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Fall '02: Greetings From Tucson, Wish I Weren't Here

I'm not a very big fan of The WB.  That's partly because I'm irritated that I have to call their dumb network The WB, which is difficult to work into a sentence, and is impossible to mention in a conversation without sounding like an asshole.  Mostly, though, it's because the average WB show is so appallingly bad that the viewer's brain will induce itself to hemorrhage rather than continue to process what the eyes and ears are sending it.

So you might be surprised to learn that I actually had high hopes for Greetings From Tucson, The WB's latest attempt to find a worthy occupant for the coveted post-Reba timeslot.

For starters, the show's premise has some potential.  It's hardly the most original concept, given that most of its ideas are lifted directly from The Jeffersons.  But compared to the mindless blah that is the modern sitcom, a revival of Norman Lear's thought-provoking 1970's comedies would not be a bad thing at all.

More interesting is the fact that Greetings From Tucson features a mostly Latino cast.  In case your attention tends to wander during impassioned awards show speeches, you should know that the Hispanic community is sorely underrepresented on our nation's airwaves -- unless, that is, central casting needs to fill the part of a gang member, an illiterate high school student, or a comedic sidekick with a craaazy accent.  So it's nice to see the networks finally making a real effort to shorten impassioned awards show speeches.

Of course, I was a little concerned about the impending apocalypse, which must surely follow the arrival of a watchable sitcom at The WB.

Well, not to worry.  Turns out Greetings From Tucson is crap.

Ironically, it's the show's promising concept that is its worst enemy.  Usually, a generic, humorless "my family is so crazy" sitcom only warrants the label "mediocre".  It's the wasted opportunity that makes this one so disappointing.  Greetings From Tucson's premise is like the recipe for a delicious comedy burrito, loaded with spicy social commentary and fresh perspective.  The actual product, however, is more like Tina's Frozen Microwave Sitcom, loaded only with refried plot lines and bland punch lines.

Things start out badly right from the show's title.  The phrase "Greetings From Tucson" is obviously meant to sound like the caption of a postcard, and indeed, the title sequence displays the cast and credits on a series of postcards.  The same device is used to transition between scenes.  It's actually a pretty clever visual motif.

Or, at least, it would be clever if it had any damned thing to do with this show.  Early in the pilot episode, we learn that Joaquin Tiant has won a big promotion at the copper mine, enabling him to move his family to a better neighborhood.  Of course, he still works at the same mine, so one assumes that this new neighborhood is not that far away from their previous digs.  The problem is, you don't usually send a postcard when you've only just gone from one side of town to the other.  And, if you did, it would probably be more appropriate if it read, "Greetings From Three Exits West on the I-10."

Moreover, with the word Tucson in the show's title, you might think that the city of Tucson figures prominently in its plot.  Nope.  Through the first three episodes, there's nary a mention of searing summer heat, Saguaro cactus, potholed roadways choked with octogenarians, or the mighty Arizona Wildcats.  Apart from the fact that there must be a copper mine somewhere nearby, this show might as well be called Greetings From Yermo.  At least then there would be something funny about it.

So then, what is Greetings From Tucson actually supposed to be about?  Since the title isn't very helpful, let's see how The WB's web site describes the show.

The first thing it mentions is that Greetings From Tucson is based on the life of series creator Peter Murrieta -- which is awesome, because for like ten years I've been saying that somebody needs to do a series based on the life of Peter Murrieta.  The rest of you, however, may find this factoid somewhat less exciting.

The description then goes on to say, "Life is seen through the eyes of 15-year old David Tiant (Pablo Santos), as he faces the challenges of growing up in an ethnically mixed, upwardly mobile family."  While this is a pretty vague encapsulation, there's certainly enough meat here to support some interesting, intelligent scripts.  Unfortunately, the scriptwriters seem to have been experiencing some cell phone static when the producers explained the concept.

For instance, the family is described as "upwardly mobile" because of father Joaquin's big promotion.  (Incidentally, this must have been one hell of a promotion.  We're told that the Tiants' last house was in such an impoverished area that it had bars on the windows and was subject to frequent police helicopter flyovers.  But now the money flows so freely that Dad can afford to buy a huge-screen TV and, when it fails to fit through the door, just leave it out in the yard with a tarp draped over it.  Looks like I should have considered a career in copper mining.)

So the show is about a boy from the poor part of town, and the crazy things that happen when he goes to live amongst the rich folk, right?  Er, not really.  In fact, rather than actually show us any of these potentially humorous situations, the pilot episode just tells us about them, through some of the most unwieldy exposition imaginable. 

To wit, here's one particularly painful line uttered by David's bitchy sister, Maria: "You're just jealous because we're at a new school, and it's only been six months, and I'm already popular and on the cheerleading squad, and you're not."  In addition to setting a new record for number of "ands" used in a line of convoluted dialogue, this statement reveals that the Tiants moved in half a year ago, and have already basically settled into their new lives.  So much for the awkward first day at a new school.  So much for wacky first encounters with the new neighbors.  So much for almost anything amusing that might happen on this show.

Well, how about that "ethnically mixed" business?  Maybe Greetings From Tucson is about the small-minded bigotry that lurks in the suburbs, and the crazy things that happen when a predominately Mexican-American family has to deal with their otherwise Caucasian neighbors.

Or maybe not.  For one thing, the idea of a Tucson neighborhood that doesn't know what to make of a Mexican-American family is doubtful at best.  The 2000 Census puts the racial makeup of Tucson at 29.34 percent Hispanic and climbing, which means that anybody who is shocked to discover he has Mexicans living next door has probably just moved in from Tulsa.

If you can get past that anachronism, the pilot episode does bring up a few racial issues, but the show's treatment of them is clumsy and not a little hypocritical.

In one unpleasant scene, the stereotypically white-bread neighbor lady tells the equally pasty-skinned Mrs. Tiant, "We were thinking of getting some work done in our yard, and I saw those Mexicans building a wall for you.  I hear they're really good, and those guys look trustworthy.  Maybe I could get their number from you."  The big joke here is that "those guys" are Tiant's husband and brother-in-law.  For making this fairly innocent assumption, and having the gall to point out that Mexicans do good landscaping work, this woman is later dubbed, "Our racist neighbor."

What, then, should we make of young David entering a clothing store, family in tow, and proclaiming, "Of all the parts of my Mexican heritage that I'm most proud of, taking the extended family to the mall in one car to buy one item is probably my favorite."  Even if this weren't a pretty ridiculous thing for a fifteen year old boy to say to no one in particular, even if one accepted that as few as seven people would be considered a Mexican extended family, and even if this weren't the funniest line in the script, it's still the same kind of stereotypical comment that is "racist" when spoken by the white neighbor.  So is it all right for me to think it's funny when it comes from the mouth of a Mexican-American kid?

Not to mention the moment when Mrs. Tiant, upon hearing that her daughter has been telling people that her family is Spanish, tersely informs us, "She lies like a Spaniard."  Muy progresivo!

Fortunately for race relations everywhere, the topic of ethnicity has been pretty much completely abandoned since the pilot.

So the show is neither about being "upwardly mobile" nor "ethnically mixed".  If you take these two phrases out of The WB's plot description, you get, "Life is seen through the eyes of 15-year old David Tiant, as he faces the challenges of growing up in a family."  Oh!  So Greetings From Tucson is just another generic comedy about family life?  To borrow a catch phrase from the show's pilot, "That's what I'm saying."

Worse, it's not even a very good generic comedy about family life.  It is still possible to squeeze some creative humor from this tired-ass format (see The Bernie Mac Show).   But Greetings From Tucson is almost completely laugh-free, which is clearly highlighted by the fact that the laugh track really seems to be enjoying the hell out of it.

The characters are all fresh from the cookie-cutter.  Rather than burden us with character development, the uninspired writers have populated the show with such sitcom mainstays as Slutty Daughter, Free-Spirited Grandma, Dimpled Toddler Who's On-Screen For Thirty Seconds Per Episode, and Strict Father Who Rules With An Iron Fist, A Heart Of Gold, And A Brain Of Some Sort Of Porous And Malleable Alloy.

Even so, the cast is mostly passable, doing the best they can with the drek they've been given.  The unfortunate exception is Pablo Santos as David, whose uncomfortable staccato delivery gives the impression of someone reading an eye chart while simultaneously passing a stone.  Stranger still is his accent.  In an interview on The WB's web site, young Santos explains that he speaks both Spanish and English completely devoid of accent, so he is in fact affecting an accent on the show.  This results in the rather surreal experience of watching a Mexican boy who appears to be, and is, badly faking a Mexican accent.

The plot lines are every bit as trite as the characters, having been culled directly from the bottom 5% of the Canonical List of Sitcom Clichés.  So far we've seen such old favorites as "David gets drunk," "David learns to drive," and "David gets an after-school job."  I'm on the edge of my seat wondering what wacky shenanigans might ensue next week, when we get to enjoy "David joins the football team."

Still, none of these faults is particularly horrible in its own right; at least, not the kind of horrible we haven't already been exposed to so frequently that we've developed a psychological immunity. And I do applaud the WB for making a continued effort to employ more Mexican- and African-American actors, though evidently it's too much to ask that even one of these shows not be totally freaking awful. I was also glad to hear that Los Lobos, who perform the show's theme song, are still alive and kicking; I sure dig that crazy La Bamba.

No, the reason this show truly bites the big one is this:

Mexican-American family life is incredibly rich subject matter.  In Mexican culture, family is prioritized above nearly all else.  Parents are to be respected and obeyed, and woe is to any who dare to cross them.  The familial bond is intensely strong, so much so that distant cousins are treated almost as brothers.  This could make for great, original television; not to mention that Americans of all races could do with some exposure to this way of thinking.

Greetings From Tucson had that chance, and blew it.  And what's left is about as meaningful as the drivel people scribble on the back of postcards.

I recommend returning this one to sender.


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