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TV Makes Room For Hispanic Drama, 'American Family'
By LYNN ELBER
January 22, 2002
LOS ANGELES (AP) - In a promotional spot for "American Family," creator Gregory Nava happily notes that his new PBS series has one of the prettiest clans imaginable.
With an ensemble cast that includes Sonia Braga, Esai Morales and Raquel Welch, it's a fair claim. Nava has other bragging rights: He persevered to bring the first Hispanic drama to broadcast television.
The acclaimed director of "Selena," and "El Norte" appreciates the milestone. But he wants prospective viewers to know that the series' title tells the story - it's intended to be universal.
"Almost every family in America comes from somewhere, so most of what the Gonzalez family goes through is what all American families go through. Which is why we called it 'American Family,"' Nava said.
"I think audiences love good stories about people, and ultimately that's what it's about. Ultimately, what we all have in common is family, because we all come from 'em. We've all got 'em."
What "American Family" offers is a fresh take on the subject. The series (debuting 8 p.m. EST Wednesday, with a second episode on Thursday; check local listings) stars Edward James Olmos as the blustery, barber shop-owning patriarch of a Mexican-American family in East Los Angeles.
Braga is his devoted wife; Estaban (Morales) is a son trying to regain his life after legal trouble. Daughter and feminist attorney Nina (Constance Marie) clashes with her conservative dad; youngest child Cisco (A.J. Lamas) is a cyberfreak who's capturing his family's antics on videotape for a wider audience.
Kurt Caceres and Rachel Ticotin play two other adult Gonzalez children; Welch is flamboyant Aunt Dora, a Hollywood star manque.
The first episode is uneven and overstuffed, as pilots tend to be. The second is a better demonstration of the show's promise and Nava's ambition: He wants to weave comedy and tragedy, Hispanic culture and a meditation on past, present and future into a distinctive look at family.
In an upcoming episode, Nava ties a Mexican folk tale about a woman who drowned her children in a moment of insanity to a modern-day story about a family broken apart by immigration rules.
"American Family" is plowing fertile ground. Aside from a few comedy blips like "Chico and the Man" and a handful of Hispanic characters in other series, America's fastest-growing ethnic group has been largely shut out of the TV picture.
Barbara Martinez-Jitner, the show's supervising producer, finds it ironic that one of America's earliest, best-loved shows, "I Love Lucy," featured a Hispanic character in Ricky Ricardo (Desi Arnaz).
"Why that stopped in the 1950s and it's taken to 2002 to get back to the same place television started from, I can't answer," she said.
Adds Nava: "I think for the Latino family, the time is due."
That's overdue, according to the National Hispanic Media Coalition, which joined with the NAACP and other civil rights groups to lobby networks to be more inclusive after a nearly all-white 1999 TV schedule.
"We're jumping up and down, we're so happy," said coalition President Alex Nogales. "We're sure it ('American Family') is going to do well because it's a quality show. Nava is a major talent."
There is one other Hispanic drama, "Resurrection Blvd.," but it's on the premium cable channel Showtime and available to a limited audience. Breaking through to broadcast TV proved more difficult.
(Spanish-speaking viewers are served by networks like Univision and Telemundo - the latter will be airing a dubbed version of "American Family" - but research has shown that 69 percent of Hispanics watch English-language TV, Nogales said.)
"American Family" originally was developed for CBS which, like other networks under pressure from the civil rights groups, signed agreements to use more minorities behind and in front of the camera.
"Every time we went to see (CBS President) Leslie Moonves, he'd say 'We have Gregory Nava on a development deal,"' Nogales said. "He always said the same thing. Finally we said 'OK, how about going to the next step?"
That step, scheduling the series, was something CBS declined to do, saying the program "didn't fit into their schedule" for 2001, according to Nava.
The year before, the network had tried but failed to interest audiences in a predominantly black drama, "City of Angels." CBS did make a generous offer: Nava could take the pilot and shop the series elsewhere.
"It turned out to be a more difficult and circuitous task to getting the show on the air than I thought, but we did get it. I'm really overjoyed," said Nava. "I think we found the right home on PBS."
For its part, PBS had worked with and admired Nava. (His film "Mi Familia" was part of PBS' "American Playhouse.") And it saw the series as a good fit.
"We had been looking for an American drama that we could bring to the screen in the format that American audiences love so, the continuing story-continuing character serial drama," said John Wilson, PBS senior vice president and co-chief program executive.
That it was the rare Hispanic drama gave it more weight, Wilson said. But the public TV service is counting on a broader, multiethnic audience.
"I hope it works on different levels, that a general audience can watch and a Latino audience will say that rings true. If it does, then it will be the breakthrough people think it might be," he said.
And just the start, said Nogales. Comedian George Lopez is set to begin work on an ABC sitcom and other Hispanic projects will come to fruition as Hollywood finally recognizes "another part of Americana," he said.
"The demographics are there. We're 13.6 percent of the U.S. population if you count Puerto Rico, and you have to count Puerto Rico. It's a waiting game, and all of the networks know this."