Tonight, NBC officially debuts two new shows marking the return of two beloved Latina actors—Eva Longoria and America Ferrera—to primetime network television. And, surprise! On first glance, both Telenovela and Superstore are somewhat zany comedies with heart and soul that show off the best of each actor’s comedic abilities.
The first three episodes of each debuted online and on NBC last month, but will officially air back-to-back on Monday nights starting tonight. The shows are clearly geared toward shoring up the network’s Latinx audience, which has been at its lowest since 2005, and saw its viewership further bleed out last year with the success of Jane the Virgin. Both Superstore and Telenovela have their moments, though the former is better; for the most part, the whiff of “Hispandering” is faint, though the writing staffs, unfortunately, seem to employ a paucity of Latinos. (Telenovela employs Marcus Luevanos and Laura Valdivia, who each wrote an episode. Somewhat related: last night’s debut of Bordertown on Fox, was written in part by Gustavo Arellano and Lalo Alcaraz, two beloved Mexican-American writers with wide ranging talents.)
The telenovela rubric—melodramatic, unlikely plot twists; archetypal characters; big blow-outs— is gaining steam on English-language television; Jane the Virgin, based on Venezuelan novela Juana la Virgen and now in its second season, is a runaway success and garnered Gina Rodriguez a Golden Globe. Before that, Devious Maids based its premise on México’s Ellas son la Alegría del Hogar, and the Ferrera vehicle Ugly Betty—based on Colombia’s Yo soy Betty, la fea—ran for four seasons on ABC to great success; its before-its-time cancellation still keeps me up at night, weeping. Novelas are perfect tonally for this moment; the soapy drama and self-aware manifestation of high camp are sophisticated ways to tell comedic tales, tempering characters’ emotional resonance with outsized humor. And as both Betty and Jane show, they can provide a vehicle for tackling bigger issues; both have dealt with deportation plotlines centered around beloved central characters (Jane’s grandmother Alba; Betty’s father Ignacio) while also portraying the often-unseen familial structures of normal Latina families.
Telenovela is not a remake of a telenovela, but a new concept about novela star Ana Sofia Calderon, played by Eva Longoria. At first, one of the central premises is that she cannot speak Spanish despite being a runaway success as the lead in Las Leyes de Pasión, and the plotlines are thus far largely procedural and behind-the-scenes. Tension brews, though, when Ana Sofia’s somewhat estranged ex-husband Jencarlos (Xavier Castillo) joins the show and usurps her position as the sole star. Clearly, her days of being top dog are numbered, and that power loss mixed with her residual feelings for Jencarlos make up the backbone of the show’s foibles thus far.
Foibles is the right word for them; Telenovela’s novela-within-a-novela concept is cute, and its spotlight on the outsized storylines of the genre is funny enough in theory, but beyond Longoria’s sharp comedic sense, it’s not at all delivering like its novela-based predecessors. Novelas are easy to spoof—see Ugly Betty’s own funny novela-within-a-novela, “Vidas de Fuego”—but there’s a thin line between spoofing and mocking, one Telenovela is at risk of crossing. Second episode “Evil Twin,” written by Robert Sudduth, was the one that hooked me with its charm, with Ana Sofia’s coworker and older rival Isabela (Alex Meneses) going to lengths to hide her birthday and her age, but I couldn’t finish Episode 3 “Trapped in a Well,” the jokes too pat and unfunny to float even a half hour. Like Cristela (RIP) I’ll stick with it, though, if only to see if it improves.
On the other hand, Superstore hasn’t enjoyed too much critical acclaim in early reviews, but those reviews are wrong; it’s wonderful. Starring America Ferrera as Amy, a high-ranking staff member at a big-box chain clearly based on Wal-Mart, and with a genuinely funny ensemble cast including Ben Feldman (Abe from Mad Men!), Colton Dunn, and Nico Santos, it’s got a familial subtlety in the tone of The Office, on which creator Justin Spitzer used to write. It, too, is a workplace procedural, but of a very different variety; it’s diverse without seeming to want a cookie for it, and it’s a very modern manifestation of the working class at that. Entire joke structures are built on everyday workplace mundanities such as stocking and pricing, tasks not inherently funny in themselves but written from the perspective of someone who’s clearly had to do them. It’s savvy, but moreso it works because they’re fundamentally relatable to any of us who’ve ever worked retail, which is to say a majority of the American population.
Ferrera has said multiple times in interviews that part of what drew her to the role of Amy is that Superstore is about working class people—who are rarely represented on television at all, currently in shows like Jane, Shameless, and Mom. But the role also seems to let her show her breadth in other ways. In Episode 3, “Shots and Salsa,” Amy’s kooky white boss Glenn (Mark McKinney) tasks his employees with the job of handing out free salsa samples, hoping to move product. He initially asks Amy, then Mateo (who is Asian), then settles on Carmen, who agrees despite Amy’s protests that he’s only asking them because they are Latina.
Immediately, Carmen begins pandering, to Amy’s chagrin; she fakes a thick Spanish accent and wears a sombrero and poncho, which impresses the white customer base to no end. Amy’s attempts to get Carmen to stop demeaning their Latinaness end in a fight, and Glenn, ever the wiser, forces all of the employees to undergo racial sensitivity training.
This kind of theme episode can, and has been, blundered with a heavy hand, but Superstore is subtle and canny; it’s a way of addressing Latinidad (and, more specifically, Mexican-Americans) without getting too over the top with it (or “Hispandering,” as it were). And it shows great promise for a little show starring our long lost hermana, Betty la Fea, back in the saddle driving a series where she belongs.
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Image via Chris Haston/NBC