Film Forward

'One Day At A Time' Is A Breath Of Fresh Air — In More Ways Than One

"How many shows can say they achieve that?"

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Title: One Day at a Time
Episodes Reviewed: Seasons 1-2
Creators: Gloria Calderon Kellett 👩🏽🇺🇸 and Mike Royce 👨🏼🇺🇸, based on the original show by Norman Lear 👨🏼🇺🇸
Writers: Gloria Calderon Kellett 👩🏽🇺🇸 (6 eps), Mike Royce 👨🏼🇺🇸 (5 eps), Becky Mann 👩🏼🇺🇸🌈 (4 eps), Audra Sielaff 👩🏼🇺🇸 (4 eps), Sebastian Jones 👨🏼🇺🇸 (4 eps), Andy Roth 👨🏼🇺🇸 (4 eps), Dan Hernandez 👨🏽🇺🇸 (4 eps), Benji Samit 👨🏼🇺🇸 (4 eps), and various (3 ♀ and 2 ♂)

Reviewed by Simrun 👩🏽🇬🇧

Recommended

Technical: 4.75/5

In Netflix's remake of One Day at a Time, a sitcom originally conceived by Norman Lear in the 1970s, audiences follow the Cuban-American Alvarez family as they tackle issues in modern-day America. In both the classic and the 2017 update by showrunners Gloria Calderon Kellett and Mike Royce, the throughlines of familial love and generational conflict remain intact.

The updated One Day at a Time carefully toes the line between comedy and drama to achieve a delicate balance, thanks in large to impressive writing. Despite a throwback, multi-camera format, episodes never feel formulaic while storylines, such as daughter Elena Alvarez (Isabella Gomez)'s relationship with her sexuality, are developed organically across entire seasons. Complicated issues are given due nuance and the jokes — this is a sitcom, after all — keep the tone light to ensure the show remains accessible. It's a difficult balancing act, and minor pacing issues do exist, with some episodes spending too much time on setup before the action gets going. Overall, however, don't let its remake status fool you: Kellett and Royce's One Day at a Time truly feels like a breath of fresh air.

Justina Machado, Rita Moreno, Isabella Gomez, and Marcel Ruiz hugging in an episodic photo from Netflix's "One Day at a Time."
Justina Machado, Rita Moreno, Isabella Gomez, and Marcel Ruiz hugging in an episodic photo from Netflix's "One Day at a Time." Credit: Adam Rose / Netflix

Gender: 5/5
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES

The core family unit consists of Penelope Alvarez (Justina Machado), her daughter Elena, her son Alex (Marcel Ruiz), and Penelope's mother, Lydia Riera (played by Puerto Rican icon Rita Moreno). With women commanding such robust screen time, the show sails past the Bechdel Test in every episode, oftentimes within its first few scenes.

On the characterization of women, Penelope and Elena flip gender norms. Penelope comes from a traditionally male-dominated career path of serving in the U.S. Army. She's intelligent and strong, even stating herself at one point: "I can assemble a rifle in thirteen seconds. I'm a total badass."

Her competence is only amplified by the contrast between her and Dr. Leslie Berkowitz (Stephen Tobolowsky), her endearing coward of a boss. Neither is Penelope a one-note "badass"; rather, the show follows her journey from flashbacks of her time in the army and the way she's dealt with PTSD, to the way Penelope confronts gender bias within her current job as a nurse, to her dreams of going back to school in the hopes of becoming a full-fledged doctor.

As for Elena, she doesn't just buck gender stereotypes; she actively chafes against the expectations put upon her as a young, teenage woman. In any given episode, she's railing against the gendered roots of quinceañeras or pointing out to her family that she feels more comfortable without makeup on. Her positioning as a teenage nerd feels contemporary, since she contradicts the longstanding stereotype of Latinas as sexpots — a trope exemplified through the character of Gloria (Sofia Vergara) in Modern Family or Sonia (Salma Hayek) in last year's The Hitman's Bodyguard.

While it's true that Elena's grandmother Lydia hams up this exact persona, with the vast majority of the matriarch's jokes stemming from vanity or jokes about makeup, sex, and men, it's all in jest. Her older age helps mitigate some of the problematic issues associated with sexualizing Latinas onscreen; for example, the camera refrains from ogling her with the male gaze. Rather, Lydia enjoys a fully-rounded character who may embrace a more traditional idea of "how to be a woman," but this inclusion only further exemplifies the infinite diversity of personalities within one demographic that all too often suffers from one-dimensionalism.

Justina Machado in an episodic photo from Netflix's "One Day at a Time."
Justina Machado in from Netflix's "One Day at a Time." Credit: Mike Yarish / Netflix

Race: 5/5

Latinos make up 18% of the U.S. population, but they made up only about 3% of speaking characters in films during the last decade. In fact, Latinos see the largest disparity between actual and onscreen representation in the United States, prompting celebrities like Gina Rodriguez, star of The CW's Jane the Virgin, to speak out with op-eds or social campaigns like #MovementMondays.

So the fact of having a main cast be entirely Latino, played by actual Latinos, feels like a true achievement. This inclusion happens behind the camera too, with half the writers' room being Latino themselves. With so many story arcs based on personal experience, heritage feels deeply considered. Even Lydia, who celebrates her Cuban roots with over-the-top patriotism, is never a caricature. And while the frequent visitor and honorary family member, Schneider (Todd Grinnell), is a White man seemingly interjected into the story as an avatar for White viewers, writer Jen Chaney points out that he represents a symbol of privilege more than he impedes the narrative. The writers know to focus on the Alvarez family.

Even beyond strong Latino talent, the show actively tackles a range of topics that concern race. For example, immigration makes an entrance through parallel stories that end differently: Elena's friend Carmen (Ariela Barer) is separated from her parents, who get deported to Mexico as undocumented immigrants. Meanwhile, Schneider crossed the Canadian border without documentation, yet lives in California without the ever-present fear of getting deported, perhaps due to his cis White male privilege.

Colorism and the concept of passing is also explored, as Elena's family points out that she has evaded racial abuse because she is White-passing. In "The Turn" (season 2, episode 1), Elena vocally defends her family in the face of microaggressions from a White man. A bystander says, "That is so cool. Anne Hathaway totally just stood up to those Mexicans!" The moment strikes a perfect balance of hilarious and illuminating, as writers spotlight Elena's White-passing privilege without making anyone out to be the bad guy.

I could go on in this category, but one last theme I'll mention is the way One Day at a Time examines generational themes — how heritage and culture is passed down through the children and grandchildren of immigrants, or sometimes how they're not passed down. In short, One Day at a Time paints universal themes with brush strokes unique to the Cuban or Latino experience, creating an authentic depiction of race that feels absolutely natural.

Rita Moreno in an episodic photo from Netflix's "One Day at a Time."
Rita Moreno in Netflix's "One Day at a Time." Credit: Mike Yarish / Netflix

LGBTQ: 4.75/5

The handling of LGBTQ issues in One Day at a Time has been heralded by queer writers, and for good reason. For starters, the primary LGBTQ story arc of Elena discovering her sexuality takes place across seasons with a realistic balance of triumph and sobriety. Coming out as a young teenager is a confusing and messy process and in this show, Elena is given the room and breadth to depict just that. Whether it's through kissing a boy, to realizing she isn't into him, to finding out who she is into, the show treats queer themes the same way it does all its topics: with warmth, love, and a sense of humor.

This doesn't mean they shy away from the hard stuff. Not only does Elena have to deal with societal pressures, the writers candidly show that not everyone will be accepting. Elena's father, Victor (James Martinez), goes from being an affectionate (if largely absent) father, to giving his daughter the cold shoulder after finding out that Elena is gay. In its most heartbreaking apex, Victor ditches Elena at her quinceañera during the father-daughter dance and Penelope rushes in to fill the embarrassing, aching void, dancing with her daughter as they prop each other up.

Luckily, Elena's journey doesn't end there. In season 2, her conservative father finally begins to come to terms with her sexuality and reopens lines of communication. It isn't a picture-perfect ending; rather, as with so many real-life cases, it's a long and difficult road to acceptance from either party.

As sensitively drawn as Elena's story arc is, however, a couple things keep me from giving One Day at a Time a perfect score in this category. Sometimes Elena skirts a bit too closely to the stereotype of being an angry lesbian — literally, at one point Lydia ironically quips to Elena that "being a lesbian has made you angry." But the show generally does a good job of showing how Elena's activism and "social justice warrior" tendencies came before she realized she was gay, instead of being wholly wrapped up with her sexuality. Moreover, Elena's sweet romance with Syd (Sheridan Pierce), who identifies as non-binary and uses they/them pronouns, is handled in a heartwarming way.

One final area where One Day at a Time could progress is to expand its umbrella of LGBTQ perspectives. For example, transgender characters feature briefly, as social justice-y friends of Elena and Syd, but their one scene in "To Zir, With Love" (season 2, episode 2) is mostly played for laughs. Without multiple scenes, these flat queer characters feel like punchlines as they introduce themselves with pronouns before marching off to protest a video game, painted signs in hand. I know that isn't the intent, but seeing a one-time gaggle of individuals storm the screen, show off their otherness, only to disappear for the rest of the season, rings a bit hollow.

Justina Machado, Isabella Gomez, and Marcel Ruiz in an episodic photo from Netflix's "One Day at a Time."
Justina Machado, Isabella Gomez, and Marcel Ruiz in Netflix's "One Day at a Time." Credit: Mike Yarish / Netflix

Bonus for Age: +1.00

Lydia, played by 86-year old EGOT Rita Moreno, provides the glue to the Alvarez family and easily defies stereotypes about older women. She enjoys a vibrant social life, including romantic entanglements, and remains active and energetic. Her inclusion as a major character allows her to be seen outside the apartment, whether at the opera or at church. And her dedication to fitness — Lydia teaches dance classes during the day — waves off the assumption that seniors necessarily have issues with mobility.

Moreno had one stipulation before accepting the role of Lydia. As she told Gold Derby, "I know she's older, and I know she's a grandmother, but she has to be a sexual person." With this in mind, Lydia easily defies the stereotype of women losing their sexual viability once they reach a certain age.

This isn't to say that age is completely ignored. What makes One Day at a Time so good at depicting marginalized stories is that they're shown in full — the good, the bad, and the ugly. Lydia may be a complete firecracker, but she isn't invincible. At the end of season 2, she deals with some serious health issues. Once more, we see how the writers are not afraid to show life as it is.

Rita Moreno and Tony Plana in an episodic photo from Netflix's "One Day at a Time."
Rita Moreno and Tony Plana in Netflix's "One Day at a Time." Credit: Mike Yarish / Netflix

Bonus for Disability: +0.75

Mental health and addiction are major themes to the show. Penelope and her husband Victor both suffer from PTSD after leaving the army, and they deal with it in different ways. While Lydia disregards Penelope's antidepressants as "for the locos," she later comes around to their usage after her daughter falls into a deep depression.

Meanwhile, Victor and Schneider present the dangers of substance usage. After leaving the army, Victor's PTSD causes him to turn to alcohol abuse. Combined with stoic machismo, as Victor refuses to get help, his situation only worsens to the point that it destroys his marriage. Schneider also deals with drug addiction, but he is shown as a recovering addict who has yet to relapse. Through these three characters, mental health and its repercussions on loved ones is given due exposure.

Justina Machado and James Martinez in an episodic photo from Netflix's "One Day at a Time."
Justina Machado and James Martinez in Netflix's "One Day at a Time." Credit: Mike Yarish / Netflix

Bonus for Religion: +0.25

Lydia is portrayed as a devout Catholic and the Alvarez household is full of religious imagery, from crosses on the wall to photos of the Pope. In fact, it's the latter that leads to a tiff between Penelope and Lydia, who fight over having the Pope's face on their fridge in "No Mass" (season 1, episode 3). The episode quickly turns into a meditation on religion and the friction it causes when family members come to different conclusions about faith and spirituality.

While it doesn't come up too often, we do see matters of religion elsewhere in the show. Writer Olga Segura highlights a poignant scene:

Lydia admits to Penelope that she is not comfortable with Elena's sexuality because it goes against church teaching. "Although God did make us in his image. And God doesn't make mistakes," she says. "And when it comes to the gays, the pope did say, 'Who am I to judge?' And the pope represents God. So, what, am I going to go against the pope and God? Who the hell do I think I am?"
Isabella Gomez and Marcel Ruiz in an episodic photo from Netflix's "One Day at a Time."
Isabella Gomez and Marcel Ruiz in Netflix's "One Day at a Time." Credit: Mike Yarish / Netflix

Mediaversity Grade: A+ 5.38/5

Not only does One Day at a Time snatch the winning crown for the most inclusive show we have yet to review at Mediaversity, it blows its competition out of the water. The show isn't just "diverse" — it celebrates the raucous joy of divergent viewpoints, in all its complicated glory, without ever forgetting its ultimate message that having deep and abiding love for each other is more powerful than our differences.

Through this optimistic lens, One Day at a Time champions progressive ideals without denigrating conservative or traditional perspectives. How many shows can say they achieve that?

The ways we watch TV and movies have evolved, and it's time for the talent in front of and behind the camera to do the same. Film Forward speaks on the initiatives to diversify the film industry and the stories it tells. New articles premiere every second Thursday of — and throughout — the month.

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