As Parks and Recreation prepares to end, The Mindy Project continues to fall in the ratings, and pretty much every other new fall comedy has already been canceled, the network comedy landscape looks bleak past Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Modern Family, and The Big Bang Theory. But hope may have arrived in the form of Cristela, a multicam sitcom airing on Friday nights on ABC. Talk about an unlikely savior- the show comes courtesy of Cristela Alonzo, an experienced standup comedienne who became popular through appearances on late night shows like Conan and @Midnight. The show follows a Mexican-American law student trying to balance to obligations of her new internship with those of her multi-generational family.
While ABC has deservedly made headlines with Black-ish and Shondaland Thursdays, it also picked up Cristela, which is the first American network show starring, created, and written by a Latina. ABC has even marketed the show as part of their “All-American Friday”, showing that a series centered around a Mexican-American family is just as American as Tim Allen and Shark Tank. The show is racially groundbreaking, and deserves a look just for that reason.
As groundbreaking as the existence of Cristela is, the show itself is pretty familiar in terms of structure. Just like many multicam shows, there’s a workplace set and a family set, and every scene builds to a strong, sometimes obvious punchline. That’s not to say it’s completely toothless or cliche; most of the jokes about race are surprisingly blunt and charged. Cristela’s race is never the butt of a joke; rather, it’s the ignorance of privileged people that is called out. It’s an incredibly smart show, one that knows when to deploy these jokes and when to mine other types of humor. The show’s take on class issues — Cristela’s mother is puzzled by Cristela’s acceptance of an unpaid internship, for example — are equally as smart and hilarious.
The real reason to watch Cristela, though, is its star. Alonzo is a magnetic presence, with wicked comedic timing and a surprisingly natural understanding of multicam acting. Where other stand up comedians seem simply to be repurposing their own jokes into scenes, Cristela uses her standup experience to know when to play a joke a big and milk it to its last laugh, or when a simple one-liner will suffice. Her fingerprints are all over the episodes, and unlike many other recent multicam sitcoms, this doesn’t feel like a hodgepodge of network notes filmed in front of a live studio audience. The show even has a flair for corporate synergy stunt casting that happens to appeal to the heartland, as it brought on Mark Cuban (Mavericks owner but also member of the Shark Tank cast) in a recent episode.
That’s not to say the show is perfect; when it tries to expand past Cristela’s radius, it stumbles. Many of the other characters have potential, but these scenes don’t have the same spark as when Cristela is on-screen. Alonzo has amazing chemistry with most of the actors, especially Maria Canals Barrera, who plays her sister, Daniela. Daniela serves as the perfect foil to Cristela, with her upper-middle class aspirations and affectations matching up well with Cristela’s more scrappy personality. The show’s biggest flaw is the character Alberto, Cristela’s sister’s husband’s brother, who is constantly hitting on her. He feels like a network note brought to life: a pudgy, quirky, walk-on type wearing tacky Hawaiian shirts and pining for a woman so clearly out of his range in every arena possible. Gabriel Iglesias deserves credit for being a likable enough comedian to keep me from throwing my laptop out the window whenever he’s onscreen, and the studio audience seems to love him. But the character itself is immature and borders on amateurish, with sexual politics straight from the 1950s. Alonzo herself seems exasperated that she has to put up with these types of lines (or has mastered playing exasperation so well, it seems too realistic for a multicam sitcom).
Despite all this, the show has potential, and with a confident comedian guiding it in both the writers’ room and onstage, should live up to it. Each episode is light and breezily paced, so it’s easy to catch up if you haven’t been watching Cristela. The strongest episode so far is “Mr. Felix and Ms. Daniela,” where one of Daniela’s white friends confuses Cristela as her nanny. Cristela is at her best here, firing off zinger after zinger to uproarious results. As the show continues to gel, and if the other characters and performances become as appealing and charismatic as Alonzo’s, it will hopefully improve. It was just announced that Roseanne Barr will guest star in an upcoming episode, an endorsement from an actress who knows a thing or two about how to make a successful multicam show with her name as the title. Alonzo, despite what happens to Cristela, will hopefully be a star for years to come.