“Jane the Virgin” (CW, Mondays), “Cristela” (ABC, Fridays). It may seem too obvious or even a little patronizing to group these two series, each led by a young Latina actress, into a single pick; but that such a thing remains a rarity in network television (or any television at all not specifically targeted to a Latino audience) makes the point worth underscoring, and that they are premiering within days of one another makes the conjunction, let’s face it, irresistibly convenient. (It is also, possibly not by coincidence, the last week of Hispanic Heritage Month.)
Of all the pilots I viewed in the run-up to the fall season, “Jane the Virgin,” which tells the story of a young woman who becomes pregnant despite never having had sex -- it’s not a miracle, but a medical mishap -- is the one that most stayed on my mind, not least for Gina Rodriguez’s performance as the eponymous Jane. But there is something satisfying, and unusually successful, in its mix of tones: antic, serious, melodramatic and somewhat metafictional (it is based on a Venezuelan telenovela, “Juana la Virgen,” and both mimics and comments on the form). And there is something deep and convincing in the relationships between Jane, her devout Spanish-speaking grandmother (Ivonne Coll) and her still-young, still-restless single mother (Andrea Navedo), and in the work of all three actresses, that gives the central subject its due gravity, even as crazy stuff begins to build up around it.
“Cristela,” shaped around the character and talents of comedian Cristela Alonzo, is a more conventional, at times exceedingly conventional sitcom, but again with an appealing personality at its center and a casually Latino milieu. As a law student, living with her sister’s family, including their old-country mother, while working as an intern in a high-powered, white-run Dallas law firm, Alonzo isn’t called upon to exhibit as great a range as “Jane” asks of Rodriguez, but she handles what’s handed to her with attitude and energy. There is a surfeit of insult jokes, plus some fairly stock characters to contend with: Her fellow interns are a rich, dumb Texas blond woman and a semi-nebbishy New York Jew, good-looking enough to enlist as a love interest, should it come to that; her mother is an old-school, old-world pessimistic complainer. Yet the show also addresses questions of class, race and gender most sitcoms seem disinclined to address, or even to notice, and from all corners there is energy to spare. One to root for.
“Uncle” (DirecTV Audience Network, Tuesdays). This six-episode British import, from the BBC and Steve Coogan’s Baby Cow production company, takes an extremely familiar premise -- the mutually beneficial meeting of a reprobate adult and a needful oddball child -- and makes you mostly forget you have seen its like many times before. (“St. Vincent,” the new Bill Murray film, is also fiddling that tune currently, as is the NBC sitcom -- based on the movie, based on the book -- “About a Boy.”) British singing comedian Nick Helm plays Andy, a failed musician and failed adult, who as we meet him is about to kill himself; he is interrupted in this by a call from his sister (Daisy Haggard), who needs him to pick up his good-as-a-stranger, 12-year-old nephew (Elliot Speller-Gillott as Errol) from school -- “I’ve called every responsible person I know,” she explains -- and a belated relationship begins, in a cloud of mutual antagonism. “You think that I have shown a distinct lack of interest in your life up ‘til now,” Andy says to Errol. “And you’re right. I find you incredibly tedious and dull.” Errol doesn’t think much of his uncle, either, and both spend much of the first episode using and betraying one another, until cooperation begins to seem like a better idea. Each has his own compulsions and obsessions: Andy can’t get over the loss of a girlfriend (Sydney Rae White); Errol avoids cracks. Each is angry; neither has much in the way of friends. You know how this goes. (There is even, as there almost must be, an episode about standing up to bullies.) Yet the writing, by creator-director Oliver Refson, is focused and funny -- there is occasion to feel things, but for the most part he gives sentiment a wide berth and keeps the sharp edges sharp -- and the performances are first-rate; there is real, if wary chemistry between Speller-Gillott and Helm, who, in his first straight acting job, has a certain tonal and physical likeness to Jim Jefferies of the late “Legit” and Jason Gann (Wilfred on “Wilfred”), other immature mentors of recent television -- and even a little of Danny McBride in “Eastbound and Down,” if you dial Kenny Powers’ ego back about 85%.
“The 50 Year Argument” (HBO, Saturday; HBO2, Tuesday). Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi co-directed this surprisingly muscular documentary about the New York Review of Books, a journal of literate intellectual reflection, cultural and political analysis and timely reportage, launched into the world when a newspaper strike put the New York Times Book Review temporarily out of action. A film on the life of the mind and the sweetness, and bittersweetness, of reason, it comes at a time when the world seems to have fallen back into superstition, rumor, bad information, gut reaction and functional illiteracy even among the nominally educated. Thinking, thoroughly, is the point: The “argument” of the title refers not only to the Review’s relation to the world, including its sometimes offended, left-leaning readership, but also disputes among its own contributors; it might also describe the writing process itself, the internal debate by which writers vet their ideas and make words make sense. Scorsese, himself a man of many words, made his reputation with films whose protagonists used theirs often with difficulty, but, like those films, this is a story rooted in New York City, its culture and its subcultures. It is full of people who speak in sentences ready for the page, and whose writing is spread across the screen that you may read as well as hear it.
At its center is Robert Silvers, the journal’s sole editor since the death of co-founder Barbara Epstein in 2006. “The Review is based on the idea that highly skillful, intelligent, interested people can write fascinatingly and revealingly about nearly any subject,” Silvers says, adding, “and of course the great problem is to find that person.” Many of those persons appear here, in new or archival clips, including Susan Sontag, Derek Walcott, Gore Vidal, Stephen Jay Gould, Vaclav Havel, Zoe Heller, Avishai Margalit, Robert Lowell, Mary McCarthy and Joan Didion, who remembers that “Bob involved me in writing about stuff I had no interest in whatever,” but which he instinctively knew would inspire good results. Portrait photographs by Brigitte Lacombe punctuate the film, adding classiness to classiness.
Robert Lloyd is your friend in Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd