Review: Welcome Back, Sitcom High School
Jabs at injustice and inequality are the show’s backbeat, and they’re not distinguished by their subtlety. When the boorish coach played by Christopher McDonald says that nothing brings a community together like “the common purpose of football,” Gabe responds, “The common purpose of hating people that are different than you works pretty well, too.”
So it’s counterintuitive when the writers resort to retrograde stereotypes to fill out the production around Gabe. The principal, Paula, while given some high-comic style by Sherri Shepherd, is a sharp-tongued, sex-obsessed cartoon. The coach is a Neanderthal caricature who can’t be made funny despite McDonald’s strenuous efforts. Gabe’s tightly wound antagonist, Carlos (played by Oscar Nuñez with his usual grace), is of unspecified sexuality but worships Gilbert and Sullivan and has a bichon frise named Captain Tennille.
Of course there’s a structural reason for making Gabe’s colleagues, who also include his slacker buddy, Tony (Jacob Vargas), and Abby, a statuesque, risibly naïve young white woman from South Dakota (Maggie Geha), so one-dimensional. Not only is Iglesias the star, but the story lines depend, time and again, on Gabe’s being the only teacher who truly believes in the students. (There’s one other instructor who’s given some dignity, the veteran Ray, played by Richard Gant, who years ago set the young Gabe on the right path. But he’s old, so he doesn’t count.)
Iglesias isn’t really an actor, but he’s had a lot of practice playing himself onstage, and he embodies Gabe’s sincerity and modesty in such a natural, unaffected way that he is almost egregiously likable. Vargas is also engaging as Tony, a gambling addict whose crush on Abby is a lawsuit waiting to happen, while Guido and Tucker Albrizzi stand out among the actors playing the students. (Cree Cicchino is fine as the crusading Marisol, but she’s mainly there to deliver righteous diatribes.)
“Mr. Iglesias” doesn’t consistently find ways to capitalize on the good will its performers build up, though. There’s an arc through the season in which Gabe readies his students to enter an annual academic decathlon (cue the rousing finale), but episode by episode the situations are evergreen: Will Gabe flunk the football star before the big game? Who will be most embarrassed at the talent show?