In the US: Fridays, 8.30/7.30c, ABC
Latinos make up 17% of the US population and 47% of the population of California, but if you watched network US TV, you’d be hard-pressed to see that fact represented on-screen. There’s a token character here and there sometimes, but largely shows are resolutely white and when there is decent representation of minorities, it’s almost always black characters who get the look in.
This season, however, some networks are trying to improve this lack of representation. Over on The CW, we have Jane The Virgin (review coming up later today) while on ABC – which is really pushing diversity this season with shows including black-ish and How To Get Away With Murder – we have Cristela, starring up and coming Latina comedienne Cristela Alonzo. Based on her own life, Cristela sees the eponymous Cristela dreaming of becoming a lawyer as she enters her sixth year of law school, while simultaneously trying to juggle her family responsibilities and jobs. In particular, she’s moved in with her sister (Maria Canals-Barrera), something that doesn’t please her brother-in-law (Carlos Ponce from Couples Retreat) one bit, and none of her family are that happy with her doing anything but getting married and being subservient to men – not even helping the young daughter to play soccer.
All of the home life scenes are cringe-worthy and clumsy but the show does better when it goes to the law firm where Cristela ends up interning. Rather than sexism, here other isms are examined, with pasty blonde posh girl Justine Lupe (Harry’s Law) taking on the main piñata role necessary for this, first assuming Cristela is a cleaner before realising her mistake and asking her to validate parking. Boss Sam McMurray treads a slightly subtler line, being a blunt good old boy who says outrageous things that it’s unclear whether he truly means or is only saying as a bit of ‘banter’, since he clearly esteems new hire Cristela. And would get an epic law suit if he really meant them.
Meanwhile, the rather sweet Andrew Leeds (best known as serial killer Chirstopher Pelant on Bones) gets to be both competition at the firm, as well as a sounding board and sympathetic ear to Cristela, and its in Alonzo’s interactions with McMurray and Leeds that the show actually finds some lines and moments of intelligence and comedy that transcend its general humour vacuum.
Based in Dallas, Texas (Latino population: 42% – something not entirely obvious from Dallas), the show’s efforts to persuade that it’s filmed anywhere but a studio in Los Angeles largely fail, despite copious references to Dallas football and having Sam McMurray deploy a Texan accent while all around him sound resolutely midwestern. It’s not entirely clear why Canals-Barrera walks around in a cocktail dress all day, either.
However, some aspects of it have a degree of authenticity and it’s even happy to have unsubtitled Spanish dialogue at times, assuming that the audience will probably understand what’s being said. Alonzo’s not being a size-zero inevitably means that the show follows a The Mindy Project line, making her the butt of numerous size jokes as well, although she gives as good as she gets and is similarly self-deprecating. She’s also clearly having a lot of fun and while the writing messes around with Latino and Latina stereotypes, a lot of it relies on her ebullient and winning performance to defuse potentially abrasive situations and reduce serious discussions down to more comedic exchanges.
A multi-camera comedy, the show suffers from an audience that will laugh and go ‘Ah!’ without the slightest provocation from the script. The plotting is basic and predictable, with Alonzo’s family inevitably coming round to accepting her unpaid legal internship by the end of the episode (cue of ‘Ah!’ from the audience following generic affirming statements from Alonzo’s previously antagonistic mother).
It’s not a great show. It’s not an innovative show, beyond its casting: the jokes are obvious, the characters basic and the plotting pedestrian. Anything to do with the main character’s family is horrendous.
So while it’s good to see a show like it on TV, Cristela nonetheless highlights that as well as diversity in casting, there needs to be quality in the writing or else no one will end up watching. And if you don’t believe me on that, allow me to point you in the direction of Rob Schneider’s Rob.