Christian Serratos (“The Walking Dead”) has her own breakout in the making as Selena Quintanilla, whose career was the culmination of a dream envisioned by her father, Abraham. Ricardo Chavira (“Desperate Housewives”) is particularly well cast as the former musician, who cobbles together a family band after overhearing his youngest daughter casually belt out a song. The band, Selena y Los Dinos, becomes an all-hands-on-deck business for the patriarch, who enlists Selena’s older siblings — A.B. (Gabriel Chavarria) on bass guitar and Suzette (Noemi Gonzalez), reluctantly, on drums — and their mother, Marcella (Seidy López), who helps to make the band’s costumes and serve as a balm to her husband’s tough management style.
“Selena: The Series” is authorized by the singer’s family (Suzette Quintanilla is an executive producer) and the first half of the two-part series is as much about them as it is about Selena. Chavira’s portrayal of Abraham is nuanced but not always pretty, as the show explores the tension in his stage parenting. One scene finds Selena’s teacher confronting Abraham over how much school she has missed because of the band’s touring schedule. Indignant, Abraham declares he knows what’s best for his daughter and pulls her out.
Abraham is also relentlessly tough on A.B., who takes on more songwriting responsibilities as the band’s popularity grows. When A.B. expresses disappointment over their repertoire, his father tells him to simply write better songs. When A.B. then hears his first successful songwriting effort on a Texas radio station, Abraham coolly responds that “lots of bands have one hit. Where’s your next one?”
The flip side of Abraham’s demanding approach, of course, is that it was integral to the band’s success. We see the vision progress throughout the show, from early gigs decorated with lights fashioned from dumpster-sourced tin cans to Selena’s first deal with a major record label.
The series, which begins streaming Friday, is punctuated with musical triumphs as the band tours the country and Mexico. The show also looks at the collaboration behind some of Selena’s most beloved hits including “Dame Un Beso” and “Besitos.” (Prepare to get really into her catalogue if you aren’t already.) Abraham shrewdly decided Selena y Los Dinos should sing exclusively in Spanish, a move that necessitated that Selena learn Spanish phonetically. In this retelling, it’s Marcella who suggests audiences would respond better if the band performed Spanish songs after a disastrous gig at a senior citizens home.
The film version of Selena’s story featured several memorable moments that spoke to the singer’s Mexican American and Tejano identity — in one, Selena charms Mexican reporters with a Spanglish response to a question because she can’t remember how to say “excited” in Spanish. The benefit of the series is the ability to delve deeper into how Selena’s identity played a part in her journey in the Latin music industry. As Selena gears up for the release of her eponymous 1989 album, she becomes frustrated with some of her label’s decisions, including the album’s ambiguously global cover.
After Selena struggles through the photo shoot for the album, Abraham has a testy exchange with Jose Behar (Rico Aragon), the head of EMI Latin who tells Abraham the label wants to market Selena as “exotic.”
“What is so exotic about Corpus Christi?” Abraham bellows. “She is an American girl who just happens to be able to sing in Spanish.”
“Tower Records doesn’t have a bin labeled ‘American girl of Mexican descent who happens to also sing in Spanish,’ ” Behar retorts.
Part One of the series begins to explore Selena’s struggle to convince her label to do a crossover album, an achievement that was eventually realized to historic success on the Billboard charts just months after her death. The show’s exploration of identity becomes more poignant when imagined in Selena’s own words.
“I get overwhelmed thinking about it, the little girl who learned Spanish so she could sing, and now has a gold record for singing in Spanish,” Selena tells her family as she celebrates a career milestone. “A lot of people can sing in a different language, but it doesn’t make them who they are. But we’re Mexican, and I’m just really grateful to know that part of me now.”
The scene, which unfolds over dinner in her family’s Texas backyard, quietly captures the singer’s legacy. It also points to what’s special about the series, anchoring the singer’s story in her relationships with her family and her bandmates. By the end of Part One, that group includes guitarist Chris Perez (Jesse Posey) with whom Selena would go on to elope against her family’s wishes.
The show is billed as a coming-of-age story, and that’s where it has more room to grow. Even as a teenager, Selena is obedient to her overbearing father in a way that feels unrealistic; the series, much like the film, casts her relationship with Chris at 20 years old as her first act of rebellion. The show’s nine-episode first installment only begins to explore their relationship and the turmoil it caused within her family. Going into Part Two (the date for which Netflix has not yet announced), the show has the opportunity — the responsibility — to give Selena more of a voice when it comes to her transition to adulthood
Though “Selena: The Series” is enjoyable, that’s a big caveat, and one that requires us to give the show’s writers (and the family members telling Selena’s story) the benefit of the doubt. There’s still beauty, however, in focusing on the first part of Selena’s story: the people she loved, the connections that grounded her, her music and the dream that felt like destiny.
At one point in the series — when Selena y Los Dinos are still traveling in their now-famed Big Bertha tour bus, Selena asks if anyone thinks about their purpose in the world and is met with blank stares.
“I think mine is to do exactly what I’m doing,” she says. “I mean, this is exactly where I want to be.”
“Selena: The Series” (nine episodes) begins streaming Friday on Netflix.