Monday, June 29, 2009

Quien sabe donde? (1992-1998) - for J.

I love Spanish TV. In fact, I am addicted to it, so much so that I pay good money to have 2 channels -one governmental the other private - in my home here in NYC. My childhood memories are made up of bull fights (seen in black and white because my grandparents were too poor to have color until I was older), lurid R or X-rated films aired after lunch on one of the two TV channels, thanks to the post-Franco destape (unveiling), cheesy game shows like Un, dos, tres that featured what they called "azafatas" the word we use for stewardess, endless news or variety programs led by men with large mustaches and mutton-chops (one had the last name Iñigo), a Wild Kingdom type show where a hunter went around killing animals (that guy had long hair and was called Fuente or Puente, there was national mourning when he died).

In the 1990s, when I was living there on and off, there was a new genre that was a precursor to reality TV. This included the shows led by Isabel Gemio such as "Tengo una carta para ti" or "Sorpresa, sorpresa," where hapless guests cried as they told their stories, and the petite clueless hostess, who made several bloopers per episode, "surprised" them by re-uniting them with relatives or giving them a washing machine. My personal favorite was when, in the days before cameras in computers, Skype, or the internet, a huge deal was to connect a person to their distant loved one via video feed. You could see the face of the guest crumple as they wished instead to see them in person.

Another favorite show whose name I am forgetting at the moment was hosted by a balding leathery dapper old man who, after a guest had been stalked at their workplace or home and dragged to a waiting trailer, asked them about their lost love, estranged partner, subject of distant obsession, etc. Wedged in the narrow trailer, there was always a low little table with two unnaturally neon orange drinks, which no one ever drank. Soon after, the two star-crossed lovers were re-united in the studio, leading to extremely awkward outcomes. There was a whole subset of situations involving abusive husbands (this was shortly before the government launched the public education campaigns to attempt to lower the astronomically high rates of "violencia de genero" or gender violence, which even now leads to a large number of murders, and shamefully lenient judicial sentences, because apparently it's less bad to kill or maim a woman than it is to steal somebody's bike) who get on their knees, plead for forgiveness, and were taken back by their abused wives or girlfriends.

However, probably my all-time favorite was a show called "Quien sabe donde?" or "Who knows where?" in which people seeking lost loved ones came forward. Apparently, the show had a high success rate. But my friend and I, who were roommates on and off, began to feel that there was something particularly Spanish about this particular set of situations. As we de-compressed from hours spent in dusty archives, leafing through crumbling periodicals from the 1930s, day after day looking at images from the Spanish Civil War, the black humor found in the everyday tragedies revealed in the show stood out in sharp relief.

Although sadly quite a few of the cases had to do with kidnappings or murders, we half-jokingly developed a theory that the majority of the people sought in the show disappeared ON PURPOSE. As a portrait of them and their world emerged from the testimonies of those they were surrounded by, we started to identify with the disappeared. The sinister small towns seemingly mired in the 1950s, where goats were still thrown from the bell tower of the church in an annual festival, the toothless, fat bald obviously abusive husband, the domineering mother living vicariously through her (missing) teenage daughter.... I remember one episode where you got to see both sides, because they tracked the latter down. She was in Andorra with a boyfriend, having a blast, and couldn't stand her mother. The mother of course, had painted the relationship as ideal, they were "best friends" and not "mother and daughter." We hypothesized that missing wives were happier in the UK, treated like exotic princesses by husbands who did all the cooking.

But now it occurs to me that perhaps this show struck a subconscious chord with Spaniards, given the fact that, thanks to dictator Francisco Franco, almost everyone (including me) knows someone who fits into the following categories: hundreds of thousands went into exile, never returning, tens of thousands died, tens of thousands lie in mass graves today, children were taken from their parents and their identities lost, others are disappeared and no one knows what happened to them.


Every night before the TVE (Spain's national channel) evening news one of my favorite TV show airs, called GENTE or People it covers the span of human affairs, from lurid to glamorous. Divided into "Sucesos" and "Sociedad" half of it covers things like decapitations (usually in small towns), wife beating, individuals with rare and disfiguring ailments, and horrible crimes. Sociedad deals with elegant parties, flattering interviews, gossip, and product placement. Awkwardly, sometimes a story about the Royal Family must be covered (always first in Sociedad) in contiguity with an extremely unpleasant grisly bit.

Typical segments from the Sucesos section:

Local prelate smuggles hashish to prisoners.

Local festival on hold due to neighbor's allegations that he was gored by a bull during an encierro.

Typical product-placement soft focus celebrity sound bite in the Sociedad section: