Shea Serrano’s ‘Primo’ Could Be TV’s Next Great Working-Class Sitcom
Only a few short weeks ago, I used this space to praise the ABC sitcom The Conners while simultaneously imploring its producers to please, for the love of god, lighten up. Said producers have the chance to do that, since the show was just renewed for a sixth season (though when any of us will see it is, given the WGA strike, an open question). While we wait, another working-class family comedy is here: Prepare to fall in love with Primo.
In San Antonio, Rafa Gonzales (Ignacio Diaz-Silverio) lives with his single mother Drea (Christina Vidal). As the eldest and only child in the family, he’s the titular “primo.” Drea and Rafa are surrounded by a circle of love/chaos in the form of Drea’s five brothers, collectively known as “the uncles” to Rafa and his friends. Jay (Jonathan Medina) is a stable family man who runs his own irrigation company, and is also stubborn to a degree that can put his health and financial stability at risk. Mondo (Efrain Villa) is a sweet dreamer, and can’t always keep track of where he left his shoes or if he was even wearing any when he arrived at Drea’s house. Ryan (Carlos Santos) styles himself a businessman and constantly lords his education over his brothers, even though he just took a computer course and got a participant’s certificate. Dim Rollie (Johnny Rey Diaz) is routinely arrested for low-level antisocial crimes, frequently in what he believes are acts of vigilante justice. And Mike (Henri Esteve) is an ex-soldier whose superior training as a military tactician finds him concealing knives all over his body that only end up injuring himself when he pushes his body by getting up from the breakfast table.
It was the fall of 2017 when The Hollywood Reporter first announced the project, a collaboration between creator Shea Serrano (a culture writer and podcaster at The Ringer, which he has since left) and executive producer Mike Schur (The Good Place). In a since-deleted tweet, Serrano wrote, “Got tired of waiting for there to be more Mexicans on TV so I asked (Schur) to help me try & make a family sitcom for ABC about them.”
ABC is no longer its home — all eight episodes of its first season drop tomorrow (aka May 19th) on Freevee, Amazon’s ad-supported streaming platform — and frankly, it’s ABC’s loss. Right now, ABC’s fall schedule features just one scripted show: reruns of Abbott Elementary, and since it’s currently available to stream in its entirety on Hulu, that presumably means the network expects ratings to remain sufficiently strong to justify not expanding Shark Tank to multiple weekly time slots or something. I don’t know what series of events led Primo to move from ABC to Freevee, but I hope executives at the former appreciate what they let go.
Because Primo could have been a perfect lead-out for Abbott Elementary. Both shows revolve around working-class people. Both prioritize jokes above explaining characters through traumatic backstories. (Both do sometimes indulge in a flashback, but it’s always with characters doing something ridiculous.) In both, no one is doing or ever has done great financially, but it’s less a source of anxiety driving the story than a constant, quiet background thrum. Both matter-of-factly center people of color. And both feature off-the-charts chemistry among their casts.
The last of these is especially key for Primo. At least one member of the Gonzales family is in every scene of the show; often, it’s all seven. If we didn’t believe they were a family, the entire show would fall apart. But, miraculously, these eight little episodes give Rafa a meaty storyline with each of his uncles that not only defines how they relate to each other but effortlessly lets us project all the years of love and support that precede the events of the series. For instance, in the premiere, a teacher tells Rafa that although he’s never thought college could be an option for him, he excelled on a recent standardized test and should start planning to attend. But when Rafa sneaks a look at Drea’s finances, he decides Uncle Jay is right and Rafa needs to start contributing to the household as soon as possible.
Rollie sets him straight: “You don’t think you take care of your mom, do you? I mean, she’s been taking care of all of us since she was, like, 12 years old. You saying you take care of your mom is like saying a flower takes care of the sun.” Rollie goes on to say any of Drea’s brothers would do jail time for her, but nothing could be clearer even before the words are spoken aloud.
Lest you think this sounds like a Full House-alike, Primo is also so, so funny. Just a few examples from randomly scrolling through my notes: There’s Uncle Mike tricking Uncle Jay onto the roof as the payoff to a 10-year revenge plot hatched when Jay did exactly the same thing to Mike. Nor is the food and water tossed up to Jay what they seem. There’s Uncle Ryan, who doesn’t watch Succession or Euphoria or know who Doja Cat is, but still wants to be part of the discourse, so he insists on calling everything “cancel culture” (complete with a flashback montage showing various mistaken uses of the term). There’s the introduction of Game Champ, a family-created test of wits, skill and trivia prowess that leaves New Girl’s True American dead in a ditch; the “Actor Or Disease?” round (e.g., “Cumberbatch” and “Zika”) is when I paused to text the first of the three friends to whom I personally and passionately recommended this show.
And, from the end of the earlier quoted scene between Rollie and Rafa: Rollie smugly says that, actually, it’s not a hypothetical for him — he just did serve time for Drea. “You served jail time ’cause you jumped a dog track, tried to race the greyhounds,” says Rafa. “Those skinny bitches are fast,” responds Rollie.
The aspect of the show that elevates it the most is that all the members of the Gonzales family get the chance to be clowns, or clowned upon. The history of family sitcoms is littered with moms who were played by gifted comic actors that never got to do more than disapprove or forgive their loutish male relatives. But Drea is both a fiercely loving mother and sister and, on occasion, the butt of the joke — as in the second episode, when Rafa casually suggests that she make Mexican food for the family’s annual cookout. Air Force brat Mya (Stakiah Lynn Washington), the girl Rafa likes, has just returned from living in Germany and missed it. Drea is excited to oblige, and when she leaves to do the food shopping, the uncles turn on Rafa: Drea’s Mexican cooking is spectacularly awful, and any time Rafa had it and thought it was good, it’s because they secretly fixed it. Drea taught herself to cook for her brothers using the random ingredients in their somewhat food-unstable home; they never wanted her to know they didn’t appreciate her poor execution given her good intentions, so she’s arrived in adulthood thinking she can make a quesadilla with tuna, horseradish and cinnamon.
Meanwhile, the Game Champ episode shows us that Drea can also be every bit the psychopathic competitor as her brothers. And late in the season, we find out she nurtures private creative ambitions, and takes advantage of her brothers’ self-involvement to make her life a little bigger. For Drea to be a placeholder with no inner life beyond raising Rafa would be the most expected fault for a show like this, and as much space as Drea’s brothers take up, the full dimensionality of her character only underlines how carefully every aspect of the show has been considered.
So many family sitcoms put audiences off by failing to nail their tone. Too acid and you get Two and A Half Men. Too treacly and it’s The Brady Bunch. Shows like Primo, that (unlike Drea) get the recipe right immediately are so rare and so special. Freevee may not be in the top tier of streaming services, but here: Anyone who’s on the internet can watch it, and everyone who’s on the internet should.