Review: It’s not just ‘Stranger Things.’ Two new Netflix sitcoms have a nostalgic streak, too.
As Netflix takes us back to 1985 with the third season of “Stranger Things,” it’s also looking backward with two new sitcoms, the recently premiered “Mr. Iglesias” and “Family Reunion."
Both series focus on people of color and are filmed, multicamera style, before a live audience, as was the network’s Latinx reboot of “One Day at a Time” (canceled, and just picked up for a fourth season by the CBS-owned Pop). And though the streaming service works in mysterious ways (literally — Netflix does not share data, even with the people who make its shows), the point does seem to be to reach back to a lighter, pre-cynical age of comedy. ”Mr. Iglesias” and “Family Reunion” recreate an old form, much as a modern housing development might suggest the good old days with carved newel posts and covered porches. Each posits a world where old and young have something to teach each other, and each, oddly, makes the same joke about how one’s opponent has to win one before you can call a competition a rivalry.
In the delightful “Mr. Iglesias,” comedian Gabriel “Fluffy” Iglesias plays a history teacher working at his old Long Beach high school. It is set at, which is not to say filmed at, Wilson High, Iglesias’ actual alma mater, and dedicated to a teacher there who saw more in Iglesias than he saw himself. The show is a sort of thank-you note.
In recent years, comedies about education — TVLand’s “Teachers,” CBS’s “Bad Teacher,” NBC’s “A.P. Bio,” TruTV’s “Those Who Can’t” — have skewed a little dark, focusing on dysfunctional organizations and the weirdos who often reluctantly staff them. (Typically, it’s the least qualified teachers who provide the life lessons their students need, more than a working knowledge of science or civics.) “Mr. Iglesias” recalls a time when teachers were viewed as committed agents of positive change. It has much in common with the 1970s sitcom “Welcome Back, Kotter,” including a diverse cast; kids in straitened social or economic circumstances; and a star and main character named Gabe, who teaches with comedy.
“Damn, Mr. Iglesias,” wonders one student, “why you care so much?”
“That’s what I’m good at — that and Ms. Pac-Man,” he replies.
Like many a stand-up comic headlining a sitcom, Iglesias is a good enough actor and more than a good enough comedian; what he lacks in finesse he makes up in attitude. And he has the support of a great cast (young and old), including Sherri Shepherd as the principal. “I’m listening,” she tells a student who has come to her with a complaint. “But I might rest my eyes.”
Oscar Nuñez also appears as her rigid, plotting lieutenant, along with Richard Gant as a teacher who taught Gabe and Christopher McDonald as a coach who says things that might be racist, but might not. (To an Asian student: “I did not know your people liked football — What? Her people: nerds.” Not that this doesn’t get into another Asian stereotype.) Teaching history alongside Iglesias are a perky South Dakota transplant (Maggie Geha) and Gabe’s friend and former schoolmate (Jacob Vargas), a self-styled Don Juan, who is lazy. As is often the case with multicamera comedy, their quirks are magnified, and yet at any moment, their exchanges feel genuine.
Created by Kevin Hench — who co-created with Cristela Alonzo the 2014 ABC sitcom “Cristela,” on which Iglesias had a recurring role — “Mr. Iglesias” is serious, in its way. Issues are raised, points are made. That we are in a history class means there is some cultural criticism: Smartest student Marisol (Cree Cicchino) recaps what they’d covered that year — “Wiped out the indigenous people, oppressed the black, did some good stuff around World War II, and now the sun is setting on our empire.” At the same time, it mostly sticks close to the surface. Gabe is a recovering alcoholic, whose dark days are over before we begin; though other characters drink on the job or have what sounds like a gambling problem, these are not subjects for anything but passing jokes, and an episode that seems to be about bullying turns out to be about something else entirely. You are free to count that as shying away from Important Subjects — a dereliction of duty — or as a blessed relief from lines being drawn under them. (I incline toward the latter, while acknowledging the former; the show does work on its own, sunnier terms.)
In “Family Reunion,” an African American family abandons big-city Seattle for down-home Columbus, Ga., and the ample bosom of its kin. Family is the family you make here, even if they’re actually related to you. Created by Meg DeLoatch, who also created “Eve” (starring Eve) and worked on the Netflix sitcom reboot “Fuller House,” the pilot — as of this writing, the only episode available for review — opens on a literal covered porch, that of M’Dear (Loretta Devine, lately of “The Carmichael Show”) and Grandpa McKellan (Richard Roundtree, who was Shaft). Onto this porch steps their grown son, Moz (Anthony Alabi), who’s back from the West Coast, and the modern world, with his own family in tow: wife Cocoa (Tia Mowry) and four kids, of which teenage daughter Jade (Talia Jackson) is the one who is more than cute.
The events of the pilot convince Moz and Cocoa to abandon white-bread city life for country comforts, kin and “our culture.” (“Whoa, look at all the black people,” says one of the kids on a trip to church; he has never seen so many in one place.) It’s a decision the parents announce before talking with their children, but this is the sort of show that will make sure to have them apologize for that. Still, only Jade is less than thrilled with the idea.
Because of that resistance, the focus is very much on her — Jade is never offstage for long — and for much of its pilot “Family Reunion” plays like a kid-centric Disney Channel sitcom or something out of ABC’s old TGIF lineup (once home to Mowry’s “Sister, Sister”). But if it’s Jade’s story, it’s Devine’s show. An airy flute with the authority of a French horn, she floats lightly upon the ground but can also plant herself squarely upon it. She brings life and meaning to lines a lesser actor might throw away. (I am partial to her, I admit; you could call it a crush.)
You can practically hear the machinery being hauled into place at times, and not every plot point is equally likely. But the spirits are high (there is dancing on three occasions), and the cast — also including Telma Hopkins in a guest spot as M’Dear’s sister and Warren Burke as Moz’s brother Daniel, a familiar (but well-played) sort of scamp — is game. Most important, it offers families half an hour of comedy free from embarrassing surprises — there is surprisingly little of that on television — and the sometimes loud conversations concerning new versus old parenting styles and what kids can or can’t get away with accommodate a range of viewers. (It’s a black Red State comedy, in part.) Of course, everyone meets in the middle eventually — not a bad place to leave us in the end.
When: Any time
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under 14)
When: Any time, starting July 10
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)
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