It's not easy breaking into TV. Especially if you're not white.
As Comedian George Lopez joked to USA Today, there are "more pets in prime-time TV than Latinos."
He may very well be right. According to the 2000 Census, Latinos make up 12.5 percent of the U.S. population. In the world of TV, however, they only account for 4.8 percent, according to the Screen Actors Guild.
Depressingly enough, this fact is an improvement over the past. Two years ago, advocacy groups for people of color staged protests over the lack of TV diversity, resulting in some positive casting changes throughout the industry. A whole slew of sitcoms with casts of color flourish on UPN. Damon Wayans has broken into ABC with his sitcom My Wife & Kids. Bernie Mac is drawing viewers of all colors to Fox with his The Bernie Mac Show. And PBS's American Family features a Latino household.
But despite these gains, the pressure on sitcoms featuring casts of color is still enormous. And unfortunately, ABC's new The George Lopez Show may not be strong enough to withstand the strain.
The premise of the show is sitcom-simple. Lopez stars as a man who has just received a promotion to manager at an airplane-parts factory; he's struggling with both his new work identity and with his ever-present mom, a nasty old pill. Saucy, sassy, and sweet, his wife is a typical sitcom mom. His daughter is 13 and going through the comedy of adolescence (where did TV writers get the idea that adolescence is funny, anyway?) and his son plays the part of the adorable TV poppet.
The show is plagued by the same discomfort and awkward pubescence, respectively, that George and his daughter face. In the first episode, for example, the humor was all balls, balls, balls. George's mom yells, "Why don't you grow a pair?" Then she bellows about how George's wife has him "like this" -- claws extended in full scrotum-grabbing glory. When George fulfills his boss's request to fire George's mother (she's reinstated later -- it's just a test of his loyalty), she jeers, "You had the guts to fire your mother -- they finally dropped!"
The second episode moved on to ragging on George's big noggin. Big-head jokes were made no less than seven times. They're going to run out of round body parts to mock, eventually -- after they go through buns and boobs, I glumly predict.
It's a pity that the writers go for a juvenile balls-equals-laughs strategy when the star of the show is so likeable. With his incredulous eyebrows, easy smile, and comedic warmth and timing, George Lopez can carry this show. And when Lopez is allowed to darken the humor -- by threatening his daughter's potential suitor, or when he jokes about her swim class, saying, "Why does she need to know how to swim? We're already here" -- the show is actually funny.
The dramatic situations could benefit from similar treatment. When it looks like George's hellion mother might move in with them, his wife puts up a fluffy, girly fight and gives in within seconds. That's the thing about sitcoms -- we know everything is going to work out in the end, but we also need to feel some real dramatic tension before we wallow in bathos.
At one point, George says to his mother, "You know, they don't make Hallmark cards for people like us." The implication is that they are gritty, crazy, beyond saccharine sentiment. But that's not what we're seeing. The George Lopez Show is being fronted by some big guns -- Sandra Bullock and the executive producer of both Roseanne and The Drew Carey Show. I see what they're going for -- that rough-hewn, blue-collar warmth of real people that used to be revolutionary, but now is just rote. To use words from the first episode, "it's a big day in a boy's life when he fires a parent." Lopez needs, figuratively, to do just that -- cast off the formulaic, pat problems and infuse the show with his own comic sensibility. Because right now, it feels like the cast is wearing someone else's clothes.
Luckily, there's time to change that. ABC has committed to a nearly unheard-of 13 episodes for the mid-season show in a concerted effort to improve the station's diversity. "It's a huge priority," said Lloyd Braun, co chairman of ABC Entertainment.
Let's hope the executives make it an equal priority to make the show good. And may God give them the cojones to stop talking about cojones.