In the season finale of One Day at a Time, Penelope Alvarez (Justina Machado), her adolescent children (Isabella Gomez and Marcel Ruiz), her landlord (Todd Grinnell), and her boss (Stephen Tobolowsky) gather at the bedside of family matriarch Lydia Riera (the irrepressible Rita Moreno), felled by a stroke on the eve of becoming an American. (Insert West Side Story wink here.) One by one, the characters speak to the comatose abuelita, and in the process Mike Royce and Gloria Calderón Kellett’s sophomore sitcom—inspired by Norman Lear’s beloved original—sounds a note we now consider old-fashioned: earnestness. Her grandson, Alex, paints her nails, as he knows she’d appreciate. Tobolowsky’s Dr. Berkowitz, Lydia’s sometime-love interest, calls her “the most alive person I know.” Penelope rages against her mother’s failings, the abandonment she felt when she joined the armed forces, then collapses in tears at the edge of the bed. Finally, Lydia herself, dressed in a gown designed to catch the angelic light, weighs this life — “the one you get” — against joining her late husband in the next one, and marks her decision with two words I hope Netflix hears.
As Royce has noted on Twitter more than once in recent weeks, One Day at a Time remains in limbo at the streaming giant, which is “still counting views” of the series before determining its fate. (Not coincidentally, this provides more insight into Netflix’s renewal/cancelation process than countless executive sessions and shareholder phone calls from chief content officer Ted Sarandos.) Viewership is a metric no TV network can afford to ignore, of course, though Netflix, by refusing to release such data, renders such considerations moot. The only argument to wage, then, as a way of convincing the service not to cancel One Day at a Time—not yet—is one that focuses on other measures of value, to Netflix and its subscribers. Because, once you dig beneath the surface of the laugh track and the source material, the series’ appeal is not so old-fashioned as it might seem: Its earnestness is not absent a political edge, and its classic tropes are directed at subjects one can only call modern. For a media behemoth that has produced exactly one truly great original series (BoJack Horseman), One Day at a Time is the perfect complement. It’s an innovation of sentiment in a cynical world.
Though it leaps effortlessly from topic to topic—the term “Latinx,” ethnic stereotypes, voting rights, the immigrant experience, addiction, sexual orientation, pronoun usage, I could keep going—One Day at a Time’s mettle is inextricable from its forceful belief, rare in the medium’s current climate, that the multi-camera format is an opportunity, not a hindrance. With Lear and his peerless legacy as the series’ North Star, Royce and Kellett lean into the sitcom’s intimacies, its compact spaces and familiar sets, until the fictions of the soundstage start to resemble the frankness of real life. The central sequence of Season Two’s wrenching “Hello, Penelope,” for instance, features the extraordinary Machado alone in bed, incapacitated by depression. The lighting is theatrical—a bright overhead spot that bleeds away when Lydia switches on the lamp or opens the blinds—but it’s this, and not the washed-out naturalism of so many cable dramedies, that punctuates the character’s suffering, her sense that the darkness around her is closing in. Then there’s that season finale, “Not Yet”: 35 minutes of unfiltered emotion flowing from Lydia’s loved ones, set in a single hospital room.
One Day at a Time, you see, isn’t “old-fashioned,” not in the way the term connotes. It’s not stuffy, that’s for sure: When Lydia submits to a language examination as part of the naturalization process, Moreno pronounces “the fox is on the beach” as “the fucks is on the bitch” with a puckish twinkle in her eye; the administration of last rites comes with the reprise of a running gag about the universal application of Vicks VapoRub. It’s not hamstrung by format or length, nor is it bogged down by the average Netflix title’s lack of concision. It’s not sunk by the
back-and-forth between silliness and sincerity, in part because Machado and Moreno are so confident in both registers. (Their mother-daughter chemistry is so sparklingly funny, not to mention evocative, that it’s a shame they can’t appear on the Emmy ballot as a single entity.) And it’s as comfortable dipping a toe into politics as it is poking fun at itself: The season premiere unfurls a Cuban flag, a Trump joke, questions of skin color, the differences among Latin American cultures (and the erasure of those differences), the hurtfulness of racial slurs past and present, and inter-Latinx prejudices, all without feeling ham-fisted or rushed. (“How dare you stereotype us!” Lydia says to a gringo at an ice cream parlor, rolling Rs that aren’t even there.) There’s nothing, thus far, that One Day at a Time can’t do. If that’s not proof the series is capable of pushing the medium forward—even as it glances back—I’m not sure what is.
In this, after all, One Day at a Time outstrips much of Netflix’s output, even its most successful: It’s fresher than Fuller House, timelier than Grace and Frankie, gentler than The End of the F—ing World, sturdier than Everything Sucks!, better, perhaps, than all but BoJack, to which its candy-colored cubanidad is an ideal accompaniment, or antidote. As with Gloria Estefan’s foot-tapping rendition of the original’s theme song, or Lydia’s samba to the (U.S.) national anthem, its foremost invention is of the subtler sort—that of the hybrid, the amalgam, the melting pot, the recombination. Netflix, despite its might, has few series in which form follows function so closely, and with such spectacularly gratifying results; for One Day at a Time to be passed over for yet another anodyne comedy would be a dereliction of artistic, if not economic, duty. The moment in “Not Yet” that comes to mind is Elena’s sudden realization that she takes after her grandmother, headstrong and independent and ferociously loyal. I can’t help but echo her appraisal of Lydia when it comes to One Day at a Time, which I’m not yet convinced Netflix—despite its ostensible desire to explore TV’s new frontiers—appreciates. “I should be so lucky,” Elena says, almost beaming.
Shouldn’t we all.
Season Two of One Day at a Time is now streaming on Netflix.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.