How One Day at a Time Makes Sitcom Magic for the Modern Age

TV Features One Day at a Time
How One Day at a Time Makes Sitcom Magic for the Modern Age

This is it!

Netflix’s One Day at a Time is exactly the kind of show this golden age of peak TV should be delivering.

Introduced with little fanfare last January, the reboot of the 1970s comedy pulled off the trick of simultaneously being a nostalgic throwback and a forward-thinking comedy ready to tackle today’s world. It blended the traditional four-camera sitcom format with contemporary storylines about post-traumatic stress disorder, wage inequality (long before the Michelle Williams/Mark Wahlberg fiasco) and adolescent sexuality. To the uninitiated, the series follows a Cuban American family led by Justina Machado as Penelope, a recently separated veteran raising her two adolescent children—Elena (Isabella Gomez) and Alex (Marcel Ruiz)—with the help of her overbearing mother, Lydia (Rita Moreno), and her landlord, Schneider (Todd Grinnell).

Paste had a chance to attend the taping of the eighth episode of the second season, entitled “What Happened.” The episode flashes back to the Elena’s birth, juxtaposing it with her current relationship with her father. Part of the joy of attending a taping is seeing how the sausage gets made. Should a 2001 Schneider with his spiked blond hair be referred to as Mark McGrath or Jamie Kennedy? (They go with McGrath.) Should Penelope refer to Jackie Robinson or an astronaut on the moon when comparing what it will be like to be the first Cuban couple not to live with their parents (they go with the moon). And part of it is getting to see legendary executive producer Norman Lear in action. He receives a standing ovation (as he should) when he comes out to talk and tells the crowd that Michael Harrington, Pat Harrington Jr.’s (the original Schneider) son, is in the audience. “He’s a wonderful musician and a great guy,” Lear says of Harrington. “I’ve watched the miracle of another Schneider in this show,” he goes on to say. “We couldn’t believe there could be another. Somebody would have to do an imitation of Pat. Along comes this wonderful Todd Grinnell and our showrunners and writers and they create an entirely different character.”

Later, the comedian who’s there to entertain the audience in between takes talks to Lear’s 13-year-old granddaughter, who says that her grandfather was having breakfast with her one morning and told her, “Every moment in my life has led up to this moment to be with you.” The audience is appropriately awed by that comment.

And that’s not all! The equally legendary Moreno dances with guest star Tony Plana between takes. When she temporarily forgets her line, something she laughingly refers to as a “Moreno moment,” she deadpans, “I think it’s my turn. I was wondering what that silence was about.” She charmingly corrects her introduction as an EGOT. She’s actually a KEGOT, having won not only an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony, but also the Kennedy Center Honors. Later, she brings out a glass of wine to the curtain call. No matter how much you love Moreno, you will love her more after watching the renowned actress in action.

The 95-year-old Lear is having a ball with the revival. “I can’t find the words to express how much I get from working with these glorious people,” he told television critics at a press conference. “I love this show. It’s a great kick.”

But Lear takes little credit for the show’s success, citing executive producers Mike Royce and Gloria Calderon Kellett as the geniuses behind the series. “110 percent of everything creative in this show is the work of the two people who are leading it, and they are Mike and Gloria. So I visit it. I am a guest there. I love that everybody thinks it’s my taste, because it is my taste, but it’s their execution. It’s all together them.”

Kellett won’t take all the credit. Without Lear, who counts All in the Family, Maude and Good Times among his hits, this revival might not have happened. “I think this is the kind of writing that Mike and I love to do, and had Norman not done what he did, there’s no way. I don’t feel like we could have gone in and pitched this show and people would have understood it. The moment you say, ‘Like Norman Lear,’ they go, ‘Oh.’ So it’s because of all of that work that he did that allowed people to hear what we wanted to do and say, ‘Yeah, you are going to be crying half the time, but it’s good.’ So we are very grateful to Norman’s pedigree.”

The second season deals with the current political climate because Kellett says there’s not a Latino family who is not dealing with the aftermath of Trump being elected president. “It’s just a different country, and so we are going to deal with it in that way, how it would affect this family. There’s an overall feeling and demeanor and change that this family feels, and it will definitely relate to all of our characters.”

One of the Season One’s highlights was Elena’s coming out. Gomez says she’s received amazing feedback on the storyline, which found Elena’s father, Victor (James Martinez), struggling to accept that his daughter is a lesbian and abandoning her at her quinceañera.

“I’ve gotten, obviously, a lot of young girls coming up to me and [saying], “Because of Elena, I feel normal, and I feel like I can come out.” But what’s really crazy is getting adults coming up to me and being, like, ‘I wish I would have had Elena Alvarez when I was 15.’ And it’s so much bigger than me, and it’s so humbling, and it’s so beautiful to see. A lot of people tell me that they get their parents to watch this show and then start that conversation, and it’s truly amazing to be a part of someone’s story like that.”

Machado says the show resonates because it is so relatable no matter what your ethnic background or circumstance. “We all kind of hear, ‘You followed us around.’ I’ve had a lot of young gay young women say, “I wish you were my mom.” A lot of gratitude is what I’ve received from people, and it’s really beautiful.”

While Moreno agrees the show has a broad appeal, the “Latino-ness” of the series “lends the sauce” to it. “I think I think that our writers have brought an astonishing sense of balance to how Latino this gets and how I’m very, very sensitive to saying too much in Spanish too often. We really do have to understand that most of the world is not Hispanic. Most of America certainly isn’t, and I think they have found a gorgeous, gorgeous balance.”

Moreno delights in playing the lively Lydia. “We were poleaxed at the reviews,” she says of the show’s success. “I honestly didn’t know it would connect with people the way it did. I love Lydia’s contradictions. I love her vanity. Every episode is real juicy. I asked them at the very beginning to make her a sexual person. To not get seduced by her age. That women still have their sexuality in many different forms. It’s not just sex but the way she feels about herself. “

“There will be some surprises, of course,” she says of the new season. “Surprising in the Normal Lear sense in that you don’t expect what happens.”

Season Two of One Day at a Time is now streaming on Netflix.

Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal) or her blog .

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