The season-one finale of Cristela Alonzo’s self-titled ABC comedy airs tonight at 8:30, and based on TV-industry buzz, odds are a bit less than 50-50 that the show will make it to season two. If it ends up canceled, it won’t be a tragedy on the order of prematurely killed series like My So-Called Life or Freaks and Geeks. But it will be a damn shame — and a mistake by ABC. Cristela is a funny, family-friendly, sometimes edgy, and almost always entertaining comedy that, based on both its content and its Nielsen performance, deserves to live at least a little longer.
Let’s start with the creative case for the show. I’m not someone who takes much interest in multi-camera comedies, at least not those created after 2000. The noisy jokes, broad characterizations, and obnoxious studio-audience laughter? I loved Lucy and dozens of multi-cam shows that came after it, all the way through to Friends and Everybody Loves Raymond. But very few multi-cam shows these days seem worth the time (even the ridiculously popular The Big Bang Theory). So when ABC sent the pilot for Cristela to reporters last summer, I didn’t even bother taking the disc out of its case. It wasn’t until the show premiered that I finally checked it out, and instantly fell in deep like.
The premise for Cristela, a semiautobiographical comedy featuring a Latina lead, is pretty straightforward. Alonzo plays Cristela Hernandez, a Texas woman who’s put herself through law school and now works as an unpaid intern at a law office run by a mildly bigoted old white dude. The workplace setting is balanced by a more standard domestic sitcom setup: With no income, Cristela finds herself living with her sister and brother-in-law, the couple’s two kids, and their gruff-bordering-on-abusive-but-still-lovable mom. In terms of setup, this is not Last Man on Earth or Transparent: Ground is not broken in every episode, and not many comedy conventions are subverted. And the show is hardly without flaws: The office story lines miss more than they hit, despite the cast’s best efforts (and the presence of my favorite nonspeaking extra, Jan).
But Cristela works because it plays on the best traditions of classic multi-cam comedy rather than relying on its worst elements. The writers do that sitcom thing where as many lines as possible are designed to make you laugh, but because this is a good multi-cam, said scribes rarely resort to being crass or obvious to get the desired result. Lessons are learned, as with almost every family comedy, but the message of the week is delivered subtly rather than through an awwwww moment. Characters insult each other, but they do so (mostly) out of love — and rarely by being truly mean.
Holding Cristela together is an incredibly talented lead (what every good multi-cam sitcom requires). Like Roseanne Barr, Patricia Heaton, Brett Butler, or Tim Allen at their respective peaks, Alonzo elevates every scene she’s in, sometimes with just her expression. She brings both heat and warmth to the show, delivering the best zingers (the heat) while making you care about her character’s struggles in a way that never feels fake, sappy, or manipulative (that’s the warmth). It helps that the show celebrates the fact that its characters are decidedly, and proudly, lower-middle-class: The Hernandez house looks like an actual American home, complete with a non–Energy Star–compliant fridge and living-room furniture that doesn’t look like it came from the Crate and Barrel catalogue. Characters talk about not being able to afford things. And in subtle ways — like pictures of Jesus on coffee mugs — the show works religion into its tapestry.
But Cristela isn’t merely a well-executed version of the standard sitcom formula. As with TV’s other standout multi-cam comedy right now, CBS’s Mom, there have been episodes and scenes this first season when Alonzo and her writers have aimed to be more than just a sweet little family show, moments that take the show from good to great. It was during one such moment that I went from being a fan of Cristela to a true believer. It came near the end of episode 15: Cristela and her mom Natalia (the amazing Terri Hoyes) are having a heated argument about whether Cristela’s niece Izzy should take part in her school’s gifted student program. Cristela expresses regret that she wasn’t able to get into the gifted program when she applied, and she wants better for her niece. Natalia then drops a bombshell: Cristela’s school had admitted her to the advanced classes, but Natalia tore up the acceptance letter because she didn’t want Cristela to feel out of place with the more affluent smart kids. “We are not supposed to aim so high,” her mom says. “Because the higher you aim, the farther you fall.” Heavy stuff, but Cristela (and Cristela) handled it deftly. I admit to choking up just a bit, mostly from the crushing look of disappointment on Alonzo’s face as her character realized how different her life might have been had her ama not acted out of fear and misplaced love.
Cristela’s future is in doubt because its ratings don’t automatically argue for renewal. Its overall audience among viewers under 50 — the demographic advertisers embrace most heartily — is pretty small. Once DVR replays are tallied, it’s averaging a 1.3 rating in that key demographic (counting episodes through March), making it ABC’s lowest-rated scripted series still on the air. But networks don’t look at ratings in isolation, and the bigger picture for Cristela is brighter. Specifically, the show has helped ABC dramatically improve its performance in the 8:30 p.m. Friday time slot versus last season — something that is increasingly hard to do in an era of shrinking overall ratings. Among watchers of all ages, Cristela is averaging nearly 6 million viewers this season. That’s a nearly 20 percent jump from the roughly 4.7 million viewers ABC averaged in the same time slot last year with alien comedy Neighbors. Once DVR replays from the last few weeks are tallied, it’s likely Cristela will also end up a bit ahead of Neighbors in the under-50 demographic. It’s true that Cristela has benefited a bit from the fact that lead-in Last Man Standing is doing better numbers this season than last, but Cristela’s growth over time is still outpacing that of LMS.
It’s also worth remembering that Neighbors landed on Fridays during the fall of 2013 having already spent a year on ABC’s top-rated Wednesday lineup, where it was able to build a core base of viewers (and some critical love). Cristela has never aired anywhere but Friday, a night where networks traditionally send shows after they’ve either failed or outlived their usefulness on other evenings. Plus, ABC has done virtually no marketing or promotion for Cristela since its launch. During this week’s Fresh Off the Boat, the network aired a promo for this Friday’s comedy finales that relegated Cristela to a two-second mention by voice-over. ABC understandably can’t love all of its children equally. But in an era where strong lead-ins hardly guarantee viewers will stick around for whatever show is up next, Cristela has more than held its own during its first year, despite no real push from the network. (And just as important, its ratings haven’t impacted the network’s most important Friday player, Shark Tank.) With time, it’s easy to see the show building a bigger audience, just as ABC’s The Middle, The Goldbergs, and Last Man Standing have all done.
But even if the numbers don’t scream #RenewCristela, I’m still hoping ABC brass will realize what they have in the show, and why it’s worth giving it time. Network execs are always talking about how much they want and need multi-cam comedies to work. Here’s one that is actually good, does decent ratings, and oh, by the way, also happens to be one of the few shows on network TV with a Latina woman and family at its core. ABC has rightly won praise for its commitment to putting on series that look like America, including two other first-year comedies, Fresh Off the Boat and black-ish. Those two shows are considered shoo-ins for renewal, as well they should be. If Cristela goes, nobody can accuse ABC of not giving diverse programming a shot. But networks love nothing more in this world than to brag in their end-of-year press releases, and then to talk up all of their achievements to advertisers at the annual upfront presentations in May. Imagine the applause ABC boss Paul Lee would get if he were able to say he’s renewed three freshman comedies, all boasting nonwhite leads, at a time when his rivals are struggling to launch even one? And how nice would it be if one of TV’s few remaining good multi-cam comedies gets the chance to become great?