A mildly troubling thought sprung to mind after a recent binge watch of Primo, the Amazon Freevee television series created by former Houston Press contributor Shea Serrano. The show debuted in May and has steadily built a solid audience by good word of mouth and praise from media outlets like Rolling Stone, Esquire, the Houston Chronicle and New York Times.
Its sweet-not-saccharine vibe has viewers comparing it to Apple TV+’s feel-good juggernaut Ted Lasso. Fans like Houston’s own Paul Wall (to Serrano’s glee, at a glance over on Twitter) and your abuela have endorsed it and the buzz has been so strong that the show was recently mentioned in Variety’s Emmy prediction column.
Primo is uptick because it’s upbeat, both funny and good-hearted, a combination seemingly so rare in the entertainment world (and the real one) it’s cause to celebrate when done correctly, which it certainly is here. The series centers on Rafa (Ignacio Diaz-Silverio), a San Antonio high schooler with life’s many and sometimes confusing paths laid before him. He manages teen life with the help of his single mom Drea (Christina Vidal) who has an open-door policy for her five ever-present brothers, Rafa’s tíos. They’re on hand to deliver sometimes warranted and often unsolicited advice, loads of comic relief and to solidify the series’ “it takes a village” theme.
Readers of the Houston Press probably could guess the series is very funny, based solely on Serrano’s humorous, observational past work here, stories which helped build a foundation for his New York Times-bestselling career, his work on prestige blogs and podcasts and now his turn as a TV show runner. He’s still a friend to the Press and fielded our recent interview request with excitement, though he asked for a raincheck in deference to his fellow Writers Guild peers who are on strike. We gladly accepted the chance to circle back for his thoughts (possibly ahead of season 2?)
So, with all the positive feedback the show’s getting, its undeniable charm, the six-tenths-degree of separation between its creator and this particular viewer and writer, what possibly could have troubled me about Primo? Just this: I’m a Mexican-American and a tío and when my wife and I did our “Which Tío from Primo Are You?” quiz after our binge, I couldn’t answer the question. I failed. I went all Kafka, flung into a bit of an existential morass by the zany antics of a group of offbeat TV show characters.
This might be a good time to familiarize anyone who hasn’t seen the series with Rafa’s uncles, the collective a Washington Post writer recently dubbed the series’ “superheroes.” No worries, there are no spoilers ahead, just some basics. There’s Jay (Jonathan Medina), the practical small business owner and the only married tío. Mondo (Efraín Villa) is the spacey new age uncle who sells phallic art at the local Trader’s Village. Johnny Rey Diaz stars as Rollie, the odd jobs-having, run in with the law-occasioning family member. Mike (Henri Esteve) is the former but still gung-ho military uncle and Carlos Santos plays Ryan, the nerdy bank teller with big financial aspirations.
The uncles’ respective places in life and in the family are exaggerated for laughs, the way Michael Scott’s incompetence is exponentialized on The Office or Ron Swanson’s ultra masculinity is heightened in Parks and Recreation or Chidi Anagonye’s nebbishness is mined for The Good Place. Mike Schurr produced those shows and is an executive producer on Primo, so it all falls in line. And, like the characters from those shows, there’s enough in each Primo character for me to connect with in some way. I too am a Mexican-American living in Texas (albeit a Rockets fan and not a Spurs fan) with nieces and nephews. I’m a pretty good cook like the uncles (see episode two, “The Cookout”) and I’m seriously competitive when it comes to family game time (ep. four, “The Game Champ”). So, why can’t I see myself in one of these tíos? They each stepped to the plate and took their swings in season one but I’m 0-for-5 comparing myself to them.
On my mom’s side, I’m nephew to 11 tías and tíos. They weren’t in our house the way Rafa’s extended family is, not physically or all at once. But, they came through enough and a couple even lived with us periodically. One or two had Rollie’s small time criming in them, there was Mike’s “Hooah!” spirit in a couple and even Mondo’s weirdo in one of them (he knows who he is). But there’s no single uncle from the series I can walk in step with and honestly, just briefly, I wondered a little what that said about me.
This led to a much longer discussion with my wife than I care to admit about families and perceived roles within them but in the end that chat helped me come to a couple of conclusions and some relief about the “Which Tío from Primo Are You?” quiz (Seriously, is this a thing on BuzzFeed yet?) The first guess is that I’m more like Drea than any of the tíos. By the end of the season’s arc we learn she’s very good with people (she does have to routinely wrangle five brothers, after all), a personal trait in which I take pride. She’s also a romantic and a budding writer (tiny bit of a spoiler, sorry). The show is said to be “semi-autobiographical” to Serrano and when I do interview him, (Let’s go, Amazon! We need some renewal news!) I’ll bet he says he’s more like Drea than any of her brothers.
The better fit is that none of us are really supposed to align perfectly with any single uncle on the show. The point is families – especially big and loving ones like Rafa’s — have a wellspring of character, an abundance of personality and it’s always better when we can choose what we love best about those people and apply those things we love about them to our own lives. Especially when we’re young and maturing like Rafa, but also anytime we’re adrift and need to be pulled back to earth.
One of the best moments of my life was after my dad's funeral, at the church hall. I was not a kid like Rafa, but a grown man with his own family. My mom was terminally ill at the time, she’d only live another year. Standing there in the hall, she looked smaller even than she was at just 5 feet. We were devastated.
Then, all my uncles and aunts came to her in mass, they approached together, swarmed around her and enveloped her, each hugging her in turn and whispering warm thoughts to her until they were actually moving like a circle pit of love around my mom and I swear she grew at least a foot in that moment. They laughed and cheered her on then and for the next year until her own funeral. There was no one sibling she leaned on over the other. Her life, and our family lives as her kids and Serrano’s, I suspect too, wasn’t defined by a single figure but by the collective.
There’s no answer to which Primo tío I am, because that’s not the right question. The question is “Is Your Family Like the Family in Primo?”, one that is boisterous, funny, chaotic, caring, enterprising and sometimes oversteps but does everything with good intentions and in the name of love and support. To that quiz, my answer is an emphatic, resounding yes.
Watch Primo for free on Amazon Freevee. All eight episodes of Season One are now available for streaming.
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.