¡Rob! is a surprise, by which I mean it’s not terrible — just broad and simple and often farcical, adjectives that describe most sitcoms. Critics’ knives are out for this CBS sitcom, which stars Rob Schneider as a white guy who marries into a Mexican-American family. And it’s not hard to see why: This is a very retro comedy, flatly lit, crudely blocked, and shot in front of a studio audience, and it traffics in very broad caricatures. Notice, however, that I used the word “caricatures” and not “stereotypes.” Except for a grandmother character — a mostly silent sufferer played by a mostly misused Lupe Ontiveros — ¡Rob! is filled with types, but for the most part they’re types we haven’t seen on a prime-time network show.
Schneider (who’s often unbearably smarmy but is rather likable here) plays, well, Rob (makes it easier to learn lines, I guess), a successful landscape architect whose stereotypes about Mexicans and Mexican-Americans are disabused when he marries the lovely Maggie (Claudia Bassols). Maggie is on the edge of being totally assimilated; she married Rob impulsively without alerting her parents, then feels compelled to break the news in person because she feels guilty for denying her mother Rosa (Dina Maria Rivera) the chance to stage the big wedding she’d always fantasized for her daughter. Rosa isn’t the cartoonish hearth-and-home-tending Mexican-American mom who always seems to be slaving over a hot stove; she’s a controlling suburbanite who would be right at home on Desperate Housewives’ Wisteria Lane. Maggie’s dad Fernando (Cheech Marin) is a successful and very conservative businessman who’s in favor of building a fence on the border, preferably with cannons. (He’s sort of a Latino George Jefferson.) But he defers to his wife because she’s a human steamroller. As Maggie’s cousin Hector, a droll fortysomething from the mother country who plans on never going back, Eugenio Derbez steals scenes just by being in them. There are leaf blower jokes, but they’re directed at Rob, whom the family insists on calling a “gardener.”
If ¡Rob! had better dialogue and livelier direction, and if it had the guts to embrace vulgarity and vaudeville lunacy and be more like a shamelessly entertaining Norman Lear sitcom from the seventies, its situations and characters might not have sent the Positive Image Police into Defcon One mode. But because so many of the lines land with a thud (surveying his in-laws’ super-populated house, Rob nervously jokes, “Now I know what was going on during those siestas”), and because the show keeps backing away from truly acidic observations and trying to be cuddly, the go-for-broke slapstick seems tonally off, bordering on grotesque. When Rob gets caught in what appears to be a compromising situation with grandma, the moment should have had the cathartic power of a payoff in an English bedroom farce, but it feels more desperate than naughty.
Still, there’s ultimately not much wrong with ¡Rob! that better writing and direction and a more fearless spirit couldn’t fix. The near-unanimous chorus of reviews calling it horrible, offensive, and irredeemably unfunny have a whiff of condescension. Just because there are Mexican-Americans onscreen acting foolish doesn’t automatically mean the show is racist. Despite the general mediocrity of the show’s dialogue, these are potentially endearing comic characters played by (mostly) excellent comic actors. ¡Rob! offers them a chance to wade into network prime time and clown around, just as The Jeffersons and Sanford and Son did for African-Americans back in the day. ¡Rob! is not trying to be Community or Modern Family; its goals and methods are much simpler. And even with its flaws, it is not without charm, especially when Cheech Marin, one of the most underrated comic actors alive, lets us see Fernando’s beleaguered wisdom. “Rosa’s parents hated me,” he confesses to Rob, who’s convinced he’ll never win his new family’s favor. “What did you do?” Rob asks him. “I waited till they died,” he replies.