At what point did Hollywood, and its alignment of expert critics, decide it was an authority on Latino culture? It seemed rather surprising that a Lifetime series, notorious for its scaled down, politically pious views, would actually produce a script that scandalized its viewers. Actually, the correct word would be, non-viewers, as the general uproar began before the pilot episode was available to the general public. Apparently, just a breathless glance at the trailer, a first jump on the pilot or a psychic vision of what was to come guided their infinite wisdom.
Part of it could be catcalling. There were a few Latina writers respected by the prestigious press of such affiliations as the Times and Daily News, who, underneath their critical tirade, was that soft under-tone of, "it should have been me. I would have been a better scriptwriter. I should have been the Eva Longoria or Tanya Saracho getting all the attention."
Part of it, I suspect, was expectations. Somehow, a cast starring five genuine Latinas and with genuine Latina script writers, was to elevate the viewer into a crystal clear realization that the entire Hispanic population was so well-incorporated into the white person's world, there was virtually no difference in culture, background, education, social status and opportunities. Or, at least, fashion the series more documentary style, with five, over-worked, dowdy maids, returning to a brood of hungry children each evening. One is a made for America illusion, the other is better reserved for the Discovery channel.
The Devious Maids are neither ambitious professionals working their way up the ladder in the corporate world, nor are they barely informed immigrants fearful they'll get shipped back over the border. They are sexy, sassy and highly observant. They are visible to their audience and invisible to their employers.
This is, perhaps the most uncomfortable part. The sexy and sassy, sure! With enough leg showing and deep cleavage, the show would take off like a ball of fire, provided the five maids are dumbed down. They're not. They observe the behavior of their employers with that "mama raised me better" look that reminds you sexy doesn't necessarily mean you're eye candy without a brain.
It's a subtle nuance, and perhaps one that can only be defined by culture. Devious Maids is a comedy/drama, based off the Mexican telenovela, "Ellas Son la Alegria del Hogar." The comedic aspects are a blatant poke at a self-absorbed society, more concerned about their furniture than murder, more wrapped up in public appearances than their children.
It is the antithesis to American comedy, which allows its main characters to destroy the property of night clubs and hotels, create havoc in outdoor markets, insult indigenous populations with bizarre imitations of their culture, steal motorboats in a hot chase, all in the name of "good clean fun." Of course, since these main characters belong to the wealthy privileged, the repercussions for their delinquency are little to nothing.
The drama is often clichéd, the dialogue trite, typical of a soap opera. The contention that educated Latinos, or educated Americans in general do not watch soap operas is absurd. Even the rash of cooking shows that has captured American attention with the behind the scenes challenges of selecting the best chefs, is a soap opera. The biggest difference is in the window dressing.
Devious Maids is a murder mystery, with amateur sleuths trying to solve the crime, a throwback to the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew era. While the advertising drips with as much blood as Dexter, the graphics are as low-keyed as a 1950's western. You do not get to see the victim hacked to death in the opening scene, nor is there a trail of other gruesome killings. There is no gloomy, dark humor narration, nor a focus on a main character slowly going mad.
What the pilot for Devious Maids does have is occasional shots of absolute brilliance. When Marisol attempts to console her new employer with counselor styled advice riding on all the things Stappord should be grateful for, Taylor halts the stereotypical dialog with, "I knew you wouldn't understand." Arch villain, Rebecca Wisocky, threatens to steal the show with her cutting edge repertoire, yet she doesn't always get the best lines. Rosie lifts herself up out of her dramatic pathos with three little words, "he said mama."
Juggling so many strong characters into a made for television series usually entails a pilot episode of 90 minutes. Devious Maids manages to squeeze in some rapid background sketches of its protagonists in 45 minutes, and still leave you wondering what will happen next.
And what happens next … well that's just more delicious deviousness that I will let you watch for yourselves. I highly recommend it.
Its ensemble of devious hot Latinas is no stranger to Hollywood productions. Ana Ortiz, playing Marisol, was award winning best supporting actress, vivacious sister to Ugly Betty. Dania Ramirez, as Rosie, an estranged mother whose primary goal is bringing her child over the border, has already wowed audiences in a number of thrillers and the more acceptable "soap opera" The Sopranos. Roselyn Sanchez, playing Carmen, a wily little opportunist who pursues a singing career by taking a job as maid for a (Latino) rock star, made her debut as a knockout secret service agent in Rush Hour II. Edy Gamen, as Valentina, a willful teenager employed in maid service along with her mother, has broken ground in several independent films. The mother, Zoila, played by Judy Reyes, is a very familiar face. It should be. She is none other than the sassy Carla Espinosa on Scrubs.
That these five, extremely talented Latina actresses should come together for the making of the series is far more remarkable than the vying for who gets the most attention in the very forgettable movie, The Expendables. They are beautifully balanced, each one playing her role tightly, with no attempt to grand stage the others.
Even more remarkable is that the script writing, despite its often contrived dialogue, presents an entirely Hispanic viewpoint; one that opens up into flashes of social class insight; making statements on how the invisible working class see the all to visible dynamics of the privileged. The series is uncomfortable because it is a telenovela set in English, faithfully following the guidelines of Mexican soaps while poking fun at a film making industry that has become far too serious about its inflated self-importance.
Much of its faithfulness is due to newcomer to the Hollywood scene of script writing, Tanya Saracho. The charming and very modest playwright hails from the Mexican/Texan border, and had already written several successful plays in Chicago before she was contracted as a member of the script writing team for Devious Maids.
She states Marc Cherry took a chance with her by hiring her to work for television, yet she had already received critical acclaim, with plays like Kita y Fernanda and El Nogalar thumping at the Goodman Theater heart-strings and earning her a reputation as the "Chicana Chekhov." She states that writing Latina characters is her artistic DNA, which comes to light with the development of five sometimes manipulative, sometimes impetuous, sometimes painfully honest maids.
The honesty comes from a clear outlook of the differences between a predominantly white society's belief in what it means to be Hispanic, and the actual perceptions of the demographic culture. Saracho tends to hold up a mirror that reflects the fallacies of an America that is still spell bound by its egoistical opinion that its mission is to enlighten and redeem the world. She dissolves the assumed virtues, replacing them with the virtues of minorities.
She believes Devious Maids is a pioneer break-through in television as it tells the stories of an under represented culture, their histories and their lives. She believes the casting of "so many brown bodies" is a political statement in itself.
Like Saracho, I believe it's important to diversify the role of television by constructing our own stories. Devious Maids was a start, but we should not settle for just this. When I wrote Justice Woman, it wasn't my intention to hit people alongside the head with the character's ethnicity, but to present a super-heroine who just happens to be Latina, rising up and fighting corrupt tyrants, something we can all relate to.
I'm excited by the progress of Justice Woman, which has over 1 million views and was rated among the eight "must watch" Latino web series (and for which I won an "Outstanding Lead Actress" award at the 2013 LA Web Festival), with a heroine who is relatable to all women, independent of whether they're Latina or not. I believe this is very important as it illustrates how we all have the same needs and same desires for equitable treatment.
Saracho's encouraging words should be an inspiration to all writers. Don't let anyone tell you your stories are not important. Whether they are about unsolved mysteries, crime fighters or housekeepers, the true validation lies in the writing of them. They add the much needed diversity to the screen. They are the ever-changing kaleidoscopes of viewpoints. They are the statements of our differences as well the fundamental sameness of our human emotions.
Whether or not America is ready for it, the Latino voice is moving into the Hollywood industry. It's not necessary for that voice to become the next Shakespeare. It doesn't have to prove it can make a better show than Dexter, or retain a longer-term fan base than Gene Roddenberry. It only has to be true to itself, present imagination and creativity of the artist who just happens to be of Latin American descent. As a Latin American community, we should support them; applaud them, for they are pioneers in the entertainment industry, and the promise of greater things to come.