This past weekend, ABC premiered its new sitcom “Cristela,” a show among a host of other competitors this season seeking to widen the racial diversity of the primetime audience.
Fridays at 8:30 p.m.
Beloved comedienne Cristela Alonzo (“TGIF: The Musical”), who is known for her straightforward, candid stand-up, stands as the forefront of the show.
The pilot catches Cristela in her sixth year of law-school, where — even as a woman in her late twenties or early thirties — she still lives at home with her extended family and abides by their traditional Mexican-American values. Her loving mother (Terri Hoyos, “Crimes of Passion”) is a Mexican immigrant whose aspirations for Cristela and Daniela to clean houses for a living are usurped by their grander goals beyond blue-collar success.
Cristela has a special fondness for her sister (Maria Canals-Barrera, “Wizards of Waverly Place”), but she disapproves of Daniela’s “modern” views of femininity, which include painstakingly coercing her daughter into cheerleading. Unlike Daniela, her husband Felix (Carlos Ponce, “Couples Retreat”) harbors a passionate resentment against Cristela and constantly begrudges her attempt to gain independence from them. Alberto, Felix’s ultra-forward, lethargic cousin, unabashedly flirts with Cristela, who turns the harsh shoulder of unrequited love.
The pilot centers on Cristela’s pursuit of an internship at a prestigious firm. After what she believes to be a terrible interview in which she is mistaken for a janitor instead of a professional, she resigns herself to taking a job offer from her sister. Much to her surprise, her hard work is noticed by her unapologetically racist boss (Sam McMurray, “Raising Arizona”), and she finally lands the internship.
Cristela’s family does not support her working for free, but when she first proves how her legal power can promote others into being more just individuals, her family warms up to her pursuit of a legal degree. Even for the non-Latino, non-minority viewer, the obligation to family and the discouragement of familial pushback is an understanding shared by all.
Much like Alonzo herself, Cristela exudes an infectious charisma. However, the subplots are weakened by two-dimensional secondary characters whose mundane, overused problems have been seen all too much in sitcoms over the years.
The show is reminiscent of “George Lopez,” a family sitcom that also fronted a well-known comedian about twelve years ago, when debunking racial micro-aggressions may have been slightly more “ground-breaking.”
The cultural message Cristela tries to send about Mexican-American empowerment often feels, as Cristela puts it, “regressive, b-e regressive — r-e-g-r-e-s-s-i-v-e!” With jokes that only poke fun among themselves as Latin@s, the content seems to only perpetuate stereotypes they aim to dismiss. Besides Cristela reaching her dream internship, there are not many moments of empowerment for females, nor for Latinos.
With misogynistic men who “challenge” Cristela with lines such as “women should cheer for men,” and a mother whose every joke begins with “in my village,” the boundaries between classic humor and old jokes becomes blurred.
The entire premise for the show seems to rely on one-liners rather than situational humor. Cristela responds to every insult she receives with a joke, then proceeds to artificially laugh at her own wit. Though it is nice to see this human side of the comedienne, it is difficult to believe typical families have dialogue this rehearsed. While Cristela is naturally witty and charming on screen, it seems improbable that she alone can uphold an entire show where the material feels forced and the jokes diluted.
As her sister complains, “This isn’t funny!” Cristela only replies with, “It would be if you just laughed!” Unfortunately, from the basis of the premiere, the show seems to mirror suit — we often find it difficult to laugh. Cristela has already proven herself a talented writer and comedienne, but now she must translate her abilities to the small screen.