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A PBS TV series that assumes the responsibility of providing quality drama with a Mexican-American theme, American Family is a good soap burdened by a well-intentioned mission to provide Latinos with rightful pride in their heritage as Latins and their birthright as American citizens. Beautifully produced and directed, its content consistently brings up issues that make the Gonzalez family of East Los Angeles the focus of all Liberal thought on the subject.
The brainchild of Gregory Nava, a noted hyphenate with top credits to his name (El Norte, Selena, Frida), the series has heart, some humor, and a lot of drama, all linked to the Latino experience. The Gonzalez clan is led by father Jess (Edward James Olmos, a talent synonymous with Latino pride), an old-fashioned Latin male. A Korean war veteran, he runs a successful barbershop. In the pilot, Jess and his wife Berta (ex Brazilian bombshell Sonia Braga of Doña Flor and Her Two Husbands & Gabriela) are nearing retirement age, and their grown children are trying to relocate them in a very Gringo condo somewhere out of the city. When Berta suddenly dies, Jess stays in the old house, and becomes sort of a passive Archie Bunker character, reacting to all the progressive developments that his children bring home.
Esai Morales, still best known for La Bamba, plays Jess' son Estaban, who took the rap for his own drug-addict wife (Seidy Lopez) rather than let their let their baby be born in prison. His subplot gives the Gonzalez family a problem with the law, but confects a plea of innocence that in context comes off as a mild whitewash. The wife is cruelly ostracized by legal decree, and the constant harassment by social workers and parole officers - who seem to have lots of time to devote to this one case - gives the Gonzalez family a mild persecution problem to 'rise above.' Now Esteban is out on parole and doing well as a trainee fireman, but may lose custody of his child to the authorities.
That's where sister Nina (Constance Marie) comes in. An assertive lawyer and the brains in the extended family, she passes up a Washington job for Congresswoman Gloria Molina to stay home and serve as the responsible adult for Estaban's son. In exchange for her sacrifice, she moves her liberal-issues law office into Jess' sunroom.
Also bolstering Jess in his newfound widower-hood is Aunt Dora, played by the still-ravishing-at-62 Raquel Welch. Dora has her own problems with a daughter who purposely becomes an unmarried mother. Besides being marquee bait, Welch gets to show off her talents as a light comedienne, which are substantial.
Nina brings home all manner of cases that point up Latino concerns: immigration (in the pilot, she hides a Canadian illegal alien, making the point that all illegals aren't Latin), Latino rights, Latina pride. And this is where the series becomes a tad strident, for too often the whole point of the show is just a bit too rah-rah for everything Latin. When it concentrates on the characters, it's Socially Conscious Drama, but most every show has a big Agenda Issue to push, if not several issues.
The characters run into trouble with the law, and argue among themselves about how life should be lived, Latino style, in the 21st century. Other family members include sister Vangie (Rachel Ticotin), a stereotyped Yuppie who's relocated to the West side of town and is a successful fashion designer, brother Conrado (Kurt Caceres) the doctor in the family, and brother Cisco (A.J. Lamas), whose internet and video-hip activities provide an excuse to jazz the series up with cyber-visuals. Providing a traditional alternative to all the progressive directions the family seems to be following, are Jess' frequent daydreams of Berta, his wife who began as an illegal. Some of the best episodes recount their experiences as a young couple. Both look great in the flashbacks as they essentially need to be made up to look aged, and the poignancy of their relationship is the best thing about the whole show.
One of the best episodes keeps cutting back to a Mexican revolution story about La Coronela, a relative who was a female soldier. Thus the series, which must have been beset with demands to cover a broad range of issues, has a strong feminist agenda as well.
All of this is fine when the drama is good, or the content of is of interest. A two-parter is a spirited retelling of the Mexican folk horror tale about La Lorona. Several episodes in this first series are fantasy-oriented, such as the one where Jess dreams of a television sitcom about his barbershop, starring his friends and family. At least one of these appears to be an attempt at Magical Realism, when a Comet causes everyone to fall in love.
If you love the characters, and they do grow once we get a couple of episodes past the pilot, American Family will be a riveting experience. For this reviewer, there's a resentment factor when Esteban's side story at the fire house is used to drag in lessons about gangs and Latino solidarity, or Nina's law practice seemingly only takes on progressive issues, one after another.
The advantage of the series is that there's enough time to cover a lot of material. Mr. Nava's feature films, such as My Family, always seemed to be compromised by the necessity of being about Latino pride first, and then a good drama. It's a problem of aims and means. Latin artists are keenly aware of their under-representation in American television, and American Family was obviously conceived to serve a social purpose. I agree entusiastically with almost every attitude advanced in the series, yet bridle a bit when the shows uses its time to so obviously preach at me. There are millions of Hispanic households at which this show is aimed (there's even a second Spanish-language dub track) and I suppose that social scientists would consider the show well-engineered to raise the level of Latino self-awareness.
American Family, The Complete First Season on DVD is a beautiful set of discs. The show was produced by a consortium of interests including PBS, our local outlet KCET, and Fox, and Fox's DVD is very handsomely mounted. It's a six-disc set with only four episodes per disc, which allows for a high bit rate. Previous to this, Savant's only experience with TV series on DVD was MGM's Outer Limits collection, which jammed too many episodes into too few discs and strained the quality envelope. This HD show is 16:9 enhanced and looks marvelous, with especially bright and clear audio tracks.
I've included a full list of extras below, which are exhausting-looking and would seemingly take weeks to fully examine. I did check out several commentaries briefly, and a video intros for one of the episodes. The parts I listened to attest to the producers' intentions and sincerity, but they also play like testimonials to the series' importance and their own lofty principles. As with the extras on the Roots miniseries disc, the politico-ethnic importance of the show seems to overwhelm its function as entertainment.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, American Family: The Complete First Season rates:
Supplements: Episode introductions and commentaries, deleted scenes, The Gonzales Family Tree (Interactive Home Movies), promo featurette, interview with the Cinematographer, highlights and DVDRom featurette on Cisco's Journal
Packaging: 6 thin keepcases in a card sleeve box
Reviewed: May 5, 2003