Originally created 04/01/04

The magic of Gregory Nava's 'American Family' returns

LOS ANGELES -- At a theater screening of "American Family," creator Gregory Nava got the reaction he wanted - and the one he hopes to draw from TV viewers.

The audience of about 900 weighed in as two characters, a pro-Iraq War father and his anti-war daughter, exchanged angry words about the conflict in which another relative is serving.

"They went crazy. Some people supported Jess and they were applauding him," Nava recalled. "Some people supported Nina and they were applauding her. You could see the division in the country right there in the audience."

When the argument ended in a seemingly irreparable rift between the two, "the theater turned stone silent," Nava said.

That told him he had made his point.

"Because that's really what the show is about. The show's not about the politics of it, it's about the human emotion and how that affects people," he said. "Here are these two people that love each other and they're going to be torn apart by political events."

Using real events as a catalyst for the second season of PBS' "American Family," about a Mexican-American clan in East Los Angeles, made sense to Nava.

In fact, he's confounded by how television and pop culture in general steadfastly ignore the world's cauldron of conflict.

"Here we are in one of the most momentous changes the country's gone through since World War II and all of our lives are being changed forever," he said.

Artists have an obligation to address that, said Nava, who speaks with the same vibrant enthusiasm and openness that infuses his work.

"It's something that people in the country need because that's something that drama's about, right? It's to entertain us, but in doing that to help us get through what's going on. It needs to be a healing experience, doesn't it?"

"Me, personally, I couldn't see it any other way. I have a family, an American family, and this is what American families are going through right now. It was obvious."

Nava gained attention as a writer-director in 1984 with the acclaimed "El Norte," about oppressed Guatemalan teenagers seeking haven in the United States. In his varied career, he has written and directed "Selena" and wrote the screenplay for "Frida."

"American Family," Nava's rare television foray, reaches back in 13 new episodes (debuting 7 p.m. Sunday) to relate the history of the Gonzalez family as well its present-day joys and sorrows.

With a year's gap between the first and second seasons, Nava uses a Los Angeles wedding scene to reintroduce the characters of the saga, which also takes place in Iraq and revolutionary-era Mexico.

Edward James Olmos ("Miami Vice," "Stand and Deliver") stars as family patriarch Jess Gonzalez, along with Constance Marie ("The George Lopez Show") as activist daughter Nina and Yancey Arias ("Kingpin") as eldest son Conrado, an Army doctor.

Esai Morales ("NYPD Blue"), Rachel Ticotin ("Total Recall") and young Parker Torres play other Gonzalez children, with Raquel Welch upping the series' glamour quotient as Aunt Dora.

Sonia Braga is another family member, an ephemeral one: Her character, Jess' wife, died last season. That's part of the Latin American literary tradition of magical realism infusing the drama, and which Nava calls true to the tone of such novels as "One Hundred Years of Solitude" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

"If you take the hard social reality out of it, it just becomes like a fairy tale type of thing," he said of the art form, which can open "the doors to the past" and fuse it with the present.

"We start to question what this country's about. What are we going to do, what's our future going to be?"

Nava tips his hat to another literary lion, Charles Dickens, as an inspiration. Dickens detailed society's shortcomings in novels including "Oliver Twist" and published them in serialized form.

As Nava sees it, "American Family" is a complete tale, a movie offered up in 13 parts. Does that mean the series itself, the first broadcast drama about a Hispanic family, is over after two seasons?

"Obviously, anything can be continued," said Jacoba Atlas, PBS' co-chief programming executive who doesn't preclude a third year if the creative and financial stars align. "This is a very rich family experience and Greg is a very creative person. But there is a conclusion to this storytelling."

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