'Lopez': TV Review

Lopez S01E01 Still - Publicity - H 2016
Michael Yarish/TV Land

Lopez S01E01 Still - Publicity - H 2016

George Lopez gets real — and funny.

This new TV Land comedy from George Lopez finds him changing direction in promising ways.

Given that George Lopez has already had a sitcom, George Lopez, that ran on ABC from 2002-2007, producing 120 episodes spanning six seasons (well, the first season only had four episodes), then 286 Lopez Tonight shows on TBS from 2009-2011 and 10 episodes of the failed sitcom Saint George in 2014 on FX, you have to wonder why he needs or wants another show with his name on it.

But he does, and has, and this one, not surprisingly, is called Lopez and premieres Wednesday on TV Land.

And you know what? This time he might have hit on the right formula.

With TV Land upping its game recently (Younger, Teachers) and with Lopez executive produced (and written and co-created) by John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky, who created Silicon Valley with Mike Judge, there's some pedigree to mix in with the hard knocks of experience that puts Lopez in an interesting position.

The first three episodes are good if a little erratic, but that's true of most sitcoms. The key is that Lopez seems keen on doing something that was probably necessary at this point — making fun of himself (sometimes pointedly) — and going for something a little more Curb Your Enthusiasm than the mainstream slant of his ABC series and his better-forgotten packaged product Saint George that FX bought in the vein of Charlie Sheen's Anger Management.

Lopez needed to tweak the formula, and you can see some intriguing results in the initial episodes, as the show tries to find its balance.

Lopez mostly wants to be a show that's a warts-and-all take on his real life, plus a look at fame, with the star tackling his familiar topics of race and class and creating a world peopled with characters viewers would want to spend time with. That Lopez is single-camera and finds the comedian generally more relaxed and less network-sitcom broad is a very welcome starting point.

It looks as if Altschuler and Krinsky, who co-created the series with Lopez and Jeff Stilson, have cribbed enough from the intent and the rhythms of Curb Your Enthusiasm and learned a whole lot on Silicon Valley and are trying to work with Lopez to create something more real and and representative. Perhaps that's why on more than one occasion there's a joke about Lopez having taken a kidney from his wife and then divorced her, his being drunk and falling asleep in a casino, the stink on Saint George, the overuse of his own name on his shows, his beef with Carlos Mencia (Lopez accused him of stealing his jokes) and others.

Since race is such a major theme in Lopez's material and (duh) his life, it's not like he's going to abandon it — but Lopez seems to be working out exactly how much of it to use without it seeming like that's going to be the main ingredient.

For example, white people mistaking any Latino for the valet is a joke without much originality, even when Lopez puts a twist on it when he himself mistakes former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa for one. But the show ends up playing the Villaraigosa appearance for better laughs that are partly a play on the earlier weak joke. Good writing on good shows keeps after an idea, even when a joke or two on the theme fail.

The comedian gets better results tackling race indirectly when, over the course of two episodes, he becomes an outcast (and "grasshole") for having a lawn in drought-stricken Los Angeles (with the decision impacting his Hispanic gardeners). Lopez, who makes the point that he never had a lawn growing up and that's why he wants one now, is willing to let the lawn in front go brown (partly in response to Ellen DeGeneres, unseen, canceling his appearance on her show because she despises "water injustice") while keeping the gardeners on the payroll. "You want me to take money for not working? I'm not white," the head gardener complains. The compromise is to keep the back lawn — out of sight — green and the workers busy. In turn, this bit rolls into a very effective cameo by Ed Begley Jr., who calls bullshit on Lopez's new "eco warrior" stance.

It's the kind of story arc and joke structure that feels natural running over a couple of episodes while other things are happening in Lopez's life, a good anti-sitcom/pro-realism approach to the storytelling that finally puts him in a situation where he looks comfortable and not always "on."

It's also just more sophisticated. There are limits to this, of course; it's not like Lopez has the immediate brilliance of the more subtle Silicon Valley, and there are times you wish the direction (from Troy Miller, who shot all three review episodes) were a bit sharper and that Lopez would refine his delivery to better fit the single-camera aesthetic. Then again, Lopez's jokes (and certainly his shows) were never about subtlety, so viewers should at least cut the man and the new series some slack as they both try to pursue this new direction that we can see hints of. When it appears, it's good and it has potential.

Besides, it's still early days — three episodes is really nothing in the evolution of a sitcom, if it indeed evolves — and already these first few are some of the best work Lopez has done. You can see the benefits of shifting him into a different light — more natural but still funny; less eager and more cynical. Lopez works best when the comic is not trying to prove anything, not trying to be funny or too self-aware.

The overall feel of the show certainly helps him, with a surrounding cast that has a lot of its own potential as their characters are fleshed out. Anthony "Citric" Campos (who goes only by Citric in the credits), plays an old neighborhood friend of Lopez's, who becomes his driver; stand-up comic Maronzio Vance plays Lopez's opener and friend (Vance is also tasked with taking on some of the race jokes, which means Lopez doesn't have to lean on them as much); Hayley Huntley (Review) is an early stand-out as Lopez's social media handler at the company that represents him (the social media jokes are hit and miss but play a large part in the first three episodes as Lopez is trying to simultaneously broaden his appeal among whites and Asians and rehabilitate his image); James Michael Connor has potential as Lopez's nosy neighbor; and Ashley Zamora plays his daughter (give the writers credit for getting in a few good references to singer Morrissey's appeal in the Latino community while helping develop Zamora's character).

In addition to Begley Jr. and the former Los Angeles mayor, Lopez gets some decent material out of a running Snoop Dogg bit (and cameo appearance).

Not everything works, but you could make the argument that the world thinks it already knows what to expect from a George Lopez sitcom, and Lopez could in time turn into the comedian's surprising rebuttal to that assumption.

Cast: George Lopez, Citric, Maronzio Vance, James Michael Connor, Hayley Huntley
Created by: John Altschuler, Dave Krinsky, George Lopez, Jeff Stilson
Airs: Wednesdays, 10 p.m. ET/PT (TV Land)

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine