The war in Iraq, seen through a Latino lens

PBS's exceptional "American Family" returns this week. And as the first episode of what promises to be more landmark television begins, it's clear that writer and creator Gregory Nava has an ambitious agenda - and is fulfilling it.

The story sweeps from revolutionary Mexico to the deserts of modern-day Iraq, with marriage, birth, death, and war all within the first half hour.

When a viewer finds herself thinking approvingly of great films such as "The Godfather" and "The Deer Hunter," it's clear Nava is headed in a good direction.

The show initially aired in 2002 as a regular dramatic series. This time, it returns as a 13-part miniseries.

From the opening moments, as a baptism is interrupted by government soldiers on a murderous rampage, which cuts to a contemporary wedding in East Los Angeles, it's clear that this is drama with a broad sweep.

"With this many episodes telling a single story, you can have this magnificent character arc," says Mr. Nava ("El Norte"), a feature-film director turned television writer. "It becomes like a novel or an epic poem."

An all-star cast headed by Edward James Olmos does credit to these ambitions with the kind of performances that usually turn up only in a feature film.

"Gregory got the best from all of us," says the actor, who has made a career of championing Hispanic causes.

Nava created the first season of "American Family," which ran in 2002. He says he wrote the series to tell the story of an American family, not an ethnic minority. Latino culture is what he knows, he adds, so that's his canvas.

With this limited run, he says he wants to focus the story on a period he considers to be one of the country's great turning points, the aftermath of Sept. 11 and the Iraq war.

"This [miniseries format] was dictated by the events of the world," which he says are simply too big to be handled properly in a standard episodic TV structure.

"This is the truth of what life is really like. The choices we've made in the past, the choices our ancestors have made in the past, all affect our lives today," he says. "You need a 10-hour canvas to deal with all that."

The Gonzalez family, headed by patriarch Jess (Olmos), was rocked during the first season by the eldest son, Conrado, joining the Army as a doctor. This season he serves in Iraq, a war that tears the family apart, mirroring the deep divisions he sees within the US over the war. "These are life and death issues for everyone," he says.

As in any good saga, the overlapping storylines of this series touch on important political and social issues both at home and abroad. There's an activist priest who runs a bakery that hires ex-gang members, for example. And when Conrado's sister brings in an all-girl football team to help out in exchange for coaching tips from the burly home boys, predictably chaos ensues. But at the same time the show delivers some interesting social turnabouts.

Nava nurtured his storytelling skills in the independent film movement and was among the first to explore story lines about minority communities. Early on, he used natural lighting and handheld cameras to create a realistic feel in his movies.

He says he enjoys the inherent strengths of television as a communication tool. "Sometimes 'ripped from the headlines' makes the most compelling stuff," says Nava, pointing out that because films have such long production timetables, they are slower to mirror current events.

"I wanted to do something about what was happening and get it on the air now, because now is when we need it."

Besides, he believes that television is desperately in need of some new ideas.

"It's a powerful medium, but it tends to be conservative. I'm trying to bring my independent spirit to TV, to do something different, provocative, and entertaining," he says, and adds with a shrug, "and hopefully, deeply moving."

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