The Good: Smartly raises a number of social issues, Good performances, Moments of character
The Bad: Laugh track, Often falls short on resolution
The Basics: One Day At A Time Season One is an unlikely success for Netflix as a surprisingly smart sitcom!
Netflix has a decent, albeit recent, history of producing television shows that have a definite "must watch" quality to them. Recently, however, it seems like the studio is churning out productions at a rate that gives viewers very little time to find - much less enjoy - their original content. Indeed, some of it is being released with such a lack of fanfare that the only way one finds it is by searching the Netflix Originals section of the streaming service. That was how I found the first season of One Day At A Time, which (apparently) was released last Friday for its full thirteen-episode season.
I sat down to One Day At A Time with a sense of excitement and trepidation. The excitement came from the fact that the preview trailer (which I watched in advance of the season) featured Justina Machado prominently. Machado impressed me with her performance on Six Feet Under (reviewed here!), but has been more or less off my radar since. I was excited to see she got work again and was headlining a new show.
My trepidation with watching the first season of One Day At A Time came from the heavy use of the laugh track in the preview trailer. Weren't laugh tracks pretty much dead by now?! Wasn't one of the key selling points of Netflix supposed to be that it was attracting a caliber of viewer (on par with its prime competition, HBO) who was smart enough to be able to laugh at what they found funny, as opposed to being prompted by an idiot laugh track?! My trepidation was deepened when, in doing the most basic prep work for the review, I learned that One Day At A Time was simply a remake of a 1970s sitcom.
The thing is, despite how truly terrible the laugh track is in One Day At A Time, the first season of One Day At A Time is high on charm, subversively smart, and develops far better than one might expect from what initially appears as a TGIF reject. After an initial sense of dismay over the resolution to the first couple of episodes and the predictable nature of the resolutions, One Day At A Time starts to hit a stride that becomes wonderfully more complex than it began!
Penelope is a veteran of the U.S.'s war in Afghanistan, who is raising her two children alone, with her mother in Echo Park, California. Penelope works as a nurse in Dr. Berkowitz's office and is struggling to keep a level head while suffering from ptsd. While Penelope fights with her daughter, Elena, about having her quinceanera, and her son, Alex, about his desire to spend a lot of money on shoes, she struggles with depression. While Penelope's mother, Lydia, undermines her by cooking and fighting for Elena's quinceanera, Penelope gets on anti-depressants and keeps her house in order.
Penelope deals with things like an aggressive co-worker, Scott, and quits in a rage when his sexism pushes her over the edge. After getting her job back, Penelope confronts Lydia over her exerting more influence over her family than she is comfortable with. She begins dating and throws a birthday party for her boss. The family car dies, necessitating her buying a new one. That puts her in touch with another veteran and gets her into therapy. Schneider falls in love with Lydia's backstory, Elena gets into a prestigious educational program, and Alex tries to make a student film.
One Day At A Time pulls its punches and works too hard within the traditional sitcom format. The latter argument is certainly tied to the laugh track and use of the audience noises. For example, when Lydia first appears on screen in the pilot, there is a long hoot and hollering from the audience. The reaction comes solely from the fact that Lydia is played by Rita Moreno, who is an accomplished, great actress. But the hoots and hollers that are rendered when she comes on screen pulls the viewer out of the narrative to acknowledge Rita Moreno, as opposed to having anything to do with the show. It's an archaic television conceit and it plays especially poorly in One Day At A Time. I had to look up Mackenzie Phillips to understand why she was getting similar hoots when she appeared on screen (she was, apparently, in the original Once Day At A Time).
One Day At A Time also suffers because it pulls its punches, most notably with Elena. Elena is a strong feminist character who makes rational arguments and stands up for herself in both a healthy and reasonable way, especially when she takes a stand involving her forced quincinera. She capitulates for no good reason and robs the pilot episode of a satisfying resolution. In fact, the first episode of One Day At A Time leads to two big emotional moments, Penelope's where she realizes that she wants the quinceanera for herself and the other where she recognizes that she needs the anti-depressants. The former moment is unfortunately undermined by Elena capitulating to the party, as opposed to Penelope pushing for the idea that she shouldn't because she no longer needs the validation from her peers about what an amazing job she did as a single mother.
At the other end of the spectrum, after Penelope learns about the pay disparity at her job, she takes a reasonable stand. One Day At A Time is smart enough to present a complex view of how management deals with pay - Scott, for example, is paid more because he asked for it initially and when confronted with it, Dr. Berkowitz quickly comes around to giving Penelope a raise. But when Penelope and Lydia have a conflict with one another over religion, Penelope comes around, as opposed to coming up with a pretty credible, combat-based example of how god probably does not exist. Like so many sitcoms, One Day At A Time resolves with homeostasis, as opposed to audacious or interesting changes that force the story and characters to evolve. Similarly, when the show tackles the immigration issue with Elena's best friend dealing with her family being deported, the show goes for a somewhat ridiculous "everyone should be with their family" paradigm instead of "we help people, we'll take her in." It substantially undermines Penelope's (and the liberal's) argument that people who are doing the right thing, contributing in a positive way, regardless of their legal status, when Penelope essentially deports Carmen.
One Day At A Time is a fairly straightforward sitcom for its thirteen episode first season. It takes until the fourth episode, "A Snowman's Tale" before the very literal and formulaic style is shaken up. It is there that it is revealed that Penelope is completely separated and is going on her first date in twenty years. She tells the story of leading up to the first date with flashbacks and "therapy" sessions between all of the people she tells about her anxieties leading up to the date (as well as a flashback to how Elena met her husband).
On the plus side, One Day At A Time fights very hard to fight against stereotypes and stigmas. Justina Machado is not a stick-figure thin, white, blonde woman and One Day At A Time capitalizes on that. Machado fearlessly delivers lines (and a physical performance) about female facial hair, suffering from depression, and not being a Real Housewives style vacuous woman. She is presented as smart, empowered and hard-working instead of anything fluffy or resembling "playing feminine."
In the first season of One Day At A Time, the core characters are:
Penelope - A strong Cuban-American veteran of the U.S. Army, she is raising her two children without the help of her husband (who is working as a private contractor in Afghanistan). She argues with Elena and keeps Alex on the right path, while still working hard. She fights for equality at work, where her good ideas have gone neglected. Her busy work schedule leads her to reject the idea of going to church one Sunday in order to spend time hiking with her family. To keep things good with her boss, she throws him an impromptu birthday party. She tries to play the "veteran card" when she needs to get a new car and she makes an unlikely new friend in the process. Her shoulder injury from Afghanistan flares up, which forces her to deal with Veteran's Affairs,
Elena - Penelope's liberal daughter, she fights the idea of a patriarchal quinceanera and advocates for a compost can at her private school. When Penelope and Lydia pressure her to have the quinceanera, she passively resists by getting a "D" on her social studies test. She capitulates on the quinceanera in order to be able to show off how strong her single mother is. She is heartbroken when her classmates fail to use her compost pail at school and she gets decked with a hamburger instead. She is socially-active and rejects wearing make-up in order to be her own person. She suddenly discovers that she likes gossiping when Penelope goes on a date and she is asked not to tell anyone. Her best friend, Carmen, freaks her grandmother out and is a goth, which is off-putting to Penelope. She advocates for taking public transportation when the car breaks down in order to reduce the family's carbon footprint. She is offended when she is the diversity candidate for a major summer educational program,
Alex - Penelope and Victor's young son, he is obsessed with looking good and being cute. He is almost constantly glued to his laptop. He speaks Spanish and translates Lydia's snarky remarks for Elena. He is an odd mix of naive and (usually thanks to things Elena has told him) incredibly smart. He bonds with his mother over how weird dating is. He succumbs to peer pressure to steal some of his mother's anti-depressants, but is talked down by Elena. He makes a student film, which ends up revealing something surprising from his grandmother's past,
Schneider - The landlord at Penelope's apartment, he hangs around with Lydia more than he actually repairs problems in the apartment. He inadvertently mansplains and works to update his stories about his nanny to remind himself that she is now his step-mother. He is a womanizer, but friendly with Lydia and protective of Penelope. An illegal Canadian immigrant, he is now legal thanks to his rich father and an army of lawyers,
Dr. Leslie Berkowitz - A competent doctor, who is easily pushed around. He inadvertently pays Scott more than Penelope and he works very hard to avoid conflict. He is highly ethical and when Penelope leaves, he immediately tracks her down to try to make things right with her. He is lonely and estranged from his adult daughter, with whom he struggles to have a relationship. He is willing to go with Penelope to a car dealership as a prop so she is not taken advantage of, but he has to see his daughter. He and Lydia start to develop a relationship, though he clearly wants something more romantic than she wants,
and Lydia - Penelope's mother, she is the protector of the family's Cuban culture . . . though she loves yoga in addition to her salsa dancing. She advocates strongly for Elena to have a quinceanera. She is offended by the idea that Penelope might reject going to church. She always wears make-up and communicates with her dead husband. She is willing to go back to teaching dance in order to help financially contribute to the family. She starts to tell Penelope about her past, especially after Alex starts his film project.
One Day At A Time has a fairly decent cast, led by Justina Machado. Machado illustrates that she has a good sense of comic timing - which is not something she was able to showcase on Six Feet Under. Machado has great on-screen chemistry with both of the performers playing her children and with Rita Moreno. Machado brings a bad-ass quality to the part of Penelope that makes it entirely credible that her character was ex-Army. She also has a pretty amazing poker face for delivering deadpan lines. Well within her established wheelhouse are moments when she performs on her own and arguably one of the most poignant is where she acts opposite a five dollar bill. In the subsequent dialogue that follows, Machado makes expository dialogue seem perfectly real with her passionate delivery.
The seasoned performers in One Day At A Time are predictably amazing. Rita Moreno, while originally used for her celebrity, delivers a number of her lines beautifully tongue-in-cheek. Moreno shows she still has the dance moves that made her famous and is able to sell the over-the-top accent her character speaks with (having heard interviews with Moreno, it is very clearly not her normal speaking pattern). Despite how formulaic the scripts are, Moreno blows away a scene in which Lydia reveals a painful truth to Penelope and her ability to emote in telling a story as she does. Stephen Tobolowsky plays Dr. Berkowitz with a sadness and pathetic quality that is sometimes tough to watch, but he is able to act masterfully. Tobolowsky is able to emote with his eyes and a slumped posture in a way that most younger performers never seem to learn.
The scene stealer for One Day At A Time's first season is Isabella Gomez. Gomez plays Elena and the young actress has a screen presence that is impressive. Gomez holds her own in scenes with Rita Moreno and on her own. Gomez has good deliveries and the ability to emote in ways that most young performers do not. The last time I was this impressed by a young person's acting was seeing Anne Hathaway in her early works. Isabella Gomez has a decent sense of comic timing and delivers all of her character's impassioned, high-minded lines with a level of articulation that makes it entirely believable that Elena holds such enlightened views! Gomez is given a lot to do as Elena - including being a fourteen year-old who is questioning her own sexuality - and One Day At A Time uses Gomez appropriately (without exploiting the young actress, possibly because of Ariel Winter's activism?) and in a way that allows her to show off her talent and range, though in the middle of the season Elena takes on less of mousy appearance.
The first season of One Day At A Time is semi-serialized, with a few elements from each episode carrying over into the next. So, Elena's quinceanera bookends the season, with planning occurring throughout the season, with elements like Dr. Berkowitz and Lydia having a burgeoning relationship and the friendship that develops between Penelope and another former military officer.
One Day At A Time has a rough start, but it is so disarming and it develops so well that the laugh track stops feeling so intrusive and some of the predictable reversals in the last five minutes actually manage to work. The result is a surprise winner for Netflix that actually works!
For other works from the 2016 – 2017 television season, please check out my reviews of:
Travelers - Season 1
"A Christmas Special" - Sense8
The OA - Season 1
Gilmore Girls: A Year In The Life
"Invasion!" - Arrow
"The Laws Of Inferno Dynamics" - Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.
"Flashpoint" - The Flash
"The Chicago Way" - Legends Of Tomorrow
"The Adventures Of Supergirl" - Supergirl
Luke Cage - Season 1
Stranger Things - Season 1
For other movie and television reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2017 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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