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Television

Straddling Two Worlds in “The Baker and the Beauty”

There’s a lot of talk in The Baker and the Beauty about the “two worlds” our protagonist Daniel Garcia must manage. There’s his Latinx “world” in Little Havana. In it, he’s the oldest son of the humble Garcia family, living above the bakery he’ll one day inherit. The other “world” belongs to celebrity Noa Hamilton and her entourage. That one’s flush with funds, paparazzi, and skinny white folks. As the first season draws to a close, the two worlds seem set on a collision course with Daniel having to choose where he belongs.

Certainly, the difference between a collective and individualistic orientation is in full effect on the show and it’s one of the biggest divides we Latinxs must bridge. Before 2017’s Coco, I’d never watched anything where the value we place on family was seen as a positive. It had always been something to overcome, a needy, demanding family holding the ambitious individual back. Luckily, Latinx representation has come a long way and now we see much more nuanced portrayals of what it means to be in one of our tight-knit families.

On The Baker and the Beauty, that means we see the Garcias fight with and for each other every episode. Middle brother Mateo has to give up his recording session to work in the bakery but his dad eventually builds him a DIY studio when he realizes how serious Mateo is about music. Youngest sibling Natalie comes out as gay and even though her mother has a hard time accepting it, she never stops protecting her daughter. Father Rafael has always dreamed of owning his own cafe and his wife Mari pushes to do it even when he doubts himself. They’re a unit, for better or worse, but mostly for better.

In contrast, Noa is largely alone. We meet her mother and father but they’re not daily presences in her life and both cause her pain. Her real kin is her entourage with manager Lewis serving in the father-figure role. But Lewis is so high strung that, even with his cancer diagnosis, he remains the least sympathetic character on the show. Certainly, people you pay don’t and can’t provide the type of love the Garcias give each other. As Noa’s boyfriend, Daniel has to figure out how to balance his family obligations and keep up with Noa’s me-centered, white life, facing such tough questions as: should he drop his work at the bakery to go with Noa to Morroco?

And, perhaps more importantly, does he shift his ambitions from running the family business to becoming a food personality? In a recent episode, his dad Rafael lambasted that idea, calling Mateo’s years-long commitment to music “a dream” while labeling Daniel’s recent foray into food content “a fantasy.” It stung because of the truth behind it. Daniel’s ambition isn’t just new, it was Noa’s idea, an attempt to bring him closer to her world. It fits her ideal of success — fame, fortune, and status. But what happened to Daniel’s previous definition of “success” — being a meaningful part of his family, both its business and its relationships? And while Rafael is meaningfully pushing against Daniel’s shifting priorities, he is perhaps putting too much value in hard work. Success — whether in music or TV — is as much about your background as it is about talent and dedication.

Luckily, he exists in the world of The Baker and the Beauty, which sees the value in each of us. Noa may be the female romantic lead but the show hasn’t forgotten his ex Vanessa, the Latina real estate agent who proposed to Daniel after four years of dating in the series premiere (he said no). Even though she’s not right for Daniel, Vanessa is beautiful and smart and hardworking. She deserves love and success and the show allows her to have those things without predicating her happiness on Daniel’s or Noa’s. In fact, these two women, the round-the-way girl and the starlet, are equals in character and class even as they represent “two different worlds.”

The thing is, we Latinxs are used to living in “two worlds” (if not more!) as we navigate across our various cultures. As someone wiser than me said, we’re both 100% American and 100% Latinx all the time. Daniel’s case may be extreme but it’s not out of the ordinary and I, for one, am rooting for the “two worlds” talk to end and a more thoughtful exploration of what it means to be bicultural to begin. The Baker and the Beauty is certainly set up to do just that.

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From Dolores to Shirley, Mrs. America Centers the Wrong Story

A stylistic period piece, Mrs. America delves into the debate over the Equal Rights Amendment. Everything about this show oozes beauty, from the perfectly quaffed hair of Phyllis Schlafly’s followers, to Gloria Steinem’s glasses, to Shirley Chisholm’s graphic jacket-dress ensembles, but good television should be about more than just the nostalgia for its time period. And that’s where Mrs. America falls short.

Following the example set by Bombshell, Mrs. America makes the mistake of centering the life and history of a conservative white woman. Don’t get me wrong I love Cate Blanchett and her performance as Phyllis Schlafly is as smart and nuanced as we have come to expect from Blanchett as an actor. I believe the fault lies with the creators of the show and in a way, I can’t even place the blame completely on their shoulders.

In a time where intersectional feminism seems to be at the center of every diversity conversation, t-shirt, and tote bag, many television and movie projects miss the mark. Certainly,  the execution and practice of this theory has a little to be desired. A 2019 study by USC Annenberg found that across a sample of 1,300 films, the number of people of color in lead or co-lead roles was only 17%. And only 4.5% of all 47,268 speaking or named characters across the past 12 years were Latino, as were a mere 3% of lead or co-lead actors. I doubt when Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectional feminism” she was thinking of tote bags but that’s what it’s been distilled to, disconnected from its original meaning and easy to obtain. 

When there are nine episodes of Mrs. America and only one focuses on a woman of color, is that truly capturing the feminist movement? I argue not only does it miss the mark, it continues to perpetuate a dangerous narrative that feminism is for and by white women. Shirley Chisholm, played beautifully by Uzo Aduba, was not the only woman of color in congress working to pass the ERA. The fact that the show uses Chisholm and two other activists as the token characters delegated to supporting roles as opposed to Cate Blanchett’s Schlafly is, to put it simply, a mistake.

Mrs. America features Flo Kennedy, played by Niecy Nash, and Margaret Sloan-Hunter, played by Bria Samoné Henderson, both important and influential feminist activists. But neither of them receive their own episodes. In fact, the only Black editor at Ms. Magazine, Margaret is the only the second BIPOC character, other than Shirley Chisholm, who has received her own storyline. We watch her ideas get sidelined, questioned, and overlooked as she pitches a story about tokenism in the workplace. Margaret says in the meeting, “This phenomenon that happens where one minority is propped up to cover the experience of an entire population. Like the white population, we are diverse within ourselves.” The ironic part is the creators didn’t take their own message to heart.

The inclusion of Shirley Chisholm, Flo Kennedy, Margaret Sloan-Hunter, and other activists show that the writers and creators made a concerted effort to try to avoid the “white feminist” narrative pot hole. But inclusion is not enough. Feminism was founded, built, and created by queer women of color and non-binary people. To not center them in a show about the ERA feels like taking one step forward while realizing you’re on the wrong escalator.

This point is only affirmed when looking at IMDB’s list of the eleven writers and directors on the show. Only three are Black, with no Latinx or Asian writers or directors listed. This doesn’t surprise me. We know when there are diverse voices behind the camera, stories become more nuanced in their diversity. To not include Dolores Huerta, a Latina activist who helped lead the feminist movement including working with Gloria Steinem in the 60’s, continues the erasure of Latinx people in the feminist movement. To not include Patsy Matsu Takemoto, the first woman of color and first Asian-American congresswoman elected (who also helped pass Title IX and Women’s Education Equity Act in 1974), continues the erasure of Asian American people in the feminist movement. To not center Shirley Chisholm in every episode, instead of Phyllis Schlafly, continues the erasure of Black people in the feminist movement. These choices show us how far we have to go and who still holds the power. Because if Shirley Chisholm isn’t the iconic embodiment of what feminism should be, I don’t know what is.

If we are going to create shows and films to tell the untold story of the feminist movement, we need to include all feminists. Take the opportunity and challenge to show how diverse feminism is. Show the struggle that women of color and queer people went through to be accepted by the white feminist movement. These are the stories that should be front and center now. Intersectionality isn’t a fleeting theme, it’s a lens to see the invisible, to understand what’s really going on today and how we got here. Everyone who holds the strings to our culture should be using it to create media. Otherwise, we just end up with another useless metaphorical tote bag.

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Brown People Deserve More Stories About Grief

People like to believe grief is far away. A dramatic and inevitable part of our existence to avoid talking or thinking about. It’s one of those unfortunate things people simply get to when they “get there.” But this is often not the case. Especially for Devi Vishwakumar, the high school heroine of Mindy Kaling’s new show on Netflix Never Have I Ever. During an orchestra performance, Devi’s father suddenly collapses and passes away from a heart attack. A week or so later, Devi loses the feeling in her legs. Three months later, when trying to check out her high school crush Paxton Hall-Yoshida, she gets the feeling back — just in time for sophomore year. Determined not to be labeled a weirdo, Devi throws herself into a school years resolution: to have a boyfriend, become cool, and have sex. What looks like another high school rom-com with yet another 20-something man playing a teen heartthrob in a jeep, Never Have I Ever is more than meets the eye.

We all know the traditional architecture of a teen love story. A teen in an unfortunate state of uncoolness is always our hero. They become romantically involved with someone “out of their league” for reasons that boil down to 25% coincidence, 25% cool new lewks/ makeover, 25% group projects, and 25% detention. This reason or reasons eventually brings our two lovebirds together with a make-out scene to the bop of the moment. Every film, from the casually sexist/racist John Hughes’ pictures to the 90’s high school classics follows this narrative.

Don’t get me wrong I love this genre, having grown up with it as a 90’s baby but there’s a limit to what these characters can hope to achieve. From Ali Sheedy’s Allison in The Breakfast Club to even Julia Stiles’s feminist Kat in 10 Things I Hate About You, rom-com heroines may try to be less girly or traditionally “feminine,” but they still end up inside the boy-meets-girl cliché. Kat graduating high school and getting into Sarah Lawerence isn’t the central accomplishment of 10 Things I Hate About You, her getting together with Heath Ledger is. And no, the exploration of Ali Sheedy’s weirdness and emo tendencies isn’t the foundation of Breakfast Club, it’s merely a hurdle she overcomes to end up with Emilio Estevez.

While romantic love is a central storyline of Never Have I Ever, it’s not what drives the story forward and it isn’t at the core of Devi’s psyche. It’s not what makes her tick and it’s not what we’re primarily looking for her to explore and cope with. Instead, the death of Devi’s dad anchors the show. Through flashbacks and dreams, we see the memories of Devi with her father and how they motivate her to question the choices she makes. Through the eyes of Niecy Nash, who plays Devi’s therapist, we learn about what triggers her grief and how she continues to acknowledge its existence and effect on her.

Now grief and loss have been explored before in teen movies and shows whether it’s Fault In Our Stars or A Walk to Remember. In these films, a young couple falls in love like in a traditional romantic comedy. However as the end of the film nears one of the characters loses the new love-of-their-life due to cancer (or some other terminal illness), ending and cementing their romances in a modern Romeo and Juliet-esque love story.

While these stories do have a place in film and in some personal experiences, they don’t give grief the attention and examination it deserves. As the incomparable Joan Didion articulates “Grief, when it comes, is nothing like we expect it to be.” Never Have I Ever gives grief the space it deserves. The show effortlessly displays the waves of emotion that come with losing a loved one and the unexpected ways loss manifests itself in our lives and psyche. And that grief is okay. Through Devi’s experiences, we see how differently people express and process grief like Devi and her mother, Nalini. We see the pressure people are put under to show and perform grief in a specific way, when Nalini and Devi attend Ganesh Puja. The advice people try to give to comfort and instruct those who are grieving are familiar and show how little we know about grief itself and how to support others through it. In the teen-terminal-love stories, the majority of the films are built around characters finding love, falling in love, and finally losing love soon after the film ends. This is where Never Have I Ever begins. Instead of leading up to death, the show delves into what happens after the funeral and tear jerking eulogies, what happens when people stop calling.

In Never Have I Ever, not only do we get to see grief, we get to see a brown girl grieving her father. Many teen films show white people dealing with grief — very rarely if ever is this shown through the eyes of people of color. And if we do get to grieve, it is usually an exploitative, stereotypical storyline. In the Lantix community, we see many stories that feature grief but it’s often around immigration or senseless gang violence, things so many people can write off as “never going to happen to me.” Brown people deserve to have our grief normalized, to see what’s like for us to lose a loved one, as we did with Coco (although one movie is never enough). In many Brown and minority communities, whether it’s dealing with grief or mental health, there is often a stigma. Never Have I Ever does that — it gives us an honest narrative about a brown girl dealing with loss.

Grief is one of the more inevitable facets of the human experience and we don’t talk about it enough. Our storytelling mediums — TV, film, even books — don’t prepare young people to understand what it looks or feels like. And they certainly don’t teach how to support those experiencing it. Grief is tough to dramatize — it isn’t something that happens all at once or that ends once someone is gone. It lingers, hitting us in the subtleties of our daily lives. And more often than not, it’s not a doomed tragic love story, but a difficult part of life. But that’s why we need these stories even more and I thank Mindy Kaling for giving us one that is honest, funny, and beautifully human.

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The Emancipation of ‘Station 19’s’ Andrea Herrera

I’ve been rooting for Grey’s Anatomy spin-off Station 19. It’s not just that I love being in the Grey’s universe, having watched all 16 seasons and counting. Hell, I even went so far as to watch all of Private Practice. It’s also that the fire-fighting drama stars a Latina in Jaina Lee Ortiz as Andrea “Andy” Herrera. In case you didn’t know, Latinas are the least represented on-screen when compared to our population numbers. So when the rare opportunity to see someone who looks like me on TV pops up, I tune in.

And Ortiz is fun to watch. She’s charismatic and strong, the best firefighter in her battalion because of her smarts and experience. But Station 19 doesn’t seem to know what to do with her and the rest of her attractive cast. Yes, they enact Grey’s signature bed-hopping and love triangles but without the chemistry of that show’s couples. There’s the crisis-of-the-week too but somehow the fires on Station 19 aren’t as high stakes or suspenseful as the surgeries on Grey’s, even when the patients cross over.

All of which has solidified Station 19 as relatively mediocre TV, that is until the run-up to the season three finale. The show’s finally let Andy free in all her Latina glory. There have been nods to her culture in the past — my personal favorite was just how long it took for her to move out of her Dad’s house (we Latinos often live with our parents until marriage). But nothing like the concentration we’ve gotten in these last few episodes.

It started with “Something About What Happens When We Talk,” a mental-health themed episode that sees the fantastic Tracie Thoms come in as the station’s trauma counselor (request: can we have her every week?). In this episode, we learn of Andy’s salsa dancing past and watch her declare her love for Captain Robert Sullivan. Seeing her express herself through dance and have it work as a metaphor for these lovers’ passion was really something.

Next up was “No Days Off,” an episode that’d make AOC proud, comparing ICE to Nazis. In it, Andy, Sullivan, and her dad Pruitt debate immigration policy before intervening to help an undocumented worker. Sullivan, who is one of the show’s many Black characters, takes the hardest stand against ICE, letting the Latinx Herreras not be defined by the issue.

And all of this was leading up to Pruitt Herrera’s death, a truly momentous event for Andy. Her dad has been battling terminal cancer all season and when a fire-fighting effort goes awry, sacrifices what time he has left to save his daughter and her fellow fight fighters. In doing so, Pruitt proves himself to be the ultimate man of character, the Latino dad who’ll do anything for his family, biological and chosen.

Since then, we’ve been dealing with his death and Andy’s decision to marry Sullivan quickly and secretly so her dad could walk her down the aisle. By jumping from the care of one man (her dad) to the care of another (Sullivan), Andy’s never really been her own woman. She followed her dad into fire fighting and served under his leadership. She had some dalliances before coupling up with her station chief, but not many (not that her dad didn’t judge her sexual decisions harshly). In this, Andy’s the good Latina daughter, passed neatly from father to husband, sexual adventures brushed aside. The complication is that Andy’s beginning to question her decision and now has no Dad to talk to about it. If Sullivan is the type of guy who announces their relationship to their colleagues without Andy’s permission (as he did in a recent episode of this season) or that listens to Andy’s father about when she’s ready for a promotion rather than to Andy (as TWO men have done in three seasons so far), he may not be the guy for our girl. We don’t want another patriarch, however handsome and good-intentioned, trying to control Andy.

I’m rooting for her to chart her own course. That may be with Sullivan if she gets him to respect her and see her as an equal but more likely it’ll be without him. I’d love to see her, finally, in the leadership position, she’s been after and clearly earned. Mostly, I want to see her chase her own destiny and continue the legacy of Shonda Rhimes heroines like Meredith and Cristina, who didn’t let parents or lovers get in their way. Only then will Station 19 finally start living up to its potential.

This piece has been corrected. A previous version incorrectly identified the penultimate episode.

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Sex and Intelligence: ‘Vida’ Is Simply The Best

Season three of Vida premieres Sunday, April 26 on Starz. Warning: spoilers ahead.

Usually, shows about sex aren’t sexy. Remember HBO’s Tell Me You Love Me, ostensibly dissecting the sex lives of three couples but managing to suck all the sexiness out of it? Or 2004’s Kinsey about the science of sex and how little we really know about it? Or middle school health for that matter? It turns out that analyzing sex can be like analyzing a joke — if you start explaining why it’s funny, it’s just not anymore.

But Tanya Saracho’s Vida manages to have insightful, smart things to say about sex, sexuality, and sexual politics while also being just plain hot. The result is quite possibly the best show on television — and certainly the one I’ll miss the most if no one steps in to make more episodes after Starz finishes running the third season. Make no mistake, the third season is just as good as the first two, finishing with enough of a conclusion to give the characters justice while keeping us wanting more.

What can we say? Latinas make the best content

But back to sex. The whole show can be read as a treatise on the subject with each character having her own Awakening-esque arc. Let’s start with activist Marisol, in some ways, the woman with the most traditional story. You know the one — girl tries to be “good,” takes care of her family, works hard, doesn’t have sex. But it doesn’t matter. For Mari, you could say the trouble starts when a video of her giving head makes the rounds (one she did not consent to film). As you’ll see in the third season, despite being her father’s nurse and caretaker, she’s left out of the will with the property going solely to her brother Johnny. It’s not right, but it’s a reminder that even women who play by the patriarchal rules lose.

The typical telling of this story would end there, Marisol powerless and betrayed, another victim. But not in Vida. Mari doesn’t just accept her father’s wishes, instead pushing Johnny to be added to the deed. She also pushes herself and her activism, even breaking with Los Vigilantes, her collective action group. Marisol isn’t defined by her “V-card” — it’s perhaps the least interesting thing about her.

Mari and Johnny are skeptical of the patriarchy

On the other end of the spectrum is Lyn — if Mari’s the virgin, Lyn’s the “whore,” the one wearing see-through dresses, the body of a yoga instructor, and a healthy sexual appetite. The image of Johnny eating her out in the premiere is forever etched into my memory. And so is the orgy. And a few other steamy Lyn moments. For, before dedicating herself to the bar, her sexuality was her greatest asset, getting rich men to provide for her. And it worked — she bought fabulous clothes and had amazing experiences. Until it didn’t. Lyn’s journey is away from the sexist ideal of womanhood to something more individual, more self-realized.

In season three, she rejects ex-boyfriend Juniper’s offer at reconciliation and eventually gives up on being Councilman Rudy’s polished partner. She focuses on making the bar the destination for Latinx culture and she’s good at it, booking the right acts and cultivating a certain aesthetic. The transition is subtle and on-going — there’s still plenty to learn but Lyn finds a way to be sex-positive without defining herself by a man or the ability to acquire the male gaze. Just don’t expect her to turn away from sex, romance, or love any time soon. In sex-positive Vida, Lyn’s sexual escapades are just part of finding herself and finding her way. No slut-shaming here.

And outside of patriarchy’s narrative of women’s sexuality is Emma. Her queerness is not defined by boxes or labels but that doesn’t make it idyllic. She struggles to connect, even when a great partner (Nico!) is right in front of her. Her sexual escapades are just (if not more?!?) hot than Lyn’s, whether it’s bath time with Nico, masturbating at her mom’s house, or fucking the contractor. Emma’s sexuality proves you can go your own way, but it won’t be easy.

Name a hotter couple, we dare you

So often, women’s sexuality is portrayed from the man’s point of view — who’s hot, who’s not, who gets their search for pleasure narrated and who’s goes unnamed. Vida doesn’t just reject the male gaze. It creates a new narrative around desire, one that sees Eddy as desirable as Lyn, Emma’s quest for romantic love as important as Marisol’s fight for her community. That Vida does so with a tantalizing sex scene practically every episode is simply proof that lust doesn’t have to center on the male desire, it too can be feminist.

A show that has this much to say about latinidad, gentrification, class, and colorism would usually be described as “serious” or “important.” It would be for auteurs and Latinx, preferably the limited subsection that is the intersection of those two groups. And Vida is these things but it’s more than that. It’s sexy and smart and for everyone. And I will miss it.

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‘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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Maybe Watch ‘Killing Eve’ Without Your Man Friend

There’s a secret world of women-stuff most heterosexual men have no idea about. But Killing Eve incorporates (and takes seriously) secret nods only women understand, mixing them with the James Bond-esque type of globe-trotting intrigue you might be accustomed to sharing with a dude. But like watching sex scenes with your parents, let me recommend avoiding the awkward and watching Killing Eve’s third season (out Sunday!) without your (straight) male isolation partner.

I mean, aren’t some things better left between us ladies? Take the plotline in Killing Eve’s first season where Villanelle steals Eve’s suitcase and sends it back with beautiful, sumptuous clothes that compliment Eve’s body and express her personality better than anything she owns. It manages to be the ultimate flex, compliment, and shade all at once. Villanelle is showing off her wealth and good taste, she’s demonstrating to Eve not just that she really sees and understands her but that Eve’s selling herself short. It’s a complicated message and it sets the stage for the intimate and nuanced connection that women crave and fantasize about. I don’t know any hetero relationships where such a thing would be even vaguely possible (for the woman, men get this sort of care all the time). Do you really want to have to explain why those clothes are so seductive? So dangerous? So hot?

And it’s not just the clothes (or the makeup — the razor in the lipstick was another beautifully nuanced symbol). It’s also in the way Killing Eve explores and uses food. In season two, Villanelle goes undercover as Billie to spy on tech billionaire Aaron who might be killing those in the way of his data empire (spoiler: he is!). Along the way, he develops a fascination with Villanelle but maintains his distance, treating her to several elegant meals. The catch? He sits with her and watches her eat pappardelle and more, but never so much as gets a plate himself. It’s a clear sign that he’s an evil neurotic and it says just as much about Villanelle as it does about him. What kind of woman would eat those meals by herself? Flaunt all the conventions around gender and food? And with such gusto? A psychopath!

Food may often be used as a metaphor for sex (remember those Carl’s Jr. ads?) but Killing Eve pushes the envelope by focusing on the female side of desire. Villanelle isn’t just hungry, she wants a certain kind of dining experience and she gets it without the traditional and overplayed phallic symbol. And while Villanelle’s obvious allure may seem like something you’d rather not to discuss with your man-sexy-times-person, it’s really Eve’s choices that make the whole thing unbearable awkward. She has what’s supposed to make us heterosexual women happy — a loving husband (who cooks no less) and a nice home. But all that domesticity is boring as hell when the allure of a beautiful, dangerous love object is clearly within reach. Eve tries to have both, shielding Nico from the bloody details (the stabbing) but trying to bring some of the excitement home (remember when they have sex while Eve is thinking of Villanelle and Eve thinks it’s great but Nico hates it? Yikes!). So are you ready to have a frank conversation about how marriage is a trap for most women? How most of us don’t find our fulfillment in doing the dishes and boosting a man’s ego? Yes or no?

And the list goes on from there. It’s the food, the fashion, the sex, even the violence reads differently with women as the aggressors and only sometimes the victims. We women are conditioned to see ourselves as potential victims, learning all sorts of ways to avoid male aggression. But on Killing Eve we see both feminine power unrestrained (Villanelle) and female invisibility (The Ghost) resulting in violence and the experience is… freeing? Watching Killing Eve is both scary and tantalizing at the same time. Created by Phoebe Waller-Bridge (of Fleabag fame) and led by a different woman writer each season, the show mines women’s experiences, methods of communication, and worldviews to create something new and sexy and seductive. So maybe let your male partner watch it. But be prepared to have him understand you better in ways that might not be totally comfortable.

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Schitt’s Creek Made Excellence Out of Whiteness

Whiteness and privilege. Two words not just taught in Systemic Injustice 101, but the unlikely description behind one of television’s best shows, Schitt’s Creek. You know the premise – a wealthy white family, the Roses, lose all their money forcing them to move to a small, backwater town, Schitt’s Creek. In a time where we can all use television that is simply good, Schitt’s Creek went above and beyond. It made excellent television out of whiteness and somehow managed to restore some faith in humanity along the way.

Instead of ignoring or fearing privilege, the script and cast own their whiteness and manage to both examine and make fun of it. From the moment the IRS raids the Rose’s extravagant family home, possibly a stone’s throw from a Kardashian enclave, to their out of place designer wardrobes, their whiteness sets the scene for a family that starts out impossibly out of touch.

While Schitt’s Creek isn’t the only show starring an all white cast and handling wealth and privilege, it is the only one that dares to be self-aware, funny, and heartfelt. Other shows like Succession, The Sopranos, and even Game of Thrones focus on the underbelly of wealth and whiteness. They leave you feeling disturbed yet intrigued. Instead of heart, these shows use dark cutting humor to expose the consequences of unchecked privilege. Spoiler: it’s a cocktail of misogyny, greed, and power trips. You know the drill.   

Whiteness and wealth is also the driver behind another lucrative genre, Reality TV. For decades now, the Real Housewives, Laguna Beach, The Hills, Vanderpump Rules and other reality shows have made entertainment from a similar premise of watching wealthy white people make mistakes. However the characters on these shows rarely change, which usually makes them even more hilarious. There is never a shortage of wine to throw in someone’s face or extensions to rip out – we love these characters for their dysfunction, not in spite of it. It’s a viewing experience devoid of empathy.  

While the Rose family endures their share of humiliation, whether it’s Moira’s less than star quality singing or Alexis’ dance routine, Schitt’s Creek maintains a sweetness reality television doesn’t offer. The Roses are permitted to be themselves, make mistakes, and learn a lesson without losing who they are. Perhaps that’s why the show connects with its audience differently – it’s nice each character becomes a bit better while being accepted for exactly who they are. 

Alexis Rose, played by Annie Murphy, is a combination of Kim Kardashian, Paris Hilton, and every Instagram influencer complete with her own single. Alexis’ problems initially seem to be centered around needing a man, but by the end of the series, she focuses on her education and starting her own business. Comparing Alexis’ relationship in the beginning with both Ted and Mud to the end of the series, we see Alexis grow more aware of herself, her wants, and the effect of her actions on others. Her connection with her brother David grows from annoyance to genuine love and companionship. 

Moira, the mother of the Rose family played by the iconic Catherine O’Hara, is a refreshing motherly figure that rejects all the stereotypes associated with the role. While Moira maintains her individuality and the love of her many wigs, she grows from a self-centered socialite to a valued member of her community and a supportive parent, even if she still doesn’t know how to “fold in” the cheese.

As the father, Johnny Rose is initially distant and removed from his children. Seeing himself as a traditional provider, Johnny solves any situation with one of his meandering business anecdotes. However as the series progresses, we see more of Johnny’s sweetness with his family and especially with Alexis. While initially he forgets Alexis’ middle name, coming to Schitt’s Creek gives him the opportunity to be there for his children. After Alexis’ breakup with Ted, Johnny is able to be there for his daughter in a way that he never had before. His charming approach to fatherhood transforms him into the anchor of the Rose family. Played by Eugene Levy, a comedic legend, he exudes kindness in this role. Making it even sweeter to have him share the screen with his real life family.

With David Rose, we see him grow from a monochromatically dressed man, who has a deeper relationship to his knits than actual people, to a monochromatically dressed man who finds love but more importantly a clearer sense of self. David is one of the few if not first pansexual characters on television. Played by Dan Levy, the joy of this character isn’t just because of what it means for representation, it’s that David is allowed to be more than just the one of the firsts. When David starts dating Patrick, it’s a love story whose beauty is in its ease – there’s no bigotry or homophobia insight. Rarely do we see two men on TV fall in love, even less common is to see them fall in love organically. Too often, the way the LGBTQ community is portrayed is limiting and stereotypical but David and Patrick’s story avoids all that. 

Whether it’s the famed David wine-coming-out-metaphor, Patrick’s stunning rendition of Tina Turner’s “Simply the Best,” or Moira’s connection with the JazzaGals, the characters of Schitt’s Creek connects us to themes we all crave. Not only do we love watching a hilarious white family with a propensity for the ridiculous embarrass themselves, we love to watch them grow individually and together. Schitt’s Creek reminds us that the material simply dresses up our lives – what truly matters are our relationships.         

Yes, it’s unusual for me and so many other POCs to love a white show like Schitt’s Creek, but I do. There are few shows that center and debunk whiteness as well as this. Like the softest down comforter or cashmere turtleneck, the Rose family makes us all feel cozy, included, and loved. A feeling we’ve never needed more.

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