We are in the middle of the maelstrom — the big studio system continues to crumble and in its place former film and television distributors like HBO, Hulu, and Netflix, are putting out high-quality programming at record speed. Netflix in particular has thrown some nice light on the lives and challenges of the Latinx community, via some of the most badass dominicanas, mexicanas, cubanas, boricuas, and colombianas in Orange is the New Black and the Cuban-American family in One Day at a Time. But ODaaT was not renewed (not by Netflix anyway) and OitNB will run its last season in July 2019 — we need someone else to turn to for representation.
Enter Mr. Iglesias, the brain baby of stand-up comedian Gabriel “Fluffy” Iglesias, who stars in and produces the show. Structured like a traditional television sitcom, the show uses four cameras to scan the actions and reactions of an ensemble cast of school denizens and canned laughter to punctuate the punchlines expertly delivered by Iglesias, Sherri Shepherd playing the principal, veteran actors Richard Gant and Jacob Vargas, and the hilarious Oscar Nuñez from The Office fame.
The series begins as Mr. Iglesias, a history teacher at a public school in California, trades in the vacation of his dreams for the task of keeping his diverse class of students from being left behind by a punitive educational policy. Gabe Iglesias is the present-day Gabe Kotter, a champion educator doing his best to teach history to his students, one laugh at a time. For those of us old enough to remember Welcome Back, Kotter (1975-79), the two shows share a lot more than just the first name of their title character, the teacher with a heart of gold.
Wholesome and geared toward young viewers and families, Mr. Iglesias relies on its lead comedian’s humorous sparring with the other characters who revolve around him — the assertive but lonely principal, the sycophantic lawyer, the deadbeat teacher, the overachieving teacher, the array of students — much like Mr. Kotter was the sun in the universe of Washington, Epstein, Horshack, and Vinnie Barbarino.
Some of these moments are light, “fluffy”, and even a little corny; others, lend the show a gravitas that is more Stand and Deliver than Summer School, like when Iglesias advocates for his students, reinserts bits of the history of people of color into the overarching whitewashed narrative in his signature humorous way, or when characters allude to their working-class backstories.
The show is both subtly and overtly political. In Episode 6, entitled “Bullying”, the very term Latinx is questioned by none other than Mr. Iglesias himself. When his brightest student, Marisol, points out that our gendered Spanish defaults to reflect only cisgendered heterosexual men, Iglesias exhibits an uncharacteristic knee-jerk rejection of the term. As a history teacher, he mansplains to her, he has lived through an array of terminology — from Mexican, to Chicano, to Hispanic, to Latino — and he has been exhausted into generational conservatism.
The term “Latino” excludes too many people, Marisol argues, but only refereeing a translational, cross-cultural misunderstanding between the African-American principal and a Latina student acts like a mirror for Mr. Iglesias, showing him that reception is at least as important as intention, and that just like the times, language is subject to change. Iglesias’s humor is often self-deprecating, and it really works in his apology to Marisol, his epiphany that without knowing it, he had been the one acting like a bully.
Tackling themes of racial, linguistic, and cultural tension and resolution, Mr. Iglesias takes a classic format and brings it up to date. It’s opening season produced ten episodes that don’t shy away from live-wire topics like income equality, school safety, addiction, nepotism, and loyalty. Its recent release makes it difficult to tell whether a second season is coming down the pipe, but given Mr. Iglesias’s unflinching look at Latinx life today, we sure hope there is one.