With his new series, Mr. Iglesias, arriving three months after One Day at a Time was canceled, comedian Gabriel Iglesias was seen as picking up the cause of Hispanic representation on Netflix. That's a lot of pressure for someone who's really just trying to re-make Welcome Back, Kotter. According to TVGuide.com though, One Day at a Time has been picked up by Pop TV and a 13-episode fourth season is set to air in 2020.
Like Gabriel Kaplan's Gabe Kotter, Iglesias' Gabe Iglesias is a dedicated public-school teacher assigned to a class of comic underachievers. The Brooklyn, N.Y., high school in Kotter was based on Kaplan's alma mater, New Utrecht High; the Long Beach, Calif., school in Mr. Iglesias is based on Iglesias' alma mater, Woodrow Wilson. The students are diverse (Italian and Jewish having counted as such for Kotter in the late 1970s). Both Gabes are dogged by a humorless administrator who targets their students. Iglesias even has his own Horshack, an excitable boy named Mikey Gutierrez (Fabrizio Guido), who at one point throws in an "Ooh, ooh" when asking a question.
And despite the radical changes you would expect after 40 years — in language, sexual frankness and political and cultural demonstrativeness — Mr. Iglesias, whose 10 episodes are now streaming on Netflix, is every bit the conventional multicamera sitcom that Kotter was. Take away the dating-app jokes, and the humor is, if anything, blander and more predictable, the jokes more obvious, the reaction shots more ubiquitous. The show glides along on the self-effacing charm of its star (who uses his stand-up moniker, Gabriel "Fluffy" Iglesias, in the credits), but it doesn't seem to be in a hurry to get anywhere.
Series like this operate off a set of assumptions, held in place to minimize or eliminate the possibility of surprising the audience. In Mr. Iglesias, the orthodoxy is up to date, as demonstrated by the summary of American history delivered by a showboating teacher's pet: "Wiped out the indigenous people, oppressed the blacks, did some good stuff around World War II and now the sun is setting on our empire."
So it's counterintuitive when the writers resort to retrograde stereotypes to fill out the production around Gabe. The principal, Paula, while given some high-comic style by Sherri Shepherd, is a sharp-tongued, sex-obsessed cartoon. The coach is a Neanderthal caricature who can't be made funny despite Christopher McDonald's strenuous efforts. Gabe's tightly wound antagonist, Carlos (played by The Office's Oscar Nunez with his usual grace), is of unspecified sexuality but worships Gilbert and Sullivan and has a bichon frise named Captain Tennille.
Of course there's a structural reason for making Gabe's colleagues, who also include his slacker buddy, Tony (Jacob Vargas), and Abby, a statuesque, naive young white woman from South Dakota (Maggie Geha), so one-dimensional. Not only is Iglesias the star, but the storylines depend, time and again, on Gabe's being the only teacher who truly believes in the students. (There's one other instructor who's given some dignity, the veteran Ray, played by Richard Gant, who years ago set the young Gabe on the right path. But he's old, so he doesn't count.)
Iglesias isn't really an actor, but he has had a lot of practice playing himself onstage, and he embodies Gabe's sincerity and modesty in such a natural, unaffected way that he is almost egregiously likable. Vargas is also engaging as Tony, a gambling addict whose crush on Abby is a lawsuit waiting to happen, while Guido and Tucker Albrizzi stand out among the actors playing the students. (Cree Cicchino is fine as the crusading Marisol, but she's mainly there to deliver righteous diatribes.)
Mr. Iglesias doesn't consistently find ways to capitalize on the goodwill its performers build up, though. There's an arc through the season in which Gabe readies his students to enter an annual academic decathlon (cue the rousing finale), but episode by episode the situations are evergreen: Will Gabe flunk the football star before the big game? Who will be most embarrassed at the talent show?
It also has a tendency to weasel out of the conflicts it sets up. The football player turns out to be covertly smart and just needs a little push. When Marisol protests the official use of "Latino," arguing for "Latinx," it's interesting that Gabe replies, "You can't just make up a word and force people to use it." You want to see where that argument goes, but it just fades away, the way Mr. Iglesias is likely to fade from your memory.
Weekend on 07/04/2019
Print Headline: Mr. Iglesias boring retread of Welcome Back, Kotter