Television shows about TV are seldom very good, which doesn’t raise hopes particularly high for “Telenovela.” In a mildly pleasant surprise, though, this NBC comedy — marking Eva Longoria’s return to primetime, here as a semi-desperate soap star — finds enough humor in its exaggerated situations to deliver some laughs. Granted, the show covers a lot of the same territory as “Jane the Virgin,” albeit not as well, but the episodes previewed have a breezy, unpretentious quality, and Longoria offers a reminder that she’s a pretty gifted comedienne, as evidenced by some of the show’s physical bits.
Longoria plays Ana Sofia, the star of a Spanish-language telenovela who, in one of those made-for-TV gags, doesn’t actually speak Spanish. The expected cast of characters surrounds her, including a gay co-star (Jose Moreno Brooks) who rips his shirt open whenever someone from the network happens to visit the set, referring to his six-pack abs as “job security.”
Not surprisingly — in another wrinkle that directly mirrors a recent “Jane” subplot — Ana Sofia is horrified when the new network suit (Zachary Levi) seeks to goose the ratings of her show, “Las leyes de pasion” (The Laws of Passion), by reuniting her with her ex-husband (Jencarlos Canela). And naturally, there’s still chemistry there, even if she split with him for cheating on her, she’s convinced, with Shakira.
Longoria holds an exec producer credit on the series, along with “Cougar Town” veterans Chrissy Pietrosh and Jessica Goldstein. But happily, once the rather tired setup is out of the way, there are some amusing situations, such as the show’s rivalry with another telenova, with the two shows’ characters seemingly mirror images of each other. “Telenovela” (originally “Hot and Bothered,” a much worse title) also pads out the cast with promising players, including Diana Maria Riva as the costumer and sort-of Ethel to Longoria’s Lucy, and “Prison Break’s” Amaury Nolasco as another one of her needy co-stars.
The neurotic, vaguely narcissistic star hardly treads any new ground, but Longoria manages to make her reasonably likable, despite all the requisite eccentricities. That includes constantly ribbing the show’s one-time diva (Alex Meneses) — who remains in the cast but has been elbowed toward mother roles — about her age, by celebrating her “birthday” every few months, while Ana Sofia frets about her own demographic expiration date.
“Telenovela” will get a preview behind “The Voice” before returning in January in the show’s regular time slot, paired with the somewhat compatible (and markedly better) “Superstore.” Although neither show inspires genuine passion, after a mostly disheartening run for NBC sitcoms, the gentle chuckles they provoke at least provide the foundation for a potential relationship.