For years, US television networks have made a habit of ripping off successful British series and adapting them to our messy cultural context. Sometimes it goes over quite well (see: The Office, American Idol,) other times not so much (see: Skins, Life on Mars,) but it’s a pretty safe formula in an industry that values solid investments over artistic risk. Sometimes, however, this endless pursuit of the bottom line means even these secure investments can be dropped without a second thought if something more lucrative comes along. And that’s precisely what happened with The Ortegas, Fox network’s Latino sitcom that never was.
You’ve probably never heard of it, but The Ortegas actually got a lot of buzz when it was slated to premiere on Fox’s choice comedy slot after The Simpsons back in 2003. Based on the wildly successful British sitcom The Kumars at No. 42, which had already won two International Emmy Awards, The Ortegas adopted an innovative hybrid format to tell the story of young Mexican-America talk show host whose television studio was attached to his family’s home in the San Fernando Valley.
When the series was first shopped around by the Pariah TV production company in 2002, it was actually NBC who secured the rights after a bidding war with Fox; but when it became clear that The Ortegas wouldn’t make the peacock network’s final roster, they gladly passed the show on to their competition.
Settled into its new network home, The Ortegas was off to a promising start with heavyweight Latino talent like Cheech Marin, Terri Hoyos, and an up-and-coming young comedian by the name of Al Madrigal rounding out its cast. That’s right, back in 2003 the lovable “Senior Latino Correspondent” from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart was only a few years into his full-time comedy hustle, and The Ortegas was slated to propel the 32-year-old San Francisco native directly into the national spotlight. That is, if everything had gone as planned.
By the time word came down that the series wasn’t going to make it to air, Fox had already produced six episodes of The Ortegas, and the network had expressed plenty of genuine enthusiasm about the project. “It’s a wonderful format that combines the sitcom with a talk show, and it felt really fresh and unique,” Fox’s entertainment president Gail Berman told Variety. “And at its center, it’s a family show, which we like very much at Fox.”
So what went wrong? A little teen drama overflowing with white kids called The O.C. is what went wrong. After premiering that summer, the postmodern melodrama brought Fox an unexpected ratings bonanza, and they quickly adjusted their schedule to accommodate the sleeper hit. That means the already-established Bernie Mac Show was left without a home in the Wednesday night time slot, and The Ortegas had to move out of the way to give it a new home.
And so The Ortegas was dropped like a hot potato, and the US had to wait another three years to get a Latino family sitcom on network television in the form of Ugly Betty. As for the cast, they seem to have faired pretty well without the show, though Madrigal does still prominently feature his unrealized starring turn in his personal biography. We know, Al – it stings.
For anyone who’s dying to know what actually went down over those six episodes, unfortunately they seem to be locked deep within Fox’s top-secret archives, but this curious little book has synopses and other pertinent info for the hardcore TV nerds among us. In the end, the story of The Ortegas is just one of a million more in the city of broken dreams. But those six episodes would still clean up house on Netflix, amirite? Make it happen, Fox. It’s never too late.