I think June Thomas has a provocative argument on her hands, suggesting that Rob, however much it may make with the humping-Grandma jokes, is doing something right in putting Latinos on screen without divorcing them from their heritage, or from Latino comedic traditions:
Rosa’s brother Hector, constantly scheming to line his own pockets, is played by Eugenio Derbez, one of Mexico’s pre-eminent comedians. His clowning doesn’t appeal to me, but Derbez is bringing a Univision-esque, south-of-the-border comedy style to U.S. television. In effect, he’s facilitating another kind of assimilation.
Many of Rob’s themes were first explored in Chico and the Man, which aired between 1974 and 1978 and was the first U.S. series set in a Mexican-American neighborhood. In that show, a charismatic young Chicano (Freddie Prinze) gradually won the affections of a crabby old white guy who didn’t hate Mexicans so much as he objected to the way changing demographics were shaking up his world. It’s a little depressing that nearly 40 years after Chico was first broadcast, we’re still stuck at the “first contact” stage in our depictions of the relationships between different communities, but at least television is once again paying attention to Latinos…On Modern Family and Glee, the Latino characters are cut off from their culture. On the former, there’s a discomfiting sense that the white Pritchett family rescued the Delgados from poverty (if we believe Gloria’s tales of her early life in Colombia) and bad parenting. (When Manny’s biological father, Javier, comes to visit, Jay always has to step in to save his stepson from disappointment.) The one time someone from Santana’s birth family appeared on Glee, it was a total downer: Her abuela broke her heart by kicking her out of the house after she came out. Wizards of Waverly Place sometimes explored Mexican traditions in a bicultural Italian-Mexican family—Alex celebrated her quinceañera, for example—but the kids’ more splashy heritage (as wizards, natch) tended to dominate. At least on Rob, the focus is on Mexican-American culture.
The question, though, is whether Rob is going to be the future of Latino comedy in America, or whether it’s backfill, making up for a dearth of representations that should have been there earlier and issues that should have been worked out on-screen long before this. The numbers are undeniably good overall, though as Joe Adalian points out, they’re not great among the coveted 18-34 year-old-viewers. Among them, the Rob does only slightly better than Parks and Recreation.
It’s probably worth noting that Parks and Recreation also has a half-Latina character in the form of April Ludgate. April’s fascinating precisely because she has an evolving relationship with her heritage. She’s annoyed by the idea that she’s supposed to be so lively and colorful.” But it’s not like she’s running away from her ethnic heritage. She tries on the idea of running away to Venezuela with Eduardo and she speaks Spanish particularly when she’s upset or tipsy. It’s interesting to contrast her to Gloria on Modern Family, who I think June is wrong to say is cut off from her culture—certainly, she’s constantly citing aphorisms, traditions, and superstitions, though most of them are clearly exaggerated and made up. But unlike April, we don’t necessarily see Gloria negotiating her identity now that she and Manny are in a new setting: Gloria and Manny’s heritage is a source of punchlines more than it is a source of plot or character developments. In other words, while on Rob, the identity conflicts are between multiple characters, on Parks and Recreation, that’s a negotiation process that’s going on within a single character. First contact between whites and Latinos is the past: figuring out how Latinos and elements of Latino culture are going to fit into both individuals’ lives and American culture as a whole is the future.