Sunday, December 21, 2014

TV: The TV Latina the press renders invisible

Fall 2014 saw two networks introduce shows featuring a Latina lead.  One was a show worth watching and the other starred a stereotypical 'hot tamale' in a series of contrived situations all revolving around the fact that 'the little Latin Spitfire' was a virgin.

Guess which ones the Golden Globes got on board with?

Did you guess the hideous Jane The Virgin -- a disgusting tale of a 23-year-old pregnant virgin starring 30-year-old Gina Rodriguez?

Yeah, it's the whole Black Snake Moan crap all over again.

Jane's a freak before her 'miraculous pregnancy' (artificial insemination) and yet some 'critics' want to hold it up as an example of great television when it's just another sexist, b.s. show where someone other than a woman controls her own body.

But the show the critics want to ignore?

It's so different from Jane The Virgin.

For example, Cristela actually has viewers.

It's a hit which Jane will never be.

It's also hilarious when Jane, at best, aspires to the 'humor' of Desperate Housewives.

And it stars a woman with goals beyond holding on to her 'flower.'

(And we didn't make that allusion, the opening of Jane The Virgin did -- where grandma had Jane crumple a flower and then explain that the flower was destroyed and that the flower was like Jane's virginity.)

The woman playing Cristela is Cristela Alonzo, a Tejana.  She's also a co-creator of the show and a writer.

Co-creator of the show?

Cristela follows in the tradition of a successful stand-up comic's act becoming the basis for their sitcom -- Roseanne, Seinfeld, These Friends of Mine (Ellen), Home Improvement, Everybody Loves Raymond, Grace Under Fire, etc.

And part of the 'problem' with the show is so-called critics.

A sitcom is not complete in its pilot.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show, for example?  Ted Knight would sketch in additional layers to his character Ted Baxter.  Cloris Leachman, Valerie Harper, Ed Asner and others would also add layers as the season continued.

Cristela's first episode was just okay.

And had it been episode 15 or a second season episode, that would be a problem.

But it's a sitcom before a live audience and, when a show has promise, the audience can help so much.

The audience allows Cristela, the actress, to breathe.  That's very important in comedy.

As she's found her space, her acting has gotten richer and deeper.

So has her writing.

The hardest thing in the world to pull off is a special-Christmas episode.

"It's Not About The Tamales" was the rare Christmas episode that succeeds.

No nonsense about the homeless man who looks like Santa Claus and gets brought home only to turn out to be Santa Claus or an accident that requires the miracle of the season to fix things.

The episode, written by Cristela Alonzo, involved her Jewish co-worker Josh (Andrew Leeds) showing up and seeing Cristela's family at their best and at their worst.  In addition, it filled in so much with the appearance of Eddie, the brother of Cristela and Daniela (Maria Canals Barrera), which allowed Terri Hoyos to show another side in her role as Cristela's mother Natalia.

All of this was done while providing laughter -- the element so many alleged sitcoms forget these days.

It was the ninth episode of a series where each episode has shown a marked improvement.

That's what happens to promising sitcoms if they are filmed before a live audience, the performers, the writers, are able to improve.

A stand up comic, like Cristela, takes an act on the road and, through a series of concerts, hones the act until it's at its strongest.

To fail to do that with a sitcom, to fail to allow it to be performed before a live audience is to doom it to never improving, to only being as good as its initial pilot.

A lot of people think Modern Family is wonderful.  It's really not but the parts that do work tend to come from other shows.

Mitch?  It's the exact same character Jesse Tyler Ferguson fleshed out in The Class (only openly gay).  Ty Burrell's also brought his character over from a sitcom with a live studio audience.  By contrast, Julie Bowen's performance and character is one note.  With no studio audience to offer feedback, she's played a thinly sketched character in a superficial manner and done so season after season.  Her performance isn't just tired, it's dead.

The cast member we worried most about after viewing the pilot was Carlos Ponce who plays Cristela's brother-in-law Felix.  He doesn't want her around (she lives in Daniela and Felix's home). In the first two shows, this was not humorous and Ponce was hitting on notes that made you wonder if Felix was going to end up being a heavy on the show?

The actor was not connecting.

The lack of response from live audiences allowed Ponce (and the writers) the measurement on what to pull back and what to push forward.

Felix is now a relatable character as opposed to the blank question mark that you feared might start beating up his wife.

Had Cristela been a single-camera 'sitcom,' Ponce would still be hitting the wrong notes and be as frozen and dead in his performance as Julie Bowen is as Modern Family's Claire.

Instead, a show with promise has already lived up to it.

Cristela is the strongest sitcom ABC's introduced in years and the growth its demonstrated since the first episode recalls ABC's landmark comedy Roseanne which starred Roseanne Barr who, incidentally, shows up as the ex-wife of Cristela's boss next month.  Forgive us for seeing it as a torch-passing moment.

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