‘Cristela’s First Episode Won the Top Spot In Ratings But Still Underwhelms

There’s a lot riding on Cristela, ABC’s new Friday night sitcom. It’s the first show of its kind — it was created (in part) by Mexican-American stand-up comedian Cristela Alonzo, who also stars, in addition to serving as a writer and producer. That means there’s also a lot riding on Cristela Alonzo. Though she’s winsome, the pilot just underwhelms. But since we’re simultaneously in charted waters and virgin territory, there’s going to be a bit of a learning curve.

The premise: Cristela (the actress and character share a name) is a law student on the “six-year plan.” She lives with her sister, Daniela (Maria Canals-Barrera), and her husband, Felix (Carlos Ponce) in an effort to make ends meet. The household is rounded out by two children and the sisters’ mother, Natalia (Terri Hoyos). Relationships are strained by their close quarters, and Cristela is kind of a fish out of water. Her sister wants her to get a job so she can afford to move out; her brother-in-law just wants her out of his home; and their neighbor Alberto (Gabriel Iglesias) just wants her.

Cristela has Mary Richards dreams of “making it,” though they’re hardly supported by her family. When she applies for an unpaid internship at a prestigious law firm, her mother mocks her sporadic schooling in between pointing out the ways in which she and her sister are (relatively) spoiled. Daniela is less dismissive, but is realistic about their finances and nudges Cristela to take a job at the call center where she works.

And that’s the dilemma upon which the pilot and series hinge: does Cristela take a paid job with no future, or does she gamble on an unpaid position that could lead to bigger things? Does she take the path previously taken by her family, or does she try to make her own? Obviously, she chooses the latter. But it isn’t until she demonstrates how she can use her legal acumen to help her family that they also see the value in her choice. At that point, everyone’s along for the ride and the pan dulce.

This is a situation comedy, and so there are jokes, but they’re mostly stale.

This is a situation comedy, and so there are jokes, but they’re mostly stale. There are cracks about women’s weight and looks or Natalia’s abjectly poor upbringing. The tense home life doesn’t yield many more laughs, with people walking in and out of rooms at inopportune times or scoffing at old or new world attitudes that they just don’t understand.

Her workplace provides fodder for mostly “white people say the damnedest things” jokes, which are reactionary at best and racist at worst. There’s the pampered blonde who mistakes Cristela for a cleaning lady and is at the receiving end of the “you’ve been validated enough” joke we saw in the trailers. Then there’s Cristela’s boss, Trent (Sam McMurray), who makes racist jokes during the job interview. (Somehow, Cristela isn’t appalled or incensed enough to decline the job offer even after Trent suggests that she made her way into the country illegally.)

Alonzo certainly proves why she’s been given a shot — she’s charming, she’s incisive.

This all makes for a mostly unimpressive debut. Although Alonzo certainly proves why she’s been given a shot — she’s charming, she’s incisive — the rest of the cast feels pretty generic, as does the plot. Her family members border on stereotypes, e.g., the pragmatic and Catholic mama or the lusty Latino males. And her co-workers are being taken in a questionable direction. Alonzo has met criticism of her fictional family head on, suggesting that what audiences might interpret as stereotyping might be more like déjà vu; she is depicting her real life family, a family she’s joked about in her stand-up for years.

The writers appear to want to address the novelty of what’s happening both onscreen and behind the camera, but have so far only made time to make Cristela exceptional. The show did snag the number one spot in its time slot, despite airing a pilot that was thrown together on borrowed time and a borrowed set (and with the penalty money that ABC had to pay for vacillating on picking up the show). This strong opening could mean that it will have the chance to deliver on its promise.

Cristela airs Friday nights at 8:30 pm on ABC. In case you missed it, watch the pilot here.