'Mr. Iglesias': TV Review

Warm-hearted and inclusive, if not hugely hilarious.
6/21/2019

Comic Gabriel "Fluffy" Iglesias' Netflix multicamera sitcom is a well-meaning, occasionally likable high school romp that should not be viewed as a replacement for 'One Day at a Time.'

There is an instinct to resent the mere existence of Netflix's Mr. Iglesias on behalf of the canceled remake of One Day at a Time, as if Latinx-themed multicamera comedies were a Highlander-esque zero-sum game in which one must die for the other to live.

The reality, it turns out, is that Mr. Iglesias isn't bad at all. It lacks the sublime grounding that Rita Moreno and Justina Machado brought to One Day at a Time, but as broad ensemble multicams go, this one has its heart in the right place and occasionally tackles topical issues well. Would I like for Mr. Iglesias to be funnier? Or, at times, especially funny at all? Yes. But I'm a sucker for "well-meaning," especially when it's warm and inclusive.

The sitcom stars likable comic Gabriel Iglesias as, well, Gabe Iglesias, a likable history teacher at a Long Beach public school. Mr. Iglesias' specialty is bringing history to life for the misfit students other teachers might let slip through the cracks. When a nefarious assistant principal — Oscar Nunez's Carlos — attempts to "counsel out" Mr. Iglesias' students to improve the school's overall rankings, it's up to Mr. Iglesias to protect, inspire and educate them, at least insofar as it's possible for one teacher to save a group of kids he sees for only one class per day, in what appears to be the only class he teaches.

Among Mr. Iglesias' students is Marisol (Cree Cicchino), a brilliant young woman struggling in school because she has to work three jobs; Mikey, the creepy guy with a crush on Marisol (Fabrizio Guido); ultra-paranoid Lorenzo (Coy Stewart); social anxiety-prone Grace (Gloria Aung); and amiably dunderheaded ginger Walter (Tucker Albrizzi).

Aiding, or sometimes getting in the way of, Gabe's quest are fellow teachers Abby (Maggie Geha), a wide-eyed transplant from South Dakota; Gabe's childhood friend Tony (Jacob Vargas), whose crush on Abby is also creepy; and veteran educator Ray (Richard Gant), who would rather teach forever than retire to spend more time with his wife. Overseeing the whole establishment is Sherri Shepherd's Paula, a well-intentioned principal, whose eagerness to make oddly graphic sex jokes really gets in the way of Mr. Iglesias being a family-friendly show, which I think otherwise would be its aspiration.

The series hails from Iglesias and showrunner Kevin Hench (Cristela), and the first episode ends with Iglesias paying tribute to a high school speech teacher who believed in him when nobody else did. That's where Mr. Iglesias lives. Think of it as AP Bio if the main character actually believed entirely in pedagogy and was capable of instructing his assortment of strange students in the subject he's ostensibly teaching. In each episode, Gabe's dedication lets him teach the kids a lesson, and darned if he doesn't learn lessons from the kids as well. Yes, Mr. Iglesias is that kind of show, and there's nothing wrong with that.

When Mr. Iglesias is creatively humming, it does a decent job of having Gabe's classroom lessons echo whatever big-picture instruction he and the students are experiencing, whether it's using a student protest over privacy restrictions for inroads into understanding civil disobedience, covering Plessy v. Ferguson in an episode in which Gabe realizes that the school has a separate-but-equal educational tier for jocks, or lecturing about Prohibition in an episode revealing that Gabe is a recovering alcoholic.

Even when Mr. Iglesias isn't nailing its structure, it still often finds ways to attack subject matter that I appreciated, like a very fine episode explaining the evolution of classifying terminology that brought us to "Latinx" as today's preferred nomenclature.

But it doesn't always work. There's an episode in which the teachers go on strike that comes across as weirdly anti-union in a way I'm pretty sure the writers didn't intend. The proliferation of interchangeable background characters who share a class with our featured students but don't say a word the entire season? Probably intentional. The decision to concentrate on an Academic Decathlon event as the season's featured showcase, even though the writers very obviously have zero clue what Academic Decathlon actually is? Definitely not intentional, but probably a thing that will bother a small audience of me and a couple dozen former Academic Decathletes.

This is a vehicle for many of the things Iglesias does well, from his wide array of voices and accents, energetic even when they're not all that great, to his deceptively nimble physicality. The character's alcoholism gives Iglesias a chance to play the occasional dramatic note, and he even gets hints of a romance with a guest character played by Megyn Price.

Of the supporting grownups, Nunez adds some depth to a too frequently one-note character, Vargas thrives on his energy with Iglesias, Geha is broad but effective and veteran character actor Gant is having a ball. I wish the show would let Shepherd loose a bit more; the later episode in which she gets to do her own version of Mr. Iglesias' teaching shtick is her best in the season.

I mentioned AP Bio earlier, and that now-deceased NBC comedy set a very high bar for quirky-comic-relief TV kids. The young Mr. Iglesias cast doesn't reach that level, but Albrizzi, Stewart and Aung all get laughs, while Cicchino is quietly the heart of the show.

The first Mr. Iglesias season includes good guest work from character acting stalwart Christopher McDonald as the school's boozy football coach and a one-off appearance by Joel McHale, who somehow enters without a roar from the studio audience and spends nearly 30 minutes — every Mr. Iglesias episode could have stood five minutes of tightening — listening to characters talk about how handsome he is. Hey, it's a living!

So don't resent Mr. Iglesias for seemingly occupying the space vacated by the cancellation of One Day at a Time. But also don't think you can look to one as the emotional replacement for the other. In an ideal world, Mr. Iglesias would have made a perfectly fine time-slot partner with One Day at a Time, if we lived in a world that prioritized such things.

Cast: Gabriel Iglesias, Jacob Vargas, Maggie Geha, Cree Cicchino, Richard Gant, Sherri Shepherd, Fabrizio Guido, Oscar Nunez, Tucker Albrizzi, Coy Stewart
Showrunner: Kevin Hench
Premieres: Friday (Netflix)