Had her life not been cut short by a bullet in a San Antonio hotel room on March 31, 1995, Selena Quintanilla Pérez would most probably had celebrated her 50th birthday this year with a series of physically distanced events, most of them streamed. Much would have been made of this milestone in her life by the media, the recording industry, her fans, and her family.
But it was not to be.
Instead, just as when her fellow Texan Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens died way too young in a plane crash on February 3, 1959, we’re left with a lot of might-have-beens and could-have-beens. How would have Selena and her brother and producer A. B. Quintanilla capitalized on the new urban and electronic sounds and digital technologies that have emerged in the last two decades and a half? What direction could her English-language singing career have taken? Would her fashion designs have caused a stir on the catwalks of London, New York and Paris. Could she have been a powerful social media force?
Her potential was indeed cut short by that bullet. All we have left, besides her records and her music videos, is her memory preserved in amber by fans and a family who overzealously guards her legacy, defending her image to the point of threatening the many tribute acts around the country with lawsuits. A whole industry has been built around Selena, an industry that now includes a makeup line, a Selena collection launched by Forever 21, a Funko pop doll, continued reissues of her music, a musical that toured nationally back in 2000, Gregory Nava’s 1997 film and, now, a two-part Netflix miniseries.
Selena fans did not waste any time in expressing their disappointment when Netflix dropped Part One of the series last December. The show might have been named after her but most felt, and rightfully so, that this was The Quintanilla Family Show, and that their idol had been sidelined to a supporting and not well-developed role.
Fans also felt that Christina Serratos lacked something in her portrayal of the Tejana legend. And while the spotlight falls back on Selena in Part Two of the series, which began streaming on May 4, I wonder what fans will make of her insecurities, her doubts, her fears, her selfishness, and even her naiveté. The series makes much of how she fights for her dreams, but Serratos’ (and the writers’) take on her persona, on what drove her, is so completely opposite to Jennifer López’s charismatic, strong-willed “my way or the highway” portrayal in Nava’s film.
Since the series is co-executive produced by Selena’s siblings Suzette and A.B.—most reviews and reports have wrongly claimed that father Abraham shared this role, although I wouldn’t be surprised if he had some say so in the series—this is Selena as seen mostly through their eyes and experiences.
Part Two picks up where Part One left off: with Selena’s boyfriend and future husband Chris Pérez (Jesse Posey, who looks more like Carlos Vives than Pérez) being left behind in a parking lot as Abraham Quintanilla (Ricardo Chavira), who objects to Selena’s relationship with him, drives away in the family’s tour bus. Much like they did in Part One, in these nine episodes, each titled after a Selena hit, showrunners Moisés Zamora and Jaime Dávila and their team of writers revisit the highlights of Selena’s life and career: her elopement and civil wedding to Chris; the production and release of key albums and hit songs; her most important concerts; her appearance on Verónica Castro’s popular variety show ¡Y Vero América Va!; the work that went behind the opening of her first boutique; the behind-the-scenes negotiations that led to Selena’s recording and posthumous release of her first and only English-language album; her first fashion show… and, yes, Yolanda Saldívar (Natasha Pérez), who is introduced here as a stalky, serial killer-type, her room covered from floor to ceiling with photos, clippings and other Selena memorabilia—and who in one shot is shown crushing a photo of Selena after she fails to acknowledge Yolanda in her remarks at her store’s opening.
As in Part One, the show spends as much time with her inner circle as it does with her: A.B. (Gabriel Chavarría) is still struggling with his songwriting; Suzette (Noemí González) gets married; and both siblings begin to resent their father, and even Selena, for their sole focus on her at the expense of the siblings’ talents and contributions. I don’t begrudge those sidetracks as much as some have; they give us a sense of the family and industry dynamics that pulled Selena every which way, even though she is not around to confirm or even expand on them.
But I do have a very serious problem with Zamora’s, Dávila’s, their writers’ and directors’ heavy-handed treatment of the material, of the fact that they don’t seem to trust their story at all. If the use of the series’ melodramatic, sometimes synth and string-heavy, original soundtrack is intrusive in several key scenes in Part One, it’s three times as much here, undermining even the most intimate scenes between the siblings or between father and daughters or son, or between Selena and Chris. Even the use of flashbacks to drive a point or depict an “Aha!” moment is excessive—especially when we had seen that scene one episode ago.
Then there’s the dialogue, full of platitudes and Hallmark card-like clichés: “I had a choice, I chose work over love,” “The heart is the strongest muscle in the body but it doesn’t do the thinking,” “I’m trying to keep you alive!” and so on. The phrase “we are family” is said so often by everyone in the series—sometimes multiple times in a single episode–that I expected Dom Toretto from The Fast and the Furious series to pop in at some point with a case of Coronas and volunteer to guide the Quintanillas in prayer around the dinner table.
That heavy-handedness even undermines Selena’s tragic end. While the Nava film opted to underplay the event, given how close the making of the film came after her death, here we see Saldívar and Selena walk towards that hotel room, their backs to us, slightly out of focus. A couple of scenes later, we’re inside of the ambulance taking Selena to the hospital as two paramedics, the camera looking up at a low angle, apparently from Selena’s point-of-view, try to keep her alive. As her life fades away, flashbacks to earlier and happier moments of the series follow.
And, yet with all its flaws, the series is still fairly entertaining and touching the way most telenovelas are—actually, Selena: The Telenovela would have been a more apt title. I am a sucker for anything that involves the creative process and found myself drawn into those scenes in the recording studio recreating the creation of such songs as “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom,” “Techno Cumbia,” and even Selena’s many scenes with EMI record executive José Behar (a rather sympathetic performance from Rico Aragón), although I could have done without the fake-looking Gloria Estefan and Whitney Houston in that Grammy scene, or that silly scene featuring a young Beyoncé. Selena’s relationships with her siblings are well-sketched out by Serratos, González, and Chavarría, and heartwarming if you are able to ignore the cheesy music.
Selena: The Series may satisfy some hardcore fans, but I suspect it will take a long time before we get a more nuanced take on the life and career of la reina del tex-mex.
Featured image: Sara Khalid/Netflix