Sex And Sanctimony

In his flowered shirt and snowy beard, Manoel Carlos could have stepped off a tropical-cruise ship. Round and tanned, he looks as placid as Buddha. But it's only an illusion. For months now, Brazil's top television writer has been cooped up in his eighth-floor Rio de Janeiro apartment, a prisoner of his own imagination--and the desires of 50 million nightly viewers. Carlos is the 70-year-old author of "Mulheres Apaixonadas" ("Women in Love"), the latest sensation on Brazilian television. Six nights a week, one in every four Brazilians sits riveted to this steamy tableau of passion, folly and betrayal. Too bad for the creator, whose wife and 11-year-old son have just set off for Bora Bora. "I'd give anything to be with them," he says. "But I've got 70 chapters to go."

If it were up to viewers, he'd have 50,000 more. In the United States, where soap operas were born, the programs were always frivolous fare. But Latin America is different. As with black beans or the bikini, no other region of the world has made so much of so little. Mexico, Venezuela and Argentina have all made lavish telenovelas. But it took Brazil's giant TV Globo to turn soaps into a precision industry. More than 80 nations now air Brazilian novelas. And at home, Globo's novelas reign at prime time.

None more so than "Women in Love," which has become one of the highest draws in Globo's 38-year history. But what makes this soap different is its chaotic mixture of the solemn and the silly. Every chapter is a stew of sex, bathos and pathos, with heaps of buttoned-up political correctness stirred in. Torrid bedroom scenes and domestic squabbles mingle randomly with rank preachifying to drink wisely and be kind to the elderly. Globo, fittingly, calls this "social merchandising": pitching good behavior like detergent. Network officials speak proudly of the kudos they've won (from UNICEF and the Pan American Health Organization) for novelas that champion such noble causes as condom use and breast-feeding.

Globo was one of the first networks to marry melodrama with a social conscience. The network has long aired story lines dealing with subjects considered taboo, such as prostitution, homosexuality and interracial relationships. But now Globo has gone even further, tackling such prickly issues as land reform, child labor and cloning.

Carlos & Co. can get away with such moralizing only by ratcheting up the sex, sin and suffering proportionately. Among the colorful 105-character cast are an alcoholic schoolteacher, a murderously jealous spouse, a battered wife, a bubblehead socialite who falls for a priest, a spoiled brat who abuses her grandparents, rich madams with their boy toys and teenage lesbian lovers who must closet their affections. Indeed, "Women in Love" might better be titled "Women Over the Top."

Nobody loves this ratings-boosting blend of scandal and sanctimony more than the sponsors. Globo is raking in the reals--not just from traditional advertisers but also from companies that gladly pay $150,000 to have their goods appear as props. Products--from sandals to anti-spam software--parade across the screen in chapter after chapter of "Women in Love." Often dialogue and whole scenes are staged around them. Some actors recoil at the bald hard sell. Not Carlos, who argues that brands--like wife beaters--are part of life and should therefore be part of novelas. He is even trying to find a way to tuck Viagra into the drama.

Brazilians seem inured to having their soaps turn into shop windows, whether showing off goods or good Samaritanism. This is the sort of one-two punch--call it capitalism with a heart--that has not only made TV Globo one of the world's top five broadcast conglomerates but also an oracle of sorts for Brazilian fashion and attitudes. "The novela is more powerful than any book, play or movie," says Carlos. "It's a great responsibility."

The formula will soon be put to the test again. On Aug. 2, Fernanda, a struggling former prostitute and one of the show's most popular characters, will be fatally wounded by a stray bullet in a tony Rio neighborhood. Some Rio residents have already cried foul, terrified that such publicity will worsen the city's image--already bruised by the latest gang war, which claimed 11 victims. But to Carlos, urban violence is one more dire social drama that Brazilians cannot duck. The sponsors are delighted, of course. And TV Globo? The network has pledged to air the controversial scene, no matter how much money it makes.