HBO Max’s ‘Gordita Chronicles’: TV Review

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Gordita Chronicles is set in mid-’80s Miami, but not one that looks like mid-’80s Miami as it actually was. Instead, it’s a turbocharged version of mid-’80s Miami as it might be imagined by someone looking back from decades in the future — all neon colors, graphic shapes and crimped hair. Which does seem appropriate given that it’s narrated, Wonder Years-style, by Dascha Polanco as an unseen older version of its lead.

The show’s nostalgic pleasures extend as well to the tone, which is as cheerfully wholesome as any family sitcom you might’ve grown up watching. (In particular, it calls to my mind Fresh Off the Boat, which likewise centered on a family dealing with a culture clash.) And to its plotlines, which tend to unfold along well-worn beats grasping at tried-and-true themes. What keeps it comfortingly familiar rather than stale is its winning cast — led by Olivia Goncalves as 12-year-old Cucu — and the sunny warmth among them.

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When we first meet the Castelli family at their going-away party in Santo Domingo, they’re already well familiar with the appeal of the American dream. Dad Victor (Juan Javier Cardenas), a marketing exec, is rattling off American advertising slogans with starry-eyed admiration; mom Adela (Diana Maria Riva) is bragging to friends about the fancy pool she just knows they’re going to have. “That was back when America was riding high on Burger King and the King of Pop,” the older Cucu remembers, in one of Gordita Chronicles‘ playful but slightly overworked turns of phrase.

Inevitably, the reality proves less glamorous. With Victor’s paychecks coming in smaller than expected, and the family’s bills adding up higher, the Castellis eventually settle into a cozy apartment on the lower-middle-class side of town. Big sister Emilia (Savannah Nicole Ruiz) takes to the all-American teen experience like a fish to water, attracting a cute boy and getting in with the Bubblegums — the junior high’s most popular girl clique — within days. Cucu, who was the life of the party back in the Dominican Republic, will take longer to figure out her niche in America.

In terms of finding its footing, Gordita Chronicles moves more at Cucu’s speed than Emilia’s. The premiere, directed by executive producer Eva Longoria, is pleasant enough, but too bogged down by exposition to offer more than a vague sense of who these characters are going to be. Meanwhile, the second episode inadvertently emphasizes the limitations of its own creative choices. The installment revolves largely around Cucu’s struggles with English, which is certainly a relatable concern for lots of new immigrants — but which lands oddly on a show that’s opted to have the Castellis speak even amongst themselves in flawless English, not subtitled Spanish.

If anything, the strongest impression left by the early chapters is of America itself, as seen through the Castellis’ eyes. Victor’s bought into the country’s can-do spirit enough to parrot mantras like “Leap, and the net will appear” to his family, and his daughters are awed by classmates who look just like the guys in Tiger Beat. At the same time, they quickly become familiar with the country’s less appealing qualities: Cucu’s ESL storyline, for instance, is steeped in righteous anger over a then-current law (repealed in 1993) forbidding the use of any language but English in schools. Later chapters tackle bizarre but fun American customs like Halloween, and less fun ones like narrow beauty standards.

Gordita Chronicles‘ truest strength lies not in its social commentary but in its heart. Cardenas and Riva are endlessly endearing as a married couple whose affection for one another is even stronger than their differences — he’s a mild-mannered optimist, she’s the more stubborn and skeptical realist. And Goncalves is never more amusing than when she’s needling Ruiz, in the manner of annoying siblings everywhere. Who but a baby sister could ever get away with opening a request for dating advice with, “Boys constantly lose interest in you. What’s your secret?”

By the middle of the ten-episode season, the simple pleasure of getting to spend time with the family feels like reason enough to keep coming back — hopefully for a second season, since the first ends on a romantic cliffhanger.

The show still has a bit of work to do when it comes to carving out its own distinctive voice; despite Cucu’s talk of forging her own path, freed from the expectations of both American and Dominican culture, the series has yet to play any notes that sound truly new. But like its heroine, Gordita Chronicles shows the potential to grow into something special — and also like its heroine, it’s sweet enough to earn our patience while finding its way there.

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