It was the year of Operation Desert Storm. The Mount Pinatubo eruption. The Vizconde Massacre. The return of Imelda Marcos. The Philippine senate disapproving 10 more years of US military presence in the country.
The internet was but a few years old and most of us had yet to be aware of it. In the Philippines, it used to be if you wanted to get updated with what’s happening, you tuned in to “TV Patrol” or waited for the next day’s papers. In 1991, we added another news source: if you want to know what’s going on in politics and society at large, you started your week with “Abangan Ang Susunod na Kabanata.”
When ABS-CBN launched the weekly sitcom slash political satire, it couldn’t have predicted the many explosive headlines that will break that year, high profile murder cases included. These stories, supplemented by a steady supply of head-scratchers Philippine politics never run of, would become rich material for the show.
Every Monday night, the prolific writer Jose Javier Reyes would tell the story of what’s happening in the Philippines through the lives of four Filipino households: that of the corrupt congressman Anding Tengco and his pill-popping wife Barbara (Noel Trinidad and Tessie Tomas); the plastic-covered dwelling of nouveau riche Tita Delos Santos and her campaign manager husband Tito (Nova Villa and Freddie Webb); the patchwork shanty of the Lagmays—Luningning (Nanette Inventor), Samuel (Sammy Lagmay), and the “bagong salta” Clara (Carmi Martin); and the parlor of beautician slash manghuhula, Benny Dela Croix (Roderick Paulate).
Reyes says it was ABS-CBN big boss Freddie Garcia’s idea to come up with a social satire for the network. Meanwhile, the show’s director Johnny Manahan, also Reyes’ director in the wildly successful sitcom “Palibhasa Lalake”, gave the writer a freehand to design the show.
How does one begin to write a teleplay for an ensemble of 15 characters, make them your canvas to paint a picture of the country’s current affairs, and do it week after week? “It was pure inspired madness,” Reyes tells ANCX. “At that time it was not a challenge but a mind trip dealing with all these stereotypes which we deconstructed.”
The real challenge was to make the show as current as possible. Reyes would write the script on a Monday evening for a Wednesday taping the same week. “And sometimes we throw [the script] when something happens on a Tuesday.” For Reyes, this would mean going back to his typewriter. “Note: no computers, no emails.”
Reyes is known in the industry not only for being pop culture savvy but one very much aware of current misconducts in politics, as well as society and show biz scandals. He can write about the craziness of the rich (the Tengcos in “Abangan...”) and the misery of the very poor (“Live Show”), the quirks of the old (“Oro, Plata, Mata”) and the restlessness of youth (“Pare Ko”).
This keen interest in the world around him served Reyes well in keeping “Abangan” on a constant fever pitch. It was a sitcom on steroids, its cast’s energy always as high as the top of the outrageous hairstyles Jun Encarnacion would create weekly for Tessie’s Barbara. On all those seven years the program was on air, there was just one time the network showed an episode twice, and only because of popular demand—the one where Leo Martinez played a convicted mayor.
The show was constantly under threat of being axed because of its highly political content. Reyes would go to tapings in case a rewrite was needed. He enjoyed watching the cast, and it is clear he enjoyed working with Manahan. “It was pure chemistry, and the creative joy and insanity,” the writer says of what characterized the collaboration.
“Abangan”, says Reyes, remains the best project he ever did for television. “It was the MOST FULFILLING TV show I wrote for,” he adds. Did he ever get death threats during that time, considering the show’s nature to poke fun at people in power? Were there times he was told to go easy on certain personalities on the news? “Hahaha! A lot! But ABS prevailed," he says. "My parents were more worried for me.”