By Melissa Crawley
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When I reviewed “Last Man Standing” in its first season, I suggested that Tim Allen deserved better material than the show gave him. He is a talented comic whose skill carries that series. It’s a lot to ask and something that not every lead actor in a sitcom is able to pull off. Cristela Alonzo, the lead in “Cristela,” is in a similar position. A stand-up comic, she knows how to play to an audience, a skill that serves her well in this multi-camera, filmed before a live audience show. Her energy, expressions and timing are great and she works hard to land every joke — too hard. What should be effortless feels the opposite thanks to jokes like these: Felix (the brother-in-law): “If you were my wife, I would put poison in your coffee.” Cristela: “If you were my husband, I’d drink it.” She goes for it, but material like that is a waste of her talent.
The good news is that the show gets better. Now halfway through the season, it feels less labored. The jibes Cristela and Felix (Carlos Ponce) spit back and forth at each other have eased into a less predictable “I insult you, you insult me” formula. They have a few nice moments between them that disrupts the familiar routine of their interactions.
Cristela is a sixth-year law student who lives with her sister Daniela’s (Maria Canals-Barrera) family to save on expenses. Her disapproving mother Natalia (Terri Hoyos) also lives with them. When Cristela accepts an internship at a law firm, no one in this family of hardworking adults understands the point of working for free. So her home life is a mix of snide one-liners from her brother-in-law, teachable “lessons” about the old days from her mother (they always begin with “In my village…”) and well-meaning but “I don’t really get your life choices” advice from her sister. These points of view are believable from family members who wish someone they love would stop being a dreamer and face life’s realities but they also grow somewhat tiresome as they are so often repeated.
Cristela’s work life provides the other half of the show’s comic relief. Her boss is the white male privileged character who drops clueless comments about Latinos. To keep him from becoming too offensive, the show gives him a little depth. Underneath all his political incorrectness, he believes in Cristela’s ability to be a great lawyer. His wife is played by Roseanne Barr in a guest appearance, easily the highlight of the series so far.
The show is about finding your way and figuring out who you are when it seems like everyone has already decided for you. Cristela doesn’t feel that she entirely belongs in either of her worlds, but she is determined. Perhaps as determined as Alonzo is to carry this show to a second season. I don’t know if she can do it, but there are some hopeful signs that the weight on her shoulders is getting lighter.
“Cristela” is on Fridays at 8:30 p.m. EST on ABC.
Melissa Crawley is the author of “Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television’s ‘The West Wing.’” She has a Ph.D. in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.
Stay Tuned: Comedy is hard work on ‘Cristela’
By Melissa Crawley