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The Great Selena: The Series Debate: Is It Good or Is It Bad?

Selena: The Series finally hit Netflix on Dec. 4, prompting fans to tune in for another retelling of her story. But did part one fail to live up to the hype? Two E! writers sound off.

By Alyssa Morin, Jonathan Borge Dec 11, 2020 10:43 PMTags
Selena DebateAlex Alonzo/E! Illustration

After months of anticipation, Selena: The Series arrived on Netflix Dec. 4, delivering an updated portrayal of the life and legacy of Selena Quintanilla, the late Tejano singer who was tragically murdered in 1995 at just 23 years old. 

Divided into two parts, the first nine episodes of the series—which finds Christian Serratos taking on the titular role—have been touted as a feel-good coming-of-age story that explores Selena's rise to fame in the '80s.

Like the iconic 1997 movie in which Jennifer Lopez played the star, the Netflix series also turned to the Quintanilla family for an accurate portrayal. Selena's sister, Suzette, served as an executive producer and her father, Abraham, also produced, lending their inside knowledge to the project. In addition to Serratos, the cast includes Gabriel Chavarria (A.B., Selena's brother), Noemi Gonzalez (Suzette), Ricardo Chavira (Abraham), Seidy Lopez (Marcella, her mom) and Madison Taylor Baez (young Selena). 

But fans are asking themselves: Did the show adequately live up to Selena's name? We here at E! News are undecided. So, to solve this, two writers offer completely different answers on the ultimate question: Is Selena: The Series good or bad?

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Selena: The Series: The Cast vs. The Real-Life People

It’s Bad—Alyssa Morin

It pains me to admit that Selena: The Series left me feeling disappointed, uninspired and, if I’m being honest, pissed off. Listen, I’m a Selena Quintanilla stan. Like the late Tejano star, I am a third-generation Mexican-American born and raised in a small border town in Texas. Selena’s music not only played in my grandma’s kitchen as she prepared Tex-Mex dishes, but also at quinceañeras, weddings, school dances—you name it.

Needless to say, I was counting down the days for this show to hit Netflix. Selena: The Series had me written all over it. Instead, I found myself screaming at my TV, "What the hell is this?! Are you kidding me?! WHY DID THEY DO THIS?!" And while I do acknowledge that some of my reactions were dramatic and over-the-top, my overall opinion of the show remains the same: I was let down.

Víctor Ceballos/Netflix

The first three minutes started off with inaccuracies, which left a bad first impression. We see Selena step onstage at what appears to be one of her sold-out shows. She's wearing that famous all-white outfit she donned at the 1994 Houston Astrodome concert. The crowd is cheering as she begins to dedicate her "Como La Flor" performance to her fans. Seeing that, I initially became giddy because this felt like a celebration of the star.

However, as soon as the dedication began, I remembered this was the exact speech Selena gave a year later at her record-breaking Houston Astrodome concert in 1995. And as true fans know, she donned her iconic burgundy jumpsuit at the time.

What's more? It was like watching the 1997 biopic all over again—you know, when J.Lo is in the all-white ensemble and sings "Como La Flor" to calm down the massive crowd. So as I was watching it all play out, I thought, "Why wouldn't that scene take place at the Houston Astrodome in 1995? Why didn't they put Christian in the right costume? Why wouldn't they have featured a different speech if they were going to use a completely different setting?" In a scene that was supposed to be touching and emotional, it left me feeling anything but.

That was just the beginning of my disdain. Like the 1997 film, it feeds us the same story, except this feels more bland and basic. We even get the same quotes (over and over, I might add) about Madonna and Paula Abdul’s influence on Selena’s fashion in the late '80s.

And we once again get that famous bus scene. Viewers see her future husband Chris Pérez (Jesse Posey) thrown out like a bag of old garbage after Selena’s father discovers they are in love. However, we never actually see what happens in the bus leading up to that shocking moment. (At least the movie gave us that.) I would’ve loved to witness that scene from either Selena or Chris' perspective. Hell, I would’ve even understood if we saw it through A.B.’s point of view since he was close to Chris and brought him into the band. Instead, we are watching that entire situation play out through the eyes of Selena’s father... once again.

Watch: Remembering Selena Quintanilla-Perez: E! News Rewind

The most upsetting thing is that Selena’s life is full of stories to explore. Yes, thankfully, we do see a few new areas uncovered in the show—like A.B.'s songwriting skills, the family's financial struggles, the band's record deal—but again, it’s all done in a way that lacks substance and heart.

Prime example: Selena’s identity as a third-generation Mexican-American is brought up casually throughout. We see her watching telenovelas to practice her Spanish, however, the moment lacks meaning. After all, she’s a Spanish singer who can’t speak fluent Spanish. This was a perfect opportunity to dive into her identity and duality as both Mexican and American. It's an area the Latinx community can deeply relate to, something I personally have struggled with.

Rather, we’re given one cheesy line from Selena about her heritage. "We’re Mexican," she tells her family over dinner, as they celebrate a milestone of her second Spanish album. "I’m just really grateful to know that part of me now." Again, this is her second Spanish album we're discussing here.

Another compelling yet frustrating examination is everyone’s love lives. There's Abraham and his wife's romance, Suzette and her new relationship with Bill Arriaga (Christian Escobar) and even a look at A.B and Evangelina's family life. Everyone's personal lives are treated as worthy—except for Selena. Her love for Chris is depicted as sinful. 

Selena is gaslit by her father, sister and brother into thinking their romance would destroy everything she and the band have worked hard for. She is told time and again that her love for Chris is the ultimate betrayal. And although machismo is deeply rooted in Latinx culture—which would better explain where her father is coming from—Abraham doesn't bat an eye when Suzette has feelings for Bill. In fact, when Bill asks for permission to go out with her, Abraham gladly accepts on her behalf. Not once does Abraham tell Suzette she needs to focus on the music nor does he tell her this romance could ruin everything their family has sacrificed.

Netflix

While I appreciated seeing extra narratives about the Quintanilla family and their unique dynamics, the show ultimately misses the mark. Yes, we get a fresh take on Selena’s teenage years but it's nothing more than her telling a friend she can't hang out with her. Yes, we see her style evolution, but it's wrapped up in a perfect bow. Viewers don't get an understanding of how passionate and important fashion was to her.

The same can be said about her beauty transformations. We see her go through many hairstyle changes, including her dramatic pixie cut, which she initially gets emotional over. But she goes right back to her normal self once her dad tells her she looks good. Phew!

All this is to say that the show fails to tell a real story about its main star. What’s missing is Selena’s outlook, an obvious assumption given the show bears her name. The reality is, she is not the heart and soul of each episode. She's a side character, one that's not even fully developed. Because the sad truth is that we don't understand how she felt or what she went through. This show is about how her family viewed her life and how she reacted to them. It’s about how her family wanted something done and how she obliged.

I won't even get into the god-awful wigs, baggy costuming and Christian's wooden portrayal of Selena. Instead, I will leave you on this one note: I may seem harsh with my judgments but the story of Selena is one that is so sacred and special to the Latinx community. So, when a show comes out about her life, I don't want something that is half-assed. I want a story that shows the beauty and richness of her life, a story that celebrates our culture while also highlighting our struggles and complexities. Selena: The Series gave us everything but.

read
How Selena Quintanilla's Signature Beauty Style Has Stood the Test of Time

It's Good—Jonathan Borge

Just mentioning Selena Quintanilla's name draws up so many emotions—and I know I'm not alone. Hours before the new series premiered on Friday, Dec. 4, Netflix tapped Ally Brooke to host a virtual fan celebration on YouTube and other social platforms. There were exclusive sneak peeks at the show, some karaoke, plus interviews with Christian.

As "Como La Flor" started, dozens of lit up, wide-eyed brown faces—most of whom appeared to be teens or in their early 20s—flashed across my screen. From the comfort of my couch, I joined them and shimmied my shoulders while singing the first few words, "Yo se que tienes un nuevo amor, pero sin embargo mereces lo mejor." Cheesy as it sounds, the moment felt particularly powerful to me, a reminder that 25 years after her tragic murder, Selena's legacy remains untarnished and deeply personal for millions. 

Fans participating in the celebration donned their sparkly burgundy jumpsuits, bold red lips and studded biker hats while elegantly twisting their wrists in Selena's signature, flamenco-inspired fashion. I couldn't help but choke up thinking that, just like I did as a Latinx kid in the ‘90s, the series will introduce the musician's artistry to new generations just now discovering her magic. So much of Netflix's programming, after all, caters to young adults.

Netflix

Selena: The Series is not perfect. As Alyssa wisely pointed out above, it largely focuses on her story from the perspective of her father while moving at a snail's pace before getting to what's considered the good stuff. Yes, she really did wear burgundy, not white, during that unforgettable Houston Astrodome speech. And yes, I wish we'd given Christian considerable more time on screen. Fans have noted that Selena as we know her—the voluptuous woman who fearlessly swung her hips from side to side and commanded any stage she took—is barely seen, and they have a point. 

But here's the thing, in my eyes, Netflix had two primary goals with season one. First, to distinguish the show from the 1997 film that thrust J.Lo—and Selena's iconography—into the mainstream. And second, to turn the dial back and tell the story of her childhood, of the struggles pain and fear associated with her (very slow) rise to fame and entry into American pop culture. As Christian and the real-life Quintanillas have recently told press, the two-part series is presented as a coming-of-age story, which paints a complete picture of what it's like to be Mexican-American in a world, at least in the ‘80s, predominantly run by white men.

It may sound hyperbolic, but I truthfully cannot think of one TV show—not one—that made me feel seen as a Latinx child as this one. I grew up in a Spanish-speaking household in Miami and to bond, my Nicaraguan parents and I watched dramatic soap operas on Univision or Telemundo, not sitcoms that so many of my white American peers could talk to their families about. Think: Friends or even The Brady Bunch. Who didn't watch The Brady Bunch? That's not to discredit projects such as George Lopez, but shows that did depict Latinxs just didn't have the same oomph. 

Watch: Christian Serratos Says Playing Selena Quintanilla Is a Dream

And so, for me, watching Selena: The Series was unexpectedly cathartic no matter how badly I wanted the show to exclusively focus on Selena's spine-tinglingly-good performances. Scene after scene, I discovered so many parallels between her family and my own. Like Selena's father, mine is a tough-as-balls figure with big nostrils, a bit of a gut and hard-to-read facial expressions. Like the rest of her family, mine planted their roots in a working class community where making ends meet was tough and assimilating into American culture was a daily challenge. And like Selena herself, I have two siblings who also share the experience of exploring what our Latinx identity means as we navigate the complexities of being smack dab in the middle of two cultures. 

Not to give anything away, but I shed a few tears during a scene in which young Selena and her family spent the night sleeping in the same room, her parents tucked together in bed as Selena and her sister giggled on a mattress just steps away. Some of my earliest childhood memories are of the teeny-tiny apartment my family of five (plus other relatives we lived with) shared. We were cramped. It was hot. And we didn't have much. Did I ever see that dynamic portrayed on television? No, and definitely not with an all-Latinx cast. Family sitcoms focused on upper middle class groups of people with luxuries such as lawns, dogs and a place to gather by the fire.

Netflix

I get it though, someone's personal experience and emotional reaction to a TV show isn't exactly a reason to call it good. The entertainment industry is designed to applaud captivating acting, smart writing, exceptional directing and a story well told. Yet aren't so many of our viewing habits dominated by what we're interested in, by what we relate to and by what makes us feel understood? There's reason to poke at the failures of Selena: The Series, but make no mistake that for millions of little brown kids across the globe, the family dynamic at the center of season one—of hardworking Mexican-Americans with a dream—will, at the very least, have the potential to inspire. Had this show been available to me as a kid, perhaps I would have spent less time trying to be less Latino and more time just being myself. 

Speaking with E! News in November, Christian teased the fact that because Netflix produced a TV show, not a movie, the final product is not quite what fans would expect. "There's been an incredible portrayal of Selena but we're given so much more time being that we're a show," she said. "Having the family involved has just been so amazing because it gives us this incredible insight into her life before she was the star that we know her to be now."  

read
Selena Quintanilla's Enduring Legacy: How the Late Superstar's Influence Ended up Everywhere

For Christian, digging into research about Selena in the ‘80s—not the ‘90s—helped her realize that the star's music catalogue extends far beyond hits like "Bidi Bidi Bom Bom" and that yes, she really did have an orange-brown-hued perm as a teen. We'll have to wait until season two to see Selena in her power, tackling fame and fighting for love with a different hairdo and more recognizable clothing.

But for now, the tale of a girl aspiring for more will have so many viewers (especially young ones) feeling represented, in my opinion. "I see myself in Selena," Christian said. "It wasn't always easy, but she did it with such strength and such grace. She found a place for her where there wasn't always a place. And I think that's very relatable for our community and people of color. I'm really happy to be telling this story again."

Selena: The Series is now streaming on Netflix.

This story was originally published on Monday, Dec. 7, 2020 at 10:45 a.m. PT.

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