why aren't more people talking about netflix's razor-sharp sitcom 'one day at a time'?
The Netflix reboot of 70s comedy 'One Day at a Time' is quite possibly the best (and most important) show on screens right now.
There’s a scene in the third season of One Day at a Time -- now available to stream on Netflix -- where the Alvarez family discuss the concept of sexual consent. It all seems fairly innocuous to begin with, but quickly the conversation evolves into a much broader take on #MeToo, toxic masculinity, queer empowerment and rape all in the space of three minutes. The clip has gone viral on social media with people celebrating the show’s frank discussion of timely issues with such razor sharp nuance. As far as sitcoms go, addressing even one topical issue can seem like a risk too far, but in this case it proves just why the Netflix reboot of One Day at a Time is quite possibly the best (and most important) show on screens right now.
Based on the much-loved Norman Lear sitcom that originally ran from 1975 through to 1984 about a newly divorced mother trying to balance romance and her career while raising two feisty teenagers, the reboot has stayed true to the show’s original premise since it started airing in 2017. But now the focus is on a hispanic family with Penelope -- a divorced mother who is also an Iraq War veteran and suffers from PTSD and anxiety -- played by the brilliant Justina Machado, as she raises her two politically-charged teenage children. These minor changes have allowed the sitcom -- which during its original run never tackled anything too hard-hitting, favouring light-hearted gags and endless romantic story-arcs -- to now confidently broach issues like drug addiction, gentrification, immigration and gun control.
On paper this shouldn’t work. The sitcom genre is not famed for its ability to address social and political issues affecting people in real time, especially when it’s filmed in front a live studio audience and features canned laughter. But it’s through impeccable writing and honest storytelling that One Day at a Time manages to hit hard when it needs to. There’s no ‘special episode’ feeling to this series, where between the silly jokes and slapstick gags there’s a Very Important Lesson to be learned. Better yet, the messages put across aren't thrust on you as a viewer. They’re seamlessly written into the story: from a Latinx teenager coming out to her family as she battles between her culture and her sexuality, to a young boy detailing the everyday racism he experiences experience in Trump’s America just because he’s Hispanic.
While the first season focused heavily on the how the eldest daughter Elena, played by Isabella Gomez, comes to terms with her sexuality amid her deep-rooted Latin heritage in the run-up to her all important quinceañera (15th birthday), by the third season she’s contemplating having sex for the first time with her partner Syd -- who in the show is referred to as Elena’s ‘Syd-nificant other’, both identifying as non-binary. This gives the episode a chance to open up into a wider conversation not only about teens have sex, but gay teens having consensual sex and how Penelope tries to advise as a mother despite her own lack of experience on the topic.
With Penelope’s PTSD from war -- the show examines how mental health can often be too taboo to be discussed properly within ethnic households. Instead of making it a quirky little personality trait or the butt of a joke, the series routinely delves into the psyche of Penelope sensitively. When she feels like she doesn’t need to attend group therapy anymore or take her antidepressants, you see quite an unfiltered reality of what it’s like living with depression. The apathy, the hopelessness and days spent in bed. It makes for an extremely sobering watch. More so, her struggles with anxiety are unpacked in season three as Penelope learns how to cope when she feels an attack coming on with an ingenious ‘Stop Sign’ metaphor that’s been hailed by many as compulsory viewing.
As trite as it may sound, seeing the stories of young queer people and mental health problems being handled with such care and nuance is so invigorating to watch. But while I’m not alone in thinking this -- the show has been a critical success and bagged itself a nomination for Outstanding Comedy at the 2019 GLAAD Awards -- it hasn’t commanded as much coverage as it deserves and remains an underdog on Netflix.
When the clip of the Alvarez family discussing consent went viral many of the tweets in response were asking what the show was and where they could watch it, with some admitting they’d never heard of the sitcom before. Back in 2018, the show’s humble existence even led the National Hispanic Media Coalition (NHMC) to write an open letter to Netflix urging the streaming giant to renew it for a third season. The letter praised the show for “not only pro-actively shifting the public narrative of Latino Americans, but simultaneously setting the standard for positive and equitable representation of Latinos in television.”
Rebooting a beloved sitcom is by no means reinventing the wheel. Both Will & Grace and Roseanne have returned to our screens in recent years, but have fallen victim to either over-egging their stance on social justice to keep up with the times to the point where they’re clearly pandering. Or in Roseanne’s case coming across completely tone deaf and spewing Islamophobia to garner cheap laughs. The difference with One Day at a Time is that it never congratulates itself for being ‘woke’ or progressive -- it just is.
One Day at a Time is both timely and necessary. It has razor sharp writing and acting, bolstered by a celebration of Cuban culture across three generations in one family. But no matter how great the show is, it’s future and the potential of fourth season are frustratingly still up in the air. Given hispanic representation on TV is criminally low (only 22 Latinx led shows have been picked up since 2000), the fact a show a show like this even exists feels revolutionary. Please don’t sleep on it.