In the middle of a surprisingly strong class of new multi-camera sitcoms—outpaced by CBS’ The McCarthys but jumping ahead of Mulaney while the latter retools on the fly—Cristela arrives with personality intact. Mapping her border-town-to-Hollywood bio onto the on-screen persona of a sixth-year law student, stand-up comedian Cristela Alonzo breathes an optimism into the “filmed in front of a live studio audience” show that never tips over into cloying. That’s one case of careful balance among many for Cristela: Alonzo’s character is a dreamer, but she’s surrounded by family members impatiently waiting for her to wake up. Sister Daniela (Maria Canals-Barrera) and brother-in-law Felix (Carlos Ponce) are sick of providing her with food and shelter; mother Natalia (Terri Hoyos) tries to keep her daughter grounded with stories of a difficult upbringing in Mexico.
The internship that Cristela seeks in the series premiere encapsulates where the protagonist fails to see eye-to-eye: Working for free doesn’t fly with this family. (But the show needs it to, because it’s an essential source of jokes about Cristela drinking Felix’s beer.) At home, she faces skepticism; at the firm, she faces co-workers (primarily the father-and-daughter team played by Sam McMurray and Justine Lupe) unaccustomed to Latino colleagues. She’s out-of-place in either setting, but Cristela’s an aspirational sitcom figure from the Mary Richards/Laverne DeFazio and Shirley Feeney school, and she’s going to make it after all by doing it her way.
More than any other comedian to anchor a multi-camera sitcom in recent years, Alonzo can actually pull that off. A performer’s energy is such a volatile substance in front of a studio audience, and Alonzo plays to the people in the bleachers without hollering to the viewers at home. Cristela can be a loud show, but its star demonstrates a control of onstage dynamics: When the boss’ daughter mistakes Cristela for a member of the cleaning crew, Alonzo milks silent disbelief like an old pro. Part Lucy Ricardo after a big swig of Vitameatavegamin, part Bill Cosby at the end of The Cosby Show credits, Alonzo’s expressive responses are perfectly tooled for this type of show.
Cristela is less confident in its balance between the office and the homestead, an internal tension that’s worked out through the scripts of the show’s first two episodes. Emphasizing what little time Cristela has for a personal life, that tightrope walk between work and family also has a profound effect on the character’s relationship with her mother: Natalia worries that having a daughter who wants to be a lawyer means she may one day have a lawyer who doesn’t want to be her daughter. Cristela has some smart things to say about the many faces worn by its characters, though that’s sometimes buried in the “White people practice law like this” jokes written for McMurray and Lupe. (The law firm cast is rounded out by a third intern played by Andrew Leeds, an ally/potential love interest working through his own issues about how other people—primarily Cristela—perceive him.)
The show deals so well with identity because its own identity is sharply defined and hard-won. The split settings are united by the premiere’s tremendous sense of urgency (Cristela wants the internship, Felix wants Cristela out of the house), which is partially attributable to the constraints under which it was produced: A low budget, a borrowed soundstage, minimal rehearsal time. Deadline reported the show’s pickup in bizarrely poetic terms, and while the mythologizing in that post (“doing the blocking in a windowless room using paper plates and metal chairs”) will always color the verve of the pilot, trace elements of its do-or-die spirit carry over to the next episode, as Cris hustles to make an impression at the firm.
Telling her own bootstrapping origin story to the TV press this summer, Alonzo cited an affection for former Nick At Nite staples like Car 54, Where Are You?, The Patty Duke Show, and The Many Loves Of Dobie Gillis—along with more recent classics like Roseanne, The Cosby Show, and Murphy Brown. She’s a student of sitcom history, and the traditions of the form have the occasional adverse affect on the show that makes her a one-name comedy star like Roseanne Barr: A handful of lowest-common-denominator punchlines; Felix’s oblivious brother (Gabriel Iglesias) going “full Boyle” in his unrequited love for Cris. But Cristela tries so hard and achieves so much—some potent jabs at broken-down American racial politics; portraying a family whose insults don’t undermine the genuine affection on-screen—that misfires are inevitable. But like the woman at its center, the show gets a long way on sheer effort.