Padre Knows Best
Interviewed by Terry Gross recently, Sopranos creator David Chase explained that much of the show's brilliance arises from the simplest tweaks to narrative convention. Tony's murderously jealous mother came about after Chase watched some Mafia movies and thought, I wonder what would happen if we made Mama bad? Such are the ways of great popular art--a glimmer spun until it becomes something new and magical. And in a TV universe increasingly terrified of even the smallest divergences from the norm (I can hardly wait to see The Fugitive hit the road again), such tiny sidesteps can broaden into chasms.
Representing the old school of convention, meanwhile, is Showtime's well-intentioned but flavorless Resurrection Blvd. (Mondays at 9:00 p.m. on Showtime; Channel 46 in Minneapolis, 50 in St. Paul)--which suggests that adjusting the color on one's TV won't ultimately change the bigger picture. You can certainly smell what the network is cooking: big ethnic cast, multiple story lines, two or three generations each given their due. But despite the presence of an armada of talented Latino actors (fortunately, no cameos as yet by Edward James Olmos, the Gérard Depardieu of Mexican-American cinema), the show is hamstrung by its unwillingness to rethink, retool, or even momentarily exaggerate its larder of staples.
The Sopranos brazenly reproduces a century of stereotypes about the ethics and economics of Italo-America, then complicates them with human detail. Here, by contrast, we get by-the-numbers uplift: a hard-working, achievement-oriented family (one is set to enter law school, one was a medical student before quitting to box) that requires only the same breaks as everyone else. With its vision of a community cheerily glued to its roots, ready to assimilate without challenging Anglo dominance, Resurrection Blvd. deals in conservative multiculturalism. Miles from the glorious overkill of good telenovelas, this is sentimental Chicanismo for everyone whose acquaintance with Spanish stopped after high school: the first TV show from G.W. Bush's America.
At the tail end of a TV season picketed for refusing to cross any streets outside its own gated community (next year, daringly: Bette Midler!), why complain about a program rife with Latino talent both before and behind the camera? Better bland visibility than none. But this show would be a lot easier to root for if it showed some, well, cojones. Neither proudly separatist nor ambitiously assimilationist, it settles for plot lines that were stale 40 years ago.
In fact, what we get here is very Fifties: an uplifting, guts-and-glory triumph over adversity that recalls all those big, square social-problem films (Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Inherit the Wind) with which Stanley Kramer troubled the consciences of archconservatives. The opening, feature-length episode of Resurrection recycled a landfill of tropes from studio dumpsters: The extended Santiago family, a boxing dynasty from East L.A., begins with high hopes that Carlos (Michael DeLorenzo, excellent at soulful suffering) will bring home the middleweight title. Patriarch Roberto (Tony Plana) was a fighter, as was his brother Ruben, brain-damaged from the ring; Ruben's sole duty appears to be slumping in front of the TV and justifying the welcome presence of Elizabeth Peña, who chews her lines with great gusto, as his wife Bibi.
Anyway, Carlos gets his title shot, then beats down jailbait sister Victoria's abusive cholo boyfriend. A gold star for anyone who can guess what comes next. Not only is Carlos fired at and crippled, but his wounding recalls the exact same plot development in Boyz N the Hood almost shot for shot.
This tragedy, of course, will not stand. DeLorenzo limps around, swigs Dos Equis, and generally smolders with resentment. Meanwhile, straight-arrow brother Alex (Nicholas Gonzalez), who actually looks young enough to be a hopeful boxer, drops out of med school--though not before embarking on a romance with a Waspy blond classmate, as seen in La Bamba--to carry the family torch as a welterweight. But the screenwriters have supersized their order for this first episode, so there's more to come. Sister Yolanda (Ruth Livier) has eyes for a hunky Cuban lawyer at her firm (we know he's rich because he played golf in high school). Teenage Victoria fights the pull of the streets while striving to maintain a normal life, though since all she ever seems to do is receive phone calls, it's hard to know exactly what else she has to look forward to.
So, to recap: We have here classic tropes from boxing movies (corrupt managers, The Big Fight), ghetto melodrama (streets vs. home; family honor vs. the law), racial-uplift films (how will Alex respond when his girlfriend finds him working at a pizza joint?), family sagas, and probably some other oldies. (I stopped counting.) The dialogue in Resurrection Blvd., as you might guess, takes the calle more traveled as well. For instance, Carlos's girlfriend Carmen pleads, "Why do you have to be this way?" after he refuses her help. Or we get this line at the beginning of a boxing match: "Go out there and do what you gotta do!" And so on. While later episodes have hinted at welcome depth for some subsidiary characters (Yolanda gets a sex-ed rundown from Bibi before seducing the lawyer), everyone seems bound by the shackles of these plots. It's hard to see where this series can go. Or rather, it's far too easy to see where this series can go.
Perhaps most limiting, however, is the weird bad-faith bargain of boxing itself. Although the fights (Alex somehow manages to win his first one) are undeniably stirring, they also force this show into a scratchy film loop. Surely, unless the creators secretly romanticize poverty, the dream is to escape to professional-class comfort. This would logically suggest that Alex's career will peter out. But doing that would require thinking up new plot lines, of which today's headlines furnish a mere ten or fifteen: The Mexican elections? The intercultural struggles after Elián-mania? The balancing acts required from the exploding Latino middle class (a hugely neglected subject since Jimmy Smits introduced Victor Sifuentes to bourgeois angst on L.A. Law)?
From the indications so far, the challenge of encompassing contemporary life is exactly the kind of opponent Resurrection Blvd. doesn't know how to face.
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