Who Was Selena? The New Netflix Series About the Singer Doesn’t Have a Clue

7 minute read

When Selena Quintanilla-Pérez was shot and killed, on March 31, 1995, millions of dreams died with her. Known as the Queen of Tejano music, the 23-year-old Texas native had spent most of her short life performing but had just begun ascending into a pop firmament dominated by singers she idolized: Janet Jackson, Paula Abdul, Madonna. Offstage, Selena was breaking into the fashion industry and talking about starting a family with her husband and bandmate, Chris Pérez. For her father and manager Abraham Quintanilla Jr., her success was a triumph over the racist, xenophobic music industry that had shut out his rock band in the ’60s. She inspired dreaming in her fans, too, many of them young Latinas who’d never seen someone like themselves—a female Tejano star steeped in contemporary English-language pop, a woman of Mexican descent on MTV—represented on the cusp of mainstream American culture before.

If there was a silver lining to be found amid so much grief, it was Selena’s symbolic resurrection in 1997’s Selena: The Movie. Along with a posthumous bilingual album that broke Latin-pop sales records, the biopic belatedly introduced the singer’s music to new fans around the world. It also gave birth to another category-defying Latina star in Jennifer Lopez, a former In Living Color Fly Girl whose acclaimed portrayal of Selena elevated her to A-list status as both an actor and a recording artist. While its screenplay wasn’t anything special, the combination of an emotional performance from Lopez that captured the singer’s electric charisma and Gregory Nava’s kinetic, music-video-style direction made for a powerful tribute. It seems pretty bold, then, to attempt another onscreen recreation of this iconic life. So maybe it was inevitable that Netflix’s Selena: The Series, which covers much of the same material as the movie, would disappoint.

Premiering Dec. 4, the first half of a planned two-part series charts the singer’s rise, beginning when Abraham (Ricardo Chavira) discovers his youngest child Selena’s (Madison Taylor Baez, adorable) knockout voice and recruits her two older siblings for a family band. The Quintanilla kids perform as the Southern Pearl, entertaining wedding guests, nursing-home residents and diners at their parents’ short-lived Mexican restaurant with sentimental English-language covers like “Feelings” and “Why Do Fools Fall in Love.” But they never gain the momentum necessary to take off. Beset by financial woes, Abraham notices that local Tejano acts never fail to draw a crowd and reinvents the band as Selena y Los Dinos. Selena, a thoroughly American girl raised on pop and disco, has to start singing in Spanish before she’s even learned the language.

By episode 2, she’s a beautiful and bubbly teenage frontwoman (played by Christian Serratos of The Walking Dead) serenading ever-bigger Tejano nightclub crowds in the early stages of a slow climb to awards recognition, major-label money, stadium performances and all the other trappings of top-tier stardom. Meanwhile, in what often feels like a family dramedy, we spend time on the road with the Quintanillas and get to know their dynamic. Abraham leans on Selena’s older brother and bassist A.B. (a harried Gabriel Chavarria), overloading the young man with tasks that range from songwriting to scouting guitarists. Big sister Suzette (Noemi Gonzalez), initially a reluctant drummer, grows into her instrument as well as the role of Selena’s confidant. Their mother, Marcella (Seidy Lopez), is a quiet, supportive presence. It’s Abraham who propels the family, though without veering into abusive, Joe Jackson territory. Instead, he’s an archetypal immigrant dad—tough on his kids because he wants them to thrive—and, at the same time, a frustrated musician projecting his own ambitions on the next generation.

Gabriel Chavarria and Ricardo Chavira in 'Selena'Netflix

That leaves Selena, the marquee star of what Netflix has described as a coming-of-age story. Sadly, she too gets drowned out by Abraham’s overbearing personality. Viewers can glean hints of what she wants—to design clothing and to record in her first language—but little about who she is. In his palpable reverence for the singer and respect for her memory, creator Moisés Zamora (American Crime, Star), backed by a team of executive producers that includes the real Suzette Quintanilla, sketches her as a saint more than a human being. And while Serratos gives a perfectly likable performance, the overall effect is saccharine: Selena as Disney princess. Potentially fraught topics such as Abraham’s controlling behavior and the Quintanillas’ hybrid Mexican-American identities are similarly glossed. Maybe this sugarcoating was a conscious choice, made in hopes of attracting a young audience, but as Netflix’s own Baby-Sitters Club and Julie and the Phantoms have recently shown, tween TV can be wholesome without being bland.

It’s difficult to dramatize a musician’s life story without giving in to pretentiousness or cliché. The songwriting process rarely makes for riveting entertainment. If you’ve seen one zany cooped-up-on-the-tour-bus sequence, you’ve seen them all. In its 244 episodes, Behind the Music solidified the rise-and-fall, triumph-to-tragedy template—one that fits Selena’s career, which the docuseries addressed in its first season, by virtue of her murder at the hands of her fan-club president, Yolanda Saldívar. Yet if most pop-star biopic scripts read as formulaic or overly expository on paper, then Selena: The Series takes lazy writing to another level. “This is the moment we’ve all been waiting for,” Abraham tells Marcella, in a flashback to his own rocker days that sounds like it could’ve been auto-generated by A.I. “We sacrificed so much to get here. And now our dream might finally be coming true.”

Still, when it comes to music biopics, an outstanding lead performance can elevate boilerplate writing. Think of Chadwick Boseman in Get On Up or Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose. Or, again, Jennifer Lopez in Selena. It would be unfair to blame Serratos for the deficits of Selena: The Series; while her mere competence can’t save the show, even a Lopez-level performer would likely struggle to salvage such stiff dialogue, aimless plotting, flat characters and blah direction. (Fans might also be disappointed in the further sanitization of a story that, by many accounts, was and continues to be more complicated than the Quintanillas—who were involved in the film as well—have acknowledged.) I can’t help but worry about how the second part will handle its hero’s death.

Add to those faults the looming presence of a portrayal that has become central to the Selena legend, and this series starts to look not just superficial but gratuitous. Selena: The Movie was never the sole source of insight into her fascinating life. For those who are curious about the Queen of Tejano music, or who want to share her legacy with a new generation, the past 25 years have seen heaps of worthy remembrances in every imaginable medium. Better yet, you could simply look her up on YouTube. Why did so many people project their dreams on Selena? This is why. And this, and this, and this.

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