No one could ever accuse the cast of Telenovela of not trying hard enough. Mugging this extreme is usually reserved for the Muppets. And yet, there’s an essential good heartedness at the center of the show, a sense of sweat and hard work to create something people will like.
That doesn’t mean it’s actually good, though. Billed as a star vehicle for erstwhile desperate housewife Eva Longoria, the show takes place behind the scenes of a goofy telenovela called Las Leyes De Pasión. Longoria’s Ana Sofia has been reigning supreme as the eponymous Pasión for years, only to discover that her hated ex-husband has been added to the cast in a ratings stunt. Can the two of them work together to create a good show? Well, probably, minus a few dramatic fights and kisses along the way.
The show doesn’t exactly traffic in complex characters, though perhaps that makes a certain amount of sense, given the medium. Sofia’s ex, Xavier, is preening and egotistical, but with a heart of gold. Her nemesis on the set, Isabela, is an aging, vindictive co-star who she torments by suggesting it’s her birthday. And Ana Sofia herself knows no Spanish (a handy trick that keeps most of the show in English), forgets half her lines, and tries to date her boss, but also is generally well-liked by the crew. The show might be significantly less predictable if Longoria (or whoever is writing for her) was less hell-bent on keeping Ana Sofia as rom-com-heroine and inoffensive as possible. She likes Cheetos! She trips over things! She gets flustered around men who like her!
The show scores more hits when it moves away from the conceit that a telenovela is happening off-set as well. As a Hollywood spoof, it’s moderately more effective, such as when a meet-up with a rival soap’s cast is briefly derailed as everyone goes through the motions of air kissing each other before getting back to spitting insults. The TV production world is rife for comedy, and telenovelas are a big, mostly untapped well (Jane The Virgin notwithstanding). But Telenovela too quickly falls back on big campy pratfalls and a distinct preference for happy endings instead of embracing that world and all the weird personalities and rules for behavior it involves.
It’s also far too often a vehicle for Longoria to show off what a good sport she’s being. She’s a charismatic performer, but seems to be performing one long audition for her own How To Lose a Guy In 10 Days. Almost every scene seems to involve her flailing away in some form of physical comedy. She’s even got her own designated wisecracking sidekicks: the single mom who works in wardrobe, and the flamboyantly gay actor who plays her lover on Leyes.
The show also seems to inhabit a very small world. 30 Rock managed to tread similar territory while still making it seem like its characters occasionally had lives outside the show, albeit often sad, strange ones. The characters of Telenovela only occasionally go off their set, and when they do, it’s together.
There is the seed of a decent show under all of this. Longoria is far more gifted at funny asides than playing to the rafters, and watching a crew of ridiculous egotists be continually surprised by normal life has worked well for any number of other shows. When Telenovela forgets about working up drama between Xavier and Ana Sofia and lets them bounce off of other characters and plotlines, there’s a sense that these people could cohere into a funny cast. The introduction of Zachary Levi as a dreamboat executive who dates Ana Sofia offers both highs (white people apparently smile with all their teeth when excited) and lows (the worst of the rom-com clichés).
But watching everyone on Telenovela emote every last plot point directly at the camera starts to wear after a while. The effect is rather like being bludgeoned with their sheer desire to be liked, such that in the moments when you actually find yourself laughing at Telenovela (and they’re in there), it’s hard not to notice that the show has finally managed to land a joke. It’s easy to say that in the era of peak TV, there should be a show for everyone. If there’s room for a “comedy” where one of the characters is working through deep depression, there should also be a show out there for people who want a goofy, campy, telenovela spoof instead. It just maybe shouldn’t be this one.