It’s not really fair to judge a television series after watching only the first episode. So much has to be accomplished in a half hour or an hour, so much has to be introduced and explained. This is especially true of any show promising complex characters and storylines, and such series usually resort to attention-grabbing tricks. David Lynch’s Twin Peaks created a stir in 1990 by being freaky “water-cooler” programming. And Scrubs, an NBC sitcom that premiered in Fall 2001, won viewers early on with its tempting time slot, right after Frasier.
But what are the options for programming a non-gimmicky series outside the major commercial broadcast avenues? For the new dramatic series, American Family, PBS came up with a pretty good solution—running the pilot and the second episode of the series on consecutive nights. After watching episode one, eponymously titled “American Family,” I was intrigued by the excellent acting as well as some beautiful camera work, but was not really taken in by the story. I liked what I saw, but not enough to remember to watch again a whole week later. Before I had time to forget the things I liked, just 24 hours later I was able to tune in for the second episode, “The Sewing Machine.” Now, I think I’m hooked.
This despite PBS’s self-congratulatory claim that American Family is “the first drama series ever to air on broadcast television featuring a Latino cast.” The claim is only technically correct: it’s the word “broadcast” rather than “Latino” that’s the first here. Showtime has been airing the Latino family dramatic series Resurrection Blvd., which has an equally respectable cast, since 2000. Nickelodeon’s series, The Brothers Garcia, about a San Antonio, Texas Latino family, premiered the same year. But those shows are on cable. It’s the glowing promise of PBS as the place for “quality,” but not-too-offensive television that might actually get people interested in watching American Family.
The show focuses on an extended family unit. The pilot was pretty much limited to introducing all these people, with little indication as to why I should be interested in what they have to say to one another, except that they seem like good-hearted people. Even with director/producer/writer Gregory Nava’s pet means of exposition, voice-over narration, it took a full hour (without commercials, this being PBS) to make clear that daughter Nina Gonzalez (Constance Marie) is a chronic over-achiever who charges forth to save the world without thinking about those closest to her; that “prodigal son” Esteban (Esai Morales) has been in the slammer for a crime he did commit, and is really a good guy who just made a few mistakes; that patriarch Jess Gonzalez (Edward James Olmos) was born in the United States, considers himself Spanish rather than Mexican-American, and frowns on bilingual education; and so on. By the end, I knew their names and basic character traits, but it was more like looking through a family photo album than watching a compelling drama unfold.
“The Sewing Machine” moved beyond such cursory information and started revealing what is truly extraordinary about this show: its representation of the mundane as remarkable, beautiful, or even terrible. In this episode, we come to understand the importance of tiny moments and everyday objects to the memories that make our histories. A quick errand can turn into a tragedy, for example. And a brief look at an East L.A. bungalow with peeling paint and brightly colored clothes drying on a line in the yard, set against the hazy purple-gray of the downtown Los Angeles skyline, making the city look as far from real life as the Land of Oz. I would frame this shot if I could. But I know that similarly stunning moments in my own life next week could very well go unnoticed.
This shot of the Gonzalez home set off by the distant city also illustrates the family’s ongoing struggle, between assimilation and resistance to the dominant U.S. culture. And this is where Nava and the actors excel, showing us how these two seemingly mutually exclusive worldviews actually exist side by side, not just within the same families, but within the same individuals. The struggle is, thus far, best realized in the relationship between Jess and Nina. But their frequent, raucous arguments aren’t stupid and angry and later regretted; instead, they make sense. They’re obviously a crucial method of communication for the characters: they express themselves, loudly and with passion.
The other Gonzalez family members also show a tendency to say what’s on their minds, and they have complicated motives and needs. The characters in Nava’s world aren’t uniformly wonderful, or angelic, or bitchy; they are human, though, since they are on television, they are very good-looking humans. Raquel Welch (who is good-looking in a scary, L.A., reconstructive surgery way) is perfect as drama queen Aunt Dora, and trailers promise to feature her more prominently in future storylines. The Gonzalez kids are attractive and slim enough to have come off a telenovela set.
Being TV, American Family examines family life in some ways that are familiar. There are, for instance, some similarities between the Gonzalez family and that other beloved “American family,” the Waltons. For one thing, the use of grainy, pixilated images that marked commercial breaks in The Waltons, is echoed at times in American Family, but they’re used to tell the story rather than indicating where it stops and starts. An elaborate, Catholic funeral service, for example, is shown with grainy shots of altars, candles, and the peaceful deceased in an open coffin. It’s got the kind of confusing, colorful blur of many such services I’ve been to.
These scenes also seem to bridge the TV and non-TV worlds: the youngest Gonzalez, Cisco (Jay Hernandez in the pilot, A.J. Lamas thereafter) is an aspiring filmmaker, and puts these images in a web journal devoted to his family. (His journal, www.thegonzalezfamily.tv, exists in my world as part of the PBS website.) This brings up another comparison with The Waltons, with Cisco taking on the John-Boy (Richard Thomas) role of the young, sensitive, artistic chronicler of family events. Rather than John-Boy’s pen and paper, Cisco has a digital camera and a computer on which to create digital effects. Like John-Boy, Cisco introduces characters and fills in the gaps between on-screen events. He also gets some of the best lines: he explains that Nina and Jess “get along like cops ‘n homeboys.” And he describes suburban wasteland that lies outside of Los Angeles as “Planet Gringo.”
Cisco appears to stand in for the San Diego-born Nava, best known for his movies about Chicano and Latino cultures in the United States (El Norte, Selena). Each of the episodes is followed by a short documentary series called Realidades, in which people affiliated with American Family talk about their own lives and about life in East L.A. The first Realidades featured Nava talking about his work, including his desire to communicate a certain kind of Latino family experience based partly on his own memories. Nava’s 1995 movie, My Family/Mi Familia, also starring Olmos, Constance Marie, and Esai Morales, now looks like a first version of this project.
Both the film and the series, for example, use Latin music to create a sense of “authenticity” as well as pop familiarity. My Family/Mi Familia offers separate credits for the orchestral music and the “folkloric” music. Most of the scenes set in public areas—East L.A. streets, Jess’s barbershop, and stores with Spanish names advertising products in Spanish, or mural painters tagging walls—feature Latino music, “folkloric” and popular, like Ricky Martin’s “La Vida Loca,” Santana’s “Black Magic Woman,” often effectively punctuating emotional moments.
Other musical interjections are less successful. In the first episode, mother Berta Gonzalez (portrayed by the otherwise faultless Sonia Braga), delivers a heartfelt soliloquy on how lucky she is to have come to America, land of opportunity. To the muzak sounds of strings and reeds, Berta begins, “I was born in Mexico…” as she stares into the distance. It’s a little much. The same sappy tunes are in the air when Esteban Gonzalez talks about his incarceration: “When I was in the joint, I thought I was in hell…” These moments seem out of sync with the “everyday” tone of most of the scenes. Worse, the very private, human relationship scenes, those wrought with emotion and with close-ups of facial expressions, have the same humdrum orchestral background sounds.
I’m all for orchestras, mind you, but this music seems out of place. And it’s not because we expect that, because this is a show about Hispanic folks, we should only hear Hispanic music: one of the first things we learn about Jess is that the only songs he likes are by Frank Sinatra. This public/private separation by music diverges from the show’s general argument that Latino culture is American culture, and vice-versa. In Realidades, Nava explains that with American Family, he is trying to portray “the universal experience of the family.” If the music is any indication, all families in the universe must endure “emotional moments” set to the sounds of a Hollywood orchestra.
Still, Nava’s premise is surely sound: Latino cultures and U.S. cultures are intricately entwined and interdependent, historically and into the future. And American Family may be one way to make that case more visibly.