Eva Longoria looks as if she’s having the time of her life in NBC’s “Telenovela,” a fun half-hour romp that gives the workplace comedy a camera-ready makeover, complete with wind machines.
Longoria stars as Ana Sofia, the star of a Spanish-language soap opera called “Las Leyes de Pasión” (“The Laws of Pasión”), with one complication: Pasión, the character Ana plays, speaks Spanish. Ana? Not so much.
“Telenovela” premieres in January, but NBC is airing the first two episodes back to back Monday night. In the pilot, Ana is shocked to learn that Miami-based network VivaVision has cast her ex-husband, Xavier (Jencarlos Canela), in a lead role on “Pasión.” Sure, you might be able to guess what happens next, but I promise it’s more fun to watch.
I’ve been a fan of Longoria since she starred as the spoiled Gabrielle Solis in “Desperate Housewives.” And I’ll somewhat grudgingly confess that I also watch “Devious Maids,” the charming but imperfect Lifetime show for which Longoria serves as executive producer. The actress is also an executive producer on “Telenovela,” along with showrunners Chrissy Pietrosh and Jessica Goldstein (known for their work on “Cougar Town” and “My Name Is Earl”).
“Telenovela” is legitimately laugh-out-loud funny. Longoria pulls off both physical comedy and shrewd snark, buoyed by her co-stars, particularly Diana Maria Riva, who stars as “Pasión’s” tell-it-like-it-is costume designer, Mimi. Ana has an amusing love-hate (but mostly hate) relationship with Isabela (Alexandra Meneses), who was the star of the soap before Ana joined the cast.
Ana’s inability to speak fluent Spanish is a frequent, if obvious, punchline. Mimi and Gael (Jose Moreno Brooks), one of “Pasión’s” male leads, delight in having rapid side conversations that Ana can’t keep up with. When the network brings on a new non-Latino president (Zachary Levi), he tries to impress Ana with his conversational skills, which she meets with masked confusion.
In one of the four episodes I screened, an epic stare-down between “Pasión’s” stars and the cast of a rival show ends with everyone kissing one another on the cheek. In scenes like this, the jokes may resonate more for those who are familiar with telenovelas or certain aspects of Latin American culture, but it’s not a prerequisite for enjoying the show.
We’ve reached a sort of meta moment here — telenovelas have inspired popular American shows such as “Ugly Betty” and “Jane the Virgin,” the latter of which is especially adept at poking fun at its telenovela roots.
“Telenovela” has more in common with “Betty” than “Jane.” Mode magazine fans will see a bit of Becki Newton’s Amanda Tanen in Gael, whose fears about getting replaced on the show lead him to stress-eat carbs. And in the pilot, a gossip show covers a meltdown by Ana that goes viral. It feels a lot like the “Telenovela” answer to “Ugly Betty’s” “Fashion Buzz.” (Suzuki St. Pierre, anyone?)
In a sly twist, “Telenovela’s” gossip show, “Suelta la Sopa” (roughly, “Spill the Beans”), actually exists. It airs on Telemundo, which happens to be owned by a subsidiary of NBCUniversal.
“Telenovela” debuts with a one-hour double-episode preview Monday at 10 p.m. on NBC. The regular season premiere is Jan. 4.