American Family is being touted by PBS as the first weekly drama on American broadcast television about a Latino family. That's a historic claim, and the series deserves to be celebrated for its commitment to diversity and ethnic understanding.
But creator Gregory Nava (El Norte and Selena) doesn't want viewers to think the 13-week series that begins Wednesday night on public television is only by, for and about the Latino experience.
"American Family is about everybody's family," Nava said at a PBS press conference in Los Angeles.
"Almost all families in this country have some cultural component to them, and it's amazing how that gets sadly left out of a lot of our media. So, I want the whole country when they're watching this series to go, 'Oh, yeah, I remember that. It's just like my family.' I believe the stories we're telling are universal."
Based on the first two episodes made available to critics, Nava is justified in his belief. He has created a series richly steeped in Latino culture that also speaks to the experience of every ethnic group as its members struggle to balance their unique identity with the toll taken by successful assimilation.
The central story line here is the great saga of what it means to become a full participant in 20th-century American life -- both what is gained and what is sadly lost. The first two hours of American Family tell that story for Latinos with as much wisdom, melancholy and sense of fun as Barry Levinson's feature film Avalon did for Jews.
Two strong parents
You can't do ethnic family drama without a strong patriarch or matriarch; American Family has both, and they are played by splendid actors working at the top of their games.
Edward James Olmos plays Jess Gonzales, a conservative barber in East Los Angeles who has worked hard to try to set his five children on the path to upward mobility. Sonia Braga (Kiss of the Spider Woman) plays Berta Gonzales, the glue that held the family together. Jess and Berta came to L.A. from Mexico.
They have five grown children: Nina (Constance Marie), a feminist attorney who does immigration law and is constantly at odds politically with her father; Vangie (Rachel Ticotin), a fashion designer who married an Anglo and moved to upscale Brentwood; Conrado (Kurt Caceres), a medical doctor; Esteban (Esai Morales), who just got out of prison; and Cisco (A.J. Lamas), a teen-ager fascinated by the Internet who is constantly videotaping his family and posting what he sees online to create his own parallel cyber-punk version of the Gonzales family drama.
The family extends to over-the-top Aunt Dora (Raquel Welch), neighborhood drama queen; her grown daughter, Christy (Maria Canals); and Esteban's 6-year-old son, Pablito (Austin Marquez).
Father Jess and daughter Nina provide the spark in the first two episodes, which air at 8 p.m. Wednesday and 10 p.m. Thursday on MPT (Channels 22 and 67).
"Imagine Archie Bunker meeting Zorba the Greek, and then you got me," Olmos said, trying to describe his character.
"The guy likes to dance. At the same time, he's listening to Rush Limbaugh. That's who I listen to in the barber shop."
The first barber shop scene is wonderful, with Jess railing against bilingual education as he shaves a customer. As the conversation between two old friends becomes more and more intense, they speak more and more Spanish.
"Everything's changing," Jess says starting to get really wound up. "Kids are spoiled nowadays. They got everything handed to them on a silver platter. Not like us. I mean, they got that stuff, that inter, inter ... "
"Course?" the customer says.
"No!" Jess screams. "Inter, inter ..."
"Racial?" his friend screams, agitating him even more.
The funniest scene comes as Jess and Nina are just starting into one of their arguments. The front doorbell at the Gonzales home rings, and it's a troop of Aztec dancers in full regalia. The community center was booked, and Nina told them they could rehearse in her father's living room.
Nina tries to explain that her work doing "poor people's immigration law" requires her to be involved in such community pride efforts, but Jess is having none of it.
"I work my [tail] off sending you to law school, and what do you do? Poor people's law. Why can't you do rich people's law?"
Wide range of emotions
As wonderfully comic as the series can be, the heart of the pilot involves a death in the family. At the end of the episode, ask yourself when you last saw an hour of prime-time television that covered this wide an emotional range with this much sensitivity.
The second episode is even better. Titled "The Sewing Machine," it is built around memory and Berta's sewing machine. One of the story lines flashes back to super-achiever Nina as a high school senior being selected to give the class speech.
Berta stayed up all night for more than a week making Nina a dress for the event, because Jess said they couldn't afford the one Nina wanted to buy. But the dress is "too ethnic" in Nina's eyes. Instead of the dress, Nina wears a stylish business suit that a female teacher-mentor bought for her.
There is a moment with Nina onstage in the suit looking from the proud teacher who sits behind her to her mother standing in a doorway of the auditorium that will break your heart. It articulates the emotional cost of assimilation and upward mobility as well as any television or film tableau I have ever seen.
I liked the idea of American Family from the moment I heard about it in 1999 as CBS was developing the series for the 2000-2001 television season. CBS ultimately passed on the series, but to its great credit, PBS begged, borrowed and pleaded to find the $1 million per episode to make the series at bargain basement rates.
"American Family is precisely the kind of contemporary dramatic programming that belongs on PBS," said Pat Mitchell, the president of PBS.
"And we need more of it, especially this program, because it reflects an audience that without question is one of the most under-served by American media. Latinos are more than 30 percent of this country's population, and yet there is so little about their culture, their music, their humor, their family on prime-time broadcast television. PBS is proud to open the door with an extraordinary American family named Gonzales."
PBS should be proud.