Workplace sitcom 'Telenovela' shows promise

Robert Lloyd
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Television Critic

NBC offers another December preview of a January sitcom Monday night, following its sneak last week of the problematic "Superstore." By contrast, as holiday gifts go, "Telenovela," starring Eva Longoria as a Miami-based soap star, is a happy one: appealing, sweet, witty, traditional in its bones, modern in its complexion.

Developed by "Cougar Town" vets Chrissy Pietrosh and Jessica Goldstein from an idea by executive producer Longoria, it is, after "Jane the Virgin," the second mostly English-language network, Miami-set series to feature a telenovela in its plot. That it has been in the works for a while makes this coincidence seem a matter of zeitgeist — or shall we call it, with an appropriate dramatic pause, destiny? — than of copying off your neighbor's paper.

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In any case, apart from some shared settings and mainly Latino casts, they are very different creatures. Unlike "Jane," which is itself a kind of telenovela, a serial full of passion and intrigue, "Telenovela," is an old-fashioned episodic workplace sitcom and backstage comedy. Though it occasionally broadly parodies the tics of the form ("I'm shooting a scene where I wake from a coma, but when I bolt up, I hit my head and I fall back into a coma," says one character), it is no more about telenovelas than "Mary Tyler Moore" was about TV news.

Longoria, in her first series since "Desperate Housewives," plays Ana Sofia, the star of "Las Leyes de la Pasion"; her character is said to be a lawyer but appears exclusively in flimsy, filmy, low-cut, high-slit gowns. (The series-within-the-series has no narrative integrity.) As "Telenovela" begins, she is faced with the addition to the cast of her ex-husband (Jencarlos Canela), brought on for ratings; you may be reminded here of the old Sally Field-Kevin Kline soap opera comedy "Soapdish."

After a little initial stiffness, the show relaxes and becomes quickly compelling, in a sitcom way — that is, the absurdity of the situations and the extravagance of the characters do not keep you from fretting on their behalf. Some of this is just a show emerging from its pupae, or pilot stage. But it does feel, from the second episode on, that an executive decision has been made to invest in the vulnerability of the characters — a larger ensemble than is indicated here, and an able one — and what binds them together rather than what gets between them. The common joke is that behind whatever masks of glamour or machismo they wear on and offstage, they are goofy and basically powerless. Ana Sofia doesn't understand Spanish; she can't dance; she hates spicy food.

Longoria, who is 40, is forceful enough to play her age without fear of actually seeming it; still, she's happy to admit, through Ana Sofia, that parts of her have been taped or stuffed, and the actresses are often seen with curlers in their hair.

She also happens to be the same age as Lucille Ball when "I Love Lucy" premiered, and she is having a bit of a Lucy moment here — worming out a car window, falling out of frame, dangling upside down in a botched bit of breaking and entering. She leaves a handprint of cheese-puff dust on a date's shoulder, walks away from a post with wet paint down her back, and gets in and out of scrapes with Mimi (Diana Maria Riva), her dresser, her Ethel. All in all, she does herself proud.

robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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'Telenovela'

Where: NBC

When: 10 and 10:30 p.m. Monday

Rating: TV-PG DL (may be unsuitable for young children, with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language)

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