For a time in the ’90s, a five-minute set at the Comedy Store was enough to land the talent a sitcom, or so the joke went. Despite the high attrition rate of that strategy, it lingers on in “Cristela,” a throwback ABC half-hour symmetrically paired with “Last Man Standing” — fitting, perhaps, since Tim Allen’s “Home Improvement” helped usher in the aforementioned wave. Cristela Alonzo stars as the appealing heroine, who is determined to become a lawyer, without much encouragement from her family. Alonzo is plenty likable, but her shoulders don’t look quite big enough to carry an entire show.
Cristela (yes, actor and character share a name) is in her sixth year of law school, sustaining her dream through odd jobs and by living with her kin. That includes her disapproving mom (Terri Hoyos); sister (Maria Canals-Barrera), who brags about still fitting her old high-school cheerleader uniform; brother-in-law Felix (Carlos Ponce); and their two kids.
Felix isn’t crazy about the cramped arrangement, sniping at Cristela at every turn. Sample dialogue, with apologies to Winston Churchill:
Felix: “If you were my wife, I would put poison in your coffee.”
Cristela: “If you were my husband, I’d drink it.”
Still, Cristela manages to keep her dream alive when she gets the chance to intern for a major law firm — the unpaid nature of the position only adding to her financial woes. Moreover, not only is the boss (Sam McMurray) prone to saying wildly inappropriate things about Latinos, but her fellow interns include his daughter (Sarah Halford), who mistakes her for the cleaning crew; and the more helpful if privileged Josh (Andrew Leeds), whose main function seems to be laughing at Cristela’s jokes.
Unlike some comics, Alonzo is something of a natural onscreen, and the show — which is set in Dallas — establishes a sense of place and time by having Cristela root for the Cowboys and lust after quarterback Tony Romo.
Yet as nice as it is to see another sitcom with dollops of heart (you can count the “aww” moments) built around a real-looking woman (Alonzo co-created the series with Kevin Hench), that’s about the only thing that distinguishes “Cristela” from what once occupied these environs back in ABC’s “TGIF” days. Nor does a second episode — in which Cristela’s sister pushes her to date online — suggest the show has much more in mind than recycling familiar plots.
“Last Man Standing” has managed to hang around largely on those terms, and “Cristela” warrants additional notice as part of what amounts to ABC’s diversity wave this season, including minority leads in the sitcoms “Black-ish” and the upcoming “Fresh off the Boat” (actually, based strictly on pilots, the best of the lot).
In success, presumably, the title character’s dream here of becoming a lawyer will have to wait a good long time. On that score, perhaps the best thing “Cristela” has going for it, given ABC’s modest Friday-night expectations, is that the criteria for passing that bar is set pretty low.