On Chances Lost: The World Outside Ed’s Garage

Curator's Note

You may recognize the opening credits of CHICO AND THE MAN, still one of only a handful of U.S. television shows to include a Mexican American lead. The series, which ran from 1974 through 1978, was set in East Los Angeles and was clearly influenced by the networks’ success with other “socially relevant” programming. The ways in which it in fact broke with any attempt at verisimilitude are striking, however, and arguably demarcate the limits on how Latinidad and Mexican American experience in particular could be represented on prime time. While viewer complaints often focused on the casting of Puerto Rican and German-Hungarian Freddie Prinze as Mexican American lead Francisco "Chico" Rodriguez, other elements of the show that contributed to a lack of what might be described as Mexican American sensibility included a narrative premise that kept Chico an underdeveloped character and a lack of integration with its East LA setting. The credit sequence, on the other hand, is distinct from the series in that it highlights the diversity of individuals that might be found in a Mexican American community and the many universal stories that could be told about them as both ordinary and unique. It even changed slightly from week to week, illustrating that we may never know as much about a community as we think. What if the show’s producers had allowed Chico and Ed to interact in this world? Would we have different expectations for Latina/o television representation today?


Really interesting thoughts about the limitations of the "socially relevant" sitcom. Your point about the disjuncture between the credit sequence and the narrative of the show is interesting, and potentially asks us to consider the limitations of the three-camera videotape aesthetic often embraced by these programs. David Barker, for instance, argues that Lear's decision on All in the Family to use the three-camera video setup and negotiations around set design aimed to make the cinematography and mise-en-scene more gritty and "realistic." But what you seem to be suggesting is that this method of sitcom production, with its tendency towards isolating production inside studio sets, may actually work against the more nuanced representations and street scenes in the opening titles which were probably shot with one camera. The very visual style of the show, likely coupled with Hal Kanter and other producers lack of knowledge about the cultural geography of East LA, may have made it harder for the show to really delve into the issues you describe. On the one hand, your clip asks us to pay closer attention to the way that the opening sequence frames programs and gives us a basis to critique them. On the other hand, I think it would be really interesting to look back at All in the Family, The Jeffersons, and other socially relevant shows of the 1970s to see how the urban cultural geographies revealed by the opening titles made it (or did not) into narratives.

What intrigues me, Mary, is the fact that they varied the opening sequence episode-to-episode. Why do that if not to call attention to a diverse Latino community? Sitcom formulas, particularly during this era, week after week placed familiar characters within unfamiliar situations and still the credits reveal greater diversity of scenarios than the scripts offered. I also think this speaks to the burden of representation that on the one hand makes Chico an amalgamation of multiple Latino identities and on the other hand makes it impossible for the character to embody the multiple Latino identities the credit sequence alludes to.

I wonder to what extend this initial sequence functions as nostalgic device that produce and audiovisual space that became a historical document as it is displayed every week. The blend of visual techniques such as “documentary style” and “amateur film style” in family oriented settings reinforces an audiovisual language of a “social space” that it is situated so close/so intimate but at the same time so far away to the show. Neither the viewer nor the characters seem to be able to reach or interact with the peoples populating this audiovisual space at least through the studio-space within the sitcom. The present seems to be already confined to the space of the memories, maybe functioning accordingly with media parallel attempts to confine the social and political Latina/o movement to the past.

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