I have to come clean about a longstanding prejudice… against the multi-cam sitcom. I can’t deal with the forced laughter telling me what’s funny; even old Friends and Seinfeld episodes, much as I still love them, make me cringe every thirty seconds or so when the haw-haws start up.
So imagine my surprise at how much I liked, and laughed out loud myself at, the new ABC comedy Cristela. Its star, standup comic Cristela Alonzo, has the distinction of being the first-ever Latina to create, produce, write, and star in her own show.
And despite my personal feelings on laugh tracks, it really works that Cristela is in this style, not least because the canned-laughter sitcom format delivers this show on a silver platter to a giant swath of the American primetime network audience, who still seem to dig the pre-recorded guffawing.
And this, of course, is a big part of the point: de-marginalizing Latino culture on TV. Cristela does this expertly. Alonzo writes smart, tight jokes that she delivers with a knowing gleam in her eye. They’re not all about racial bias, though an impressive amount of them are. As with her exchange with a fellow applicant for a law internship, a tall blonde whose opening line to Cristela is, “Can I toss this in [the trash can] before you empty that?”
Cristela: Is this really happening?
Blonde: I’m so sorry! You’re not the cleaning crew! [beat] Can you validate me?
Cristela: I think you’ve been validated enough.
Her boss at the law firm is played, brilliantly, by Sam McMurray (note to Mulaney: now this is the type of workhorse comedy veteran you want to snag for a show), whose good ol’ boy Texas lawyer, Trent, can’t help lobbing offensive remarks at Cristela, yet shows definite potential for enlightenment. In her job interview, he asks her why she wants to become a lawyer.
Cristela: I just love that, in the eyes of the law, everyone is equal — from the lowest working person to the richest titan of industry.
Trent: You’ve been misled.
She’s also aiming straight at misogyny, which is a pretty savvy send-up, given how intrinsic it is to many successful mainstream sitcoms that look a lot like hers. When her niece wants to try out for the soccer team, Cristela’s sister says she’d rather the little girl go out for the more traditional activity of cheerleading. “Ah yes,” Cristela says, “the great Texas tradition, where girls learn they’re not quite as important as boys.”
Also rebooting the Latina image this season is Jane the Virgin, which debuted this week on the CW. Adapted from a Venezuelan telenovela, it has been described by its co-creators, Jennie Snyder Urman (Emily Owens, M.D.) and Ben Silverman (Ugly Betty) as a cross between Ugly Betty and Gilmore Girls.
I never watched Ugly Betty, but I’m not really sold on the Gilmore Girls comparison — the show, likable as it is, doesn’t quite have the rapid-fire banter or the pop-culture reference quota of a GG episode. It does have, like GG, a relationship between a smart, ambitious daughter (Gina Rodriguez) and a mother (Andrea Novedo) who got pregnant as a teenager and is close enough in age to be more of an older-sister type.
The show definitely does possess its own charm, largely in the form of Rodriguez as the titular Jane. But when I first saw the ads for the show, I admit, I rolled my eyes. The word “virgin” is a pretty loaded one these days, and I worried the show would really go overboard with Jane’s wrongly disgraced purity (spoiler alert, but not a huge one: she’s accidentally artificially inseminated at during a comical screw-up at her OB-GYN).
But Jane’s virginity seems more a technicality and a convenient plot point than a definer of her character. The 23-year-old is shown getting hot and heavy with her detective boyfriend (Brett Dier), but is waiting until they get married to actually do the deed, thanks to a formative early-in-life warning from her abuela (Ivonne Coll).
Her grandmother speaking subtitled Spanish is a rare tie to the series’ origins (and a nod to bilingual households across America); another is the recurring presence of the popular telenovela star (Jaime Camil) whose image is plastered all over Miami, where the show is set. And when Jane’s unlikely pregnancy is first revealed, her mother insists she’s “imaculada.”
Other than that, Jane the Virgin seems to go out of its way to make itself as Americanized as possible; I think Jane eats three grilled cheeses in the first episode alone. But its cast is Latino by a pretty huge majority. And judging by its favorable debut ratings, it looks like it went over pretty well with American audiences.
Of the two, Jane is definitely the more traditional show despite its fairly novel sitcom-telenovela mash-up format; there’s some rhetoric delivered to Jane about how the unplanned baby will be the best thing that ever happened to her that I could have done without. (And I’d like to see what Cristela might do with the moment where Jane’s asked, in her cocktail-waitressing job, to dress up like a mermaid and pour champagne.) But this show does give us yet another mainstreamed, independent-minded Latina character in prime time. Given how many hackneyed ethnic stereotypes are still floating around in today’s TV land, that’s kind of miraculous in itself.