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For his first TV series, the best-selling sports and pop culture writer joined with Michael Schur to tell a story based on his adolescence in San Antonio.
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By Chris Vognar
SAN ANTONIO — Shea Serrano wants to show you something.
It has nothing to do with the autobiographical comedy series he created, “Primo” (premiering Friday on Freevee), a coming-of-age story set in San Antonio. It isn’t one of his best-selling books, which tackle his favorite subjects — hip-hop, movies and basketball — with the fervor of an obsessive fan. It isn’t a missive from his popular Twitter account (435,000 followers and counting).
It is a small newspaper clipping from 2021, framed by the owners of his favorite South San Antonio breakfast spot, a neighborhood cafe where the wait is long but the migas are worth it. The story announces that Serrano, a favorite San Antonio son, has won a humanitarian award from the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. It has pride of place near the front door of the restaurant, where the owner (understaffed today and on kitchen duty) came out to chat with Serrano earlier this month.
Serrano quietly beamed, soaking in the familiarity and hospitality afforded by his hometown. This is who Serrano is, more than the TV show, the books or the social media profile: a neighborhood guy who stumbled into something for which he has a gift, then put in the hard work to make sure he could keep doing it.
“This is where I was born,” he said during a driving tour of this deceptively large city of 1.5 million residents. “This is where I want to die. I just feel like I need to be attached to something, tethered to something. It’s nice to have a history with a place or with a thing.”
You could scarcely imagine a less Hollywood person working in showbiz. “That’s not just true in terms of his demeanor or his personality,” said Michael Schur (“Parks and Recreation”), who oversees “Primo.” “It’s also true of his voice.”
“He’s not thirsty for fame or success,” Schur added. “He’s been to Los Angeles three times in his life. He’s the most laid back guy I think I’ve ever met in my life. He’s just really comfortable with who he is.”
Serrano, 41, didn’t plan or expect to be the creator of a major TV series when he first tried writing in his mid-20s — let alone in collaboration with one of TV’s most successful comedy writers. Not long ago, however, his life looked very different.
In 2007, he was a middle school science teacher in Houston. His wife, also a teacher, was pregnant with twins, and doctors ordered strict bed rest. This created a dilemma: How to survive in a big city on one income? Serrano applied to work part-time at Walmart, Target, anywhere that could offer some hours. But nothing was compatible with his teaching schedule.
Growing desperate, he searched Google for jobs he could do from home. Up popped an intriguing option: writing.
He started with small local publications: $15 to cover an N.F.L. game; $50 to write about a rap show. He started working his way up, using Twitter to pitch larger outlets. He showed a knack for mining his own life for material, and he found that he had retained a lot of pop culture and sports knowledge over the years. He could use that. And he was good at it. Eventually, Bill Simmons tapped Serrano to freelance for Grantland, then hired him as a staff writer in 2015, and again at The Ringer in 2016. He was on his way, and he returned to San Antonio in 2018.
Serrano writes like a gleeful obsessive, a fan who found a way to crash the big leagues. His books, illustrated by the Dallas-based artist Arturo Torres — including “Hip-Hop (and Other Things),” “Movies (and Other Things)” and “Basketball (and Other Things”) — read like playful arguments among knowledgeable friends. One chapter in the hip-hop book imagines that Jay-Z has a combination telephone/time machine that allows him to call any rapper from any era to solicit a guest verse for any song.
Eventually Serrano grew interested in writing for a medium he had always loved: television. He brainstormed ideas with his wife, including an autobiographical project. When he entered Schur’s office for one in a series of showrunner meetings set up by Serrano’s agent, he saw walls lined with posters featuring various shows — “Parks and Recreation,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” “The Good Place.” Hey, Serrano thought. This guy likes the same shows I do. He didn’t realize Schur had created or cocreated these series. (Serrano, now: “What an idiot”).
Schur was charmed. He also liked Serrano’s pitch for “Primo,” which he heard for the first time that day: a series about a San Antonio teen, Rafa (nicknamed Primo, which translates to “cousin” in English, and played by Ignacio Diaz-Silverio), who navigates life with his single mother, Drea (Christina Vidal), and five eccentric uncles. Drea works at a corner store, just like Serrano’s mother did.
Though set in the present day, “Primo” is based loosely on Serrano’s adolescence; in real life, his father was on the scene, but the writers determined that including him would mean less uncle hilarity, Serrano said. Overall, they took an upbeat, family-friendly approach, even as it depicts a family with its fair share of challenges.
Once production began, Vidal said, Serrano was a constant source of energy on set: “He would come on set every day and just walk around giving everybody fist bumps, giving everybody compliments, thanking everybody for being there and just encouraging, encouraging, encouraging.”
Post-migas, Serrano, dressed in khakis and a blue hoodie, drove his Tesla to the home of one of the real uncles, Brian Gutierrez. In “Primo,” Brian is Ryan (Carlos Santos), a comically proud bank manager who lords his scant white-collar résumé over his blue-collar brothers.
Gutierrez, who works in the energy industry, was the uncle who helped convince the teenage Shea to go to college, much as Ryan does with Rafa. (Serrano, who studied psychology at Sam Houston State University, in Huntsville, was the first in his family to get a degree).
“He was a really good kid,” Gutierrez said, “and a really straight arrow.” To this day, Serrano said, he has never been drunk. He saw a lot of people in his old neighborhood succumb to addiction and had no interest in joining them.
Which doesn’t mean he was an angel. Gutierrez recalled that Serrano and his friends used to come over to Gutierrez’s house to play video games. Only later did Gutierrez realize his nephew was also perusing his Playboy collection.
Serrano drove us to his downtown office, a spacious loft in a converted warehouse. The door is inscribed with the name of his independent, online publishing imprint, Halfway Books (a play off a line from the hip-hop group Mobb Deep: “There ain’t no such things as halfway crooks”). Inside it’s like an erudite teenager’s dream. Stacks of books and VHS tapes compete for space with arcade games, including Galaga and N.B.A. Jam. One table is stocked with boxes of unopened trading cards. A shelf holds two basketballs signed by the 1999 and 2005 N.B.A. champion San Antonio Spurs.
“All the stuff I wanted when I was a kid, I’m going to get it now,” he said.
Sometimes he can’t quite believe any of it.
“Every week, there’s one point when I’m like, ‘What is happening right now?’” he said. “‘What am I doing? Why was I allowed to do this?’”
From Schur’s vantage, Serrano’s outsider perspective is what makes him special. Schur still remembers his first impression: “This doesn’t seem like a guy who’s come through any kind of machine,” he recalled thinking. “This seems like a guy who blipped into the world of writing from some crazy other place that no one else comes from.
“That’s what I thought he was going to be. And that turned out to be exactly what he is.”
A correction was made on
May 18, 2023
An earlier version of this article misidentified the surname of one of Shea Serrano’s uncles. His name is Brian Gutierrez, not Brian Serrano.
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