What They’re Watching

Soaps, soaps, and more soaps. But not all of the dramas are created equal. In Colombia, viewers enjoy a hard-bitten saga of gang violence; in Iran, they're tuning into tales of Jewish rescue during World War II.

Jewel in the Palace: MBC AMERICA
Jewel in the Palace: MBC AMERICA


An Arabic-dubbed version of this popular Turkish soap opera became a bona fide pop-culture phenomenon throughout the Middle East during its 2005-2007 run, attracting millions of fans from Egypt to the Persian Gulf to Gaza and the West Bank. It is also “replete with evil, wickedness, moral collapse, and a war on the virtues,” said one Saudi cleric. What’s so dangerous about the show? It depicts a young couple as an equal partnership in which the husband supports his wife’s career aspirations, and their friends are young cosmopolitan Muslims drinking and flirting on screen. Plenty of Muslim women apparently liked what they saw.

The Cartel of the Snitches

Drugs, sex, street fights, and money. No, it’s not the latest edition of Grand Theft Auto; it’s Colombia’s most popular soap opera, El Cartel. The multiseason series traces the lives of characters who are enthralled by the drug trade’s prospect of easy wealth, but who learn that their star-studded hopes will not be met in reality; the cartel life is bloody and thankless. The show, based on the book by Andrés López López, who was himself once in the drug business, was Colombia’s highest rated last year, attracting more than 1 million viewers ages 18 to 49.

Zero Degree Turn

While Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was busy making international headlines by denying the Holocaust, his fellow Iranians were riveted by a drama depicting the terror faced by Jews in Nazi-occupied France. Zero Degree Turn tells the true story of an Oskar Schindler-like Iranian diplomat who helped Jews escape Europe by providing them with false Iranian passports. The show was popular with Iranians, but the show’s writer and director says he also meant it to show the world that Iran was not the anti-Semitic caricature often depicted in the international media.

South Africa

It’s not every day that a prime-time drama written by a nonprofit organization makes it to the top of national ratings. But the Soul City Institute for Health and Development Communication program Soul City—with plotlines like a wife presenting her cheating husband with condoms, or a husband’s remorse over spousal abuse—has done just that. Soul City has been so popular that the NGO is starting a new “community makeover show” this fall. Like Soul City, Kwanda won’t steer clear of controversy. Episode 7, for example, looks at “sugar daddies that are endangering young girls’ lives,” according to the NGO’s promotional materials.

Jewel in the Palace
South Korea

This historical soap opera, following the lives and loves of the Korean royal family during the 15th century, is the flagship product of the so-called Korean wave, the onslaught of South Korean pop culture that has swept through East Asia in recent years. Concerned about the shows’ “nonsocialist ideas,” North Korean authorities have created a special squad of police to crack down on smugglers (see page 31 for more). Many apparently still try to watch illicit soaps, however, including Jewel in the Palace fanboy Kim Jong Il, whom then-South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun presented with a DVD boxed set of the show during negotiations in 2007.

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