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Covid-19

‘Roswell’ is Fun and That’s All I Want Right Now

Every TV show does not need to be a complex piece of art. Ten years ago, we didn’t expect TV would have anything profound to say about the human condition. We believed the role of the “boob tube” was to offer an escape, titillation maybe, some time when our brains could turn off. Now, I like ‘prestige’ TV as much as the next, but there’s still a time and a place for TV that simply entertains.

And that time is now (thanks Coronavirus!). I just want to escape to where the stakes are low, the people are beautiful, and I don’t have to think too hard. For white people, there are a lot of these shows (I’d argue a whole channel worth of them on CBS). For the rest of us, the options are limited: the quirky friend on a white-centered ensemble show, too few seasons of brown drama before it gets canceled, the pressure to represent an entire community in just one sitcom…

Luckily, the CW’s Roswell, New Mexico avoids all of those traps. The show stars Jeanine Mason as Liz Ortecho, a 20-something scientist who returns to her podunk hometown and somehow gets enwrapped in a mystery involving her family, aliens, and a government conspiracy. The tone is light and fun and mirrors the viewing experience. This isn’t the X-Files where the future of the whole human race and reality-as-we-know-it is at stake. No, these aliens are (mostly) friendly and just trying to get home (like E.T.!).

Look, dorky white aliens at prom!

It is so soothing to watch a Latina heroine star in a show where the aliens are white and from outer space! It’s not just that the word “alien” has been weaponized against us, it’s also that BIPOC too often get cast in these roles — making us both others and erasing the ways our actual skin and heritage show up. Think Zoe Saldana in Guardians of the Galaxy or Avatar, Lupita Nyong’o in Star Wars. They play aliens who are not visibly brown or black but who are decidedly not human, allowing these films to claim diversity without actually having to deal with. It’s not a good look and Roswell wholeheartedly rejects this option, making the white characters the others, the outsiders, the not-humans. It’s sci-fi from the BIPOC perspective and I’m here for it.

And that’s not the only way Roswell delivers politically while staying true to its escapist nature. Yes, the Ortecho patriarch doesn’t have his papers and yes, there’s a quasi race-war happening in Roswell, but the show doesn’t go too deep on that. Its takeaway is more “racists are hypocritical trash” than “let’s examine the dynamics of discrimination in America.” And it’s not just race — the villain on the show is the homophobic dad who beat his son (and hunts aliens) and the bad boy heartthrob is bi and equally appealing to both sexes. Even when the show does abortion, the stakes are clear: the show supports Lily Cowles’s Isobel Evans-Bracken’s decision to terminate as it dramatizes why we need better access to abortion. What a breath of fresh air!

Coincidentally there’s not just one Latinx character, but many, each one attractive with a cool job (doctor! scientist! restaurant-owner!). Scene after scene in Roswell, people with beautiful, big brown eyes look soulfully at each other as they speechify about their predicaments. Liz does this a lot as does her (spoiler) resurrected sister Rosa (Amber Midthunder). On the male side, hunky doctor (and Liz-ex) Michael Trevino as Kyle Valenti gets a lot of use out of his shiny big eyes (and biceps!) as does his cousin (sings “we know you get plenty of them”) Tyler Blackburn as vet Alex Manes. But they’re not hypersexual, not more “curvy,” “exotic,” or “spicy” than their peers. If anything, Liz and her peers are the girls (and guys) next door, the ones we relate to and root for. It’s delightful!

The show’s use of nostalgia makes it all the more comforting. Roswell, New Mexico is ostensibly set in the current day but has plenty of throwbacks to its late nineties, early aughts roots from an alt-rock soundtrack (I haven’t heard this much Counting Crows in a LONG TIME) to the characters pension for statement belts and dark lipstick. Roswell plays with time, managing to be both a teen’s idea of what adulthood will be like and an adult’s remembrance of the innocence of teenhood. There’s a scene where two characters hook up, exclaiming how great it is to be an adult (unlike every real adult ever — we just complain). Likewise, the characters on Roswell are still crushing on who they went to prom with (or wish they had) — imagine if life was really that simple! Certainly, when I was listening to the Counting Crows, I didn’t know how much more complicated it’d get.

Is it though? Is it really?

Roswell is just fun, making the most out of its over-the-top sci-fi romance premise. I mean for the first half of the second season, our romantic lead (Nathan Parsons as Max Evans) is mostly dead (and so slightly alive!), waiting for his girlfriend and siblings to operate on his hurt alien heart. Is that a metaphor or what? Don’t overthink it — it’s just as deep as it sounds. TV like Roswell reminds us that it doesn’t have to be exceptional all the time and neither do we. Not in our regular lives, not in our viewing habits, not as Latinxs, not during a global pandemic. Let’s all just breathe out. And watch the hot BIPOC actors on Roswell (love that cameo by Gaius “Smash Williams” Charles) fall in love, make scientific breakthroughs, and wear silly outfits. It’s as good a way as any to spend your self-isolation.

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Ugly Betty Has the Beauty We Need Now

For the past few weeks, I’ve been lucky (and privileged) enough to shelter with my family. Every night, we’ve huddled in my parents’ room and watched our favorites: Cinderella (the one produced by Whitney Houston starring Brandy, the only version that matters) Pride and Prejudice (the one with Colin Firth and Jennifer Eyle, also the only version that matters), Anne of Green Gables (the 1980s version, obviously), and finally, the one and only Ugly Betty, starring America Ferrera.

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Ugly Betty has always been more than a show to me. From her braces to her wavy, frizzy hair to her well-intentionally bold yet slightly off-putting wardrobe, America Fererra’s Betty Suarez was, like no Latina I’d ever seen, simply herself. A Latinx girl with bookish tendencies, a never-ending work ethic, and a love of writing. Of course, I’d seen Jennifer Lopez, Selma Hayak, and Jessica Alba on screen but I viewed these women as wildly out of my league. With their perfect hair, curvy yet athletic figures, and horas that practically dripped sex, these women more closely resembled figments of Hollywood’s imaginary Latinas than myself or any of the women I know. And while they were certainly hot, they lacked dynamic storylines and any true autonomy, usually playing the maid or sexy alternative love interest.  

Ugly Betty is wonderfully different, and something I had never seen on television. It centers a woman who rejects the Latina stereotype, a character who’s value isn’t in her sexuality, who embraces her Latinx identity and individual quirks, even if it means wearing a poncho from Guadelajara. And Ugly Betty didn’t just give one way to be Latinx. Between Betty, her sister Hilda, her nephew Justin, Justin’s father Santos, her father Ignacio, and Sofia (Selma Hayak’s character), these roles break the mold Hollywood too often uses for Latinx characters. A mold that continues to limit how others see us and how we see ourselves.

It’s been 10 years since the show’s finale, and while the outfits and some of the references are definitely outdated (sorry low-rise jeans, never again) Ugly Betty is as relevant as ever. More than just a character, Betty forces us as viewers to question the hypocrisy of a world, and especially a workplace, obsessed with consumption and completely lacking in substance. 

I don’t think it’s a coincidence Betty wears a poncho on her first day to work. A traditional piece of clothing from Latin America that has not only been used to stereotype the Latinx community but also has recently been subverted into a fashion must have. By wearing her poncho, Betty exposes the deceptive rules the Latinx community navigates of where and when our culture is appreciated or ridiculed. The beauty and ingenuity of Ugly Betty is that the show plays with these norms with humor and authenticity. As her nephew Justin says in the first episode, “All the stuff you want to do, owning a magazine, doesn’t happen for people like us, unless you’re JLo or something.” But Betty finds a way to succeed without becoming a Latina bombshell or undergoing one of those horrifying now-they’ll-see-me-and-take-me-seriously makeovers – and that’s a story that deeply resonates today.

This world view, this continued freshness isn’t an accident. Ugly Betty was written and developed by two Latinx writers, including the late brilliant Silvio Horto, and produced by both Selma Hayak and America Ferrera. It is only when we are given the opportunity to tell our own stories that we are able to expand how stories are told about ourselves and our communities. Ugly Betty paved the way for more inclusive dynamic television proving that diversity shouldn’t be an afterthought. The fact is when you put people of color in front and behind the camera you simply get good television. Television with characters that are authentic complex and make other characters cis white ones like Mode’s Editor in Chief Daniel Meade even more interesting. 

But what makes Ugly Betty so wonderful and great for this moment in time is how it centers goodness. Much of the message of the first season is about the value of family, character transformations (except for Betty), and the value of just being nice. In season one, Betty’s positive spirit and general goodness infiltrate the capitalist, shallow world of a fashion magazine. And without a ridiculous makeover or shopping montage, Betty reforms her misogynist boss into a self-aware ally that supports her. The truth is Betty doesn’t conform to the world she lives in, she subverts it. 

While many of us are sheltering in place and worried about our loved ones, it feels good to watch a show where the heroine wins. Where characters get rewarded by simply being nice and to watch TV that doesn’t demonize, tokenize, or scapegoat immigrants. Instead in Ugly Betty the message is simple be who you are and don’t change, just wait for others to catch up.  

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How Will the Rona Infect TV?

With everything going on, it can seem pretty silly to care about TV. But here I am, daydreaming about my shows. Like the rest of the nation, Hollywood is shut down for the foreseeable future — meaning if an episode wasn’t already shot, who knows when it’ll happen. But it’s not just a question of when, it’s also a question of how. What will the effect of the Rona be on TV? Will shows incorporate it into their plotlines? Do we want them to? We at latinamedia.co aren’t sure but we’ll be exploring what to watch during and after this crisis.

Certainly, medical shows a la Grey’s Anatomy will have to do a Coronavirus arc. How could a hospital drama possibly resist? And for Grey’s, they can’t let dramatic medical news go to waste. I can only imagine how hard it is to come up with new theatrics for our favorite surgical department after sixteen seasons and here’s an unprecedented health tragedy falling in their laps. My only question is if it’ll be one episode or one season. Really, Meredith, Bailey, and the team could do so much.

Outside of hospital shows, family sitcoms are well situated to write about this time. One Day At A TimeBlack-ish, and The Simpsons, shows that already take place in the living room know how to squeeze drama out of the domestic. Watching our favorite TV families exploring what it’s like to be stuck at home for who knows how long could be therapeutic. At least, I’d expect some good laughs as Lydia runs out of makeup or Bo teaches everyone how to wash their hands (again). There’s joy as well as fear for those of us privileged enough to self-isolate and I’d like to watch my favorite TV families laugh and love and cry through it.

And of course, there’s the political show. Since Trump took office, many shows have failed to match the absurdity of reality, their out-of-this-world plots suddenly seeming tame in comparison to the actual headlines. The exception is The Good Fight — they’ve satirized and weaponized the Trump Administration’s failure to great effect, finding ridiculousness and humor throughout. Imagine Riddick Boseman suing the federal government for more ventilators. Defending the mostly brown and black people who will fall victim to the disease. Continuing to lampoon the failures of the White House, just now with a Coronavirus spin.

As great as that would be, the genre I think that’ll give us the most insight into our current predicament is science fiction. Hear me out. Remember when Battlestar Galactica did a whole season on the occupation in Iraq? It had more to say than most ripped-from-the-headlines plots because it was able to take on the whole story, unencumbered by the details. Instead, it focused on the human costs and the emotional reactions. And it totally worked.

So who will be able to comment meaningfully on this moment? My hopes are with dark and nuanced shows. Maybe the fourth season of Westworld could do it. It could be a computer virus or a biological one (or one the jumps from humans to robots). It could unite the two groups and divide them, creating new castes of those with the disease and those without. It could ask what is the moral way to respond and how much should we sacrifice for the herd (the eternal question around Maeve and her daughter). It could ask what we are willing to change and who we are willing to collaborate with. And it could continue to expose who is valued and who is treated as expendable — the show’s true forte.

There’s something about the fictional future that seems best able to handle our unprecedented present. Let’s just hope we get there.

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One Day At A Time in the Time of Coronavirus

It’s a global pandemic and we’re all stuck at home, scared. I know I’m alternating between feeling overwhelmed, bored, and helpless and none of these is a good look. And I’ve been working from home for years with a partner who also does. In so many ways, social distancing shouldn’t be a big deal for me. I’m an introvert. I already have a wardrobe of working-from-home clothes (elastic waistband “pants,” no underwire bras). I stream TV professionally.

And yet, it’s hit me hard, this new normal. My kids are too small to entertain (or feed) themselves and it’s enough to make even the most patient person go nuts. I’d like to go to the grocery store without feeling like I’m entering a biohazard zone. I miss at least having the pretense of a social life. But one thing, one show is getting me through this: One Day At A Time. Well, One Day At a Time and finding ways to contribute to society without getting within six feet of another human — but that’s another subject altogether.

Hopefully, you’ve already watched the first three seasons (available on Netflix) and are tuning in with me at the show’s new home on Pop TV. Maybe you just remember hearing about the campaign last year to keep One Day At A Time after Netflix canceled it. Maybe you tried to watch it and couldn’t get into the in-front-of-a live-studio-audience aesthetic of old (I’ve been guilty of that one myself). Or maybe you have something against Rita Moreno, in which case I would ask you to stop reading because this is not the place for you.

But whatever your situation, the time to watch One Day At A Time is now. First of all, you’ve got time. But more than that, couldn’t we all use a little refresher and reminder on the importance of family? Being stuck together may have our fuses running short but that doesn’t mean we can back away from these relationships. One Day At A Time offers a primer on how to do just that. Take season one where Justina Muchada’s Penelope and her mother, Lydia, as played by national treasure Rita Moreno, navigate the dynamics of a grown mother-daughter relationship. A good Catholic, Lydia wants photos of the Pope everywhere while Penelope just wants some peace. The two grapple with who controls the household and whose work is more valuable (sound familiar?) — Lydia makes the breakfasts and does the laundry while Penelope makes the money and worries about the finances (both women nurture the kids). In the end, they compromise by listening to and appreciating each other. Lydia adds a photo of Penelope’s inspiration (Serena Williams) next to the Pope’s and Penelope learns to appreciate Lydia’s unpaid labor. Certainly, that’s an (on-going) lesson for us all.

Plus, One Day At A Time demonstrates just how much and how much fun can be had within four walls and a small cast of characters. Yes, the Alvarezes do leave home (notably to Penelope’s work and her always-hilarious support group) but the bulk of the story happens at home with just the four of them (plus Schneider for comedy I guess). And a lot happens! They face down racism, sexism, classism, and more. They learn to love themselves and each other more. They encounter big structural obstacles (like the VA!) and small personal ones (class projects! first dates!). They grow and they tease and they nurture. It’s lovely.

And it’s filled with hope. And in these intense and scary times, that’s what I need. This show provides me a breath of fresh air, a reminder of the goodness taking place in other people’s living rooms, and a laugh when I need it. I’m taking the global pandemic one day at a time with One Day At A Time and I recommend you do too.

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