Cookies, fruitcake, gingerbread: The winter holidays are a time for sugary delights — and their TV equivalents.
It has become de rigeur to complain about how the Christmas season begins earlier every year, but the deluge of Yuletide-theme content tends to precede even the carols blaring on loop over supermarket speakers. Don't worry, I'm not here to embarrass anyone; viewers are entitled to enjoy their Hallmark and Lifetime movies in peace, just as they are their sugarplum sweets.
But the abundance of assembly-line bonbons does make a lovingly crafted confection like "With Love" stand out all the more. The artisan behind the five-part Amazon Prime series is Gloria Calderon Kellett, a co-creator of the much-beloved (and much-mourned) revival of "One Day at a Time." Kellett, who plays a minor character here, offers a rich premise: a multigenerational, LGBT-inclusive, multiethnic Hispanic family gathering together on various holidays over the course of nearly a year, starting with Nochebuena, or Christmas Eve. It's not only a feel-good show that actually feels good, but also a welcome reminder, at the end of another exhausting 12 months, that there are possibilities and celebrations to come in the new year.
Set in Portland, Ore. — Kellett's hometown — "With Love" is a romantic comedy rooted in culturally specific traditions and family dynamics. At its center are 20-something siblings Lily (Emeraude Toubia), a hopeless romantic who's freshly single, and Jorge (Mark Indelicato, "Ugly Betty"), a high-strung relationship-newbie who may have found the perfect man in Henry (Vincent Rodriguez III, "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend").
The series opens in church, where Lily helps Jorge pull off a ruse that lets their grandmother (Renee Victor) believe that her grandson was there too, even if she didn't see him during the service. The Diazes are a clan in which coming out is OK, but skipping Mass is not.
With each episode named after a holiday, "Nochebuena" builds toward the family party, where Lily has to endure nosy questions about her romantic status, despite the open contentment of their 40-something "spinster" aunt (Kellett), and Jorge plans to introduce Henry to his parents and grandparents for the first time.
These are far from original scenarios, but they're presented with such verve, wit and warmth that all those other times you've seen these situations play out fade away. It's all-too-easy to get invested in these characters' plights: the brave face that Lily puts on despite her heartbreak, until holding up the mask becomes too strenuous; Jorge's fears that his father's distance indicates a disapproval of Henry, whose bisexuality becomes a talking point at the party.
Lily and Jorge get their idealism about love and romance not (just) from Julia Roberts movies, but from their admiration of their parents, whose marriage is secretly crumbling behind closed doors. While the siblings' travails stay light as air, there's a groundedness to the parents' predicament. After working alongside his wife, Beatriz (Constance Marie), for years at their Mexican restaurant, Jorge Sr. (Benito Martinez) no longer shows an interest in her. A woman who has spent her life helping other people pursue their dreams at the expense of her own, Beatriz considers looking elsewhere for the affection and validation she craves in a plotline that, like Lily and Jorge's, is made fresh by the performances and cultural details.
Somewhere between those tonal polarities is Lily and Jorge's trans, nonbinary cousin Sol's (Isis King) flirtations with a fellow doctor ("One Day at a Time" alum Todd Grinnell) at their hospital. In an ensemble stuffed with charismatic veteran actors, many of them playing refreshingly against type, King isn't the most naturalistic performer. But Sol's narrative is the most compelling, taking unpredictable turns into the generational differences among gay communities and, in a particularly moving subplot, their wistful relationship with their deceased parents on the Day of the Dead.
One of the hardest things a TV show can pull off is to make a viewer laugh out loud when they're watching something alone. I lost track of how many times I guffawed during the first two episodes, which also made me tear up quite a bit. The ultra-sincere spirit of "One Day at a Time" feels alive and well in "With Love," which isn't quite as polished as that earlier show, but recalls it in its skillful and occasionally surprising swerves between humor and poignancy (as well as in its slight preachiness).
With just two series, Kellett has greatly increased Hispanic representation on television. But her shows aren't about pandering to audiences that have waited too long to see themselves on screen; they are about honoring the past while grappling with how identities expand and adapt — and must do so to remain relevant to new generations.
The latter half of the season doesn't quite measure up to the show's robust kickoff, especially as focus grows on Santiago (Rome Flynn), a Darcy-esque misanthrope whose terminally ill mother is a patient of Sol's, and his father (the always great Andre Royo). A handful of well-cast supporting players — chief among them Julissa Calderon, playing Santiago's straight-talking friend, and Desmond Chiam, practically a grin with abs as Lily's muscular shoulder to cry on — help keep the proceedings nimble and energetic. And while I did feel the lack of a story line involving the grandparents, by the end of the season, there was only one thing I really wanted for Christmas: another year with the Diazes.