The too-brief life of ’90s pop star Selena Quintanilla seems almost too ripe for a great movie or TV adaptation. She hurtled to stardom at a young age, helping define the market for Latin music in the U.S. Her career was the result of support from, and partnerships and tensions within, her family. She was charismatic and wildly talented. Her death was sudden, shocking, and violent. Her life has attained a mythic, soft-focus status as a story of young talent and terrible tragedy, which means it’s also begging for a “the real story behind” biopic treatment. The story got that in the 1997 movie Selena, which wasn’t perfect, but was a legitimate star-making vehicle for Jennifer Lopez. That was over 20 years ago, though, and it was made only a couple of years after Selena’s death. With time and more distance, a new onscreen Selena could look very different. It could make her more human. It could admit how hard it is to start out, how much pressure there might be as the front woman of your family’s dreams. It could make Selena into a person rather than an icon.
So it’s really a shame that the new Netflix series about Selena’s life is so remarkably uninterested in any of that. Nor is Selena interested in any of the things that might make a series about its subject compelling viewing. Those things might’ve included, for instance: a thoughtful consideration of the growth of the U.S. Latin music industry, a detailed look at Selena’s music, a portrait of her family members as human beings, a real attempt to grapple with the challenges of her early life, a portrayal of the complicated feelings that might come from being a Tejano artist who was not always fluent in Spanish, or even just a treatment of Selena’s career as being the result of great skill, effort, imagination, and insight on her part. Other things Selena might’ve included but inexplicably chose to forgo: stakes, tension, momentum, a purposeful tone, or any effort at all in developing Selena as a character.
It’s too bad! It’s infuriating, really — the Selena of the Netflix series, played by Christian Serratos, is childish and flighty, as interested in clothing and hair as she is in her music career. She is never mean, she makes no mistakes, and she has no inner conflict beyond her love of a sparkly bolero jacket and her sadness on the one occasion when she is not allowed to wear it. She’s not even frustrated or mad. She’s just resigned. Then later, she does wear the jacket and someone likes it! Phew! Whatever small problem there may have been, Selena swiftly and anxiously fixes before anyone has a chance to worry. Feinting in the direction of a conflict only to immediately make everything perfectly happy again is Selena’s standard operating procedure. At one point, Selena maybe almost gets a cold … and then doesn’t. What a relief.
I’m not suggesting there’s no pathos or complexity in a sparkly bolero. There absolutely is, and indeed, one of the best things about the series are the scenes of Selena, thrilled and inspired, bedazzling all her own outfits. The costumes do more work to communicate who these characters are than the writing does, and it’s achingly clear that there’s a whole world of fascinating character potential in Selena’s love of changing her outer appearance. The outline of her life, including her insistence on developing a clothing line, suggests that she was incredibly canny about the things that often do define huge musical careers. Her desire to be a visual chameleon could be, if nothing else, a painfully obvious parallel to the show’s musical themes. Her sound needed to be approachable and desirable in many different musical contexts. But Selena consistently skims the surface, landing occasionally on such shallow revelations as “I don’t always know who I am … until I am,” before skittering away again into shocking scenes like Now Her Hair Is Even Shorter.
Selena is barely a character; her sister Suzette (Noemi Gonzalez) and her mother Marcella (Seidy López) are even less so. Her mother’s role in the series is mainly to say, “How will we have enough money for the house?”, “Do we have enough money to buy this house?”, and then “Thank you for earning the money to buy this house.” Suzette gets a few scenes to be mildly, briefly grumpy. Like Selena’s threatened cold, it doesn’t ever matter very much. There’s a little more attention paid to Selena’s father Abraham (Ricardo Chavira) and her brother AB (Gabriel Chavarria), whom the series pitches as the primary creative engines behind Selena’s career. I don’t begrudge Selena the focus on these clearly influential, powerful male family forces in Selena’s life. It is odd, though, that the series has absolutely zero interest in probing deeper into the effects of having a brother and father define a young woman’s career. They tell her where to go, they give her songs to sing, and Selena smiles happily and says yes. What else could there possibly be to say about that dynamic? Nothing much, apparently.
Selena’s family has exercised iron control over who has the right to tell her story; Abraham Quintanilla is an executive producer of the series, and he’s maintained vigorous, litigious command over who gets the rights to Selena’s legacy. It makes complete sense that Quintanilla would be protective of his daughter’s story. It’s unfortunate that his protection ends up prioritizing his perspective on her life; it only makes Selena herself feel more remote and less like a full person.
The nine episodes released on Netflix this week are only the first half of Selena’s story. It stretches from her childhood to the precipice of megastardom and the beginnings of strain in her family relationships. It also, teasingly, just barely introduces Yolanda Saldívar, the woman who will eventually bring about the end to the Selena fairytale. Production has begun on the second half, and watching these first nine episodes, I couldn’t help but wonder what that next half will feel like. Maybe it will be all drama and mess, and Selena will have a chance to scream with fury. Maybe those episodes will find some way of depicting significant moments in Selena’s life without softening them with comical marimba music cues.
It’s truly hard to imagine, because in these first nine episodes, the specter of Selena’s eventual death feels like something from another world entirely. So far at least, the Netflix series shows us Selena and her family sailing through their lives, immune to every obstacle and discomfort. Presumably there’s at least some purpose in this; the series is positioning Selena’s death as something shocking and inexplicable, something that arrives from nowhere to ruin this beautiful family and devastate all her fans. But it doesn’t feel like a looming human tragedy, it comes across as the looming interruption of a real-world nightmare that Selena the series is utterly unprepared to take on. It’s like watching a typical episode of Sesame Street knowing that at some point in a later episode, Big Bird’s going to get gunned down in a school shooting. (Although this is a little unfair to Sesame Street, which is painstakingly respectful of its audience.)
It’s disappointing. Maybe there’s no biopic that could give Selena the considered, humane, empathetic, but also thoughtfully critical study she deserves. Biopics rarely escape their own inherent tendencies of hagiography or villainizing, and they always create arcs out of lives that are never actually constructed in such a convenient narrative shape. But Selena barely seems to have even tried. Instead, it doesn’t even give its Selena enough humanity to catch a cold.