NBC, once the sitcom king of the world, the home of “Seinfeld,” “Friends,” and “Cheers,” has had only two sitcoms on its schedule this fall, both of them running in the semi-dead zone of Friday nights. The mighty, having fallen, are apparently regrouping. That’s the code word for desperation-filled executive meetings scheduled after weekly How Do We Deal With the “Cosby Show” Situation meetings: regrouping.
On Monday night at 10, the network is going to preview two episodes of a new sitcom that, along with the recently previewed “Superstore,” will join the regular schedule on Jan. 4. It’s called “Telenovela,” and let’s just say that it probably won’t lift NBC back to its former glory. But it’s not a bad first step, a way to get started before two far more promising sitcoms — one from “30 Rock” collaborators Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, the other from “Parks and Recreation” creator Mike Schur — finally make it to air.
“Telenovela” revolves around the telenovela-like backstage melodrama on the set of a Spanish-language telenovela. Eva Longoria, best known for “Desperate Housewives,” easily fits into the network-sitcom pace, as Ana Sofia, the likable star whose personal life is a bit of a mess. She doesn’t speak Spanish, one of her many quirks. There are two big problems facing her. One is the bitter Isabela (Alex Meneses), who was the show’s big star before she developed wrinkles and who is now trying to undermine Ana. The other is Ana’s ex-husband, Xavier (Jencarlos Canela), who has just joined the cast of the show. She hates him — or does she?
Writers Chrissy Pietrosh and Jessica Goldstein, from “Cougar Town” and “My Name Is Earl,” find a way to create an ensemble of characters around Longoria who are broad caricatures and yet recognizably human. The writers don’t aim for anything clever — the minute a costumer tells the agitated Ana to be careful, her dress is only pinned on, you know it’s going to fall off before the next commercial. But the supporting actors, particularly Diana Maria Riva, as Ana’s friend and costume director, Mia, are game and nicely in sync.
But “Telenovela” is seriously limited by its subject matter. Goofing on soap operas has been done and done again. There have been soap spoofs (the best being “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman”), there have been stories set behind the scenes of soaps (the movie “Soapdish”), there have been sketches galore, including the indelible “The Californians” on “Saturday Night Live” and “As the Stomach Turns” on “The Carol Burnett Show.” Just last month, “The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon” aired a soap parody called “Tensions,” with Fallon and Martin Short as a married couple. “The Spoils of Babylon,” “Soap,” and the fantastic “Grosse Pointe” — the list goes on and on.
Soaps are easy targets, and so are behind-the-scenes-of-TV comedies. At this point it’s hard to wring new material out of them. As “Telenovela” upends swoony melodrama and absurd plot twists (Isabela’s twin sister appears in episode two), it follows a too well-trod path. You know you’ve already been there, laughed at that.
Starring Eva Longoria, Jencarlos Canela, Alex Meneses, Amuary Nolasco, Diana Maria Riva, Izzy Diaz. On NBC, Monday, 10-10:30 p.m. and 10:30-11 p.m.