As Netflix pump out dozens of new shows, films, documentaries and other assorted entertainment for the content-gorged masses, there’s a beautiful simplicity in their most life-affirming and emotionally candid comedy series being its most traditional. One Day at a Time, now in its third season, is the sort of sitcom you’re almost stunned still gets made in 2019. It’s a multi-camera family comedy with no crude language or the sort of no-holds-barred humour that Netflix shows love to use to differentiate themselves from their network counterparts. It doesn’t experiment with its form or sink into deep psychological torment like some of its streaming service neighbours. What it does instead is provide the kind of old-fashioned laughs and tear-jerking moments that you didn’t know you craved so heavily. Sure, the set-up is familiar, but sometimes you just need that kind of comfort, especially when it’s done as beautifully as One Day at a Time.
The remake of Norman Lear’s iconic sitcom started its run with immense confidence and has kept that energy throughout its three seasons. The Alvarez clan, a working-class Cuban-American family headed by military veteran turned nurse Penelope (Justina Machado), are living exactly as Gloria Estefan says in that endlessly catchy theme tune (how dare Netflix ever suggest to me that I skip it!) After the tear-jerking finale of season two, grandmother Lydia (the iconic Rita Moreno) is dealing with health issues that conflict with her ceaseless zest for life. Penelope is studying to become a nurse practitioner and often finds herself weighed down by anxiety attacks. Elena (Isabella Gomez) is navigating the complexities of being in a loving relationship with her non-binary partner Syd (Sheridan Pierce). Alex (Marcel Ruiz) is dabbling in light drug use. And then there’s Penelope’s ex-husband and his new fiancée, who looks very familiar.
Season three is a decidedly less weighty season compared to the previous one in terms of socio-political topics. This remains a show unafraid of tackling thorny issues, but there are no moments as prescient or loaded as, say, Lydia dealing with immigration in this season. That’s not to say it’s a let-down by any means. This is still a series that can elicit sobs of emotion at the most unexpected moments, but the energy of the season is more tightly compacted around the Alvarez family and their lives. The laughs are bigger and those moments of heartache are still present but not as prevalent. This does lead to a few moments of tonal struggle as the show tries to make characters both people and figures on soapboxes. Elena, for example, becomes the stand-in for the #MeToo movement as we know it when, in the second episode, Alex is confronted for his casual sexism. She gets to communicate her own experiences as a gay woman in a misogynistic world too, but only after that moment of ‘traditional debate’.
In a season highlight, Penelope relates to her veterans therapy group how she has (or hasn’t) been dealing with anxiety attacks. When one takes over her, the world goes grey and even though she knows the jeers being lobbed at her by her mind aren’t real, that doesn’t make it any easier to get rid of them. Penelope’s mental health struggles have formed the emotional backbone to the series, depicting a working woman of colour who can laugh and joke and get on with her life but still struggle in ways that feel foreign to those around her. It helps the show that Machado is one of the most dynamic presences on television right now, a true comedic dynamo who nails every moment of slapstick humour or emotional poignancy with maximum impact. It’s the kind of comedy performance that, were it on a traditional network a decade ago, would be winning Machado every award available. Alas, it seems that the true skill of such work has been diminished by audiences and critics alike during that time.
The new season also sees Penelope with a new love interest, Mateo. He’s pretty dull, which is kind of the point, as Penelope tries to figure out if she really wants a new man in her life or if her mother’s hen-pecking is merely weighing her down. There’s a good idea at the heart of that subplot but it doesn’t go anywhere and it only becomes even more redundant when you see how much chemistry Penelope has with Schneider this season.
The character of Schneider has remained something of an anomaly for the show. The updated version of the family landlord - here, he is an out-of-touch hipster trust-fund baby - has served primarily as the butt of jokes for the rest of the cast. Sure, Todd Grinnell has been consistently very funny throughout the show, but other than be the handsome doofus, the show hadn’t found room for him in the family. Thankfully, that changes dramatically in season three as we see more of how being a spoiled brat with no familial attachment came to truly screw him over. A visit from his conservative bully of a father (Alan Ruck) sees Schneider struggle with his sobriety, and we see how he has become truly ingratiated within the Alvarez family, despite their differences and the obvious power dynamic between landlord and tenants.
The notion of emotional support and the many forms it takes is key to season three. Penelope goes to therapy with fellow female veterans because only they will understand precisely what she’s been through. Elena looks for allyship with the only other gay member of the family (hi, Stephanie Beatriz) because being ‘the only one’ clearly takes a lot out of her. Lydia may never saw out loud how important Dr. Berkowitz (the ever hilarious Stephen Tobolowsky at his most pathetic) is to her but their bond is clear. Schneider takes genuine pleasure in being a friend, confidant, and wannabe-Alvarez to the family he never had because they treat him with the basic human respect he’s always felt unworthy of. Plenty of family comedies play up the message of the importance of making your own family but few have done so with the social awareness and emotional kick of One Day at a Time.
That balance between the universality of its concept and the specificity of its approach remains a high-wire act of real zeal. Sure, you’ve seen plenty of sitcoms do the Very Special Episode on the dangers of teens smoking pot (or, in this case, vaping because it is 2019, after all), but how many have you seen that look at that through the lens of being a Latino teen in America and all the baggage that accompanies that?
There are more laughs than tears this season, but boy are the laughs worth it. With guest stars including Danny Pino, Melissa Fumero, and the one and only Gloria Estefan, the sheer energy of the season could be carried by them alone (that opening episode with Estefan and Moreno at each other’s throats is a delight that must be experienced first-hand). As Netflix’s more prominent comedies skew darker (BoJack Horseman), more experimental (Russian Doll), or more dick heavy (Big Mouth), the seeming simplicity of One Day at a Time feels almost radical. It’s a show that wants to make you happy, make you cry, and make you aware of how good things can happen in a world chock full of badness. The family sitcom isn’t dead: One Day at a Time is proof of the form at its best.
One Day at a Time season three is now available to stream on Netflix.
Header Image Source: Netflix