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Telenovela premiere recap: PIlot / Evil Twin

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Jordin Althaus/NBC

Much has been made about how NBC — the network that gave us Cheers, Must-See TV, and a decade’s worth of post-laughtrack prestige comedy — has struggled with sitcoms lately. At the moment, the Peacock only has a handful of comedies, and most of them are, well, not very good.

Can Telenovela break the mold? It’s early to say, but judging by its frantically funny first hour, it might be the best comedy the network has right now.

Of course, the fact that it has Eva Longoria in it certainly doesn’t hurt. Remember how fun she is on TV? You probably do now! As the star of Telenovela, Longoria plays the Spanish-challenged Ana Sofia Calderon, star of the Spanish-language soap Las Leyes De Pasion — the kind of absurdly dramatic series where ripped cops regularly tear off their shirts, people smash bottles of wine on each other’s heads, and dangerously mustachioed evil-doers are always nearby and ready to mess things up.

The best parts of Telenovela play up its subject matter’s innate goofiness. If things seem crazy on the fake Les Leyes De Pasion, things are even nuttier off-camera. In that sense, it can bring to mind that other, now-classic NBC sitcom 30 Rock — or at least a less-nerdy version of it, with fewer inside-joke references to Pokémon and Star Wars. Like 30 Rock, Telenovela is a show about a show and the wacky people who inhabit the set. There’s the co-stars Rodrigo (Amaury Nolasco), Isabela (Alex Meneses), and Gael (Jose Moreno Brooks); behind-the-scenes pals like Mimi (Diana-Maria Riva); and even a Diet Jack Donaghy in the form of Zachary Levi (Chuck), who plays the new network president and, perhaps, Sofia’s love interest.

The pilot episode is especially interested in Sofia’s personal life. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think the show was just a breezy romantic comedy starring Eva Longoria as the woman who trips while wearing nice dresses a lot. The main plot point is that Sofia’s ex-husband, Xavier (Jencarlos Canela), has been cast as a main character on her show. This leads to a lot of schemes and pratfalls, some funnier than others.

The second episode is a little stronger, letting Telenovela flex its weirder muscles more. Called (yes) “Evil Twin,” it toys with the idea that the cast themselves are living in their own telenovela thanks to the fact that cruel Isabela has an evil twin. Or is Isabela the evil twin? Maybe they’re both the evil twins! It doesn’t matter, because the writing and Meneses’ performance is hilarious either way. Elsewhere, Rodrigo and Mimi are having a “secret” (or as secret as things get on set) showmance that takes an unexpected twist. Because Longoria’s own character isn’t quite as prominent in the episode, the rest of the ensemble’s zany strengths come to the fore.

Which non-Longoria cast member is the best? My pick would be Meneses, but like the best sitcoms, everyone brings something worthwhile to the table. Telenovela definitely isn’t a Must-See TV classic. But if it sticks to its strengths, the show has enough wit and old-fashioned fun to be NBC’s guiding light.

Telenovela will return in 2016 at its regular day and time: Mondays at 8:30 p.m. 

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