'Selena: The Series': TV Review

Selena CHRISTIAN SERRATOS
Michael Lavine/NETFLIX
Only for Selena completists.
12/4/2020

Christian Serratos stars in Netflix's new dramatization of the Tejano music star's life, executive-produced by her sister, Suzette Quintanilla.

The 1997 biopic Selena, starring Jennifer Lopez as the titular singer and Edward James Olmos as her visionary dad-ager, Abraham, took the long view on the Tejano music star’s groundbreaking success. Director Gregory Nava seemed less interested in Selena Quintanilla-Pérez as a person — by all accounts, a talented but sheltered workhorse who had barely exited her teenage years when she was killed by a fan and staffer embezzling money from the family — than as a symbol of Mexican-American progress. The film remains refreshingly candid today about the diaspora blues (too Mexican for white American audiences, too American for Mexican tastes), as well as the compromises often necessary to reach mass popularity and representational gains. But for all its poignancy, it didn’t quite let us know Selena.

That provides a natural entry point for Netflix’s YA-aimed Selena: The Series, a collaboration with the late vocalist’s sister, executive producer Suzette Quintanilla. Given Selena’s removal from school in the eighth grade (since touring meant frequent absences anyway), the surviving Quintanillas weren’t just family, but the people she spent pretty much every day with, in unceasing contact. Arguably, no one knew Selena better.

Unfortunately, creator Moisés Zamora squanders this opportunity to reintroduce Selena (played by Christian Serratos) to a new generation, both as a Chicana icon and an ambitious teen still searching for a sense of self. Even for a Netflix show, the narrative bloat is startlingly egregious, with an early scene taking us to Selena’s first few hours as a newborn in the hospital. Despite each installment clocking in at about 35 minutes, the second episode contains a flashback to the pilot. The nine-part debut season covers roughly the same ground as the first half of the Selena movie and ends with a wholly suspense-free cliffhanger, and fans won't hear “Como la Flor,” one of the singer's earlier breakthrough singles, until the final episode. Some shows crawl. This one seems hardly capable of movement.

The series does offer a promising premise: a behind-the-scenes look at how the entire family contributed to Selena the hit machine, especially her eight-years-older brother, A.B. (Gabriel Chavarria), and her four-years-older sister, Suzette (Noemi Gonzalez). A.B. makes a tortuous journey coming into his own as a songwriter, while Suzette wrestles sporadically with her reluctant career as the band’s undistinguished drummer. But Zamora does little to dramatize the Quintanillas’ sibling dynamics, despite the intriguing age differences between them, their clearly disparate interests, and the emerging gaps in power and celebrity among them. They might be the most well-adjusted fame-adjacent teenagers and early-20-somethings in human history.

That lack of tension pervades, and enervates, the season. It’s hard to get a sense of Selena aside from her everyteen interests in fashion and boys since, in this telling, most everything comes effortlessly and intuitively to her. She wants to be famous like Madonna — but why? (Love her or hate her, no one ever accused Madge of lacking personality.) It’s fascinating that Selena designed the band’s stage costumes, but what does she want to convey, and from where does she draw inspiration? One of the driving desires of the show is Selena and Abraham’s (Ricardo Chavira) aspirations toward an English-language record, but what does that mean to them, and how do they feel about Selena singing in a language (Spanish) she doesn’t know all that well? And for that matter, how did she become such an evocative crooner in a tongue that was relatively foreign to her all her life? Isn’t Selena supposed to be about Selena?

Rather than characterization, the show gives us trivia. Here’s a guitarist that used to be in the band, but then he quit. Selena once wanted to stop by the Mall of America on the way to a show, but her dad said no. A club owner once held a grudge against Abraham. There are some genuinely interesting details, especially in the DIY workarounds that Abraham and A.B. come up with in the Quintanillas’ painfully slow reversal of fortune after the family’s eviction from their early suburban home. With the show effectively a prequel — since we know what’s to come and how the story will end — it needs all the uncertainty and doubt it can muster. Instead, we get minutiae.

The weak scripts do the performers no favors. Serratos was already at a disadvantage stepping into a role that solidified Lopez as a star, and the show doesn’t give her enough of the spotlight, even when Selena’s onstage, quickly cutting away to audience reaction shots. (Like Lopez at the time of filming, Serratos was in her late 20s when she played Selena as a teenager — a casting choice that makes it harder to appreciate just how young the singer was when she began climbing the charts, and how little she got to live.)

The cast’s standout is Chavira, who lacks Olmos’ intensity but who makes Abraham the show’s most relatable character, with the clearest wants and the best view of the obstacles in his way. As the supportive family matriarch, Seidy López has little to do, her Marcella having seemingly scant impact on the Quintanillas’ road to bigger and brighter venues.

The wan writing is complemented by the production’s visuals, which often resemble a basic-cable TV movie. (Hiromi Kamata directs the pilot.) Costume designer Adela Cortázar encompasses both the glamour and kitschiness of Selena’s ‘80s clothes, with the latter epitomized by matching black-and-white cow-print outfits that the singer designed for the band to don onstage. Given the balloon shoulders, admitted hair disasters and bedazzled everything Selena so often wears, it’s not always clear whether we’re meant to take the many compliments of her fashion sense at face value, muddling the protagonist’s characterization even more.

Selena: The Series debuts at the end of a year that’s been brutal for Latino-centric TV. 2020 saw the ends or cancellations of Starz’s Vida, ABC’s The Baker and the Beauty, Netflix-then-Pop’s One Day at a Time (currently searching for a third network to call home), even the departure of America Ferrera from NBC’s Superstore. (At least Netflix’s Gentefied was renewed.) The industry’s continuing disregard for Latino representation — particularly notable when half of Los Angeles is of Latin American descent — made headlines again this summer when the Emmys didn’t include a single Latino nominee in the acting categories. Selena: The Series could’ve been a fitting tribute to a Mexican American trailblazer with still too few successors. But it never gets at what made her such a star.

Cast: Christian Serratos, Ricardo Chavira, Seidy Lopez, Gabriel Chavarria, Noemi Gonzalez, Madison Taylor Baez

Creator: Moisés Zamora