Code Switch
7:03 am
Thu July 11, 2013

'East Los High': Not Just Another Teen Soap

Originally published on Thu July 11, 2013 10:42 am

Despite the fact that it's been generating a lot of buzz, Devious Maids is just not that interesting. Five Latina maids — is it a landmark for Latina actresses or another example of how the media stereotype Latinos? Either way, the relationship between hypersexualized domestic workers and their pretentious employers does not make for compelling television.

I was surprised to find that East Los High, a show that is garnering just a fraction of the attention, is actually much better.

The show — the first English-language series with an all-Latino cast, exclusively broadcast on Hulu — is set in a gritty East Los Angeles neighborhood where calling another woman naca (ghetto) is the ultimate insult. It features a fictional group of L.A. teenagers fighting for status and trying not to get burned.

Its creators, Carlos Portugal and Kathleen Bedoya, wanted to create a realistic depiction of teen pregnancy among Latinas. But despite its after-school-special roots, East Lost High feels surprisingly real.

With the exception of a few unnatural sex-ed dialogues between the teens and the adults who otherwise fail to supervise them, the series is compelling. It isn't like anything else that's on TV right now.

It feels more like the story you play in your head when your madrina tells you what she overheard at the nail salon — it is like eavesdropping on a richly imagined, but highly plausible life.

The show has all of the tropes of an addictive telenovela: love montages set to poppy music, evil plots straight out of Les Liasons Dangereuses, dying wishes, zingy one-liners and even a bad guy with a mustache scowling in the corner.

It also mashes up that telenovela feel with the aesthetics of the CW teen universe — cheating, drugs, hazing and sex tapes captured on mobile phones. Like Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars, the characters' interaction with the digital world engages fans off-screen.

But despite its soapy style, the series stays grounded in reality. It's part Latino Degrassi, yes, but it's also part social commentary — in this world, mistakes have serious consequences.

The show follows Jessie, a geeky teenager living in a single-parent household, as she tries out for the school's bad-girl dance team. Suddenly her crush and her dreams of popularity seem within reach, but to get there she'll have to break away from her critical best friend and troubled cousin.

Through it all, she'll have to undergo constant torment at the hands of Vanessa — a villain who could make Brenda Walsh cry. Example — when her former best friend gets pregnant, Vanessa snarks, "I hope you have twins [#ThingsYouDontSayToAPregnantTeen]."

For the girls of East Los High, the stakes are particularly high. Social status is directly tied to the desirability of the guy you are dating, so being sexually active has serious social capital.

But if you get pregnant, it's game over. You'll become just like your mama sufrida — a high school dropout working multiple cleaning jobs just to pay the bills.

Like a telenovela, each episode reveals more layers. The characters are complex and their development veers in unpredictable directions.

Portugal says he had three rules for the writers of East Los High: no gardeners, no gang members and no maids.

"My hope is that people from East L.A. get to see themselves in the show portrayed as diverse human beings and not the typical Latino stereotypes we see in TV and films," says Portugal.

Right now, East Los High is the sixth-most-watched show on Hulu. The streaming service has had content from Spanish-language TV networks on its Hulu Latino page since 2011. Now it is looking to attract even more Latinos with English-language content.

It's a refreshing depiction: In the universe of East Los High, Latinos are vixens and dropouts, but they're also dancers, doctors, counselors and citizen journalists.

So the next time someone cites Devious Maids as the Latino show of the moment, give East Los High a shoutout. I'll certainly be watching.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.