Maybe you’re reading this after gorging yourself on batch after batch of fluffy, sugary sweet Christmas rom-coms, each one piled high with tasty tropes. Delicious as they are, you’re likely needing something that, while still delectably romantic, has a bit more complexity and heft to ease you out of the holidaze. Or perhaps you’re just looking for a warm, richly flavored series that gently mixes together holidays, family, and romance with some larger societal and identity issues. Either way, are you in luck! Over five 45-minute episodes, each anchored by a holiday celebration, With Love tells the stories of multiple generations of an ethnically diverse, LGBTQ-inclusive Latinx family living in Portland, Oregon. The series was created and written by Gloria Calderón Kellett, who also brought us the much loved and canceled-before-its-time One Day at Time (2017), and, while this has a wholly different feel, you should still expect some good laughs mixed with well-executed educational discussions and heaps of cultural references; she’s never one to let a teaching moment slide by untaught.
The Diaz family kicks off their nochebuena (Christmas Eve) celebrations with a visit to a packed-house mass. Well, most of them do. After the service, twenty-eight-year-old Lily (Emeraude Toubia) is quick to cover up for her brother Jorge’s (Mark Indelicato) absence, telling their suspicious abuela, Marta Delgado (Renee Victor), that she saw him head inside to light a candle. Then she quickly texts Jorge details about their abuela’s outfit, like her broach, so he can pretend he saw her from afar. As Jorge later explains, his family is fine with him being gay, “But God, you don’t mess with God. I mean, they’re okay that I’m down with D, as long as the D is not the Devil.” (As an aside, how he would manage to spot something as small as her broach in a crowded church without his eagle-eyed abuelita—who is so aware of everything you’d swear it’s burjería—spotting him doesn’t make any sense to me, but I’ll kind of let it slide.) Jorge, who promises to return the favor come Easter, is at home fretting about what to wear when he finally introduces his boyfriend Henry (Vincent Rodgrigo III) to his entire family. It’s the first time he’s introduced any boyfriend to his family, and he’s most concerned about getting his father Jorge, Sr.’s approval. Tagging along with them is Nick (Desmond Chaim), Jorge’s roommate since college, who is rarely dressed in more than pants, his muscular bare chest, and his handsome face. A sartorial choice for which I would like to extend my personal and heartfelt thanks to Gloria Calderón Kellett; it really adds layers to his character.
On this night, Nick comes through on his promise to defuse any awkwardness by inserting fun facts into the conversation. Like when Jorge, Sr. offers Henry, who is a vegetarian, carnitas, explaining that they’re totally fine for him to eat because they’re made with pork instead of beef. (This is a line so real that I spontaneously broke into applause.) Henry stands, mouth agape, in stunned silence, until Nick jumps into the fray with the fun fact that Ralph Macchio is older now than Pat Morita was in the original Karate Kid. I love Nick. (Though, Henry is Filipino, so is this really his first trip to the pork-isn’t-meat rodeo? I’d be shocked if it were. Or maybe he’s just new to being a vegetarian?)
Lily is putting on a brave face, but has recently broken up with her long-term boyfriend (a handsome lawyer, no less!) because she never felt that special magic that she desperately seeks in her forever partner. Now she’ll have to face a roomful of tías, each one more eager than the next to set her up with any single man since, as her mother reminds her, at age twenty-eight some arbitrary clock is going tick-tock. (The arbitrary is very much my addition.)
Lily holds it all together until she absolutely cannot, which is a trait of the entire Diaz family—trying to put on a good face. Lily has this somewhat idealized notion of love because she wants a relationship as perfect as the one she believes her parents have, but what she doesn’t know is that they haven’t been intimate in ages, and her mother, Beatriz, feels abandoned, viejita, and unattractive. Soon she will feel tempted to look outside her marriage with Jorge, Sr. for validation of her physical attractiveness. It’s not that Jorge, Sr. is unkind (not at all!) he’s just lost track of romance and sex. (Lily’s grandparents, on the other hand, are sneaking off to unused bedrooms during nochebuena for some, uh, more non-traditional celebrations.)
Sol (Isis King), Lily and Jorge’s trans, non-binary cousin—an oncology resident at the local hospital—is the emotional ballast to their outward hype and intensity. Sol calmly scolds Jorge for missing church, to which he responds that the “Lord is kind of dick about people like us.” Sol corrects him, pointing their finger at his chest and saying, “No, people are dicks about people like us. The Lord is all good with me.” (I have A LOT of questions for Sol about reaching the Lord through Catholicism, which isn’t usually down with LGBTQ or direct lines of communication to the big guy in the sky, but we don’t have time for that kind of theological discussion.) But Sol’s confidence and calm has its limits, and when a fellow doctor (Todd Grinnell, playing a character so different from Schneider in One Day at a Time that I didn’t recognize him) asks them out, they initially say no because, well, you can probably suss out the because.
But a conversation with Santiago (Rome Flynn), the usually misanthropic son of Sol’s dying patient, changes their perspective enough to give the doctor (and love) a chance. (Santiago’s father is played by Andre Royo, and I wanted him to be in every scene.) Later, Lily and Santiago meet by chance at a party that he hates, and feel that magic that Lily has been seeking. Their romance is one of absolute opposites and identical commonalities, which causes constant friction—both the sexy and non-sexy-type.
One of the wonderful things about With Love is that from the opening scenes these characters feel sympathetic and substantial. It feels like you’re walking into a family that is overflowing with love and, equally importantly, chisme (gossip). The love that’s referenced in the title isn’t just the romantic kind, but also the familial kind, the platonic kind, the found family kind, and the awkward post-hooking up kind. In the first episode Jorge nervously seeks out his father to ask what he thinks of Henry, and the two have a conversation that would normally be reserved for the climax of a show. You know the kind where Jorge asks his dad if he likes Henry and apologizes if the evening has been too much. And Jorge, Sr. tells him how proud he is of the man he’s become, how amazing it is to see him in a healthy adult relationship, and then he apologizes that he couldn’t teach him more about “gay love.” Jorge laughs and says that everything he knows about being a good partner is from watching him. Everything he knows about being a team is from watching his parents. And then they make jokes about Jorge, Sr. having said “gay love.” It’s funny and it’s touching and it’s only the beginning of the series. The series also talks about the kind of love that comes from stopping someone with a heart condition from eating a fried taquito. Or the kind of love that pushes you outside your comfort zone. It talks about love that isn’t fully reciprocated. And, in the case of Sol, the parental love that was cut short before it had time to fully accept their transition.
And with all these kinds of love there is the theme of deep acceptance. At some point, when Jorge is worried that Henry is going to dump him, he tells Lily that he knows he’s a lot and maybe he’s just too much for anyone. First of all, friends, these lines nearly cleaved my heart in two. It was just such a plain and vulnerable moment that I think so many people have felt. The series also talks about acceptance and intergenerational differences in the trans community. For Jorge, Sr. and Beatriz the series tackles communication and how to keep your intimacy alive after years, which requires so much acceptance of changing bodies, lives, desires. How often do we see depictions of any of this in a large Latinx family? I honestly can’t think of another example, but if you can, please do send it my way because I’d very much like to watch.
Don’t be fooled into thinking the whole thing is serious (because I realize I may have made it sound that way) there are real laugh out loud moments. Like when Henry says he’s nervous about meeting ten family members, and Lily says, “Ten family members? This isn’t a doctor’s appointment. Try thirty-plus.” Or later that night, when Henry tells Abuela Marta and Beatriz that he’s bisexual. Marta politely inquires if she can ask some questions. When Henry says yes, she yells for everyone to join them because “Jorgito’s boyfriend is bisexual, and he’s letting us ask questions.” She pronounces bisexual so perfectly that I almost have to insist you watch the series just for that moment. The entire scene is funny (and educational if you’re new to bisexuality), though too long to describe here, but know that it ends with Abuelo Luis (Pepe Serna) saying, “So, I’m like a food bisexual.” He’s not entirely wrong. Also, Gloria Calderón Kellett has a small role as Jorge and Lily’s very single and horny tía Gladys, who sips wine and chats sex toys in the kitchen with her sister. Frankly, every show (and family) needs a Gladys.
Telling this kind of layered story that involves so many threads over only five episodes isn’t easy, especially when it jumps from holiday to holiday (nochebuena, New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day, Independence Day, Halloween, Día de los muertos, and another nochebuena), and includes references to the family’s traditions for celebrating each one.
So it’s not surprising that the last two episodes don’t have quite the same verve and energy as the first three; there’s a lot that needs to be crammed into the episodes and some parts get a little far afield. Also, while I rooted whole-heartedly for both Jorge’s and Lily’s romantic relationships, I sometimes didn’t quite understand why they were in love with their partners. Like, Santiago and Lily have things in common and huge things they disagree about, but where exactly in there do they find love? The same is true for Henry and Jorge, who clearly love each other, but what led them there? And maybe this is a backhanded compliment to the show because, really, when do we ever know why people in rom-coms are in love? We don’t. But these people feel so real, so tangible that I wanted the full backstory, the inside scoop on what makes their relationships really tick, and it was somewhat absent beyond knowing they had magic and spark.
I do have one actual complaint: Nick. No, this is not a complaint about Nick, who is lovely. Well, mostly lovely. There is a part where he doesn’t want to talk to a woman because she’s not wearing heels and is therefore “sealed up tighter than a Tupperware.” Sigh. I mean, points for the good line, but still. Maybe she just wanted to be able to make a fast escape from patriarchal bullshit like that, Nick. Did you think about that, Nick? Anyway, that whole mess aside, Nick is incredibly kind and loyal and grows over the course of the show and has a genetically blessed chest (and face, but it’s hard to look away from his chest) and is largely underestimated in terms of, well, pretty much everything, and I just wanted more for Nick. Honestly, I just wanted Lily for Nick. And I knew that’s not where it was going, but you can’t blame a whole grown woman for dreaming about fictional people’s love lives.
Enough of my kvetching. Aside from being a series that is delightful to watch, I think this is very much a love letter to the Latinx community from Gloria Calderón Kellett. She’s careful to fold in so many traditions, foods, words, sounds, and people into each and every holiday until they’re nearly exploding with meaning and emotions. At the same time, the series makes it clear that culture and traditions are constantly growing and evolving with the people who celebrate them. So, would it be too much to ask that another season of With Love becomes a new holiday tradition?