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‘Telenovela’ Review: Eva Longoria Makes a Triumphant Return to TV

”Desperate Housewives“ star shines in sharp NBC comedy

NBC’s “Telenovela” really, really wants to be the 21st-century “Soapdish.” That iconic 1991 comedy about the behind-the-scenes trials and tribulations of a soap opera–which gave us the immortal image of Sally Fields’ despondent soap diva going to a Paramus, N.J. mall in “disguise” to be recognized by fans–reveled in both the genre’s absurdities (one character is resurrected years later despite having been decapitated) and the artistic temperaments necessary to sell such over-the-top shenanigans. “Telenovela” wears its debt with pride, but is also entirely its own series.

That it steps out of the shadow of “Soapdish” fairly quickly is due almost entirely to leading lady and producer Eva Longoria. The actress has already proven that she’s willing to toss out her vanity to get a laugh (both on “Desperate Housewives” and also in the guest spots she’s had since, particularly as a less talented, more oblivious version of herself in Lake Bell‘s “In a World”), but here she ups her game considerably as Ana Sofia, the star of a Spanish-language soap who doesn’t speak a word of Spanish and is abruptly confronted by both a new, Caucasian boss (Zachary Levi) and the return of her ex-husband Xavier (Jencarlos Canela) to both the show and her life.

The first episode, which carefully upends Ana Sofia’s smugly cossetted existence with the arrival of the two new men, feels as if everyone involved received a bonus for every additional one-liner and gag. That’s fairly typical for a sitcom pilot, but the beauty of “Telenovela” is that all the throwaways work, from a cat burglar beret to watching a dress disintegrate on Longoria as she struggles to project an air of star power and confidence to the new network head while requesting that her ex be discarded once more.

From the start, the series strikes the right balance between workplace comedy and soap-opera spoof, which involves a lot of wind machines and widened eyes and rolling heads. The second episode falters slightly (the first four have been made available to critics) as it struggles to establish the supporting characters as entities in their own rights, and not as satellites orbiting Ana Sofia, before bouncing back confidently. But the MVP of the series must be Alex Meneses as the older star Isabela, who gleefully takes out her fury about the ageist patriarchy of show business on her co-stars. She’s a worthy adversary for Ana Sofia, but Ana Sofia remains Ana Sofia’s own worst enemy.

The rest of the cast–mostly Latinos, it’s sadly worth mentioning in 2015–is strong as well. As Ana Sofia’s confidantes, hairdresser Mimi and gay telenovela star Gael, Diana Maria Riva and Jose Moreno Brooks get the lions’ share of muttered quips and asides, while it’s refreshing to see stress-eating treated as a joke for a ripped man instead of a woman when Gael realizes that he won’t be the hottest cast member with the arrival of Xavier.

Still, this is Longoria’s show all the way and she’s never been better. Her physical comedy is on point; her timing is impeccable; and even when Ana Sofia is supposed to look bedraggled, Longoria remains radiant. Whether a sitcom spoofing soap opera is still relevant in 2015 remains to be seen–but this one is certainly a worthy addition to your weekly viewing.

“Telenovela” debuts with a sneak peek Monday, Dec. 7 at 10 p.m. on NBC. The season will begin airing Monday at 8:30 p.m. on Jan. 4