‘Selena: The Series’ Part 2 Charts the Tejano Singer’s Final Days, but Offers Few Insights
Netflix’s “Selena: The Series” now enters tricky waters when it comes to chronicling both success and tragedy. It is also obsessed with trying ever so hard to explicitly build more myth around its main subject. Selena Quintanilla was certainly a major star in her regional Tejano music genre before being killed in 1995 at the age of 23. Her wider icon status is more of a posthumous phenomenon, fueled in no small way by the Quintanilla estate’s marketing. There is no denying the music is great and Selena was immensely talented, which means a proper drama should really explore her as an individual. While “Part 2” is as generally entertaining as the first half, the series can never break out of its soap opera attitude and can overreach in trying to convince us Selena is worthy of legend status.
“Part 2” picks up as Selena y Los Dinos begin tasting some real fame. The song “Como La Flor” is a Spanish-language chart topper and now band and family head Abraham Quintanilla (Ricardo Chavira) has agreed to do a Mexico tour. Selena (Christian Serratos) is feeling private anxieties because she is still keeping secret her relationship with guitar player Chris Perez (Jesse Posey). As all Selena fans know, the rest is southwestern music history as Selena and Chris elope, momentarily inspiring Abraham’s ire. All qualms aside, there is greater fame to be had and the band’s Mexico tour is a hit, with Selena charming the media and the masses loving the Tejano music. But while some things remain the same, like brother A.B. (Gabriel Chavarria) feeling the pressure to write more hits, Selena’s ambitions are growing wider. She wants to open a boutique and fashion line while working on what will finally be her crossover English-language album. To help with running her fan club and businesses, Selena employs Yolanda Saldivar (Natasha Perez), who becomes dangerously obsessed with the singer.
The great challenge faced by showrunner Moisés Zamora and the real Abraham Quintanilla, who serves as executive producer, is that “Part 2” is no longer an underdog story. Even when Selena became more of a supporting character in the first half, there was an appeal in how it chronicled the Quintanilla clan’s efforts at achieving success, from playing dives to recording early hits. Now that Selena has reached stardom, with more glory just around the corner, the show truly struggles with its format. On the one hand it copies the style of a family sitcom while on the other it treats this true story with the superficiality of a Latino soap opera. As far as this show is concerned, there was never anything too operatic going on behind the scenes, so episodes seek narrative tension in subjects like Selena learning how to deal with the bills that come with running a business. Abraham buys Selena and Chris a house, which Christ at first feels uneasy about, but then accepts and all is well. When the band visits Mexico the writers try to find some kind of odd semi-villain in real-life Mexican media giant Veronica Castro, portrayed as a sneaky TV host who puts Selena and Chris on the spot over their secret relationship just for a good soundbite. Ironically enough, the real Castro recorded a 1997 comeback album produced by A.B. Quintanilla.
There are many narrative false starts in “Part 2,” where the show almost dives into a truer, deeper portrait but then steps back. Because the Quintanilla estate still holds much control over the material, you’re not going to get much of an in-depth or challenging portrait. Chris and Selena’s marriage is a rather bland affair, with a few verbal tussles here and there about her always doing what she wants and he wanting to “do my own thing.” What, if anything, did this couple truly talk or ponder about aside from her well-scripted dreams? In one odd scene tourists simply stroll into their Houston house to take a picture and Chris confuses them for Selena’s relatives. The moment has some slapstick humor to it, but how did the real Selena process such invasions of her privacy? The Quintanillas were also devout Jehovah’s Witnesses, something never even touched upon vaguely this season. Christian Serratos received some pushback during the series’ initial premiere, mostly for not looking as curvy as the real Selena, but she is a good actor who brings charm to the role. Any fault in the performance is due to Serratos required to work with very shallow writing. Selena’s great hassles in life are reduced to feeling frustrated over other people telling her what to sing and how being a professional singer comes with a hectic schedule. It’s hard to even feel too much sympathy when she dismisses everyone’s advice to get an assistant.
As with the first part, the more engaging sections of “Selena: The Series” remain the ones where we get a sense of how hard writing music professionally can be. Some scenes have genuine insight into how A.B. works hard to write new songs, spending nights in the studio meticulously putting it all together. One exciting montage stays with A.B. and Selena as they record the track “Techno Cumbia.” Another, rather elegant scene focuses on the recording of the lush ballad “No Me Queda Mas,” written by keyboardist Ricky Vela (Hunter Reese Peña) and inspired by a broken heart. Of course the show never gives the whole backstory, only a moving shot of Vela in tears as Selena records. In real life Vela was moved to write the song when Selena’s sister and Los Dinos drummer, Suzette (played by Noemi Gonzalez), got married in 1993, thus dashing his own, secret hopes. This would have made for some great drama, but remains a missed opportunity in the series. When Selena begins working on her English-language album, the record label decides she needs a vocal coach. This provokes a crisis of confidence in Selena but she ends up gaining from the vocal lessons.
For fans a contentious angle in the show will be how it treats the infamous character of Yolanda Saldivar, the disturbed, obsessed woman who became a confidant of Selena’s only to steal from her fan club and businesses. Saldivar would eventually shoot Selena at a motel in 1995, ending the singer’s life. In the series she is more of a shadow for the first few episodes of the new season, played by Natasha Perez with an almost cartoonish set of ticks that are meant to show she’s evil and creepy. When she’s accused of embezzlement by an angry Abraham a scene follows of Saldivar buying a gun that’s almost insulting in how exploitative it feels. In the acclaimed 1997 Gregory Nava film “Selena,” the portrayal of Saldivar is much stronger because she’s reduced to a pathetic, odd yet tragic accident in Selena’s life. The series agrees with the movie in that Selena was simply too trusting and should not have insisted on keeping Saldivar anywhere near her life. But again we learn little beyond Saldivar being portrayed here as some kind of asylum escapee, complete with exaggerated shots of her crumpling a Selena photo when the singer hugs a new employee.
Inevitably comparisons will eternally be made between “Selena: The Series” and the 1997 movie, which launched Jennifer Lopez’s acting career due to her spirited, striking portrayal of the singer. The Nava film felt like a more honest portrait of a tight Mexican-American family that achieved success and the tensions that come with it. “The Series” has some of that, but with a TV movie feel all around that never goes for more than easy, breezy entertainment. It’s quite watchable and the concert scenes are fun, especially the big finale re-creating Selena’s final concert at the Houston Astrodome. But the mythmaking overtakes the drama, to the point where the show tries so hard we even get a moment where a young Beyonce Knowles catches a glimpse of Selena shopping, thus mirroring her own dreams of being a singer. It works better when Selena and Suzette discuss the fears of life changing, or A.B. desperately looking for his mini-tape recorder so as to not forget an idea. The rest is all fluff. Selena’s music is still vibrant and real, the least a whole series could do is truly explore the person behind the melodies.
“Selena: The Series” Part 2 begins streaming May 4 on Netflix.