During the current 2014-15 television season, ABC successfully bet huge on diversity with three new sitcoms about multicultural families. Black-ish, about a well-off black family assimilating into the very white suburbs while struggling to maintain their cultural identity, and Fresh Off the Boat, about an Asian-American family trying to fit in when they move from DC to Orlando in 1995, have both received plenty of well-deserved praise and attention. The third, Cristela, about a multigenerational Mexican-American family living under one roof in Dallas, may not have received the same amount of buzz as its peers, but it’s no less deserving. In fact, while viewers were looking elsewhere, Cristela has stealthily become one of the smartest and funniest comedies on television, as well as one that deftly tackles race and gender.
Co-created by stand-up comedian Cristela Alonzo, the sitcom follows aspiring lawyer Cristela as she works an unpaid internship at a prestigious and lily-white law firm; on her first day, she’s mistaken for a custodian. Cristela alternates between exploring her work life — where she often has to work on cases that she doesn’t believe in and deal with everyday racism, which manifests in both overt statements and smaller microaggressions — and her home life — where she regularly clashes with her family, most notably her mother Natalia and brother-in-law Felix, because her “modern” viewpoints go against their specific cultural norms.
What makes Cristela so special is that both the series and its creator have such a clear, strong voice that runs through every episode, refusing to ever back down or assimilate to the norms set by comparable series that populate broadcast networks. It’s the sort of series that, if it had the viewership, would likely inspire constant thinkpieces from the Internet reaction machine (so perhaps it’s a good thing that it doesn’t). Episodes focus on such divisive topics as Cristela’s explicit desire to put work ahead of marriage and children, and the reward she reaps not because of her work ethic but because her boss Trent needed a Latina to sit with him during a case in order to try to sway the other Latinos on the jury.
The latter episode, “Latino 101” is an important standout. Cristela runs the gamut of true, relatable emotions: She is happy about getting a shot, she is angry at her boss for not choosing her based on merit, she tries to reconcile her strange internal conflict over possibly moving ahead in her career because her minority status currently makes her a valuable commodity for the law firm — how can you possibly feel accomplished in this situation? “If being Mexican helped you, then it helped you. That never happens. We should be celebrating,” Felix tells Cristela, in a response indicative of the show’s wonderful ability to keep a light (and almost self-deprecating) tone when tackling serious issues.
But Cristela works so well because it never makes these conversations too light; it never drops the issue in a friendly, “Well, these things happen!” way. Cristela confronts Trent, and when he blows it in court — referring to the Cuban Americans in the jury as Mexicans — she can’t hide her anger. She’s quick to both correct him and make a joke with the punchline aimed not at her, or Latinos in general, but at his racism (and the casual racism that so many people express when they lump together all brown people):
Cristela: Not all Latinos are the same. Trent: Then why are you all called Latinos? Cristela: Because someone not Latino needed a name for it.
Cristela is filled with these bitingly funny moments of Cristela knocking her white peers down a peg or refusing to fit into the stereotypical box they keep trying to put her in. It’s also full of moments characterized by refreshing cultural specificity — Quinceañeras and Latino Christmas traditions — that in their representations of a group that’s underrepresented on television. But the sitcom works on multiple levels; I don’t just appreciate Cristela because of my Hispanic roots, but also because of everything else it represents.
Cristela often rejects gender norms, even though this means actively going against Mexican tradition that’s extremely important to her old-fashioned mother. In one episode, “Fifteen-something,” in which Natalia openly wonders if Cristela would have turned out different had she had her own Quinceañera, Cristela expresses her frustration with Natalia’s expectations: “I’m sorry I’m not your idea of a woman. I go to college — boom: you’re disappointed — I don’t want to settle down and have kids — boom: I’m dying alone.” It’s a conversation that rings true within many Latino cultures: My (white) classmates were always encouraged to keep furthering their education; my (Spanish) father never fully understood the purpose of graduate school. For Natalia, and quite a few Latino parents, law school isn’t as big an accomplishment as a husband and children.
Cristela also provides an accurate depiction of working-class life — it’s been compared to Roseanne for both that and Cristela’s outspoken nature; Barr herself guest starred this season. Money problems are a recurring topic. In “Village Mode,” Cristela had to choose between taking the bar or working in a salon in order to help bring extra money to the house; in “Enter Singing,” when Cristela gets fancy box seats to West Side Story, Felix refuses to let his son go because he’s worried Henry will then get used to the things that Felix will never be able to afford to provide. There is no glamorization in Cristela, only struggle that’s interspersed with Cristela’s dark humor — humor that acts as both a defense mechanism and a survival instinct.
One of the most impressive aspects of Cristela is how it manages to simultaneously represent a particular culture and remain funny and relatable to the larger television-viewing population. Like Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat, Cristela is adept at placing hyper-specifics into bigger family sitcom tropes: In “Mr. Felix and Ms. Daniela,” a fight between siblings is actually about Daniela’s attempts to keep up false appearances to impress a white peer; in “Fifteen-something,” a workplace flirtation with Josh leads to Natalia explaining how dating a white man is seen as a status symbol within the Latino community; in “Hall-Oates-Ween,” a typical Halloween episode explores Cristela’s insecurities about her looks, particularly when stacked against her thin, blonde coworker.
Cristela, which airs its season finale tomorrow, doesn’t get the same ratings or attention as its counterparts (to be fair, it airs on generally ignored Friday nights). Yet it certainly reaches, and sometimes even surpasses, the quality of both Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat — both shows that I love dearly. All three sitcoms were wonderful additions to a television world that is still starved for diversity (and each one provides such a clever, nuanced take on the specific culture it’s aiming to represent that it’s almost unfair to lump them together at all). But it’s Cristela that is not only consistently entertaining, but also has made the case for why its continued existence is absolutely necessary.