‘Cristela’ Doesn’t Have to Be Old-Fashioned to Appeal as a Throwback

Sitcoms built around stand-up comedians ruled the late ’80s and early ’90s, with some of television’s best-ever programs stemming from the trend, such as “Roseanne” and “Seinfeld.”

This fall, the trend is back in play.

Former “Saturday Night Live” scribe John Mulaney stars in Fox’s newest sitcom, “Mulaney,” while Cristela Alonzo stars in “Cristela,” premiering tonight on ABC. The Alphabet Network’s latest attempt at a multi-cam shows promise, but it fails whenever it veers towards the past and returns with antiquated punch lines.

Alonzo portrays an optimistic law student reaching for the American dream. Residing with her sister, Daniela (Maria Canals-Barrera), and her less-than-welcoming brother-in-law, Felix (Carlos Ponce, “7th Heaven”), it’s clear there’s little room for her – or her gigantic personality – in their home. Ultimately, though, they put up with her as a means helping her succeed. Also living under the same roof is Cristela and Daniela’s old-school mother, Natalia (Terri Hoyos).

Family comedies thrive on chemistry, and the cast of “Cristela” has that in spades. Family comedies also live or die based on the casting of their child stars, and whether or not America can put up with those precocious peeps on a weekly basis. Taking a page from the “Everybody Loves Raymond” handbook, the children are seen, but rarely heard, in episode one; they’re entirely absent in episode two. The show’s biggest question mark is recurring guest star, Gabriel Iglesias (“The Fluffy Movie”). Though likeable, Alberto’s insistence on becoming romantically entangled with our protagonist grows old – fast. It bogs down what little episode two had going for it.

The pilot for “Cristela” is broad, but no more broad than your run-of-the-mill multi-camera pilot. Episode two is where the problems become increasingly noticeable. In “Soul Mates,” Daniela creates an online dating profile for her sister, something their mother doesn’t approve of. Concerned that her daughter has yet to find a husband, she asks whether her daughter is one of “the gay.” The show also struggles to make use of veteran actor, Sam McMurray (“The King of Queens”), who plays Cristela’s bigoted employer whose persona feels as dated as jokes about homosexuality. His on-screen daughter, Maddie (Justine Lupe), is a non-essential stereotype in desperate need of a rewrite. Thankfully, the workplace scenes find a nice balance thanks to Cristela’s friendship with potential love interest, Henry (Andrew Leeds, “Bones”). Their camaraderie plays well from the get-go, and remains an appealing aspect even during the show’s lesser moments.

Despite its unevenness, “Cristela” is the best new network comedy this fall, and it has the potential to be a standout amongst present day multi-cams. It doesn’t have to be old-fashioned to appeal as a throwback sitcom, and if it can escape its dated political incorrectness, it might just turn out to be something great.

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