Debuting a couple of weeks after ABC's hyper-marketed "black-ish," "Cristela" has been nudged by many critics (myself included) into a tidy trinity of new shows from the network that deal directly with race. The third is "Fresh Off the Boat," scheduled to launch early next year.
This generalization, however, is not inaccurate: "Cristela" revolves around a multigenerational Mexican American family and does not shy away from pointing out racism and sending up stereotypes. "I may be Mexican, but I'm not deaf" is a typical rejoinder to white characters wondering whether something or other is a "cultural issue."
But unlike "black-ish," "Cristela" is not so much a thematic show as it is a showcase for a new voice. In this case, it is creator Cristela Alonzo, who also plays the lead role.
As the show makes immediately clear, Alonzo is a talented performer and writer with a sharp eye and, most important, an engaging frankness — a hybrid much more difficult to achieve than it seems. She could and should become a big star. Whether "Cristela" is the vehicle for this, well, that is less clear.
In the show, Cristela (Alonzo) is a law student, struggling in the pilot to land her first internship while convincing her family that a) becoming a lawyer is a legitimate dream for a Mexican American woman and that b) it takes a while.
Cristela's mom, Natalia (Terri Hoyos), wants her to get married and start a family; sister Daniela (Maria Canals-Barrera) thinks it's about time she got a real job; brother-in-law Felix (Carlos Ponce) just wants her out of the house. In this still-traditional family, Cristela is revolutionary, and for good reason: She encourages her young niece to choose soccer over cheerleading and rebuffs the advances of family friend Alberto (Gabriel Iglesias).
Not surprisingly, Cristela provides a similar voice at the law firm where she lands an internship, offering mini-lessons in "tolerance" to patrician boss Trent (Sam McMurray), his dingy daughter Maddie (Justine Lupe) and even her nebbishy colleague Josh (Andrew Leeds, last seen as recurring psychopath Christopher Pelant on "Bones").
Much of the first two episodes of "Cristela" feels dishearteningly retro — didn't we solve most of these issues long ago with "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and the works of Norman Lear? Apparently not, and that is precisely the point "Cristela" wants to make: We have not come as far as we suppose we have, and many young people still feel confined by social and "cultural" expectations.
It's an important message, and one wishes that "Cristela" made it a bit more strongly. Alonzo is a perfect instrument for this sort of comedy — her delivery is dry and occasionally stinging, but she radiates a humanity that allows her to correct without seeming authoritarian or, God forbid, shrill.
Unfortunately, the rest of the characters — the blustering brother-in-law, the perpetually dissatisfied mother, the ditsy privileged blond — are too one-note for their own good — stereotypes in a show that purports to bust stereotypes.
Still, Alonzo is a pleasure to watch. Her Cristela is equally aware of her imperfections as her strengths, such that one can only hope that the show can find a way to better leverage its central strength.
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When: 8:31 p.m. Friday