A humble immigrant family who achieves great riches and power is the "quintessential American story," according to Matt Lopez, creator of the new television drama "Promised Land."
“One thing that really interested me was the idea of telling an immigrant story at two different places on the timeline,” Lopez told NBC News in a recent interview about the drama featuring a wealthy, interwoven Latino family vying for power and prestige in California’s Sonoma Valley.
“You get the family empire at the height of its power, juxtaposed against the scrappy immigrant story of how that empire came to be,” Lopez said.
Yet shortly after Lopez's interview, the show, which debuted in January and was praised by critics, was pulled off ABC's prime-time schedule after five episodes due to low ratings. The episodes can be streamed on Hulu, where the remaining episodes will air exclusively starting Tuesday.
Neither ABC nor Lopez were available to talk to NBC News following the news.
According to TVLine, an ABC representative said in a statement: “‘Promised Land’ is a beautifully executed and tremendously entertaining series of which everyone at our company is extremely proud. ... We know it has a passionate audience that is very invested in this show.”
Just Jared reported that Lopez assured fans in an Instagram comment that the show had not been canceled.
“After this Monday’s episode — which I have to say, is EPIC — we make the move to Hulu,” he wrote. “If you believe, like we do, that representation matters, keep watching, keep spreading the good word, and let’s make season 2 happen!”
Inspired by the CBS prime-time soap opera “Dallas” and the works of Charles Dickens and John Steinbeck, “Promised Land” centers on Joe (played by John Ortiz) and Lettie Sandoval (Cecilia Suárez). It chronicles the couple’s journey from crossing the U.S.-Mexico border with Joe’s brother to owning Heritage House — one of the largest wineries in the country — many years later.
The show flashes back to their humble beginnings in America as immigrants without legal status and sheds light on their contentious relationship with Margaret Honeycroft (Bellamy Young), Joe’s ex-wife, the mother of three of his children and the woman whose father used to own the vineyard.
Lopez, who started his career on the business and legal side of entertainment before segueing into film and TV writing through the Disney writers program, told NBC News in the recent interview that the show was his most personal project to date.
While Lopez said he has “very much enjoyed the benefits and the opportunities” of being the grandson of Cuban immigrants, he acknowledged there is a complexity and an “ugliness to the American dream,” and he wanted to explore the challenges that come with assimilating to a new country and navigating parts of one’s cultural identity.
In a letter to journalists in January, Lopez said "Promised Land" was "about love, hope, ambition, power and the beauty — and cost — of pursuing the American Dream."
"As a third-generation American, my ancestors came here with nothing. They spoke only Spanish," he said. "They worked in fields and factories. Their beginnings were humble, but their dream was powerful: a better life for their children. … It is the quintessential American story."
Checking 'soapy boxes,' challenging stereotypes
Instead of making a “pure telenovela,” Lopez said he wanted to find a way to “check a lot of the very soapy boxes” — beautiful actors, picturesque locations and a dizzying number of twists and turns — while also challenging stereotypes perpetuated about Latinos in the U.S.
Lopez said he originally intended to cast the show “completely authentic to the country,” meaning he was only looking for Mexican Americans to play the Sandovals, but he ultimately decided to cast a wider net. Brooklyn, New York, native John Ortiz, 53, plays the headstrong, charismatic patriarch — his first leading role in a career that has spanned more than three decades.
For the matriarch, Lopez enlisted Cecilia Suárez — one of the most famous actresses in Mexico — who, he explained, has brought “a layer of richness and complexity” to the role by understanding “that the show is just as much about class as it is about race or ethnicity.”
“One of the things we talk about ... is Lettie goes on this voyage,” Lopez said. “I feel like, in the pilot, a mirror gets held up to their faces, and Lettie spends the entire season peering at her reflection, peering at the person she chose to be, and asking herself: ‘Do I like what I see? Do I like who I’ve become? Where did I go astray?’”
Viewers can root for Joe, Lopez said, but at the same time, “we don’t want to make it seem like it’s all just milk and honey and roses. I think there’s a cost to his own psyche and to his relationship with his children … and we’ll see that comes back in a big way.”
Striving for authenticity — including español
Much of the appeal of “Promised Land,” particularly to Latino audiences, lies in its commitment to cultural authenticity on both sides of the camera.
While the cast is mainly made up of actors from the Latino diaspora, the writers room is also predominantly Latino — a rarity for an English-language show on network television.
Instead of “doing what so many networks and other shows have done throughout time, which is have the Spanish-speaking characters speak English just with Spanish accents,” Lopez said it was intentional to use Spanish whenever it felt right in the story. To his surprise, he said, he did not receive any pushback.
"I think television audiences also are much more sophisticated now. I think even non-Latino modern audiences would see through things that felt inauthentic or didn’t feel real," Lopez said, "so I just felt like we owed it to the story of immigrants in this country."
While “Promised Land” might be told through a Latino lens, Lopez said he believes the story, at its core, is universal. While shooting the pilot episode in the spring, the stunt coordinator, Danny Le Boyer, who is Vietnamese American, thanked Lopez for telling a version of his parents’ immigration story.
The story “resonated with him, and that’s kind of the universality of the American dream,” Lopez said. “At the end of the day, I want a better life for my kids than the life I’ve had, and I think that strikes a chord no matter when you or your family happened to come over.”
Lopez said he hoped viewers from all walks of life “will see these characters and recognize glimmers of themselves.”
“It just so happens that right now, in the times in which we are living and ‘Promised Land’ is airing, the immigration debate is largely around the Latino community,” he said. “But this immigration debate — it was the Irish in the 1860s; it was the Italians in the 1880s; it was the Jews at the turn of the century; it’s been the Germans; it’s been Asian people — keeps replaying.”