Netflix’s reboot of One Day at a Time directed by Norman Lear is the family comedy we need right now. The show follows the lives of a three generation Catholic, Cuban-American family headed by (very Cuban) abuelita Lydia (Rita Moreno), single mom and Afghanistan war veteran Penelope Alvarez (Justina Machado), 14-year-old daughter (gay!) Elena (Isabella Gomez), and very socially adept 12-year-old son Alex (Marcel Ruiz). The sometimes fifth family member is Penelope’s landlord and very close friend without benefits, Schneider (Todd Grinell). Finally there’s Penelope’s boss Dr. Berkowitz, office secretary Lori, and the male nurse she works with, Scott.
One Day at a Time‘s success lies in its balance between utilizing comedy to handle controversial but important issues and affording each each issue the seriousness it deserves. All while respectfully and humorously depicting Cuban culture without exploiting or stereotyping. The show tackles problems as small as sexist microagressions with Penelope’s coworker constantly interrupting her and mansplaining. The writers also approach big issues such as undocumented immigration and Penelope’s adjustment to life post Afghanistan. Three amazing episodes follow Penelope buying her first car, starting on anti-depressants, and dealing with Veteran Affairs (too real). Everything with her and her ex husband Victor’s arc (PTSD) related to Afghanistan is too real and super well done!
The other major success of the show is Elena’s multi-layered coming out arc. At 14, feminist Elena wants nothing to do with having a quinceañera (a special celebration for when a girl turns 15). In her words, the quinceañera or ‘quinces’ is a misogynist cultural ritual where she is being paraded as cattle. Ultimately, she agrees to have one after talking to Penelope and they work to update the event for modern sensibilities.
Simultaneously, Elena develops a very close relationship to Mexican goth Carmen. This arc benefits from Lydia’s hilarious commentary that there’s something just a bit queer about Elena and Carmen’s relationship. It’s not just an intense relationship between two teenage girls. A few episodes later, it is revealed that the intense relationship is because Carmen’s parents have been deported. Still, the introduction of Carmen is the launching point for the audience to start thinking about Elena’s sexuality.
The easy route would have been to depict Elena’s journey as an easy one where she wakes up, realizes she’s gay, the other characters make a few jokes, and that’s the end of the arc. In One Day at a Time, however, the audience gets to see Elena grapple with what it means to not like guys. Who does she want to escort her at her quinces? How is she going to tell her mom she might not even like guys?
Another easy route would have been to show everyone accepting Elena right away as she goes through the process of coming out. Instead, the show highlights both Lydia’s and Penelope’s very realistic journey from feeling uncomfortable with it to becoming truly accepting of Elena. Penelope’s journey also includes her unloading her feelings to a man she thinks is gay but isn’t.
“I want to apologize for the groping and the smelling. When I thought you hated the touch of women, I thought it was okay?” is her response after he clarifies he’s straight. What a beautiful reversal of the straight person touching and tokenizing the gay person in their vicinity and thinking it’s okay!
Unfortunately, it is also a reality that not everyone is accepting. Of all the characters, Elena’s father Victor, who has been in Afghanistan for the course of the show, reacts in the worst way. He yells that she’s just a confused 15 year old and “not that way”. It’s hard to watch because of how true the scene rings, but Isabella Gomez is a superb actress, and his reaction is clearly depicted as negative and hurtful.
All in all, One Day at a Time is a refreshing approach to a rebooted sitcom that investigates social issues against the backdrop of a Cuban family. To have a well developed cast where no one fails, each episode builds off of the last, the comedy is funny but not offensive, and contains no caricatures, especially of Cubans, is a huge deal. Even if you don’t like sitcoms, you should definitely check it out!