Why One Day at a Time is TV's most refreshing reboot

I didn't know how much I missed '70s comedy until I saw Netflix's new show

One Day At A Time is a refreshing reboot.
(Image credit: Michael Yarish / Netflix)

My thoughts during the first scene of One Day at a Time were not generous. Netflix's reboot of the 1970s Norman Lear sitcom begins with a hurricane of exposition so clumsy and obvious it makes you blush. The straightforwardness with which the show reveals Penelope (Justina Machado) is a nurse, a veteran, and a single mom feels embarrassing and old and, in the age of peak TV, alien. Where's the cosmetic irony? The meta frame? The genre blurriness that makes everything a dramedy? When Penelope complains of a war injury, I braced myself: This might be achingly sincere.

And it is — in the best possible sense.

One Day at a Time turns out to be a stunning reclamation of the kind of joke-laden but earnestly confrontational comedy that made so many '70s and '80s sitcoms great. It will make you laugh and give you goosebumps and warp your sense of time.

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For all that it draws on an older style, though, this isn't a nostalgia piece. Yes, it involves 93-year-old Norman Lear and an 84-year-old Rita Moreno. Yes, the format seems stilted — the flat lighting of a multi-camera sitcom and the studio laughter scream "this is old!" to eyes used to the gorgeous cinematography of TV's Platinum Age. But this is very much a show set in 2016. (Indeed, one could argue that a show about a fatherless Cuban-American family has never been more timely.)

Penelope is separated from her husband. They were both in Afghanistan; he refused help for severe PTSD and became alcoholic and suicidal. She lives in a small apartment in Los Angeles' Echo Park with her mother Lidia (Moreno), a dancer and flirt who escaped Castro's Cuba via the Pedro Pan program when she was 15; her 15-year-old feminist daughter Elena (Isabella Gomez), an ardent feminist and environmental activist; and her sweet and vain 12-year-old son Alex (Marcel Ruiz). Penelope works for Dr. Berkowitz (Stephen Tobolowsky) and gets frequent visits from a stubbly hipster named Schneider (Todd Grinnell). In the original series, he was the super; in the remake, he actually owns the building.

The show covers plenty of typical sitcom territory: Will Elena have a quinceañera? asks the pilot. But it also makes uncommon choices: The pilot reveals that, despite her energy, humor, and sunny appearance, Penelope is injured and lonely. She's been prescribed antidepressants and is struggling over whether to take them. It's an intelligent touch indeed, and a more realistic depiction of depression than many of its mopier portrayals.

These are heavy problems and contemporary characters. Still, the show feels both old and light in the best of ways. I've been thinking about why. Much of it has to do with Machado and Moreno, heavyweight talents with a very light touch — but I think it's also, as James Poniewozik compellingly argued, that TV got gentrified. When advertisers lost interest in poorer viewers in the '80s, struggling families correspondingly fell out of scripted shows. (Louis CK's Lucky Louie and Horace and Pete are interesting exceptions, as is Donald Glover's Atlanta.) We're a little starved for stories in which people are trying to make ends meet; the artifice of the multi-camera format melts away, because that feels real in ways many shows don't.

The other retro-feeling detail is that the kids matter. The cramped and unstylish Alvarez apartment contrasts with more recent sitcom spaces. If by the '80s, the family sitcom had mostly taken over the genre, by the late '90s, kids had mostly fallen out of sitcom favor. Friends, Frasier, and Seinfeld were emphatically adult shows. One Day at A Time doesn't just bring class stuff to the forefront, then; it brings kids, and intergenerational conflict, back to our screens.

Its success is intergenerational too: This adaptation is the work of executive producers Gloria Calderón Kellett and Mike Royce with extensive script notes from Norman Lear, who was present at every taping. Calderón Kellett borrowed a great deal from her own family history — she describes her mother as traditional, herself as "somewhere in the middle, where I'm a little bit traditional, but liberal as well," and her daughter (and the daughters of Mike Royce and Norman Lear) as "very feminist." "Naturally," she says, "we have very different points of view of what it means to be a strong woman. All of them are right, and all of them are wrong."

That broad perspective means One Day at a Time doesn't moralize in quite the ways you'd expect. In fact, it frequently fails to achieve the usual sitcom resolutions. There is an extended fight over the existence of God in this show and no one wins; things are not pat.

I can't say enough about Moreno's magnificent turn as Lidia, so I'll just say this: I have never seen any family on television that reminded me of my own. To encounter such a TV family after decades of watching television is a mite destabilizing. Not invasive or embarrassing but weird: As if you lived with a treasured secret and one day a stranger started casually deconstructing it with you in detail, accurately and with winks. In any event: There is an episode in which Lidia and her granddaughter Elena spar over whether the latter should wear makeup — Lidia is never without it, Elena considers it a tool of the patriarchy. A silly enough premise, but Moreno's last scene in that episode moved me to tears and does again every time I make the mistake of thinking about it. Moreno is epic in this, and it is a gift to watch her.

Amid so many dramedies and semi-thrillers and half-Westerns, there's a refreshing clarity to a sitcom that commits so absolutely to the form. One Day at a Time is a comedy, and it is earnest, and it has heart. Its lightness does not make it easy. Maybe we were overdue for something like it.

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