Cristela the show is a competent though predictable multi-camera comedy, with the sort of stock characters you’d expect: the disapproving mom, the bimbo co-worker, the precocious child, the neighbor who always swings by. It’s by-the-book, and the book is called Home Improvement, Grace Under Fire, and the ABC Stand-Up–Centric Sitcom Style of Yesteryear. But Cristela the performer — stand-up comedian Cristela Alonzo, who created and stars in the series — is so engaging and funny, you barely notice that the show around her is just so-so.
Alonzo stars as the titular character, who’s in her sixth year of law school and just landed a prestigious internship at a fancy firm. She’s saving money by living with her sister and brother-in-law, their two kids, and her mother, though it’s an occasional point of friction. At home, she butts heads with her chronically disappointed mom (Terri Hoyos), the brother-in-law who wishes she’d move out (Carlos Ponce), and the brother-in-law’s cousin (Gabriel Iglesias) who’s constantly hitting on her. At work, she’s got a casually racist boss (Sam McMurray), his ditzy daughter Maddie as a co-worker (Justine Lupe), and a dweeby pal Josh (Andrew Leeds) who seems destined to be a love interest. The banter between Josh and Cristela is the most fun part of the show, quick and silly, but warm and collaborative — sure, Josh is Mr. Silver Spoon, whose parents have given him everything, while Cristela has struggled and paid her own way, but the two of them are on the same team.
Cristela, both the character and the performer, is bright and goofy and confident, and she’s got that sitcom-put-down timing down. When Maddie mistakes her for a janitor, Cristela recoils; Maddie apologizes and then asks if she validates parking. “Oh, I think you’ve been validated enough,” Cristela replies, cooly, slowly, but also for her own entertainment. Part of why, say, Roseanne works is that Roseanne the character considers herself funny and makes jokes for hers and others’ amusement. Cristela has its best moments when it does the same, when it lets character Cristela joke around and make her sister or niece laugh, or when she tries to dig herself out of an awkward moment with quick zinger. In the multi-camera format, the slightly exaggerated takes and the post-joke follow-through that help punctuate stand-up sets can help a B-plus line really land. My God, the woman can sell a joke.
The show is a lot less successful when it goes for those pre-fab sitcom setups that feel like a catchphrase waiting to happen. Sophia Petrillo can get away with a lot of “picture it! Sicily!,” but the mom here is no Sophia Petrillo. Iglesias’s overly persistent cousin-in-law leans slightly toward creepy (unwanted touching, occasional deception) rather than harmless, and “dumb blonde” is not a specific enough worldview to generate any kind of fresh material. The fact that the show centers on a Mexican-American family is significant, given the pervasive, entrenched whiteness of TV, and Cristela certainly has fun watching its lead react to the casual racism in her office and articulating the differences between her Mexican-American upbringing and Josh’s Jewish background. But the whole “Mexican moms raise their kids like this” schtick just feels so neutered and flat. Look alive out there, folks.
ABC put Cristela with the Tim Allen vehicle Last Man Standing, and the series share a co-creator and executive producer in Kevin Hench. The shows form a kind of a mediocrity bloc, and that’s fine, I guess — I watched way worse shows as a kid just because they were on, and I can absolutely imagine families happily or at least not unhappily watching Cristela. I just wish the show knew what it really had in its star and let her shine.