ABC’s freshman sitcom Cristela is a throwback to the “boom years” of stand-up comedy when TV networks were plucking comics from clubs and crafting vehicles around their acts. Once the sitcom started to fall out of favor, the television landscape became very hostile to shows like Roseanne or Seinfeld. Because of Chuck Lorre’s success with Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory, networks are still trying to find the next Friends. ABC, which has abandoned its popular TGIF lineup is looking to bring the sitcom back. With the relative success of Tim Allen’s return Last Man Standing, ABC is trying to pair it with Cristela, an old-fashioned sitcom that feels like it belongs on TV Land.
Stand-up comedienne Cristela Alonzo stars as Cristela, a law intern who lives with her sister Daniela (Maria Canals Barrera) and irascible brother-in-law, Felix (Carlos Ponce). Daniela and Felix let Cristela live with them and their children in their home while she works at a high-profile law firm, in a much-coveted but unpaid internship. Part domestic comedy and part workplace comedy, Cristela’s office family includes Josh (Andrew Leeds), the nebbish fellow intern and Maddie Culpepper (Justine Lupe) the other intern, who also happens to be the daughter of the firm’s owner, Trent (Sam McMurray).
For those who don’t demand too much from their television viewing, Cristela is a charming, unambitious sitcom that manages to score because of the talent and goodwill of its star. Alonzo is a wonderful presence, and will remind viewers of Roseanne Barr or Brett Butler. As her alter-ego, the comedienne manages to inject a lot gravitas and intelligence into what is really a standard milquetoast multi-cam sitcom. Because the show features a mostly-Latino cast, there are some valuable insights to diversity and privilege and Cristela’s a fine mouthpiece for some of the micro (and not-so micro) aggressions that people of color have to endure in an all-white environment. Because Cristela has worked her way up to a corporate environment, notorious for its hostility toward women of color, she has a unique perspective on her position there. Thankfully, Cristela isn’t a fish-out-of-water story. It’s clear that despite her limited financial background, she belongs at the law firms and deserves her place.
And because there’s so much potential in Cristela, when the show see-saws from decent social commentary to standard family sitcom, it becomes clear that despite its charms, the best thing about Cristela is well, Cristela. She easily outclasses her costars. And though at this point in the season Alonzo hasn’t developed her acting chops yet, it’s easy to see that this lady has a huge future.
A show like Cristela will probably last a season or two if it’s lucky, but its lead has an important voice and story to tell. Throughout the middle-of-the-road plots, Cristela is able to raise the consciousnesses of those around her – or at least she tries. This is especially true when she’s helping her sister raise precocious tween, Izzy (Isabella Day). The interactions between Izzy and Cristela are especially heart-warming because of Alonzo’s feminism, which the writers manage to fold in quite nicely. In one episode, Izzy chooses a trendy purse instead of an e-reader for her birthday, so that she can keep up with the popular girls, and Cristela schools her on the pitfalls of keeping up with the Jonses (or the Kardashians). Or in another example, in the pilot episode, Cristela secretly prods her niece to try out for the soccer team instead of cheer leading. The feminism is doled out in such sweet doses, that it won’t scare off viewers afraid of the f-word.
If Cristela can shake off her Disney Channel sitcom trappings, it may develop into a stronger sitcom. It does add an important – if oft-ignored – perspective, and Alonzo can enliven even the hoariest of jokes (and yeah, some of the gags feel awfully dusty). Hopefully, the show will last long enough for viewers to see its growth.