A year before her 1995 death, Selena Quintanilla Pérez sat down for a taped interview at Texas Tech University. As the interviewer was wrapping up, he asked: “When you’re gone, how do you want to be remembered?” It’s a weighty question for a 23-year-old singer, but Selena didn’t hesitate. “Not only as an entertainer, but as a person who cared a lot, and I gave the best that I could,” she replied.
The overwhelming tragedy of her murder catapulted Selena into a level of superstardom she never reached in life. In death, she became an icon. It was easier for fans to rattle off the basics (her birthday, her biggest hits, her most memorable outfits, or her best performances) than to understand who she was as the person, the daughter, the wife she wanted to be remembered as.
A successful portrayal of the late singer should help viewers uncover the latter and not just add to the existing pile of glossy, posthumous memorabilia. It should show Selena as a vocal powerhouse and natural-born star while exploring her vulnerabilities—moments when she wasn’t Selena the performer, but a young woman bonding with her siblings, arguing with her dad, or falling in love. The 1997 biopic starring Jennifer Lopez set the standard. Netflix’s ambitious two-part Selena: The Series is a clear attempt to exceed it.
Part one, which was released in December, was certainly popular; the show rose to the number one spot on the streaming service that month and remained there for weeks in Latin America. But it struggled to depict the Tejano icon with much depth. As fans were quick to point out, the Selena in the show seemed to lack agency. She was just along for the ride as her father, Abraham, pushed her and her siblings to start a band.
The second installment of the series, which premiered May 4 and was directed by the same tag team as part one, Hiromi Kamata and Katina Medina Mora, fares better in this respect. Over the course of nine episodes, viewers see Selena (Christian Serratos) on the verge of her big break. Her confidence has grown, her fashion is sharper, she has a vision for her career, and, for the most part, she knows what she wants and is determined to get it, even if her father doesn’t approve.
The first episode kicks off just moments after the previous season ended: Selena’s tour bus pulls away from a parking lot, leaving behind her boyfriend and guitarist, Chris Pérez (Jesse Posey), after Abraham finds out about their secret relationship. Fans of Selena know it’s far from the end of her relationship with Pérez, and in a departure from her characterization in season one, we get to see the singer refuse to take no for an answer.
Her success continues to grow. Selena y Los Dinos are booking more shows in front of larger audiences. But instead of seeing more of Selena’s dazzling smile, Serratos shows us a Selena who’s hurting and is finally beginning to question the price of her career. At one point, she confides in her sister, Suzette (Noemí González), saying, “I traded Chris for album sales and a tour … I had a choice and I chose work.” When Suzette reassures her that she also chose her family, Selena replies, “Yeah, well, our work and family are pretty tied together.” The singer is coming into her own. As she carves out more independence for herself, she stands up for what she wants despite being the baby of the family.
After the lackluster first season, it’s fun to see a slightly more complicated version of Selena. The singer is relentless about pursuing a fashion career, pushing forward with her plans to open a boutique even when her husband, sister, and father tell her they think she won’t be able to handle it all. At one point, when she tells Abraham about the boutique, he tries to tell her that singing has always been her dream. Selena quickly counters, “I have many dreams.” Like it or not, Selena is just as ambitious and strong-willed as her father, and in season two, we see that she’s confident enough to prove it.
Serratos does well in the moments when the singer faces difficult conflicts, but it’s a shame that the series doesn’t dig even further. Instead, it often shifts the focus toward Selena’s next song, or trades wading further into Selena’s character for fluff, like Selena’s real-life brush with a young Beyoncé.
As the series goes on, it skimps on the electricity and the passion that made Selena who she was. In his 2012 book To Selena, With Love, Pérez recounted the tension and the thrill when they would look at each other from across the tour bus or sneak out together around Corpus Christi or San Antonio, afraid of getting caught. And when he describes their elopement, it’s far from the scene we see in the show.
Pérez recalls Selena arriving at his hotel room in Corpus at 10 a.m., banging frantically on the door. She skipped a concert in El Paso and arrived sobbing, telling him that they had to get married because it was the only way her father would ever accept them. The show replaces Selena’s raw, emotional desperation with her simply meeting Pérez at the courthouse, giddy with excitement to get married.
The show feints toward exploring some of the couple’s more difficult moments, such as when their respective career ambitions, particularly Pérez’s desire to pursue his own musical path in addition to playing with Selena, threaten to breed resentment. But, as with many of the show’s other conflicts, it’s quickly resolved by a Lifetime-movie-style conversation.
We do see more of Selena’s struggle to find the balance between her persona and her real life. How far should she let fans in? How much should they know about her? Who can she trust as she branches out and works with more people outside of her close-knit family? As fans begin to show up outside of her home, and her personal life becomes fair game in interviews, she understands that it’s a blessing and a curse that she’s seen as “una artista del pueblo,” an artist of the people. The curse becomes dangerous when it comes to her fan club manager, Yolanda Saldivar (Natasha Perez).
By the second half of the season, it’s clear that the singer considers Yolanda a close friend, even as mistakes and misunderstandings relating to Selena’s businesses pile up around her. But the show spends hardly any time showing how the friendship developed and how Selena came to trust her. So when Selena discovers the extent to which Yolanda had been lying, embezzling money, and failing to send out fan club materials, the full emotional depth of the betrayal is lost.
The show’s lack of character development is what makes the series hard to connect to at times. Serratos is a capable actress who shines during tender moments throughout the show, but it feels as though she wasn’t given enough to work with when it came to the rest of Selena’s personality. We rarely see Selena’s playfulness, her daredevil attitude. But it’s on stage that the differences between Serratos and Selena are most glaring.
Take Selena’s famous 1995 Houston Astrodome performance, which most fans of the singer have watched dozens of times. Serratos copies her dance moves, her twirls, and her flamenco-style hand gestures, but it isn’t enough. She’s executing a choreographed dance, while Selena was feeling the music. Selena lights up the stage with such natural star power it looks like she’s making up the moves on the spot. That passion is something Jennifer Lopez was able to re-create in the 1997 biopic, and she also better developed Selena as a funny, driven, magnetic personality.
The final episode, directed by Hiromi Kamata, succeeds where many of the preceding ones fail. As Selena’s last day creeps closer and closer, it feels like everything is happening in slow motion. We see the land where she wants to build a house, we hear her tell her mother and sister that she’s going to try and have a baby with Chris, we listen as she records “Dreaming of You,” for her English-language album—little moments that make her impending death even more painful.
Ultimately, when it comes to all of the complicated, wonderful facets of Selena’s life, the series failed to bring them together to paint a nuanced portrait of the legendary singer. But at the end of the day, the tragedy of Selena, and the loss of one of the few modern-day Latina role models, is so powerful that even if the series wasn’t perfect, it still hurts.