The ABC sitcom Cristela, which airs its first season finale Friday night, lives and breathes formula. The laugh-track sitcom takes place almost entirely on two soundstages. The first depicts protagonist Cristela Hernandez's home, which she shares with her ornery mother and her superficial sister, who has two kids and is married to a lunkhead jock. The second shows the law office where she interns under the eye of an equally ornery boss, his bimbo daughter, and her love interest. It's the kind of sitcom entire generations grew up watching, that delivered easy laughs and life lessons via a familiar blueprint. But one of the many qualities that distinguishes Cristela, the first TV comedy ever created by or starring a Latina woman, is that the things it wants to teach viewers are actually worth learning.
Much has been made of the "year in television diversity," and the encouraging leap networks made in the 2014-2015 season toward featuring programming starring actors of color, with comedies like Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat and dramas like Empire and How to Get Away with Murder. Their ratings success has helped sweep away antiquated notions of such programming not being mainstream enough for network audiences; it's also spurred a supposed "boom" in Hollywood diversity and some depressing talk of a "backlash" among agents representing white actors (real progress, unsurprisingly, will not come in a single leap and bound).
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.
The arc of the first season has seen her demonstrate, time and again, that she's worthy of working at his firm full-time once she passes the bar, while making friends with her competition—the hard-working nerd Josh (Andrew Leeds), who's as driven as she is but comes from a far cushier background, and the entitled princess Maddie (Justine Lupe), who gets a round of applause from her father every time she bothers to work half as hard as her competitors. But again, neither character is an enemy of Cristela's—she has terrific, friendly chemistry with everyone in the cast—simply a quiet reminder of the place she occupies in the world.
The show's smartest episode yet, "Gifted and Talented," summed up Cristela's challenging ethos beautifully, wringing laughs from the kind of family drama that almost never gets to play out on television. Cristela's niece Isabella is studying to get into her school's gifted-and-talented program, but only Cristela seems to want her to make it; Isabella's sister worries it'll make her unpopular, and her mother thinks it'll create expectations that, as a Mexican-American, she cannot hope to achieve. Cristela isn't just special because it lets this scenario play out—it's because it does so with a laugh track roaring throughout without ever turning to the camera to hold its audience's hand and talk to them about race and "imposter syndrome."
One could watch that episode, like every episode of Cristela, and laugh just because of its great joke-writing and mastery of the sitcom formula. The lessons learned aren't secondary, nor are they like some healthy broccoli the audience has to stomach to enjoy everything else. It's baked right in. Which is the power of Cristela's presentation—it's doing something viewers have seen a million times before, but succeeds because of its stellar execution, not just because of its novel subject matter. Depressing as it might be, the easiest road to convincing a hopelessly behind-the-times industry to change its approach to programming is to make diverse television that's better than everything else on the air. Despite being relegated to a quiet timeslot and having no famous cast members, Cristela has pulled that off—it's twice as good as any other multi-camera sitcom on the air right now. That may just be enough to convince Hollywood to keep it around.