ABC’s ‘Cristela’ Uses Classic Sitcom Tropes to Tell a Refreshing New Story

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Cristela is one of the rare sitcoms that works because of how purely sitcom-y it is. There are some premature strikes against the show: it’s multi-camera and shot in front of a studio audience, it’s yet another sitcom created by a comedian with a weak-ish premise, and it’s on ABC, which is known for popular but fairly mediocre comedies. Cristela overcomes all of this by being aware of the challenges it faces and fully, unabashedly, embracing its sitcom roots.

Cristela Alonzo is clearly someone who knows her sitcoms: the structure, the beats, the setup and punchlines, the will-they/won’t-they tropes, the stereotypical storylines, and so on. She’s also clearly someone who loves her sitcoms, and it shows. Cristela works as a great tribute to standard multi-camera sitcoms. Alonzo loves the format, and she’s actually good at it, perhaps because of her comedian roots (though this can definitely backfire; one of the weirdest things about Mulaney is how often John Mulaney fails to properly deliver his lines, as if he thinks he’s still holding a microphone at all times). She plays to the audience in a way that’s endearing but not cloying, she delivers her lines with a flourish even when they’re a bit clumsy, and she succeeds at using her facial expressions as a punchline without adding that obnoxious wink to the camera.

Cristela is part of ABC’s increasingly diverse 2014-15 lineup. Along with the addition of How to Get Away With Murder to Thursday’s already diverse ShondaLand block, ABC rounds out its usually-white Wednesday-night family lineup with this season’s best new sitcom, Black-ish, a comedy that tackles on black culture head-on. And now there’s Cristela, oddly paired up with Tim Allen’s dude-centric, hyper-masculine, conservative sitcom Last Man Standing.

Cristela centers on a Mexican-American family living together under one roof — Cristela crashes with her mother and sister — and their unique version of the “American Dream.” The show is surely concerned with race issues and cultural identity, but it explores this without missing a single laugh. It’s a tricky line to walk, because the humor can’t overtake the culture clash, but the emphasis on race can’t overtake the jokes either, or else the result will feel unbalanced and cheap. Cristela navigates this deftly, knowing when to push forward and when to pull back.

It also smartly spends a great deal of time remarking on how Cristela is a bit of an outcast in every aspect of her life. She doesn’t exactly fit in with her Mexican-American relatives, who are confused about her relationship status and why she is working for free as an unpaid intern at a law firm. Cristela’s mother has a very different outlook on everything. She refers to an 18-year-old who died unmarried as a “spinster” and suggests that Cristela erase her education — college, law school — on a dating profile so men will think she only graduated high school (and that she even struggled there). Cristela firmly establishes its protagonist’s “other” status at work within the first scene at the law firm, when Cristela is immediately mistaken for the cleaning lady. Alonzo perfectly nails this bewildered (but somewhat expected) feeling with an indescribable expression that automatically shoots her to the top of my list of comedic actresses.

Cristela isn’t all focused on race jokes, but it doesn’t deny the role of race at all. When you’re a minority, you’re always being reminded of it, whether directly by other people, indirectly by viewing a movie or television show where you’re not represented on screen, or even subconsciously by your own mind. Cristela is Mexican-American, and therefore these things — the offensive mistaken identity at work, the constant cultural references in the living room — are going to be a part of her life (and obviously of Alonzo’s life as well), so it wouldn’t make any sense to ignore them. Cristela (both the real comedian and the fictional character) finds the humor in these situations and crafts jokes with a gently but playful carefulness.

The bottom line, however, is that Cristela is a sitcom. There are hokey laughs, misunderstandings galore, and silly side characters, all of which mostly work. There is even a will-they/won’t-they situation at play from the very beginning, but this trope is effectively used between Cristela and her fellow intern, Josh, a well-meaning, privileged Jewish man who laughs at all of her jokes. They share the same goals, enthusiasm for work, and obsessive commitment to their career. They even share a meticulously detailed ten-year plan. Their flirtations are cute because they’re both simultaneously open and reserved, occasionally blurting out a little too much and then awkwardly backtracking in a surprisingly real and honest way. What makes Josh’s character work so well is that, despite the fact that his race and economic status mean he’s more likely than Cristela to be perceived well in the workplace, he still constantly worries about how he comes off to other people (and especially to Cristela herself).

Cristela isn’t aiming to break the sitcom mold. Instead, it’s attempting to neatly fit inside it with a slightly new story. It’s a show that works mainly because of Alonzo herself, who is so gosh-darn endearingly charming that you have to smile whenever she’s on screen, but also, under the surface, she has a definite wit and bite to her that she employs when necessary. The same could be said for the show. If it survives longer than a season, it stands a chance of becoming as good as the classic sitcoms it emulates.