Hindsight Review: GMA/Regal’s “Mano Po Legacy – The Family Fortune” a Satisfying Breath of Fresh Air

Moderate spoilers. Click here for First Impression Review.

Was it perfect? No. Was it everything I hoped it would be? Definitely not. Was it a refreshing change of pace from the typical Filipino teleserye? Absolutely. GMA Network and Regal Entertainment’s first full series collaboration Mano Po Legacy – The Family Fortune was a breath of fresh air.

Now, I haven’t watched a full Filipino series since the start of COVID. So I’m not necessarily up to date with the state of Filipino soap operas in the COVID Era. That is, series (at least on GMA Network) are strictly held to a specific number of episodes/weeks on the air. No extensions. No cuts. That’s a huge deal in the world of Filipino teleseryes because more often than not, extensions are usually what sinks even the most well-meaning series. The decision to milk a relatively successful series of every drop, even if it comes at the expense of quality, has been a major problem for both GMA Network and ABS-CBN for as long as the modern teleserye format began in the early 2000s.

But a silver lining for Filipino television that has emerged in the COVID Era has been the strict adherence to episode orders. That in turn allows for a story to be laid out completely even before the series begins production. Less chance for things to go off the rails when you know where you’re going.

And perhaps that’s one of the reasons Mano Po Legacy – The Family Fortune ended up being so creatively successful. At the heart of the story is the soapy inner workings of a rich Chinese-Filipino family. Drama in the bedroom and the boardroom and everywhere in between. That’s certainly ripe for story.

Initially, I was most interested in checking the series out as it was the first co-production between GMA and Regal. GMA, which had always relied on in-house productions, working with an outside producer was very intriguing. It’s no secret, even amongst the most loyal Kapuso fans, that GMA’s dramas have trended more toward rinse and repeat the last couple of years. With only a few exceptions.

And it’s hard not to blame the network since usually it’s the rehashed and recycled plots that garner big ratings.

But anyway, in watching the clips during The Family Fortune‘s premiere week (our family cancelled our GMA Pinoy TV subscription at the start of COVID), I was pleasantly surprised. This definitely wasn’t your typical teleserye.

Its understated, cinematic treatment set it apart from most of the local soap operas I was used to watching. (And most of those soap operas, I usually dropped halfway through.)

Mano Po Legacy – The Family Fortune felt like the typical slowburn Korean drama that I’d gotten to be very familiar with during my COVID lockdown-induced K-drama binge watching. The series had a very appealing balance of typical, over the top teleserye antics with more reserved, serious and mature drama.

Many of the familiar themes were there such as extramarital affairs, love triangles, rich vs. poor, corporate maneuvering. But it was all presented in a way that felt different and refreshing. Just the right amount of seriousness without taking itself too seriously.

Many times, a Filipino teleserye might be too pretentious for its own good. Feeling a sort of elevated superiority over its timeslot neighbors and competitors merely because it might include a unique or uncommon idea. But that alone does not make a series worthy of accolades or praise.

Neither does a teleserye that recycles the same plots with different character names and different actors. (Sometimes even the same actors.) Series revolving around overly familiar plots don’t automatically mean they are bad either. But when many of these series often shift into lazy cruise control, it’s easy to feel bored or even exhausted by the rehash.

For Mano Po Legacy – The Family Fortune, it took those familiar themes, wrapped them up in a different, cinematic-like package and surrounded them with a diverse and interesting cast of characters. It was very much an ensemble with no one person or character taking center stage. Often, the series would even shift the spotlight from one character to another. Sometimes even in unexpected directions.

That’s another thing that made the series feel so refreshingly different. The familiar situations and familiar twists were given a reinvigorating energy via a fresh-faced cast and a fresh mix of actors. Those actors took their characters and did their part to make each stand out and leave their mark. You’d be hard pressed to find a character who didn’t play an integral role into the grander narrative of the series.

That definitely does not happen often on Philippine television. The paint-by-the-numbers structure of typical Filipino teleseryes can be a major hindrance. Things like the goofy sidekick to the romantic lead or shoehorned teen couple to attract the younger audiences; tired tropes in a tired genre.

Mano Po Legacy – The Family Fortune subverted those pitfalls by crafting a story that was as character-driven as it was plot-driven. Again, that balance that isn’t normally found on Philippine television. And this eight week, 40-episode run probably had a lot to do with ensuring the well-paced story.

That’s not to say that everything was perfect. Far from it. I feel like the series could’ve done a lot more with certain characters and probably do less with others. There was some potential left on the table for something even more profound and perhaps groundbreaking for Philippine TV.

Nevertheless, the series was able to come to a satisfying, if not slightly predictable conclusion. And for a series like this, that can be forgiven when the road to get there was far from predictable.

Circling back to the cast, Mano Po Legacy – The Family Fortune enjoyed a wealth of talent that more than did their part to give the series a refreshing and dynamic energy.

Barbie Forteza was finally able to break free perhaps of the typecasting she’d been kept to the last few years. When she had been relegated to more lighthearted, comedic characters (even in supposedly dramatic series), her role here as Steffy Dy was a step in the right direction toward more mature material. And also a reminder that she is as good a dramatic actress as she is with comedy.

The series also featured great performances from both familiar and new faces. David Licauco probably got his strongest material yet with a character that played to his strengths as an actor while allowing for a chance to grow as well. Newcomers Rob Gomez, Dustin Yu, Casie Banks, Darwin Yu and Kate Yalung also left excellent first impressions to the GMA audience. All while Victor Basa and a scene-stealing David Chua’s experience was on full display as well.

But I definitely have to shine the spotlight on a couple of performances. All of whom made their presence known early on. But by the end, definitely solidified their near-perfect performances.

Sunshine Cruz is no stranger to roles like that of Cristine Chan. But it is the way that the character wasn’t just some romantic lead or damsel in distress that really paved the way for what would be the catalyst to much of the series. It’s the way she was able to bring to life a strong, yet vulnerable character that allowed for Cristine (and thus Sunshine Cruz) to be the heart of the story.

Now not one character on this series is a saint. And in many ways, that makes it all the more interesting and engaging. All of these people are corrupted and broken and have their own demons inside of them. But when you’re looking for the lesser of the evils, that’s most certainly Cristine Chan. And Sunshine Cruz needed to deliver a perfectly nuanced performance to give Cristine both a tall, confident stature while still leaving the door open for vulnerability. She isn’t
bulletproof, yet she isn’t an emotionless robot.

I think one of her strongest scenes and one that encapsulates this is this one from Episode 32:

Meanwhile, perhaps the two most dynamic and provocative performances came from Maricel Laxa and Nikki Co. The amazing chemistry they had as mother and son was undeniable. Many times, especially in Korean drama, it’s the villains or the kontrabida who get the meatiest roles and most interesting material. It’s the villains who get the best opportunities to shine and even steal the spotlight from the heroes and heroines.

I very much think that was the case here. And that’s even when the series left a lot of potential on the table for both mother and son, Valerie and Jameson. There was a lot of potential for a deep dive into their backstories in order to perhaps explain a bit why they are the way they are. I think that could’ve even been the most exciting and engaging story had the series done more with it.

And from what we saw from both Maricel Laxa and Nikki Co, they certainly could’ve handled that kind of material. Still, they more than delivered with the material they got.

This scene from Episode 38 is a great example of that chemistry where they can go back and forth so effortlessly:

But both were also able to shine on their own as well.

Nikki Co has been an absolute revelation here. Relegated to small, sidekick roles since first competing on GMA’s Starstruck, his role as Jameson Chan is his biggest yet. And while he didn’t get as much screentime as the other Chan brothers, he made the most of the opportunities he got.

As the arrogant, violent and mentally unstable Jameson, Nikki Co needed to deliver a natural and nuanced performance in order to make the character believable, yet relatable. And he was able to do that. There were many scenes in which he had to go from scared, small puppy to cocky asshole with anger issues within minutes. And him being able to do that at the drop of a hat was a big, but welcome surprise.

There are a few highlights for him, but perhaps the best is this one from Episode 35:

The aforementioned nuance is on full display here. The best and most engaging villains are ones you love to hate, yet still have an ounce of empathy for them. The way Nikki Co was able to take Jameson’s complicated character and provide that opportunity for those small windows of empathy, while still delivering with the full-on kontrabida vibes should warrant bigger and better roles for him in the future.

The same can be said for Maricel Laxa. She had just recently wrapped up a run on TV5’s Paano Ang Pasko/Paano Ang Pangako which, from what I’ve seen, was a bit more on the traditional side. But here as Valerie Lim, she just absolutely hit it out of the park. Taking the very best and most fun aspects of the Filipino soap opera villainess while being excellent with the more down to earth, emotional drama is an absolute win for her.

Being able to balance the almost outrageous, over-the-top moments with the very real and sincerely emotional moments is quite a feat. But she effortlessly accomplished that here.

One of the most memorable moments from her has to be this scene from Episode 5:

It was this scene in which we learn a huge revelation about her character. One of the most haunting scenes of the series as well and presented in a way not typical of Filipino soap operas. It certainly helped that she was paired with an equally great actress in Jay Glorioso as her mother. But in this scene, you too can see the nuance that she brings to the character.

Being able to bridge the love-to-hate and the outright-hate and the actually-love feelings the audience might have for the character, that’s all thanks to Maricel Laxa being able to take the material and deliver that to the screen. Again, that ability to draw empathy from the viewer while still being that deliciously evil villain is a feat not many actors can accomplish. But she did that and then some.

And finally, the gravitas that Ms. Boots Anson-Roa brought to the series is unmatched. I go back again to this incredible sequence from Episode 15:

One of the best of the entire series, but definitely a highlight for her.

Consuelo Chan is not your typical teleserye matriarch. She isn’t without fault. And she isn’t without blame in why this family is as messed up as it is. It takes all 40 episodes to understand where Consuelo Chan is coming from. As a mother, a wife, a grandmother, the head of the family and as a woman; that quiet, yet powerful figure is very much a central part of the series.

Boots Anson-Roa effortlessly delivers that commanding performance throughout the series. And when I say commanding, it is in both the quiet scenes and in the most dramatic moments. Being able to be so commanding in such varied emotional moments is another feat not easily accomplished. But Boots Anson-Roa? No problem. And even when she wasn’t always at the forefront, she was always a presence. Almost like the glue that holds everything and everyone together.

And that’s ultimately the story for Mano Po Legacy – The Family Fortune. Everything came together in what is ultimately a satisfying and well-produced package. Some wonderful performances, solid writing and a refreshing approach to the typical and familiar; Mano Po Legacy – The Family Fortune will certainly leave a long-lasting legacy. And hopefully, this isn’t the last of its kind on Philippine TV either.

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