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A character in the new ABC drama Promised Land sits by a sparkling pool in a bikini reading King Lear, a moment that captures at once almost everything you could possibly need to know about the primetime soap.
Promised Land wants to be titillating and tawdry, but at the same time it wants to have a little bit of nuance and pedigree, but at the same time, it worries that audiences might not get what that nuance is, so everything has to be underlined. Though I wish Promised Land had a little more confidence in its viewers, the first two episodes point to a slightly above-average broadcast attempt to do Dallas or Dynasty — a fight in the pilot even ends up in that swimming pool — for a Latino audience; there are just enough distinctive elements to cover for all of the ways the plot mechanics are generic or belabored.
Airdate: 10 p.m. Monday, January 24
Cast: John Ortiz, Cecilia Suárez, Augusto Aguilera, Christina Ochoa, Mariel Molino, Tonatiuh, Andres Velez, Katya Martín, Rolando Chusan, Bellamy Young
Creator: Matt Lopez
Adapting King Lear, however loosely, has been a longtime favorite television pastime and most audiences would have recognized the link to recent semi-updates like Succession or Empire without the literary bikini-signaling.
Here, the patriarch is John Ortiz’s Joe Sandoval, boss at Heritage House, a Sonoma (played by Georgia) vineyard that’s one of the largest wine producers in the country. For reasons nobody even attempts to articulate, the time has come for Joe to pass the company along to his kids, even though he and wife Lettie (Cecilia Suárez) are too young for there to be any real imperative. Joe and Lettie have a blended family and one of the show’s more confusing aspects is trying to remember or care which kids go with whom and making sense of the timeline around them.
The logical successor is Veronica (Christina Ochoa), the daughter who has basically been running things with Joe. Other contenders for the Heritage House throne include Antonio (Tonatiuh), whose coming-out Joe handled poorly, and ultra-ambitious and frustratingly overlooked Mateo (Augusto Aguilera). Poolside reader Carmen (Mariel Molino) isn’t apparently under serious consideration for leadership, but she may be a marketing genius, while youngest kid Junior (Miguel Angel Garcia) is still in high school. The only urgency in the family business is caused by Margaret Honeycroft (Bellamy Young), a hotel magnate with a history with the vineyard and the Sandoval family.
Oh and meanwhile, there’s a parallel narrative involving sisters Juana (Katya Martin) and Rosa (Ariana Guerra), who cross the border illegally and make their way up to Sonoma, where they meet Carlos (Andres Velez), whose brother works at Heritage. ABC wants critics to pretend that there’s a twist involving the parallel narrative and not to reveal it. There isn’t.
The parallel narrative has an uncomfortable balance of stereotypes and subversions of stereotypes relating to the new immigrant experience, and it’s impossible for me to say after two episodes if the things it does smartly (including far more subtitled Spanish-language dialogue than most broadcast shows would ever attempt) make up for all of the cliches — though the end of the second episode feels like a push more in the direction of “derivative tripe” than I’d prefer. Between that and a not-so-shocking car accident in the pilot, Promised Land keeps layering on contrivances rather than giving its ensemble cast enough room to simply breathe.
The thing Promised Land is attempting, with its Latino creator, largely Latino cast and the aforementioned linguistic code-switching, isn’t completely without precedent. It’s been over a decade since CBS attempted a similar booze-meets-familia spin of King Lear with the Jimmy Smits drama Cane, while OWN just premiered The Kings of Napa about a Black family — last name “King,” for heaven’s sake — with three kids running a vineyard after the death of their patriarch. But there are things to like about how it’s operating within the familiar terrain.
Despite not being able to shoot in Sonoma, Lopez and directors Michael Cuesta and Edward Ornelas give the early episodes a look that’s sunny and glossy and verdant for the foregrounded Sandoval scenes and just a bit grittier and more washed out for the Carlos/Rosa/Juana scenes. The show doesn’t go into great detail on the wine-making or wine-distributing process, but it finds just enough in the milieu to give it a little Grapes of Wrath wrinkle, no more or less about oenology than Dallas was about oil.
The show’s greatest depth comes from exposing the assimilation factor at the heart of the American Dream; whether it’s questions about Joe abandoning his roots or the reality of Junior not speaking a word of Spanish, there are at least elements that don’t feel identical to other presumptive successors to Dallas and Dynasty, though with the blended family conceit, Lopez may have initially overextended himself. It turns out that 80+ minutes just isn’t enough time to give all of these characters personalities.
The men are stuck with the least developed parts across the board, especially Antonio and Mateo, who both show up pouting and remain in a state of low-key petulance for two hours. Ortiz and reliable character acting favorite Yul Vazquez — most recently seen in the more vicious King Lear takeoff, Succession — are a bit more interesting. Despite being saddled with my least favorite subplot and with extreme underwriting respectively, Ochoa and Suárez have meatier things to play, with Molino getting maybe the most specific voice in the ensemble. Young is always delightful at playing righteously wicked and, as the central figure in the more heightened parallel narrative, Martin is likely to be the show’s breakout if Promised Land finds an audience.
Promised Land isn’t some thrilling genre reinvention, but it does enough things decently to be successful. There’s backstabbing and simmering sexiness and the potential for catfights around every corner, while at the same time there’s an empathetic glimpse at the immigrant experience and a multi-generational exploration of the current state of the American Dream.
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