Everyone says Cristela Alonzo, in her eponymous new sitcom Cristela, is "charming," and that is true: she has mischief in her eyes and a dimple in one cheek and she smiles very naturally, a lot more than the deceptively maudlin laughtrack drones populating the majority of primetime sitcoms these days. She seems tickled at the prospect to be there, whether with her on-screen family or simply on ABC at a humane hour, even if it's a Friday night.
After almost a decade of working her way up the stand-up circuit, from the wilds of Tejas to late-night show slots, she landed her own, semi-autobiographical television show, Cristela. In many ways, the "Cristela" of Alonzo's show is the most relatable character ever—she's a middle-class girl on the come-up, working hard to achieve her dreams, cute and thick and okay with that, beleaguered by a boy who she's just not that into (played by the ever-lovable Gabriel "Fluffy" Iglesias). She's powerful, she's smart, she can crack a hell of a joke, and she quibbles with her mom.
American television is lacking in non-stereotypical Latinas, and the fact that Alonzo is both Mexican-American and the showrunner puts a lot of onus on her to make it real: to depict us right, to depict us fairly, to depict all of us. Of course, there's the rub—Chicanas do not live a singular, shared experience, much less a shared experience by Latinas, yet being "representative" of us is the price one pays for being The One. (And yes, she is The One: the first-ever Latina to create, write, produce, and star in her own comedy on primetime US television.) It's something Alonzo seemed to understand in the first episode of Cristela, the idea that she would be called upon to speak to a particular universality while really only able to voice her own. As a result, there was a lot of subtle line-toeing between telling a funny story and, maybe, having to over-explain what that story was. She spoke to her experience and yet at times seemed like she felt pressure to translate it for a broader audience—the kind of audience that is tryna stay home and watch TV on a Friday, I guess, in a world in which The Big Bang Theory pulls an average of 20 million viewers into its vortex.
Cristela revolves around an aspiring lawyer with an unpaid internship, and who lives at home with her mother, sister, brother-in-law, and niece and nephew in Dallas until she can land on her feet. Of course, there's all the love and sass and ribbing and ay, Catholicism that accompanies living with one's familia at 27 or 30 or however old Cristela is supposed to be. And at first, there's an acute sense of self-awareness that this is a first, that there should be an "explainer" moment. Within two minutes, in comes the obligatory Latina-as-maid joke, kinda sly at spoofing the industry's conception about Latinas although not in the service of making Cristela and Daniela's madre, played by Terri Hoyos, seem very ambitious. (Later, mamá cracks, "Just because all janitors are Latinos, doesn't mean all Latinos are janitors!" Perhaps it's too subtle, or too insidery, because the writers felt it needed a punchline—"I learned that on a coffee mug.")
It's too early to say where Cristela's going, and sometimes the jokes felt flat. A little too many "aaaayyy mamá"s in one 21-minute block—not exactly "ay dios mío" syndrome, but TV has ingrained in us a hair-trigger. For me, Cristela is already at a loss because of its multi-cam format, a conservative choice in itself. (Supposedly a throwback to old-style sitcoms, it's also the kind of format in which nuance can fall into a chasm, never to be found. The choice once again calls the audience into question, in a world where some of the most popular sitcoms right now, plodding unfunnily through Emmy after Emmy nod: Would Cristela work as a single-cam, or would the combo of that and a semi-non-stereotypical depiction of Latinos be too contemporary and mind-blowy for this earth? Who knows, but it debuted as the number one scripted show of the night among 18-49s.)
But whether the comedy worked all the time or not, there were a few really important things going on beneath the surface. One, that the show is flourishing with Spanglish and is at times, bilingual—just the tiniest bit, and Spanish was only spoken during times an English-speaking audience could suss out the jist, no need for subtitles. That shit is real. Some reviews complained that the non-Cristela characters were caricatures, and that was largely true for the pilot, but I imagine they were written as such for us to better relate to Cristela from jump, and will be fleshed out as the season unfolds. For instance, Cristela's new boss, a white man who cracks a deportation joke after commending her hard work, is as overt a racist as can be, and says things that in a perfect world would land him in front of a jury for discrimination (and he is a lawyer, my god). But for this purpose, Alonzo is illustrating a reality that many Latinas will see in themselves, that people typecast based on race, ethnicity, background. Of her boss's blonde bombshell of a daughter, played by Frances Ha's Justine Lupe, she lets in some beauty-standard angst: "She's everyone's type. When a guy that says he doesn't know his type sees her, they yell 'found it'!"
Further, Cristela displays abashed feminist behavior, in stark counter to her misogynist brother-in-law Felix (played by the popular novela star Carlos Ponce). Cristela encourages her young niece, Isabella (Isabella Day) to try out for the soccer team in lieu of the cheerleading squad. But that's against the wishes of Daniela, Cristela's sister and Isabella's mom, who says wistfully, "My daughter's gonna be a cheerleader."
"Ah yes," Cristela quips, "the great Texas tradition where girls learn they're not as important as boys."
Later, Cristela tries to clown Felix's misogyny by employing an old cheer: "Be! Regressive! B-E regressive! B-E R-E-G-R-E-S-S-I-V-E!" The punchline: "Ay, that's a long word." Her spoof atop feminist spoof is funny, but again, the nuance gets lost in the lighting, sucked up by that weird industry-standard ruddy false sunshine.
Cristela Alonzo is in a tough position—that she has to represent all Chicanas, but translate average Mexican-American family life to a mainstream American audience that may or may not know what that means (and may or may not want to ban us all from the country, ha). After one episode, it's clear the interest is there, and that it can't be everything to everyone—but it certainly is something. As Alonzo told Remezcla:
I think you stand out more when you're brown. I mean, the chances of anyone of any race getting their own show are like .001 percent. It's a long shot either way. I think with Latinos, we are just at that time where we're finally a big enough number that you can't ignore that we're here anymore. We're such a big part of the country that you have to have something, someone [on TV] that represents who we are... I mean, whether this show fails or succeeds, I want to do it my way and make sure I did everything I could to keep it authentic.
Cristela airs Fridays on ABC at 8:30 EST.
Image via ABC