Cristela was an undersung part of ABC's effort to diversify its lineup. It hasn't attracted the ratings success of its network-mates, partly because it airs on Fridays after Tim Allen's stodgy, grumpy-dad sitcom Last Man Standing, ABC's only other traditional multi-camera sitcom. Cristela ends its first season "on the bubble" for renewal, but even if the network makes the misguided decision to cancel it, the show will have proven that there's life in a sitcom format that's as old as American broadcasting itself.
In interviews, the series creator and star Cristela Alonzo has cited network sitcoms as a core part of her upbringing. Growing up with a staunchly Catholic, Mexican immigrant mother in a Texas border town, TV was Alonzo's strongest connection to the world around her, and it set her on the path to becoming an entertainer, an occupation much of her family derided as she struggled to make it. Before Cristela was ordered to series, Alonzo was a mostly unknown standup comedian who was thriving on the college circuit. Then the producer Becky Clements identified her as the right kind of performer to build a show around.
The show's premise is simple, and is fairly faithful to Alonzo's life story—her mom is a domineering grump who loves referencing growing up in "the village," complains about her children's indulgences, and drops Jesus' name as much as possible. Cristela lives with her family, who playfully decry her as a freeloader, but rather than trying to break into comedy, she's in law school and interning at a firm headed by the cheerfully racist attorney Trent Culpepper (Sam McMurray). One-liners are dropped frequently, with the kind of grins to camera one might remember from The Golden Girls, but from the pilot episode, there's a lighthearted edge to every interaction that reminds the audience that when Cristela's brother-in-law Felix (Carlos Ponce) complains about her living rent-free, he's not just tormenting her.
"If you were my husband, I'd put poison in your coffee," Cristela tells at Felix in the pilot, a big smile on her face. "If you were my wife, I'd drink it," he retorts. The give-and-take is all in good fun, viewers understand, but much like Roseanne, a blue-collar ABC sitcom of a past generation, the one-liners land that much harder because there's some emotional grounding to back up their theatricality. Cristela's family loves her, and she loves them back—but they can rarely resist sliding in a jab even when they're being nice to each other.
This measured levity is how the show does such a tremendous job being about Latin culture, and the difficulties of scaling the class ladder as an immigrant, without ever feeling polemical. At her office, Cristela puts up with her deep-fried Texan boss' lame jokes partly because he lets her fire back, and partly because she knows she has to put up with them in order to earn his respect. Trent is no simple villain—he's really manages to be rather lovable—but he's otherwise unapologetic about his behavior. Half the time Cristela's thin smiles at his crusty jokes ring depressingly true—her comebacks are fiery, but she can't do anything more than joke without endangering her job.