The multi-cam sitcom gets a bad rap. As comedy moves into more experimental and non-traditional formats, the idea of an old-school model, laugh track and all, inspires complaints about the genre being stuck in the past. The biggest comedies on the air remain tied to the format, like The Big Bang Theory, but perhaps that’s just another reason why many are tired of it. We all know forced laughter when we hear it and it can spoil a viewing experience. Do it badly and the stench of desperation is inescapable.
Hearing the set-up for Netflix’s One Day at a Time feels like a disaster in the making: Yet another remake of a beloved property, sticking to a multi-cam sitcom format and on the streaming service that made Fuller House a thing. It seemed so adorably archaic. How do you make a comedy, so ground-breaking in its time, relevant for an age where we’ve seen it all before?
There’s much to love about this reboot of the Norman Lear classic, but what remains so effervescent about it is how vibrant and effortless it seems. The central idea is the same - a working class single mother raising her kids - but the devil is in the details. Now, the family are Cuban-American. The mother, Penelope, is an Army veteran turned nurse who lives daily with the trauma and injury; her mother is a Cuban immigrant who fled the country during the Castro years; her daughter is a left-wing activist who’s exploring her queerness; even her landlord is a hipster Canuck with addiction issues, extreme neediness and not an ounce of self-awareness. It all sounds too much on paper, but in execution, it’s an endless delight.
One Day at a Time takes on some of the weightiest topics in comedy: Immigration, racism, sexuality and gender, PTSD, depression and deportation, to name a few. The Alvarezes are a family in flux, one who struggle with money and societal expectations, and in the wrong hands this could all be too much. The comedy is broad but pointed in ways that only a show with attention to its specificity could manage, but it’s a series that works best in those quieter moments. Sometimes, it truly devastates (I cried at least 6 times in the second season alone).
The discussions the family have are frank and organic, the sort of talks around the kitchen table you know are happening across the country. In the second season, the Alvarezes deal with experiencing anti-Latino racism, the smothering realities of depression and mental illness, and the difficulties of leaving the past behind. Elena is flourishing as an out gay woman - and starts dating a non-binary teen who is never treated as a gag! - but still feels weighed down by her father’s rejection. Lydia can’t always reconcile her conservative beliefs with the time she lives in. taking on any of this in a show is a task and a half, but having it ease so easily between hearty laughs only highlights the exceptional tightrope work showrunners Gloria Calderon Kellett and Mike Royce are pulling off. It’s rare to see stories like this told on TV, even less so when centred on a Latino family.
There are a lot of dark shadows hanging over the show. Donald Trump’s name is never mentioned, but it’s obvious that the family have new or revived problems to deal with thanks to his rise to power. Lydia and Schneider decide to pursue American citizenship, Elena is more determined than ever to appear at every possible protest, and the family openly ponder whether ‘that monster in the White House’ is to blame for the kids being told to go back to Mexico. In one episode, Penelope decides to come off her anti-depressants, which leads to one of the most heart-wrenching moments of the season. I’m an easy cry, but I have seldom shed tears so imbued with catharsis as I have while watching One Day at a Time.
The cast is uniformly strong: Rita Moreno is an international treasure who finds subtle layers of emotional turmoil in her fiery matriarch role; Isabella Gomez and Marcel Ruiz break all stereotypes of ‘sitcom kids’ tropes with wit and heart; Todd Grinnell gets some of the biggest laughs as the clueless but ultimately well-meaning Schneider, nailing that desperate edge as the gormless white dude who found the family he’s always craved. Yet the absolute hero of this show is the utterly luminous Justina Machado. We may only be two seasons in, but it is inexplicable to me how she hasn’t won every award possible for her work as Penelope. She inhabits this role like a second skin, bringing laughs as much as the tears. Straddling the liminal space between her immigrant mother and her distinctly 21st century kids, Penelope has to juggle every role in the family and do it with unconditional empathy. Other actresses could probably do this role, but none would bring it to life with such warmth and steel like Machado.
One Day at a Time may be an old format, but seldom has it felt so new and crucial as it does here. Each episode is urgent and empathetic in a way that feels totally necessary in the current TV landscape. We needed a show like this, but we also desperately wanted it too. The laughs are plentiful, the family are utterly loveable, and they speak of the world in ways many comedies are too timid to approach. This is the sort of show you hear many people say they don’t make like they used to, but they never could have made this show 30 years ago. This is a show for now, for the future, and for the times we always craved it. If you’re not watching One Day at a Time, you owe it to yourself to marathon one of the best shows on TV.
It also has one of the best theme tunes ever.