Saturday, October 11, 2014

Pilot Review: Cristela

Cristela (Fridays at 8:30 on ABC)

The family sitcom has been done to death, but Cristela has the "twist" of being about a Mexican family. That little word makes all the difference in a television landscape that under-represents minorities, even as Univision gives the broadcast networks a run for their money in the ratings department: star, writer, and producer Cristela Alonzo is one of very few Latina/Hispanic (she shares the character's Mexican-American nationality) actors on broadcast television, and the only one in a leading role. For that alone, Cristela is admirable. And while "admirable" doesn't always translate to "good," the laughs in ABC's newest pilot land more often than they miss.

Alonzo plays a version of herself, also named Cristela, who is working as an unpaid intern at a law firm. Like seemingly every other new show with a female lead this season, she's finding it difficult to balance her work life with her personal life. She wants to live the American Dream and become a lawyer; her family wants her to get a real job, a new place to live, and a husband.

There's a lot to respect in Cristela. It's probably the most feminist show on the air right now, showing a single woman with no intention of being tied down by a man or children, working hard to do what she wants to do, despite the objections of her family and even her culture. Cristela is a woman I'd want to be friends with: she's brash, uncompromising, and driven. She's the kind of character we need more of, a representation of diversity in more ways than one who embraces her intersectionality (as a Mexican, an American, and a woman) but doesn't let any one thing define her. She fights for her niece's right to play soccer rather than become cheerleader; she loves football and has a huge soft spot for the Dallas Cowboys; but she also wants to feel beautiful and attractive, stemming from an insecurity about her weight, which is another admirable trait of the character: she's not the perfectly-thin model type that dominates the airwaves. Cristela is a well-rounded, realistic character, and Alonzo plays her to perfection. She's so utterly charming, filling the screen with a radiating joy that makes her instantly loveable and relatable. And her comedy has a wit and bite to it that is refreshing and disarming; it's easy to give in to her charms when she lands almost every joke in the pilot with a sly smile.

Alonzo is surrounded by an ample supporting cast as well. Their chemistry is solid and easygoing, like a real family, particularly the relationships between Cristela and her sister, Daniela (Disney Channel mainstay Maria Canals Barrera, Wizards of Waverly Place); and between Cristela and her acerbic mother Natalia (Terri Hoyos). Their teasing is natural, biting but sweet. 7th Heaven's Carlos Ponce doesn't fall into their rhythm as easily as Cristela's brother-in-law Felix, but he gets a laugh or two out of one of the few underdeveloped characters (the other being Gabriel Iglesias in a glorified cameo as Felix's brother, who has a crush on Cristela). The laughs themselves come quickly in the pilot's beginning and middle, thanks mostly to Alonzo's script, co-written with Last Man Standing's Kevin Hench, addressing and occasionally flipping racial stereotypes. The episode devolves a bit into schmaltz by the final act when everyone in the family gets an "awww" moment, and most of the "haves-and-have-nots" jokes between Cristela and a fellow intern are groaners, but so many moments genuinely work that it's hard not to like the show, as a whole.

Because even when Cristela stumbles, it feels like it has something to say. It's not just a vehicle for delivering a little diversity to the mostly-colorless world of family sitcoms. Like many other ABC comedies (The Middle, Modern Family, Black-ish), Cristela adds a new perspective on how contemporary families interact. It's not always original, and it's not always laugh-out-loud funny, but it does have a strong, empowering voice.

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