MEXICO CITY - One weekly drama probes modern manhood in famously macho Mexico. Another show traipses through trendy Mexico City on the heels of not-quite-grown-up grown-ups fumbling with life and love. A third plunges underground, where strange experiments are taking place in the city's sewers. (It's a cop drama, no less.)
If your idea of Mexican television is the sappy soap opera known as the telenovela, think again.
Led by its public-television broadcaster, Mexico is producing a new breed of TV series - sexy, stylized, and risk-taking - that bears closer resemblance to HBO offerings than to the telenovelas that have dominated Mexican television for decades.
The new crop of weekly shows has won a growing audience among Mexicans nurtured on U.S. series such as Melrose Place, Friends, and The X-Files, but who lacked similar homegrown choices. Media-savvy fans swap comments about the shows on Twitter and Facebook and post clips on YouTube.
The trend has also injected Mexican TV with aesthetics and techniques borrowed from filmmaking, and drawn movie workers to a television industry they once avoided. Those in the world of Mexican television say the burst of weekly dramas, though still with modest ratings, is a sign of evolving tastes following more than a decade of exposure to imported American programs.
"We're seeing the beginning of a new stage in the Mexican television industry - a stage in which TV series are being made in the style of the United States. We didn't make this format before. We were used to making telenovelas," said Alvaro Cueva, the country's best-known television critic, who works for Milenio Television and other outlets.
Much of the credit is going to Once TV Mexico, the previously stodgy public broadcaster that has shaken up television by launching three series offering unusually frank depictions of life in Mexico in the 21st century. The station has been criticized by social conservatives offended by risque scenes and language and others uneasy with taxpayer-supported public television producing dramatic series.
An hour-long series called XY is set at a men's magazine bearing the same name (XY, you may remember from high school biology, is the chromosome pairing for males). This workplace drama goes places Mexican TV has seldom dared, with men kissing each other as lovers do and a straight couple taking an earnest, awkward stab at a sexual threesome.
Soy Tu Fan, or "I'm Your Fan," a romantic comedy remade from an Argentine series, follows Charly, an unlucky-in-love young woman and her friends in Mexico City. Charly is played by Ana Claudia Talancon, who is also a coproducer. The language is salty and humor sly. The effect is racy, sweet, and realistic at once - "a breath of fresh air," Cueva says.
And in Bienes Raices, Spanish for "real estate," a pair of female protagonists sell property in Mexico City while navigating a minefield of adult-themed crises, from extramarital romance to cancer. Some have compared the series, perhaps with some overstatement, to the hit Nip/Tuck.
Mexico's commercial broadcasters have produced their own new series, including TV Azteca's just-launched Drenaje Profundo, in which science fiction meets police story in an above-ground/below-ground drama that may be the oddest of the new crop. The giant Televisa network has had success with the crime drama El Pantera, which pioneered the new-wave series, and the comedy Los Simuladores, which was nominated for an International Emmy this year.
"People are asking for something different," said Fabiana Perzabal, who plays Maricarmen, one of the real estate agents in Bienes Raices, which is in production for its second season next year. "They want to see telenovelas, but they want to see we can do other things."
The new series may be trendy, but they present little threat to the telenovelas, which remain hugely popular. Ratings for even the most-watched episodes of XY or Bienes Raices are a fraction of viewership for the successful soap operas. This year's big hit has been Soy Tu Dueña, which stars the famous singer and actress Lucero. For people accustomed to a daily telenovela fix, the new shows mean waiting a week between episodes.
If the emerging Mexican shows feel familiar, it's because they have yet to stray far from time-tested role models imported from north of the border and beyond. Baby steps will one day become certain strides, Mexican TV authorities say.
"Mexico is learning. There was a time when it learned to make telenovelas," said Cueva. "It's a process. That's why it's important to encourage it, so it doesn't slow down."