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New PBS show is underwhelming

Sunday, January 20, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

It's a good thing so few people get Showtime. Otherwise more viewers would know just how similar PBS's new drama series "American Family" is to Showtime's "Resurrection Blvd."

Putting aside the fact they're both Latino dramas, the structure of the two series is remarkably similar.

Both feature conservative, stern patriarchs who were recently widowed. Both shows have a "wacky aunt" character (Elizabeth Pena on "Blvd.," Raquel Welch in "Family"). Both shows are set in Los Angeles. And, unfortunately, both shows underwhelm.

"American Family" (8 p.m. Wednesdays on WQED/WQEX) began its long and winding path to TV as a pilot for CBS in early 2000. Network executives passed on it, and having seen the first two episodes of "American Family," I can't blame them. It's not a bad show, just not particularly inspired storytelling.


"American Family"

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday on PBS.

Starring: Edward James Olmos, Sonia Braga.


Patriarch Jess Gonzalez (Edward James Olmos) works as a barber while wife Berta (Sonia Braga) holds down life at home, which includes looking after their grandson Pablito (Gilbert Leal Jr. in the pilot, Austin Marques in the series). Pablito's father, Esteban (Esai Morales from "NYPD Blue"), is recently out of jail on parole (his offense is not specified in early episodes).

Independent-minded daughter Nina (Constance Marie) is about to move to Washington, but first she wants to move her parents into a new condominium, which her father keeps calling a "condom."

Son Conrado (Kurt Caceres) works as a doctor and youngest son Cisco (Jay Hernandez in the pilot; A.J. Lamas, son of Lorenzo, in the series) videotapes the family's doings and posts them to his Web site.

Wednesday's premiere, written and directed by series creator Gregory Nava ("El Norte," "Selena"), introduces Jess as a Korean War veteran who believes he's an American first and foremost despite daughter Nina's efforts to emphasize the family's Hispanic heritage.

"Bilingual education?" Jess says. "Give me a break. This is the United States of America."

Olmos' performance is a mixed bag. He starts out raging in an over-the-top, cartoonish manner. I half expected animated steam to shoot out of his ears and birdies to circle his head after he falls on the floor when his sons move the living room sofa.

But later Olmos takes a turn for the restrained in several touching and heartfelt scenes that follow the unexpected death of his wife.

Though Berta dies, Braga continues to appear in "American Family" in flashbacks, which gives the show a "Providence" vibe by way of "Sisters" (younger actors play the kids in the flashbacks). A large chunk of the second episode, airing Thursday at 8 p.m., is a flashback. It's well done, but so extensive that other characters get short shrift.

Braga's Berta is the show's best character. Braga gives her enormous warmth, and the second episode is all about the family reacting to Berta's death in different ways. Pablito, especially, gets neglected in their grief and efforts to move forward.

"The kid needs a mother," Jess tells Nina, "not someone who puts a cereal box on the counter or has him on a 'to-do' list."

Though only two changes to the primary cast were made in the delayed evolution from pilot to series, both moves are for the worse. Cisco, in particular, seems like a completely different person, going from rambunctious, short-haired video auteur to a loud, long-haired goofball. The actor playing the new Pablito is quite unnatural and there's barely a moment that you can't see the poor kid acting.

It's refreshing to see PBS try a drama series, but you'd think high-brow public broadcasting could come up with something more than a routine drama that's noteworthy only for the ethnicity of its cast.

You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@@post-gazette.com Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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