive ending, airing for a set number of episodes.
El Señor is based on the true story of Amado Carrillo Fuentes, a Mexican drug lord best-known for using Boeing 727 jets to transport cocaine from Colombia. In real life, Fuentes died in 1997 in a hospital after he tried to get plastic surgery to alter his appearance. (There are of course various conspiracy theories regarding how he died.) In El Señor, the drug lord, Aurelio Casillas, returns, but with a different face.
The show, which aired starting in April of this year and ending in August, had an average of 2.3 million viewers per episode. El Señor's finale — originally planned to be its coup de grace — attracted 3.6 million viewers. That figure, the Los Angeles Times reported, made it the "second-highest-rated ending for a telenovela in Telemundo's history."
Telemundo's more successful competitor, the Spanish-language TV network Univision, said in a press release earlier this year that the finale for its telenovela Amores Verdaderos had an average audience of 5.2 million viewers.
El Señor is the latest example of what has been a popular subgenre for years — the narconovela. These shows feature the stories of real and fictional drug lords. There was Pablo Escobar: El Patrón del Mal (Pablo Escobar: The Boss of Evil), which replayed the narrative of the Colombian cocaine cartel chief; La Reina del Sur (The Queen of the South), which was about a woman who becomes one of Spain's most powerful drug traffickers; and now, El Señor.
Genesys Sanchez reported on "narco cultura" for NPR in 2011 and says these types of TV shows sprang up around 2006 and "[feed] into the way a lot of young people in Mexico idolize drug dealers."
And there's an ever present back-and-forth about the merits and shortcomings of narconovelas. They're usually violent and dark. They portray a negative image of Latin America.
"As a commercial product, these things are successful," says Diana Rios, a University of Connecticut professor who studies telenovelas and narconovelas. "And entities like Telemundo are cashing in on that success. ... I question that decision because I'm concerned with the impact on Latino families that watch it — that watch telenovelas."
The resurrection of El Señor is an anomaly, but no surprise for superfan Vinette Brown. She got hooked on telenovelas about four years ago and posts on Caray Caray, an English-language site for telenovela fans to discuss the shows and share recaps of episodes.
"We all sort of expected it when they had such a lousy finale for that show. ... It seemed like they were leaving the door open to have some sort of sequel," said Brown. "It's highly unusual for a telenovela. ... Particularly at the end of narconovelas that center on trafficking ... almost everyone dies."
And as for the next incarnation of El Señor, Brown said she's interested to see what unfolds next spring — but she's a skeptic:
"I don't believe, considering how poorly they wrapped things up, that they'll be able to bring the same level of writing to a sequel."