In the beginning, there was Ricky Ricardo.
Then came Freddie Prinze, Paul Rodriguez, Cheech Marin and George Lopez — superstar comedians of their generations who successfully put a Hispanic spin on universally loved humor.
Yet primetime television, to the lament of many, has been slow to react to the steady growth of the U.S. Hispanic population. The much-anticipated Jimmy Smits-helmed drama Cane fell victim to the 2007-2008 Writers Guild of America strike. A few months earlier, ABC had pulled the plug on sitcom The George Lopez Show after six seasons. Since then, Colombian-born Sofia Vergara of ABC’s Modern Family has been the ubiquitous face of the Latino on English-language TV.
ABC and The CW both wish to do something about that.
On Oct. 10, ABC will debut a 30-minute sitcom the network has high hopes for — Cristela. The series, to air Fridays at 8:30 p.m., is billed as a family comedy loosely based on the life and times and stand-up routine of up-and-coming comedienne Cristela Alonzo.
Alonzo has been a regular guest on late-night television since 2006. The 35-year-old Texas native has also been honored by Cosmopolitan as one of “13 Female Comedians to Watch for in 2014.”
The road to primetime for Alonzo hasn’t been without its potholes, however. Cristela first emerged as a pilot for ABC a year ago; the network took a pass but ordered another pilot earlier this year. After a
strong reaction from a May focus group screening, ABC green-lighted the show.
Kevin Hench serves as Cristela’s co-creator alongside Alonzo. He’s also an executive producer, along with Marty Adelstein and Becky Clements. Cristela is produced by 20th Century Fox Television.
Cristela centers on Alonzo’s character, a sixth-year law student from Dallas juggling multiple jobs and the demands of her Mexican-American family. Familiar Latino faces can be seen alongside Alonzo: telenovela veteran Carlos Ponce, whose English-speaking roles include a 12-episode arc of 7th Heaven in 2005, is cast as brother-in-law “Felix”; and Maria Canals-Barrera, known to a generation of teens as the mother on Disney Channel’s Wizards of Waverly Place, takes the role of sister “Daniela.”
The family matriarch, “Natalia,” is portrayed by Terri Hoyos — a 30-year TV veteran whose recent roles include that of “Rosa Valens” on Cold Case and “Rita Ludgate” on Parks & Recreation.
There’s even the unapologetically politically incorrect white lawyer, played by veteran actor Sam McMurray (The King of Queens, Scandal), who offers Cristela an unpaid internship. In an interview with the San Antonio Express-News, Alonzo revealed that one episode features a plotline where she is mistaken on the job for the cleaning lady. While some Latino viewers may find this stereotypical and a vestige of yesteryear, Alonzo begs to differ.
“It happens to me all the time,” Alonzo told the newspaper. “It doesn't matter how I dress. In offices and stores, I always get mistaken for somebody who works there, who cleans. I put it in the show because it's real and, also, it may make people feel awkward.”
In an interview with Hispanic Television Update, ABC Entertainment Group executive VP of comedy development and international scripted development Samie Falvey cited Alonzo’s “smart and hilarious” standup routine as the inspiration for the show. “We loved her confidence and her point of view on the world. She felt like a modern day Mary Tyler Moore and a perfect ABC star.”
Falvey added that personal ideas that are distinctive yet, at the same time, relatable are key to the series’ ultimate thumbs-up from ABC. “Alonzo has this amazing ability to feel like your best friend even though she's talking to you through a TV. That defines a star.”
The CW is hoping it has found a star in 29-year-old Chicago native Gina Rodriguez. Perhaps most visible for a recurring role on the CBS daytime drama The Bold and the Beautiful, Rodriguez has been cast to play the main role of Jane Villanueva in Jane the Virgin — a loose adaptation of 2002 Venezuelan telenovela Juana la Virgen.
Set to debut Oct. 13, the hourlong series, airing Mondays at 9 p.m., features Rodriguez as a character who is a “driven young woman studying to become a teacher, nursing a dream to be a writer and supporting herself with a job at a hot new Miami hotel.” Jane is also a virgin who is committing to “saving herself” until she and her fiancée are married. But, trouble emerges when Jane is faced with a life-changing dilemma, as she is accidentally artificially inseminated with a specimen belonging to “Rafael” — an ex-playboy and cancer survivor who is not only a former summer crush but just happens to own the hotel where she works.
Like Cristela, Jane the Virgin blends telenovela veterans with English-language television stars: Jaime Camil (Devious Maids, Que Pobres Tan Ricos) takes the role of “Rogelio,” Jane’s illegitimate father; mother “Xiomara” is portrayed by Andrea Navedo (Law & Order: Special Victims Unit).
Jane the Virgin is produced by CBS Television Studios and Warner Bros. Television, in association with Electus, with executive producers Ben Silverman, Gary Pearl, Jennie Snyder Urman and Jorge Granier (Que el Cielo Me Explique). Shooting is ongoing at a Manhattan Beach, Calif. soundstage.
Will such a storyline that seems perfectly plausible for a telenovela but a bit ridiculous for English-language U.S. primetime audiences attract an audience beyond Latinos? Snyder Urman believes so. In a Los Angeles Times interview, she says while Jane the Virgin is a first-, second-, third-generation Latino story, it relates to the culture at large.
“The only thing that separates ourselves is our skin tone and the fact that my family speaks Spanish and that I may like to eat arroz con gandules,” she tells the Times. “We all want love. We all want our dreams to come true. We all are afraid of failure. This is a human story. Granted, it's a little nutty. But once you get past that, it's a human story, not just a Latino story."