When the TV landscape was much smaller and lily-white, any series that centered on minorities had to shoulder an unfair burden of representing that entire group. Margaret Cho’s short-lived Nineties series All-American Girl couldn’t just be a goofy family sitcom, because it was also the very first one about an Asian-American clan. Hall of Fame creator Steven Bochco tried to diversify the world of network TV with City of Angels, a hospital show starring Blair Underwood and Vivica A. Fox; but the series seemed crippled by self-consciousness over its status as a rare network drama with a predominantly black cast.
In the bigger and more inclusive world of Peak TV, there’s more room to just tell a specific story. The cultural details remain hugely important, but there’s no longer the need to be all things to all members of an underrepresented group.
Gentefied, a new Netflix half-hour series created by Linda Yvette Chávez and Marvin Lemus, neatly conveys the advantages of this more representative world. The story of a Mexican-American family battling the forces of gentrification as they run a taco shop in East L.A., it isn’t even the only current show covering this geographic and anthropological territory; there is a lot of thematic overlap with Starz’s excellent Vida, down to the recurring use of “coconut” as an insult against brown people too eager to seem white on the inside. Relieved of having to be the only series on this turf, Gentefied gets to focus on what makes its appealing cast of characters tick at least as much as it does on the sociopolitical forces that are making their lives very complicated.
The show sets out to confound expectations at every turn, starting with the opening scene, in which Erik (J.J. Soria) rides his bicycle through the neighborhood, looking tough — until we see that he’s on the way to return a library book and inquire about whether his local branch has gotten a copy of The Five Love Languages. It’s a gently effective joke, and Gentefied points out early and often that Erik and cousins Chris (Carlos Santos) and Ana (Karrie Martin) are as extremely online as your average twentysomething of any background. Erik is eager for their gruff widower grandfather Pop (Joaquín Cosío) to take a break from the taco shop and start dating again (“Let’s set up that Bumble account, viejito!”), while Chris figures out how to turn the shop into a meme-friendly white tourist destination.
And Gentefied deftly illustrates how different the members of this extended family can be. Pop is still more comfortable conversing in Spanish than English, while aspiring chef Chris is so assimilated that the rest of the kitchen staff at the restaurant where he works make fun of him for not really being Mexican. Erik has no interest in ever leaving the neighborhood, while Chris and artist Ana have dreams that they hope will eventually take them far away.
Yet all are aware of the ways that life is stacked against them; as Ana’s girlfriend Yessika argues, white people “may love all our shit, but they don’t love us.”
Like a lot of modern half-hours, it’s more a comedy in theory than practice, though the third episode — where Chris offers to take a “Mexican test” to get the other kitchen workers to stop teasing him — is quite funny. But the creative team and the actors make the neighborhood and its residents feel so vivid and inviting that Gentefied evolves into that rare creature: the serialized hangout show. (See also: David Simon’s New Orleans jazz drama Tremé.) And while the focus is mostly on Pop and his grandkids, there’s also room for anthological detours, like an episode focusing on Javier (Jaime Alvarez), a local mariachi musician struggling to make a living when everyone would rather stream songs on their phones.
Gentefied is a smart, warm-hearted show. And because it arrives at a time when TV is already home to Vida, One Day at a Time (which Pop TV rescued after Netflix canceled it), Los Espookys, On My Block, Alternatino with Arturo Castro, and more, it doesn’t have to function as a grand unified Latinx field theory. It can just tell its stories, and tell them well.
Gentefied premieres February 21st on Netflix. I’ve seen all 10 episodes.