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Austin Chronicle TV Eye

Children's Stories

By Belinda Acosta

AUGUST 14, 2000:  Ah, to be a kid again. It would be great if you could relive the good parts and overlook the crummy ones. On the other hand, I wonder if going back might reveal to me that I wasn't quite the cute and precocious grade-schooler I remember, and that I really was the overwrought teenager prone to melodrama my mother said I was.

Perhaps since I am nearing midlife (already?), it's natural to think about those early versions of myself and wonder how things would be different if this event hadn't happened or that person hadn't entered or left my life. Or maybe it would all be a big "Huh? What was I thinking?" (Actually, that wasn't until my 20s.) Nevertheless, there's something appealing in these reflections of childhood and young adulthood. Two new television series approach the subject well: Nickelodeon's half-hour comedy series The Brothers Garcia and Fox's "nonfiction drama series," American High.

The Brothers Garcia is the first of three groundbreaking series to be launched on Nick. The next two include an animated series titled Dora the Explorer, about a bilingual seven-year-old Latina who lives in cyberspace (premieres August 14) and another live-action series titled Taina, about a 15-year-old Puerto Rican girl who dreams of stardom (set for an October launch). In case it's not evident, the "groundbreaking" element is the preponderance of Latino talent. In Brothers Garcia's case, Latinos are in front of and behind the camera (the show is directed by Gibby and Mike Cevallos). The two remaining series feature young Latinas in leading roles.

Brothers Garcia features three preadolescent brothers growing up in a middle-class Mexican-American family in San Antonio. Larry (Alvin Alvarez), the youngest, is the heart of the show. It is his adult voiceover that offers his perspective on what we see with fondness and wit. The extraordinary stage and film actor John Leguizamo provides the voice of the adult Larry, looking back. The other Garcia brothers are Carlos (Jeffrey Licon) and George (Bobby Gonzalez). Playing Larry's fraternal twin sister Lorena ("born one lousy minute before me") is Vaneza Leza Pitynski, who takes great glee in dishing up the diva antics of the Garcia boys' only sister. Carlos La Camara plays the Garcia clan's schoolteacher father, and Ada Maris plays their mother, who runs her own Casa de Beauty salon from their home.

Comparisons with The Wonder Years (1988-1993) are inevitable. Some of the same whimsy and heart is evident. As one critic described Wonder Years as "Leave It to Beaver with bite," you could say Brothers Garcia is Leave It to Beaver with pico de gallo -- light on the pico. However, comparing Brothers to Wonder is incomplete. Brothers owes as much to the child- and youth-narrated works of Latina literature that have long been a source of pride -- and a target of criticism ("How come you Latinos are always writing in the juvenile voice?"). The work of Sandra Cisneros (House on Mango Street), Nicholasa Mohr (Nilda), Judith Ortiz Cofer (The Latin Deli), and the more contemporary Michele Serros (Chicana Falsa, How to Be a Chicana Role Model) are only a few writers whose work influenced a generation of young readers who would later become writers, producers, and filmmakers. There are influences from visual artists, too. The meal scenes with tables overflowing with food, and tableaus, like that at the end of the season premiere in which Larry dreamily watches his parents sitting in the yard from his bedroom window, are right out of a Carmen Lomas Garza painting. Or maybe it's just that this TV show has managed to portray what has always captured Mexican-American writers and artists to begin with -- the beauty in ordinary things and the riches found in a few, small treasures.

Comparisons aside, The Brothers Garcia is a treat. Its target demographic is children, but I can't help giggling at the kids' hijinks, particularly the season premiere in which the boys try to raise money by staging a wrestling match in their back yard. The blubber-bellied George nonchalantly running around shirtless as the wrestler El Gordo earned him a little piece of my heart.

My only complaint with the show is that it appears to be set in the present -- as does adult Larry's perspective. Costumes and props are entirely modern. Will children notice? I doubt it. Still, as a response to the call for diversity on television, Nickelodeon has offered its two cents and more.

Somehow, the transition from the lighthearted wonder years to the angst of adolescence happens in the blink of an eye. The angst, the high drama, the acne -- all of it is captured in Fox's newest contribution to the reality craze, American High.

Some might find it surprising that Fox launched its own reality series following the Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire debacle. However, Fox should be credited (or demonized) with creating the genre to begin with, if you consider Cops and all those idiotic When Barnyard Animals Attack! specials as precursors. MTV's The Real World and Road Rules may have improved the genre, but Fox nearly perfects it with American High.

Created by Academy Award-nominated producer R.J. Cutler (The War Room, The Perfect Candidate), the series follows a group of high school students during their senior year at a suburban Chicago school. What makes this series stand above the other reality-based series is that the subjects were given cameras to shoot their own video diaries, giving a refreshingly honest, even if not entirely pleasant, flavor to the reality being presented.

In programs like The Real World and Road Rules, subjects are not given the opportunity to define themselves short of figuring out, intuitively or purposefully, how to perform for the camera. Good performances mean more airtime, which could mean endorsement deals in the future. Though it's doubtful the teen subjects of American High had a hand in the final editing, that hundreds of hours of the students' own video footage is cleaved into the final product makes for compelling, sometimes maddening, sometimes poignant television.

Some critics have complained that the 12 students featured in the series are not diverse enough and that only photogenic faces were included. If the series is a success, perhaps Cutler and crew can travel to high schools in the rural midwest or inner-city high schools. Not that those settings guarantee watchable footage, but now that Cutler has introduced viewers to the depth of the genre, anything he approaches would be worth the watch. It's certainly an alternative to CBS's empty-headed Big Brother, which airs at the same time.

The Brothers Garcia airs Sundays, 7:30pm, on Nickelodeon. American High airs Wednesdays, 8pm, on Fox.

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