During a time of debate in our country over immigration, identity and acceptance, one of Netflix’s newest releases, “One Day at a Time,” takes these themes and addresses them flawlessly. The reboot of Norman Lear’s 1975 creation by the same name is centered around single mom Penelope Alvarez (Justina Machado), a retired war veteran turned nurse, who is supporting her two kids with the help of her mother Lydia, portrayed by the legendary Rita Moreno. The family, Moreno especially, is unapologetically Cuban, and the pride they hold for their heritage is a driving force behind the unstoppable humor and heart of the show.
On first glance, with its sitcom set-up of thirty minute episodes and live background audience that provides laughter to the punchlines, “One Day at a Time” can be taken as a basic production not worthy of emotional investment. This notion is dashed before the end of the first episode, which presents a cast with energy and natural chemistry with one another. The comic timing is strong, the relationships between the characters feel genuine and real, and the initial introductions to each character make the viewer want to see how they grow.
One of the things I love about TV shows in general is character development and the arc a character has over a series of episodes showing how they grow and change. So often, all attention is given to a select few characters, leaving many of them one-dimensional and used only as props for the central players. The exact opposite effect is present on “One Day at a Time,” where each character is given emotional space to grow and develop, and gains complexity as the series progresses. Machado’s character, while bubbly and quick-witted on the surface, deals with the struggle of being a single mom, having post-traumatic stress disorder and suffering from physical pain from her time in Afghanistan, accepting her daughter when she comes out and clashing with her mother over her decision to split from her husband. Her strong-willed feminist daughter, Elena (Isabella Gomez), while advocating for the social justice issues close to her heart, harbors a fear of being her own person if it means not being accepted by her family. Moreno, who plays Machado’s mother, is a major source of comic relief, and could have been left that way, but instead, she is fleshed out with her revealing story about her trying immigration from Cuba and her deep devotion to Catholicism.
Not only are the characters developed well, but the issues the characters face are all real as well. The show never crosses the line of discussion into preaching, but presents issues of sexism, coming out and healthy methods of coping with addiction, mental illness and other everyday struggles the characters have to face. Elena’s struggle with coming out is one of the most realistic and relatable moments of the show as she questions the validity of her sexuality and what place that has in her Cuban upbringing. This is especially amplified as her mother and grandmother plan her quinceañera, emphasizing the need for her to have a male date for the ceremony. It is her mother’s slow acceptance of her sexuality that adds poignancy to these moments as well and watching Machado’s character endeavor to be a supportive mom while also coming to terms with a new view of her daughter is moving to watch.
“One Day at a Time” takes what could be a very tired sitcom full of cliched tropes and injects it with life and palpable humor. If you want a show that’s lighthearted and frankly extremely funny, but will also have you tearing up at its honesty and sentimentality, this is the show for you.