Review: No matter where you live, you’ll relate to Netflix’s new L.A. gentrification comedy
“Gentefied,” which premieres Friday on Netflix, is a comedy about gentrification and generations, family and identity, set in the predominantly Mexican American L.A. neighborhood of Boyle Heights. In these and other respects, it resembles Starz’s 2018 drama “Vida,” recently renewed for a third season, and in the simple fact of its milieu Hulu’s late “East Los High,” and more vaguely “One Day at a Time,” about a Cuban American family living in Echo Park, canceled by Netflix and rescued by Pop TV. But you can count them all on one hand and still have a finger left to scratch your head over the historical lack of attention paid to the Latino world by television.
Created by Marvin Lemus and Linda Yvette Chávez, and based on a 2016 web series, it’s a small town (within a big town) comedy that announces its intentions in its very first scene, when what looks like a robbery about to happen turns out to be the return of a library book. In one nice stroke it plays to television’s habitual criminalization of the poor, and reminds us that life everywhere is, well, normal.
Netflix’s “Gentefied,” executive produced by America Ferrera, confronts gentrification in Boyle Heights. Can it avoid contributing to the problem?
The action centers on three cousins and their grandfather, called Pop (Joaquín Cosío), who runs a taqueria named for his late wife and stands for the honored and perhaps fatally intransigent older generation. (He is grumpy, but poetic.) Erik (Joseph Julian Soria) works for Pop and has a baby coming with Lidia (Annie Gonzalez), his former girlfriend, who in most every respect is his superior. Ana (Karrie Martin) is an aspiring artist, with a young daughter and a female partner, Yessika (Julissa Calderon).
Chris (Carlos Santos) is back in town after a decade, having earned a business degree that allows him to say things like, “That’s just the free market,” when it comes to discussing the changing economics of the neighborhood. But as we meet him he’s working in the kitchen at a fancy Arts District restaurant and hoping to enroll at Le Cordon Bleu. Their shared concern is the survival of the taqueria, which is behind on the rent.
Chris’ idea is to elevate the cuisine closer to his own fancy palate, but his experiments with chicken tikka masala tacos disgust the customers. Even the even younger generation doubts him: “Don’t be putting no smoked Gouda in my grilled cheese, white boy,” says Ana’s sister.
“What do you want, tradition or innovation?” Chris asks Pop, offering a curry taco.
“I want a taco,” Pop answers. “Did you heat the plate?”
“What do you think, I’m an animal?”
“I’m an old man. I know what I like.”
As a white Jewish person from the San Fernando Valley, I can’t say whether a Mexican American from Boyle Heights would find “Gentefied” or “Vida” an accurate representation of their community. But it’s safe to say that television rarely gets any community exactly (or even inexactly) right, being above all an organ of show business. That doesn’t mean that a sitcom can’t also express the authentic concerns of the people it means to speak for and to anyone else. (The question has been raised, even by its creators, whether “Gentefied” itself qualifies as a form of cultural appropriation, of Hollywood imperialism.)
There is the odd logical glitch, but none is fatal to “Gentefied’s” shaggy charms. Ana paints a mural on a merchant’s wall, in plain view, without anyone seeming to notice what they regard as offensive subject matter until the moment it’s finished. Chris’ co-workers put him through a humorous series of tests to prove he’s a “real Mexican” — naming three telenovelas starring Thalia; blind candy identification; dancing; identifying wrestlers’ masks — abandons any pretense of reality. It’s a scene from a musical comedy, and not how anyone keeps a job at a high-end modern restaurant, especially with a kind of, sort of racist boss.
“Gentefied” premiered as a web series at the Sundance Film Festival in 2017. This year, it’s returning as a highly anticipated Netflix dramedy.
White people, when they make the odd appearance, are typically trouble, though more clueless than vicious; even the ones who appear as angels prove otherwise. Though Chris is allowed to wonder, “Can’t they just love something cause they think it’s cool?” when Yessika notes that “White folks just love dropping money on authenticity.”
The show is certainly topical and political — Trump and his wall, the threat of ICE and toxic masculinity all get a shout-out, as do “greedy landlords waiting to replace us with ramen spots.” One of them, a local boy made bad — or good, depending on your view of these things — comes in with a couple of outsiders, saying, “Imagine owning in Echo Park, like five years ago, that’s what Boyle Heights is.”
But ultimately “Gentefied’s” strengths are personal: a universally understood, mostly sunny story of people driving their loved ones a little crazy, while they sort out their lives. You may relate.
When: Any time, starting Friday
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