Thalia, the original Maria la del Barrio. It was 1996 when I first met her… on TV of course. And it was thanks to my Aunt who loved Mexican telenovelas. Every evening, she’d turn to Univision, never missing an episode. None of us in the house understood a word of Spanish. Maybe a couple of words here and there. But that didn’t lessen our enjoyment.
Being an NBC Daytime home and foremost, a Days of our Lives family, we were all pretty schooled in the ways of soap. So the soapy twists and turns of Maria la del Barrio were very familiar even if we didn’t understand any of the dialogue.
Sadly, my Aunt never got to see the final episodes of the series, having spent her final days in the hospital before passing. But she certainly would’ve loved the (literally) explosive finale.
Everything from the exotic beauty (of both Mexico and Thalia herself) to the iconic theme song, Maria la del Barrio still resonates and holds a special place in my and my family’s hearts. It was the first and only telenovela I’ve watched all the way through.
And so when ABS-CBN first announced they were adapting the series for the Philippines, I was both excited and naturally horrified. ABS-CBN has been pretty hit and more miss when it comes to Philippine adaptations of foreign series. And on a personal level, I was dreading the thought of them botching another excellent, successful foreign series.
Maria la del Barrio was not only a huge hit in the Americas, but it was a huge hit in the Philippines. After the huge successes of Marimar and Maria Mercedes, it was the third Thalia series on Philippine TV and it drew record audiences on RPN-9. So popular was the series and Thalia, that she traveled to the Philippines herself and even recorded Tagalog versions of her iconic themes, including “Maria la del Barrio.”
So here’s the rollercoaster ride of the Philippine Maria. First, ABS-CBN relieved some of my worries when they announced Erich Gonzales and Enchong Dee as the leads of the new series. I’ve definitely been a fan of theirs and both have proven chemistry that’s already a plus in any casting. Both also just recently came off excellent performances on 2010’s best drama series Magkaribal.
So far so good. But suddenly, ABS-CBN makes the
bold baffling decision to schedule Maria la del Barrio in an afternoon slot. A slot that the network had been floundering in for the better part of a year.
That was absolutely crazy to me. First of all, this was an adaptation of a foreign series. So far, both ABS-CBN and GMA have given their local adaptations comfy, primetime slots; justified by their relatively successful performance and rights fees to the formats.
Suddenly, ABS-CBN decides to slot Maria la del Barrio (as well as a 2nd telenovela adaptation Nasaan Ka Elisa?) in the lowest rated block on the entire network.
The possible upside? They’ll help turn around their dim fortunes in the timeslot. The likelier downside? These series are basically getting dumped in the trash where no one will watch.
Rival GMA not only has a comfortable lead in daytime with an audience up to 3x as much as the nearest competitor, but they have treated all their adapted foreign series incredibly well. Best example of that being the record breaking local version of Marimar as well the successful Philippine versions of telenovela Rosalinda and Korean dramas Stairway to Heaven, Endless Love, and Ako si Kim Sam Soon.
So instead of giving Maria la del Barrio a prime slot, ABS-CBN was willing to throw it to the wolves in the hopes it came out of the pit alive.
Thankfully, somehow, someway, the network realized their idiocy and held off on the series. A good thing as well because the network was rushing production and that never ends well.
So here we are, recasts and timeslot change later with Maria la del Barrio finally premiering.
The series opens on a high note. The very underrated Angel Aquino (the breakout performance of Magkaribal) and always under-appreciated Assunta de Rossi give strong opening performances that immediately hook you into the series. No need to know anything about Maria la del Barrio to immediately get sucked into the series.
The title is probably the best way to describe what the series is about. Maria la del Barrio is about Maria, a young woman from the barrio.
The series opens with Maria’s mother, Sandra (played by the always underrated Assunta de Rossi) and her best friend Victoria (the equally underrated Angel Aquino) in love with the same man, Fernando. Victoria gets pregnant and marries Fernando in exchange for helping to pay Sandra’s hospital bills after an accident. Sandra ends up marrying a lousy bum, but Is blessed with a daughter, Maria.
Through pretty typical soap events, Sandra seemingly dies in a fire and an 8-year old Maria is now an orphan, raised by her mother’s friend Casilda (Ai-Ai de las Alas).
Now Maria is a feisty young woman, working hard for a better life for her and her adoptive mother. When Casilda falls ill from working hard herself, Maria ends up with a job as a maid for the home of Fernando and Victoria where she crosses paths with the eldest son, Luis. And the cat and mouse, eventual romance begins.
Strong First Week
Save for a schizophrenic and jittery 2nd episode, Maria la del Barrio had a strong first week thanks heavily to the performances and the visuals.
Assunta de Rossi, Angel Aquino and even Ai-ai de las Alas all turned in strong performances in the first three episodes which served mainly as backstory. They balanced the brisk pace of the episodes to immediately grab your attention and make you care about these characters from the get go.
The 2nd half of the week introduced us to the title character in Erich Gonzales who, contrary to skeptics, proves well-suited in the role of Maria. She is bold and brave, but not invincible. She’s happy, precocious and a loving daughter. All strengths of Erich as an actress.
And we’ve only seen a little of Enchong Dee as Luis, but he’s been very dependable when it comes to playing Prince Charming.
And maybe more importantly, both Erich and Enchong also have proven chemistry and in the few scenes they’ve shared so far, that’s very obvious.
The visual aspect also sets it apart from the rest of Philippine primetime. It’s an interesting fairy-tale-like quality and the story itself, no surprise, will be about a Cinderella-like ascension for Maria so it fits.
But the presence of typical Pinoy soap opera tropes like the bitchy slut, the annoyingly loud comic relief, even the cat and mouse game of love all seem like they could’ve easily been excluded from the story or at least had had more thought put into them.
Otherwise, it was a quick first week and the main draw will always be on Maria herself so the peripheral characters will likely be kept at a minimum, which will probably be welcome.
Not Quite Perfect
Maria la del Barrio will also likely be driven by its romantic leads and especially Erich as Maria. Erich, Enchong, Angel Aquino as well as a supporting cast that includes even more overlooked, yet worthy talents in Paw Diaz and Arron Villaflor all deserve some meaty material.
I hope they inject a little more fun in the series. The original Maria la del Barrio used Thalia’s personality and appeal to its full potential to keep the series light, but dramatic. From the trailers to the first week, it might seem the series is just your run of the mill Filipino drama. But I do hope they delve a little deeper story wise.
Probably my only real gripe about the series though is the inexplicable absence of the iconic theme song. Though half-heartedly used in some pre-show promos, the original theme song is replaced with a horribly incompatible ballad that seems merely a way of promoting one of the network’s newest talents.
With the original theme song already translated into Tagalog as “Mariang Taga Barrio” AND sung by Thalia herself, you’d think it’d be a no-brainer. But then again, no-brainers and ABS-CBN go hand in hand these days.
But enough of that snark. Maria la del Barrio has otherwise had a nice first week. I definitely hope they keep stepping it up because we all know how great starts in Philippine drama don’t always mean great endings. And of course, there’s the legacy of the original as well. Hopefully this Maria can honor the original while still being original.