We didn't know it then, but the last time we saw Eva Longoria on TV, as Desperate Housewives' Gabrielle Solis, we were just catching glimpses of her gifts. That'll change Monday, as NBC airs two preview episodes of Telenovela, which is not only the actress' return to prime time but the first time we see her dive fearlessly into full-on funny.
"I don't have enough words to say about her comedic timing," co-creator and executive producer Jessica Goldstein tells TVGuide.com. "We could say, 'In this episode, you're going to fall down a well,' and she's like, 'I'm doing it!'"
One scene from the pilot, in fact, finds Longoria, who plays the sassy, self-absorbed telenovela star Ana Maria, hanging upside down while trying to attack her ex-husband Xavier (Jencarlos Canela) who's been hired as her love interest on her show. "When you're upside down, blood is rushing to your head, which can make reciting lines difficult," co-creator and executive producer Chrissy Pietrosh says. "She's like, 'I'm doing those lines!' We never had to hold back. She does things strong grown men won't do."
That's true of both Longoria the actress and Longoria the businesswoman. She's an executive producer on Telenovela, and in doing so, helps create a space that brings more Hispanic and (female) voices to the forefront. Telenovela, which boasts three other Hispanic writers, was more than a year in the making, and not without its challenges, including a name change (it was previously titled Hot and Bothered) and having its episode order cut from 13 to 11. That said, both Goldstein and Pietrosh say Longoria became an invaluable resource as they worked on scripts. "We trusted Eva implicitly and she trusted us," Pietrosh says.
It's too fitting that there was some behind-the-scenes drama in getting Telenovela ready - the show itself a campy look at the behind-the-scenes antics on a fictionalized show, Las Leyes de Pasion, which parodies the Spanish soap genre.
Already frazzled by learning that her ex-husband, who she's certain cheated on her with Shakira, will play her new love interest, Ana Maria is constantly looking for ways to rattle her rival Isabella (Alex Meneses), who was the show's lead until the younger, hotter Ana Maria seized her spot. Ana Maria is also working to make sure her secret - that she doesn't speak Spanish - stays under wraps, while navigating through all kinds of other mini crises, including her mess of a love life. There's definitely a lot going on, particularly with the inclusion of her BFFs - her gay buddy Gael (Jose Moreno Brooks) and costume designer Mimi (Diana Maria Riva) - but the writers say they enjoyed the challenges of making all the layers work. "It was never challenging, but a puzzle to put together the way we had it in our head," Goldstein says. "Every day, we would start each morning with 20-minute hug."
Although Goldstein and Pietrosh were certainly not inexperienced - they co-executive-produced the Courteney Cox sitcom Cougar Town - they did have to do due diligence to make sure they could accurately bring the telenovela world to life. They mined YouTube, dug into Longoria's past on The Young and the Restless for material and toured Telemundo's studios in Miami, where they watched scenes and the editing of telenovelas including Duenos del Paraiso.
"We learned that the people behind the scenes work so hard and produce so much more content than we do, and the quality is so great," Pietrosh says. Telenovela teams work so hard, in fact, Pietrosh says they had to loosen up the material they gained from the very serious staff. "We are very lucky that our actors are open and friendly, so we just sat back and watched and kept our ears open."
That helped inform the cultural insights that come through on Telenovela, including the idea of a Latina who can't speak Spanish. (That actually came from Longoria's own experience; the actress, born and raised in Texas, has been open about not speaking Spanish growing up.) "At one of our first screenings, a [Hispanic] woman came up to us saying she doesn't speak Spanish, and it's not something you see very often on TV," Pietrosh says. "It's just right for the show."
Of course, Telenovela has a broad appeal, with its main themes of jealous co-workers, failed romances and sibling rivalries familiar to just about everyone. Some will no doubt compare Telenovela to other famous send-ups of the genre, such as Ugly Betty and Jane the Virgin, which will feel more densely layered and nuanced than this. It's best to let those comparisons go though and enjoy Telenovela on its own merits. Right from the outset, when the hurricane-level wind machine nearly blows the assembled actors away, it's clear Telenovela's tone, pacing and style have more in common with screwball workplace sitcoms than the aforementioned comedy-dramas.
No, the goofy one-liners and slapstick moments, like watching Ana Maria trying to save face while having a wardrobe malfunction, don't make the show rise to the level of epic, landmark TV, but they do make it fun and enjoyable. Telenovela gets stronger as it progresses too, the banter more rich and the scenarios more elaborately funny, culminating with a big, life-or-death cliff-hanger by the end of the season.
"We're hoping everyone loves it," and not just one segment of viewers, Pietrosh says. "Our biggest goal was to deliver a great comedy."
Mission accomplished? Let us know what you think after the show!
Telenovela has a special preview Monday with two episodes beginning at 10/9c on NBC before officially premiering Monday, Jan. 4 at 8:30/9:30c on NBC.