As the #Oscarsowhite hashtag gets another workout this year, television can be faster off the mark on social matters if it chooses to – and Fox Television chose to take on the burgeoning Latino demographic with the animated sitcom "Bordertown." Fox recruited, for its writers room, from outside Hollywood: Gustavo Arellano, the editor of the OC Weekly, and Lalo Alcaraz, creator of the syndicated comic strip "La Cucaracha." First, Lalo Alcaraz:
Alcaraz: The town is called Mexifornia, and even though it sounds like Calexico, it's our Springfield on the border. It could be anywhere, except Canada -- not up there.
PM: Is this show intended to be "South Park at Sea Level," or what?
Arellano: It's "All in the Family" in the desert, mixed in with a bit of "Bob's Burgers" in Aztlan. Really what we're trying to do is a satire not just of Mexican and American relations but also a satire of the American Southwest. So while the rest of the country will see a show that deals with what happens when Mexicans – Latinos, but Mexican specifically -- become the majority in a town, those of us in the Southwest will love all the visuals, the visual cues, that say this is very much a Southwestern show. The mega-churches, the obsession with high school football. Even our beloved Santa Ana winds will make a full cameo in a upcoming episode that's going to be our version of "Treehouse of Horror" ["The Simpsons" Halloween specials].
PM: Speaking of borders, how do you not cross the line – get really close to the line but not cross it when it comes to s attire and stereotypes? Or do you want to cross that line and offend, equal opportunity?
Alcaraz: I think we come up to it, we cross it occasionally, we fly over it –
PM: Do you dig under it, with a tunnel?
Alcaraz: Yeah, we El Chapo-fy it! I think part of the goal is to play with the stereotypes or the archetypes. People recognize these characters. We give them a little dimension and depth, which is amazing; in comics you can do so much and give characters really lots of actual human dimension and characteristics and things. And people will generally forgive it and realize, well, that's how people are. My dad was a gardener, my mom cleaned houses. You could say they were stereotypes but they were strong hardworking people.
PM: Gustavo Arellano, are the bulk of the jokes at the expense of the dumb white dad?
Arellano: Absolutely! Well, no; the most important thing for us in "Bordertown" is to always punch up, never punch down. So when it comes to humor, we're equal opportunity offenders. The funny thing is, some of the critiques we've received so far for "Bordertown" is that we do make fun of liberal pomposity as well. There's a character called Bob Mothers that is a dead ringer for Bill Maher, sort of his smugness, and his very much liberal attitude. And the interesting thing with that critique is they say, Oh they're equating Donald Trump's obnoxiousness to Bill Maher. Absolutely not! But if you're not able to make fun of liberals and the left, then you really are just a hack, and that's one thing we are not.
So the protagonist is Bud Buckwald, a white Border Patrol agent who fears this new Mexican world in front of him. But that said, Bud is still a father, Bud is still a husband, Bud is still someone with humanity. He might not be the sharpest tortilla chip in the nacho pile, but at the same time, if you just play him off as this dumb racist guy, after a while it's going to be tiresome.
PM: Let's talk about the news a little bit. For one thing, we have a presidential race with two Cubanos, Cuban-Americans, running for president of the United States.
Alcaraz: And they would deport all of us immediately if they got in. I'm not sure, I'm not the king of Latinos, but if I was, I would think that people who want to deport their own people don't qualify.
We also have Donald Trump who, for a while there, was – we were joking that we were giving him co-writing credit for my border wall episode, which we wrote two years ago. And Donald Trump out of the blue starts pitching his border wall idea. And then El Chapo breaks out of prison using a tunnel – are these people eavesdropping on our writers' room, or what?
PM: What goes on in the writers' room? We hear so much about writers' rooms as being very white and very male. Do you knock down stereotypes when people bring them up?
Alcaraz: There is an awkwardness sometimes. That happens when – this happened to me. I tell the story, the head writer pitched a joke that I didn't think would fly. I thought it was kind of stale and an old trope, and I'm not saying it was racist but I'm saying it was kind of tired and stereotypical. And we went back and forth on it, and that's not what you do in a typical Hollywood writer's room.
PM: What was the joke?
Alcaraz: Bud's daughter has a heart attack. She's like five years old and she weighs 200 something pounds. They have to go to Mexico because Bud doesn't have any health insurance, and they go to a Mexican hospital and the heart that she gets, that was pitched in the room – I won't give away what the real heart ends up being, but the heart in the joke was a can of beans. And I just thought, aaah, that's not –
Arellano: Been there, done that.
Alcaraz: Yeah, let's be more creative with that. It's more problems than it's worth, and yeah, it was an awkward discussion. There's various times we had discussions like that. I like it when the white guy writers pitch a Mexican joke and it's good and smart and funny.
I saw "The Family Guy" writers' room -- I saw it with my own eyes -- and there was not a woman there, and there was not a non-white person there.
Arellano: What we brought in was sort of what fans know us for, that political perspective coming from a cartoonist and a columnist, and in my case the OC Weekly as editor, that's a little bit more in tune with what's going on in the real world than in the Hollywood bubble.
PM: Does each of you have a favorite moment from "Bordertown"?
Alcaraz: In one upcoming episode – it's in Gustavo's episode --I wrote a joke about menudo.
PM: Mexican haggis.
Alcaraz: I was claiming it's the first primetime joke ever about menudo. And somebody told me the other day, no. In "Sanford and Son," there was a whole episode, almost, about the character Julio takes Redd Foxx, Fred Sanford, to go eat menudo at a Mexican restaurant and they do five minutes of menudo jokes. So I'm happy to have written the second menudo joke in primetime American television.
PM: What are you hearing from viewers?
Arellano: When it was first announced and people really knew it was going to be a Seth MacFarlane production, a lot of people were concerned. I'm a fan of Seth, I'm a fan of "Family Guy," I like that sense of humor, but I understood where the concerns were coming from.
So Lalo actually wrote an open letter, especially to Latinos and Chicanos, saying, Hey, look, it's okay. I'm part of this show, Gustavo's part of this show. We're going to make sure this show is something that people can be proud of. That said, there was sort of a lot of apprehension, even with executives at Fox, saying, "Oh, a lot of Latinos are going to find the show offensive." So Lalo and I finally went to the network and said look let us do one screening, a prescreening of one episode. We'll go around the country, we'll go and show it to audiences and we'll let you know. If people are upset by it, if it's going to be a disaster of a show, we'll let you know.
Overwhelmingly, the audiences were Latinos and overwhelmingly the feedback was very positive. People were even saying, I thought I was going to be offended by this and I wasn't.
PM: It hasn't gotten the numbers you hoped for.
Alcaraz: Gustavo is Mr. TV Ratings Science, but I do know that we have matched shows in our similar time as far as news shows. We've matched or beaten shows that actually get support from the network, unlike our show. We get some ads on the network but I have yet to see a "Bordertown" billboard or bus bench.
Arellano: Yeah, Joe Buck once mentioned our show during an NFL broadcast – that's about the extent of commercials we have gotten. It's a tough time slot, 9:30, and we're going to be moved to 7 p.m. starting in March, which I actually think will be better, because especially when it comes to cartoons, you want a younger audience. They're the ones who devour those cartoons.
Alcaraz: I can't wait to be at 7. I've already ruined my children's brains, so I can't wait to ruin other people's children's brains.
PM: Gustavo Arellano, what do you want people to take away from watching "Bordertown," besides some laughs?
Arellano: Basically that the Mexicans among you are just like you, if not more so. When you see "Bordertown," you're going to see Mexicans in all walks of life. The Gonzalez family is a working-class Mexican family but within that family you have Ernesto's son Ruiz. He's your typical, early 20s stoner metalhead. People really think, Oh, Mexicans only listen to banda and nortenas or maybe Morrissey. How about Mexicans who listen to Slayer and Megadeth and we can't forget Brujeria of course.
But then you also see white-collar Mexican-Americans; you see Mexicans of all shapes and also shades. So I remember when we started seeing the first actual rough draft of the cartoon, I noticed that all the Mexicans had the same skin tone kind of like the white people. So then I told Mark [Hentemann, the show's crerator and executive producer], I said, hey, small suggestion -- tell the artists to vary the skin tones, vary the brownness of the Mexicans just a little bit here and there, and I guarantee you people will notice it and comment positively, because of course Mexicans come in all shades.
And so he did that – little triumphs like that just to show the diversity of Mexican life and again to debunk the stereotypes of Mexicans just being invaders and lunatics the way Trump and the whole GOP is trying to make us out to be.
PM: Where does this show fit on the long evolution from Desi Arnaz to "Chico and the Man," to "Dora the Explorer," and let's not forget Erik Estrada in "CHiPs"?
Alcaraz: Oh my God, all of those shows, actually -- fairly historic shows that you just mentioned, and they have Latino characters in them. This is historic because we have Latino writers behind the camera also, and we have Mexican and Mexican-American characters as a major part of it.
But I think in the long line, in the history of television, it's going to go down as a big milestone as far as we've hit a new platform for actual people of color to have something to say.
PM: Gustavo, any pioneer from a minority group has a special burden because that one person is seen as representing the whole group. If, say, a 19th-century Irish businessman screwed up, you can bet people said, Oh, that's the Irish for you – they're failures. Do you feel that burden with "Bordertown" as a Latino TV show?
Arellano: To me that is sort of the fear. Because the way Hollywood works, especially the networks, they just like to copy each other. So if "Bordertown" becomes this humongous smash, then you can expect to see more Latino-themed animation shows, not just on the networks but across all the various cable channels and Hulu and all that, which I think is a great thing. That leads to more representation of Latinos, that leads to more writers, people in front of and behind the camera.
However, if "Bordertown" flops and if it doesn't go on after a season, then those same executives will say, Well you see? Mexicans don't like to see themselves on television, so why should we bother to give someone else an opportunity? So for me it's more like, well, if we don't succeed, then we're screwing it up for the people who might want to come up. And to me that's more of an indictment of Hollywood, of the system the way it is right now, than it is of our community and what we do.