Thursday, June 20, 2024

One Day at a Time Transcends TV

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Spoilers for One Day at a Time season 2 but not the season finale.

The first season of Netflix’s One Day at a Time was the family comedy we all needed but didn’t know it. It follows a Cuban-American family, their landlord, and the surrounding characters in all their adventures.

For the daughter Elena that included her coming out as a lesbian! This season answers the question, “What happens after?” 

Identity Making

The premiere drops the audience right into the Alvarez’ family with an arc about racism. Random kids have called Alex slurs and one even told him to go back to Mexico! It’s the perfect way to start the season considering our political landscape and it emphasizes that people from the same family experience racism differently, if at all.

For Elena, she’s never faced outward racism like Alex, because she “passes” as a light skinned Latinx. A concessions stand owner even thinks she’s Schneider’s daughter, who actually speaks Spanish more than her!

But Elena’s Cubanidad isn’t only her skin color. It’s about her connection to her roots, because she quit speaking Spanish, then lost it, in turn losing her connection to Lydia. Season 1 focused on Elena’s identity through her accepting her quinceañera and coming out, and this season focuses on Elena reclaiming her Cuban heritage while navigating life as an out lesbian 15-year-old.

It reminds me of my brothers’ experience with Bengali, because I speak it fluently, but they don’t. And now they’re both trying to relearn it, just like Elena is relearning Spanish.

The season also depicts Elena’s post coming out excitement, first relationship, and continued frustration with and distress about Victor.

All the Marches and Young Love

Now that Elena’s out and proud, she’s been to every march, protest, and event one can think of. I’m not sure if she sleeps, honestly but it’s so realistic. Between the marches for everything, she also meets her new to be girlfriend Syd!

Episode 3, titled “To Zir, With Love” introduces Syd who uses they/them pronouns alongside other people Elena protests with against a video game with only two gender choices. (Because of course she does.)  Incredible that the writers picked a nonbinary love interest for Elena and stuck with them! Syd isn’t a one-off crush. No, their relationship goes from a date all the way to going to homecoming.

Here the writers have one of my favorite moments of the season. Elena starts to freak out. She doesn’t want to follow the trope of being the gay girl who asks a straight girl out. Deconstructing the predatory lesbian trope so simply but effectively is so rarely done. The One Day at a Time writers do it in a few minutes by having Lydia help Elena ask out Dani (her first crush).

That turns into Syd and Elena coming out to one another and later, Penelope allows Elena and Syd to date without any questions about Syd’s gender identity or otherwise. Episode 3 is one of my absolute favorites because it emphasizes how the writers treat everything in the show. Here, the show tells us that gender neutral terms, multiple pronouns, and a diverse range of experiences exist in this world. That’s the way it is. No room for disagreement or questions. Elena’s family uses Syd’s pronouns and respects both their gender identity and that they are Elena’s love interest.

This is superb! Especially for all the nonbinary and/or lesbian teens watching this show with their family.

Actual Acceptance

Unfortunately it’s not all acceptance and happiness, because the show reflects real life. Three months after Elena’s quince, Victor has yet to speak to her. Even the Catholic school, which approves Elena’s GSA with a snack budget (!), is more progressive than her dad and it understandably guts her and the audience. Her pain is palpable then, and a full year later into the show’s timeline where Victor still isn’t talking to her.

In episode 8, “What Happened,” the writer’s execute a surprise superbly well. Victor and Alex have seen each other in secret multiple times! It isn’t until Penelope goes to see Victor do we learn that Alex has explained at length that Victor sucks. Even more so considering Victor re-enlisted after 9/11 for Elena, so his ignoring her is incomprehensible for Penelope. (The flashbacks are poignant and so telling for the family in 2018).

It isn’t until Elena comes to Victor to tell him that he’s taught her a valuable lesson, that he finally apologizes to her. It’s one of the best heartbreaking moments of the show.

The “resolution” to this arc is another favorite because it’s not really about Victor. It’s about Elena finally getting to say her piece and going from there. They hug but there’s a long way to the relationship achieving a new normal, and I hope we see some of that in Season 3.

Like I mentioned last year, it would have been so easy for the writers to go the route of everyone’s acceptance. Instead, the realistic nuanced reactions people have to a family member’s coming out are shown. Thankfully, the tropes about families of color, and especially religious families of color, are turned on their head. Lydia is the first adult in Elena’s family to pretty quickly move past her own beliefs and thoughts to accept Elena wholeheartedly, and this episode highlights yet again how Alex and Penelope are also there for Elena.

One Day at a Time Transcends Television

This season is spectacular, but the second half ups the gut wrenching, heart string pulling, “I regret watching this because I’m crying into my keyboard” scenes. Which to be fair is One Day at a Time‘s secret. So be ready for that. And then all of a sudden five hours later you’re at the finale and everything about this show that’s good is multiplied by infinity and you go through a box of Latinx, sorry kleenex.

The finale highlights everything that works about this show and makes it one of the best TV shows, ever. A bottle episode set in one specific location, it gives everyone a chance to shine and dedicates the time to Rita Moreno’s Lydia without whom, the show and entire Alvarez+Schneider+Doc Berkowitz family, cannot succeed.  

One Day at a Time transcends television. Writers and showrunners (Gloria Calderon-Kellett and Mike Royce) told stories inspired by their own lives. Combined with a ridiculously talented cast and dedicated crew, they completely transformed the show from a reboot to its own distinct celebration of life in America. Everyone clearly poured their hearts and souls into this show and it worked better than any reboot I know. We’re all the better for it.

Other Tidbits That I Loved

  • Penelope x Max was truly incredible. (Lydia and Max are a gift).
  • So were Lydia and Berkowitz.
  • Schneider and Lydia both study for and pass their citizenship tests!
  • Elena working around the apartment as Schneider’s assistant.
  • The episode where Penelope stops taking her antidepressants is punch you in the face good. Justina Machado better get an Emmy nomination. 
  • Vicks Vapor Rub cures everything!
  • Alex doing Lydia’s nails. 
  • “Not yet.” 

Check out Sarah’s recap of the first four episodes here, then pop over to Netflix and watch the season!

Image Courtesy of Netflix

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