It's a warm night in Rio. I'm sitting at a pleasant, cheery outdoor patio. Brazil has just tied 0-0 with Mexico and there's a strange air about the place. The grownups are a bit bewildered. Brazil, all sizzling style, has failed to beat Mexico. That's a worry.
But the teenagers and twentysomethings don't seem bothered. In fact, there's a kissing competition going on. Right there on the street. There are two groups of them, kissing and canoodling like nobody's business. One young woman seems to be engaging in passionate kisses with both young men and young women. Whoops and hollers follow. There's an unsettling giddiness to it all. Such a public display.
Then my eyes are drawn to the giant TV screen, conveniently located so that everyone outside can watch. The roundup of the day's World Cup soccer is over. Regular programming has resumed.
What I see are two women kissing passionately, in a long, luscious embrace. It's a prime-time telenovela. My mind is being boggled, Brazil-style.
This is all unfolding in Leblon, an area of Rio next to the more famous Ipanema and Copacabana. Leblon has its own beautiful beach, and then charming streets of designer boutiques and chic cafés. It's pretty, it's safe, it's very bourgeois.
A few days later, I have an uncanny experience. Disorienting. I'm at PROJAC, the sprawling, massive production facilities of Globo TV, the biggest in Brazil, among the biggest in the world.
What's disorienting is that it feels like I'm standing in Leblon, although I'm an hour's drive from it. A good stretch of it has been recreated for a telenovela set in Leblon. Look, there's the street I've already walked on many times. There's the flower stall, the bank and ornate apartment buildings. There are cars parked on the fake streets; they are all Kias, mind you, because Kia is a major sponsor.
Globo's production facilities are as big as Brazilian TV is mind-boggling. They're major-scale.
In 1.65-million square metres of space, including the biggest urban tropical forest in the world, Globo can create or recreate anything. About 7,000 people work here permanently, but on an average weekday, as many as 13,000 can be toiling here. There are external sets for 22 cities. "This is a television machine," my host from Globo says. "We produce the equivalent of 3 1/2 movies every single day."
Most of the output is in the telenovela genre. Telenovelas air six night a week here, most are an hour-long and they run for nine or 10 months a year.
The output is astonishing – 25,000 hours of content annually that ends up dubbed or subtitled into 33 languages for export to about 150 countries.
In those countries, some Brazilian shows are massive hits. On the tour of Globo's facilities, there's me, the TV critic from Canada, and a South Korean TV crew. The show Avenida Brasil is huge there: Hence the product placement of Kia cars. Crew members are super-eager on their visit to this temple of terrific entertainment.
We are taken around the massive site in golf carts. A young woman from the Korean group sits beside me in a dress the size of a handkerchief, and is especially intent on seeing the wardrobe department, where the costumes for Avenida Brasil are created and stored.
Me, I've been on set visits countless times in L.A. . But this is different. It's all slightly dizzy, like a fan-club outing.
Avenida Brasil is Revenge on serious steroids. It's a tangled tale of a nice, young woman, Rita (Mel Maia), who after being adopted becomes Nina (Debora Falabella) and develops an all-engrossing plan to undermine her evil stepmother, Carminha (Adriana Esteves). It long ago lost itself in a morass of plot twists, including the evil stepmother hooking up with a rich soccer player who is, of course, quite nice and unaware that his partner is as evil as all get out.
Here's a thing to note about the power of such shows: They are watched by everybody, from the poor in remote rural areas to business executives in their condo towers in Leblon. They are among the few shared elements in an immense, complicated society here. Also, note that when the World Cup isn't on, live soccer coverage airs after the telenovelas. While the prime-time audience has decreased with the arrival of online streaming, even soccer cannot compete with these salacious soap operas.
Big as it is in South Korea and many countries in Africa, too, Avenida Brasil is on the decline. Now, the hottest new thing from Globo on Brazil's TV is Em Familia. It's the show that was airing that night in Rio when all the kids were having their kissing competition. The gist is this: Beautiful lesbian photographer Marina (Taina Muller) seduces bored housewife Clara (Giovanna Antonelli). Housewife is initially shocked by the situation, then realizes she's interested, maybe even in love. Photographer sees housewife as a one-afternoon affair and then realizes the intensity of housewife's feelings.
Watching Em Familia is a surreal experience. Mundane, talky scenes of Clara's family life and her earnest discussions of her lesbian activity with her sister are followed by lurid, stunningly shot scenes of Marina working as a photographer, which mainly involves nude portraits of women she finds attractive.
At 9 p.m. on most weeknights, this galvanizes Brazil. You can have your soccer, say many, but this show is tops in entertainment. I didn't get to see Em Familia in production. Bad luck. They cannot be disturbed while making that show. Understood.
The meaning of it all is unclear to me. I can see the appeal of Avenida Brasil. It's an ancient story about a princess denied her good life by an evil stepmother. It's about land and property and it is set emphatically among an upper-middle-class portion of the population. It's about revenge, but it's aspirational.
Besides, there's a gulf between the creative factory of Globo's efficient television-machine facility and the eye-popping result that appears on TV screens.
Brazilians are addicted to the telenovela and Brazil has a fiercely successful industry making these shows, with Globo leading the way. Much of it is lurid and some of it seems trite, but there's nothing trite about the impact of the content, it seems. That was some kind of love-fest unleashed on the streets in Leblon. Everybody kiss now. Kiss, kiss, kiss.