My Netflix account and I have an understanding. Every time Netflix releases a new show I might like, they tell me to watch it. The notifications will gently prompt me to check it out: “Sarah, this show is now available.” Yeah, yeah. An email will follow shortly thereafter to reinforce the message: “Sarah, we just added a TV show you might like.” Okay, I know. Meanwhile, I will inevitably delete the message, promptly forget the show ever existed, only to “discover” it a few weeks or months later and wonder why the hell nobody told me to watch it in the first place.
Not so when Netflix released One Day at a Time last Friday. The timing was perfect — Toronto’s been under an extreme cold weather alert for four days, so I was housebound and in need of a new series after finishing The Crown. The notification popped up on my Netflix home screen and I clicked it absentmindedly, thinking I could watch it while making dinner.
Reader, I spent the whole weekend watching season 1 TWICE. What follows is a chronicle of my obsession. The short of it: watch this show. The long of it (warning — spoilers ahead):
One Day at a Time follows a Cuban-American family’s adventures in what you may consider to be a stereotypical sitcom format: 30-minute episodes, multi-camera setup, a studio audience that laughs every now and again. You’d be wrong to dismiss it as just another vanilla comedy, though: Penelope Alvarez, played by the truly excellent Justina Machado, is an army veteran who served in Afghanistan and is readjusting to civilian life, office politics, and dating after separating from her husband. Her two teenage children, Elena and Alex, deal with a number of real-life issues with surprising frankness: peer pressure, immigration, deportation, sexuality. Penelope’s mother, Lydia, played by Emmy/Grammy/Oscar/Tony award-winner Rita Moreno — a true legend of stage and screen, absolutely unbelievable at 85 years old — is the keeper of the family’s Cuban heritage, and gets a complex story line that includes grappling with the effects of age, struggling with her family’s waning interest in religion, and dating as a senior.
Have I convinced you yet? This is a wholesome show that goes to the heart of difficult issues without ever feeling contrived or tacky. There’s no “today, on a very special episode of …” here, but there are tough moments. Penelope’s ex-husband, Victor, looms large throughout the first few episodes of the season: we learn that he is also an army vet who is affected by post-traumatic stress, and that he and Penelope broke up because he was abusing alcohol and painkillers and threatening to hurt himself. When he finally appears, just in time for Elena’s quinceañera, he seems to be doing better; even so, the writers steer clear of any “look, my mental illness is magically cured!” shortcuts and keep the characters firmly grounded in reality (despite Lydia’s best efforts to reunite the pair).
The supporting cast includes Stephen Tobolowsky as Penelope’s hapless boss, Dr. Berkowitz, and Todd Grinnell as Schneider, their 40 year-old trust fund-kid landlord, who gets told off every chance they get (mansplaining, wearing a Che Guevara tshirt). Refreshingly, the men are true secondary characters, allowing Penelope to shine in every scene: Penelope takes Schneider car shopping, but he fails her completely, giving her the opportunity to face her fears about doing “husband stuff” like negotiating a good price; when Penelope finds out that a male coworker earns more than she does, she takes Dr. Berkowitz to task, and they have a frank conversation about pay equity that results in a raise.
It’s nice to see a show about a strong woman who doesn’t have her life totally figured out. Penelope is a self-described “badass Army chick,” but she’s also struggling to keep it together, and that honesty is what hooked me in from the very first episode.
I hope I’ve convinced you. Did you binge-watch One Day at a Time this weekend? Are you, like me, frantically googling whether it will get a second season (hopefully to be released next weekend)? Here are a few articles to tide you over:
Vulture – One Day at a Time’s Justina Machado on Getting Her First Leading TV Role, Fidel Castro, and Her Low-Budget Quinceañera
Salon – This is it: “One Day at a Time” is the unifying family sitcom we didn’t know we needed
This last one’s a spoiler, so don’t click unless you’ve watched the show!
E! News – One Day at a Time’s Elena Storyline Is a Breath of Fresh Air