"A landmark broadcast television event."
Executive producer Gregory Nava's (El Norte) television saga of the Gonzalez family of East L.A. Airing on PBS, American Family is the first show about a Latino family starring an all Latino cast.
Facts of the Case
American Family follows the sometimes abrasive relationship between Gonzalez family patriarch Jess (Edward James Olmos) and his idealistic lawyer daughter Nina (Constance Marie, Selena), as well as Jess' ex-con son Esteban's (Esai Morales, NYPD Blue) struggles to keep Child Protective Services from removing his young son Pablito from the Gonzalez home. Capturing the family's fun and sorrow on a ridiculously elaborate personal web site is youngest son, Cisco (played by Jay Hernandez of Crazy/Beautiful-fame in the series pilot, and A.J. Lamas thereafter). Rachel Ticotin (Total Recall) as Vangie, Jess' older Brentwood-living yuppie daughter, and Kurt Caceres as eldest son Conrado, a doctor who enlists in the army after the September 11 attack on New York, contribute as satellite members of the Gonzalez family.
Rounding out the cast in recurring roles are Raquel Welch as Jess' sister Dora, and Sonia Braga as his wife Berta, who dies early in the series' run but appears regularly in flashback.
This six-disc set contains all 22 episodes of the show's first season. Here's a list of the titles:
• American Family (Pilot)
American Family's greatest strength is also its greatest weakness: ambition. If nothing else, the show dares to be ambitious when most of what's on television is as formulaic as it is exploitative. Gregory Nava and team attempt to use television's long-form narrative potential to weave a big story that captures all the texture of ideas, emotion, culture, nationality, history, religion, spirituality, individual and family psychology, and moral struggle that attend life as a human being. That he attempts such a thing when most television producers spend their days trying to hop onto the latest bandwagon is commendable. However, American Family been called "a landmark broadcast television event" not by television critics and pop culture literati, but by the show's producers and benefactors, most notably Nava himself. That's where the ambition turns ugly: how often is an artistic endeavor completely successful when executed with the primary goal of creating something important? The results of such expeditions are usually mawkish, pretentious, and patronizing. American Family is all of those things in turn. It labors under Nava's social agenda and, as a result, rarely hits a narrative stride with full confidence. Its drama regularly slips into manipulative melodrama, and its comedy is even worse, feeling mostly forced, eliciting pained winces instead of laughs. The show boasts one of the most impressive casts of any television show ever, yet they labor under writing so bloated with self-importance the dialogue is too often wooden, jokes ill-timed and out-of-place, and plot-points predictable and manipulative.
In the various supplements that accompany the episodes, Nava and his partners state their intention to use Latin American magical realism as a unifying stylistic element of the show. Magical realism is a literary style combining realism with fantastic elements, usually drawn from folk tales, and playing loose and fast with linear time. It's stunning when expertly wielded, highlighting the interconnectedness and cyclical nature of human existence. These are lofty narrative aspirations for a television show (the only show I can think of that's done something similar with any amount of success is Northern Exposure) but, unfortunately, American Family's commitment to getting across its message, to being important, gets in the way of the fantastic, which is always clearly delineated from the real, ensuring viewers are never confused or left with space to interpret theme. The show, in other words, never feels as freewheeling and challenging as, say, reading Gabriel Garcia Márquez, a prime mover in the school of magical realism. A prime example of missed opportunities is the two-part episode, "La Llorona (The Weeping Woman)," which uses a Latin American ghost story about a mother who, after drowning her children because of her husband's infidelity, drowns herself and can sometimes be heard wailing her eternal and unquenchable grief during dark and stormy nights, to provide commentary on the story of Pablito's court-ordered separation from his heroin-addicted mother, as well as the story (based on a real event) of an illegal alien separated from her baby when she's deported and the infant, a U.S. citizen born in California, is turned over to the protection of the state. All three stories are engaging, but the grounded reality of the latter stories overwhelms the folk tale, leaving it feeling like a tacked on intellectual conceit. It's a case of too much realism against very little magic.
So, I hated the show, right? Wrong. When American Family clicks, it's truly excellent. I found myself frequently caught up in the stories, and sympathetic to the Gonzalez family and their struggles. Its intermittent excellence, coupled with its top-notch cast, made its failings all the more frustrating. Nava's approach was admirably ambitious, so in reviewing the show I held it to high standards. All things being equal, though, it's considerably better than most of the dreck out there…and far from bad.
In terms of DVD, the show was shot on digital video and the transfer is a spiffy 1.78:1 anamorphic that, besides being slightly soft, leaves nothing to complain about. Sound is Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround and, while hardly representing the height of aggressive soundscapes, is clean and robust for a television series. Bottom line, there's nothing to gripe about on the technical front.
The discs also boast a wealth of substantive extras including deleted scenes, commentaries by Nava as well as other cast and crew members (including a track by Sonia Braga), and introductions to most of the stand-out episodes. Nava's clearly passionate about the material, and he ensured it arrived on DVD in a very impressive package.
I wish I could more fully recommend American Family. It certainly works as a good-hearted and thoughtful soap opera. If that's enough for you, dive in. If you're looking for something as grand as Gregory Nava's descriptions of his series, you're likely to be disappointed.
American Family is certainly guilty of not living up to its lofty aspirations, but there was no malicious intent. I'm letting the show off with time served.
Court's in recess.
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Scales of Justice
• Introductions to Selected Episodes
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