NBC’s new sitcom Telenovela owes as much to the old satirical show Soap as it does to the predominantly Spanish-language melodramas that the American television industry would love to repurpose as a way to capture the rapidly growing Latino audience.
The show, which will preview with back-to-back episodes on Monday before its Jan. 4 premiere, stars Eva Longoria as Ana Sofia, the star of a Spanish-language telenovela. She has to contend with intense jealousy on the part of Isabela (Alex Meneses), who used to be the show’s star until she got older. But keeping Isabela in check is a minor problem on the set compared with the news that her ex-husband, Xavier (Jencarlos Canela), is joining the cast. “Ay, dios mio,” Ana Sofia might say if she could speak a word of Spanish. But what only a few people know is that her knowledge of the language extends no further than the entrees on a Chipotle menu.
The ensemble cast helps writers Chrissy Pietrosh and Jessica Goldstein partially meet the challenge every writer faces in trying to adapt a telenovela for American TV: how to make fun of something that is already so unintentionally hilarious.
They rely on some but not all of the staples of the telenovela format, beginning with the opening-credits sequence, which features the cast trying to hold their positions on the set as a wind machine seems to near Category 4 hurricane strength.
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In addition to aging star Isabela, the cast includes gay gym rat Gael Garnica (Jose Moreno Brooks), who keeps wardrobe supervisor Mia (Diana Maria Riva) busy reattaching his buttons after he rips his shirt open at the slightest provocation, on camera and off. Rodrigo (Amaury Nolasco), a lothario offscreen, plays the villain on the show within the show, and is always having trouble with his fake mustache.
The scripts are carefully engineered to give us only occasional moments of the “fictional” telenovela to remind us of how much the “nonfictional” version supposedly mirrors the elements of the genre.
While the show is entertaining, you often want it to go farther than it does. But that gets to the crux of the challenge the writers face. If the show were as over the top as an actual telenovela, it could get really old, really fast. The evidence is in how ABC handled Ugly Betty and Lifetime is handling Devious Maids. Ugly Betty is an American version of an actual telenovela, while Maids was developed by Marc Cherry with a telenovela sensibility. But neither show was ever intended to be an English-language replica of a telenovela. If Ugly Betty had been, it probably wouldn’t have lasted for four years.
But it’s a very fine line. In order to take a conservative approach to repurposing a telenovela, you have to have a compelling core drama, and that’s where Telenovela comes up short.
Pietrosh and Goldstein temper the comedy and melodrama through the relationship between Ana Sofia and Xavier. Although sparks fly when the exes are reunited on the set, they too quickly settle into a detente that suggests they may even get back together at some point.
Longoria is appealing but somewhat out of sync with the rest of the cast, and not only because her character can’t speak Spanish. She’s essentially too nice, too levelheaded, too accommodating and too grounded. We don’t really care as much about her as we should, but fortunately, the subplots involving the other cast members keep things — and the laughter — rolling along.
The first of Monday’s two episodes will introduce Xavier, while the second episode will find Meneses doing a classic double role as Isabela and her long-estranged twin sister. Which is the evil twin and which is the good one? Of the four episodes sent to critics, “Evil Twin” is not only the funniest, but the episode that best uses some of the aspects of actual telenovelas. That’s not a coincidence.
Like the classic show Soap, which aired in the late ’70s and gave Billy Crystal a career-making role, Telenovela aims to mine the very format it intends to satirize, but too many punches are pulled. Pietrosh and Goldstein need to loosen up a little more and play a little less safe than they do.
Telenovela is an Americanized version of a telenovela, and that might be why it doesn’t reach its full potential.
10 p.m. Monday on NBC.