As the U.S. Latino population continues to grow (in 2013, Latinos accounted for 17 percent of the U.S. population), English-language television networks continue to struggle to find ways of catering to this growing demographic. Since about 6 in 10 U.S. adult Latinos speak English or are bilingual, it’s no surprise that the past few years have seen the rise of the Latino-centered show, albeit to mediocre results. Shows like Ugly Betty and George Lopez, which promised to usher in a new era of diversity in television, have long been off the air, with very little effect in their wake.
While Netflix has had some success with Narcos and Club de Cuervos — not to mention its sprawling Orange is the New Black cast — and the CW’s Jane the Virgin continues to be an under-watched critical darling, Sofia Vergara’s Gloria in Modern Family remains the most visible Latina on network television.
That might change when three new NBC shows premiere in January, all of them boasting Latina leads. And yet, these series debuts at NBC come at a tricky time for the network, which continues to face backlash over its SNL episode hosted by Donald Trump. Can Jennifer Lopez, Eva Longoria, and America Ferrera woo back a demographic the network so tastelessly ignored when faced with the ratings boost the GOP presidential candidate afforded them?
“Taken together, they cannot help but suggest a network committed to diversity in general, and a Latino audience in particular.”
The corrupt cop Lopez drama Shades of Blue, the Ferrera-led workplace sitcom Superstore, and the sudsy Longoria comedy Telenovela show a network striving to find a place for dramas and comedies that speak to and about Latino culture in the U.S. All three were amply promoted during NBC’s much-watched coverage of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, while the latter two recently got high-profile previews following The Voice. All of this points to an assured attempt at giving these three shows as great a chance to succeed as anything else on their schedule.
Taken together, they cannot help but suggest a network committed to diversity in general, and a Latino audience in particular. It’s not lost on anyone that Lopez, Ferrera, and Longoria are some of the most successful Latina actresses of their generation, all of whom got their start in television. The three shows also look to appeal to a wide range of audiences: Shades of Blue is set to give J. Lo a complex show that marries network cop procedurals with the type of dark and heady drama that’s become a hallmark of cable. Superstore, from a producer of The Office, hopes to do for Walmart-like big box stores what the Steve Carell show did for paper companies. And Telenovela, as its revamped title makes explicit (its original title was the bland Hot and Bothered), centers on what continues to be the number one primetime entertainment choice for Latin Americans: the soap opera.
These three shows will premiere in the same week: in fact, Superstore and Telenovela will be broadcast back-to-back on Mondays starting on January 4, with Shades of Blue premiering that Thursday following The Blacklist. It’s an unprecedented move that will shatter the prospect of seeing any of these shows as token inclusions in what looks like an increasingly diverse roster of future shows at NBC: no sooner had they set a pilot commitment to Nisha Ganatra’s Pre-Madonna (based on her own experience growing up in a family of Indian descent) and to another Indian-American comedy titled I Love Lakshmi, that they also ordered a pilot of the first-ever Dominican family sitcom, Vlad, from Bronx-born comedian Vladimir Caamaño.
“Beyond the executive producing credits Longoria and Lopez share on their shows, these series have very little in the way of Latino writers, creators, and directors.”
We’ll have to wait until January to see how J. Lo’s show fares, but ratings for the two NBC comedies have been mixed: the preview episodes of Superstore (whose cast and subject matter cut across racial and cultural lines) did well, while Longoria’s show (staunchly focused on a Miami-shot soap opera that feels more Days of Our Lives than Maria Mercedes, but whose cast is almost exclusively Latino) couldn’t sustain the ratings boost added by the reality singing competition.
What’s most encouraging about these shows — especially after NBC’s fraught relationship with its Latino audience these past few months — is the way their success and/or failure will be hard to pin down to their robust Latino cred.
On the one hand, these series show that from a production and casting standpoint, NBC is eager to embrace a savvy Latino audience; Superstore and Telenovela make for great successors to past NBC workplace comedies like The Office and 30 Rock. The former tackles the HR culture of its retail setting with surprising wit and tenderness, focusing on sexual harassment, Latino stereotypes, and corporate culture’s push for diversity to hilarious results. The latter seems ready-made for a GIF-centered audience who’ll no doubt make great use of Longoria’s pitch perfect portrayal of Ana Sofia, a larger-than-life telenovela actress, who, despite starring in Las Leyes de Pasión, can’t speak Spanish fluently.
If they succeed, it’ll be easy to read headlines begging audiences to tune in and watch Ferrera and Longoria on their respective shows. Shades of Blue, sold almost single-handedly as a Jennifer Lopez vehicle, will test the multi-hyphenate’s appeal.
On the other hand, the behind-the-scenes players suggest that beyond the executive producing credits Longoria and Lopez share on their shows, these series have very little in the way of Latino writers, creators, and directors. Thus, while the front-facing talent may suggest an attempt at courting Latino audiences, these credits point instead to an industry working as usual, and hiring top-of-the-line performers who just so happen to be Latina.
Whether this triple-whammy will be enough to ingratiate the peacock network with viewers who swore it off after it offered Donald Trump an unprecedented platform remains to be seen. But having these talented ladies on screen showing what made them household names is definitely worth celebrating.