America Ferrera and Eva Longoria made their names on two of the most distinctive TV hits of the 2000s–Ferrera as a downtrodden magazine employee on Ugly Betty, Longoria as the most glamorous spouse on Desperate Housewives. Both are making comebacks on shows that debuted on NBC on Jan. 4, but neither, in early episodes, shines as we know she can.
In theory, the comedy block is perfectly in tune with our times, from the casting of two Latina stars to premises that reflect many viewers’ lives and interests: Superstore focuses on the disempowered workers at Cloud 9, a somewhat soulless, Walmart-like chain, while Telenovela takes place within the ever more powerful Spanish-language entertainment biz. But both shows feel built by committee.
Superstore is the more promising, thanks to its core couple: Ferrera’s Amy clashes early and often with new hire Jonah (Mad Men’s Ben Feldman), with whom she shares nothing but chemistry. The other characters are the sort of stereotypes meant to indicate we’re all in on the joke. But when the cast sets up a mannequin resembling Jonah in degradingly effeminate poses or when a foster parent calls his children “all dinged up” compared with adopted babies, I wasn’t laughing.
This say-anything ethos, whereby a joke needn’t be humorous so long as it needles perceived political correctness, is the most distinctive thing about Superstore. Ferrera plays Amy well, but because this young mother and veteran Cloud 9 employee is depressed by her lot in life, the other characters get more mileage from their one clichéd trait: butch woman, unsophisticated teen mom, gay diva. At least Superstore takes place in a world where characters are refreshingly frank about issues of class. Perhaps if it calms down a bit in its attempts to get laughs from shock value, it’ll be a pleasant successor to The Office.
Telenovela is more confusing, with Longoria playing a character we’re told is a dramatic nightmare of a soap actor but who seems like a well-meaning, nice enough person. The best joke around Longoria’s Ana Sofia Calderon is her dirty secret–she doesn’t actually speak Spanish and is faking it to sustain an acting career–but this runs its course. So too do the jokes around this show’s gay diva, a whiny obsessive gymgoer who binge-eats.
Although Telenovela takes its name from an exuberantly dramatic genre of soap opera, its plots are mundane. There need to be higher stakes–and more hair pulling–rather than depictions of actors lightly bickering or dealing with network politics. (Who outside New York City or Los Angeles cares? Then again, who inside cares?) Telenovela seems almost afraid of what diverging from a standard workplace-comedy template might mean, even if its title and trappings imply something far more fun–something more like Desperate Housewives.
That both Ferrera and Longoria again occupy starring roles on network sitcoms is a positive step for diversity. What’s the next step? Here’s hoping it’s NBC granting its Latina leads something meaningful–or at least really funny–to say.
This appears in the January 18, 2016 issue of TIME.
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