Friday, January 26, 2018

One Day At A Time Season 2 Manages To Be Better Than The First!

The Good: Very funny (Hilarious, actually!), Socially smart and progressive, Good performances
The Bad: Sitcom contrivances and some character conceits undermine some big moments
The Basics: The second season of One Day At A Time is legitimately funny, uncommonly complicated, and entirely enjoyable to binge on!

There are few shows that I actually get excited about these days. The truth is, there are a lot of bad television shows on the air or works that have run their course, but still churn out episodes. One Day At A Time is not that. So, for the first time in months, I woke up eager to watch a new season of television as it made its debut. One Day At A Time Season Two dropped on Netflix today and I was eager to see the new thirteen-episode season.

Last year, the first season of One Day At A Time (reviewed here!) became one of the most pleasant surprises on television. The show was a reimagining of a long-running sitcom and the first season managed to defy the usual sitcom formula by having more serialized elements. The first season of One Day At A Time introduced the Alvarez family and followed the struggle Elena went through with coming out and preparing for her quinceanera. And, it is worth noting right up front: One Day At A Time did not use a laugh track. After my first season review, I was thrilled when one of the show's executive producer's contacted me directly to set me straight. She informed me that the show did not use a laugh track; the laughter was from a studio audience. Netflix might not say it, but One Day At A Time (at least Season 1) was filmed in front of a live studio audience for the authenticity of the reactions. All appearances in season two are that One Day At A Time continued the trend.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of One Day At A Time Season Two is that it manages to be even better than the first season.

Opening at one of Alex's baseball games, the Alvarez family enthusiastically cheers on Penelope's son, much to his embarassment. At the same time, Elena is mortified when Schneider - who now speaks Spanish better than she does - is mistaken for her father. After a debate on identity (Penelope, Alex, and Elena are natural born U.S. citizens, while Lydia immigrated to the U.S. from Cuba sixty years prior and Schneider is from Canada) that finds the family going out for ice cream as a catharsis, Penelope finds herself failing her nursing classes and eager to give up. After Elena explores the difficulties of her first crush, Penelope begins working at a hospital for her nursing courses where she meets up with Max. Max and Penelope begin a relationship that Penelope wants to keep from her family.

Penelope and Max are able to keep their relationship a secret - which is made difficult by a neighborhood lockdown that occurs when Max is over for a clandestine meeting. While Max makes baby steps with Penelope, Elena finds herself in a full-blown relationship with Syd. After Penelope forces her children to try work - Alex comes to work for a week at the doctor's office and Elena tries to make money off Twitch playing video games - she has the exclusivity conversation with Max. Elena and Syd try to figure out who Alex's secret girlfriend "P" is and the results leave Elena shocked and deeply hurt. When Victor comes to town, the Alvarez family is thrown into turmoil. Elena begins working for Schneider and Lydia confronts her hoarding. And, as their relationships progress, Elena and Syd go to a dance and Max and Penelope try to go away on vacation, but get roped into chaperoning.

One Day At A Time Season Two does both solid character work and presents a story that allows the characters to discuss important social issues with a forwardthinking bias. In fact, as I came to consider the entire second season of One Day At A Time, the two things that robbed the season of perfection were problems on both of those fronts. In the second season of One Day At A Time, Leslie Berkowitz spends the first six episodes making his feelings to Lydia very clear and while that gets dealt with in a satisfactory way in episode seven, the characters treat him terribly in most of the other episodes. Berkowitz is a terribly sad character and most of the others interact with him without any empathy - indeed for some of his lines, the studio audience was apparently made up of psychopaths who laugh at his pain (Stephen Tobolowsky gives the performances of his career in this season of One Day At A Time alternating between sad, loving, and quietly compassionate). But beyond that, Penelope is characterized as a kind character in a show where people talk about real issues and try to exhibit compassion, but she entirely blows off Alex's assertions that he does not want to be called "Papito" any more. By the middle of the season, Alex is calling himself by the nickname that he asserts from the beginning that he has outgrown. Alex's most compelling arc in the second season - where he stands up to his father on behalf of Elena - is not shown on screen. Even worse, Elena's first interaction with Victor in the second season starts out as a powerhouse of acting and character that is undermined for a fast resolution.

On the social activism front, One Day At A Time is unabashedly, delightfully, liberal in its second season, growing organically out of its first season making social commentary. While I was initially put on guard by the teaser to the season premiere - it seemed like the Cuban-American equivalent to Will & Grace where all the jokes are reduced to the one aspect of the character's personalities - the rest of the episode pulls it out with a substantive debate on identity. But even there, One Day At A Time Season Two overloads its arguments, which is ironic given that the show seems very willing to explore subtleties and controversy. In the season premiere, for example, a white man makes a comment about the Alvarez family being loud in a tiny ice cream parlor. Yes, he phrases his request poorly and in terms that indicate there is a possible ethnic component to it, but on the regroup he points out that - objectively - they were being very loud in a confined space and there's no acknowledgement that there is an element of personal responsibility and restraint in social situations where it can be difficult to have an interaction with the people you are with when there are others nearby speaking loudly . . . or chanting ridiculously. In a similar fashion, while One Day At A Time Season Two argues wonderfully for progressive values, it seems unwilling to call b.s. on the social justice warriors - "personal pronouns" ultimately defeat the purpose of pronouns, which is to replace nouns; personal pronouns are just another noun. While the show makes a joke about how confusing they can be, it fails to actually confront that the movements lose credibility when every little snowflake wants the world - and language - to revolve around them. One Day At A Time Season Two does manage to contradict the ridiculous notion that people who were raised in monogamous families and conditioned to that could satisfactorily have a "casual sex relationship."

But then there is what One Day At A Time does right. On the thematic front, the second season of One Day At A Time magnificently tackles mental health issues. Penelope Alvarez is one of the few characters on television who has post-traumatic stress disorder and the show does not shy away from showing how complicated it is to live with that. The ninth episode of the season is a magnificent exploration of how much of a struggle it is to live with mental health issues. That episode shows how difficult it can be for a person suffering with mental health issues to find a healthy balance - the desire to get stability often leads to a premature termination of the things that brought stability - and Justina Machado, Rita Moreno and Todd Grinnell are amazing in the episode. The irony is that after a near-miss on a perfect episode ("What Happened," which came so close!), One Day At A Time Season Two delivers a perfect episode with episode 9!

Outside PTSD, One Day At A Time generally knocks the thematic elements out of the park. Lydia continues to be a loving mother who accepts her daughter and granddaughter in complete opposition to the more conservative stereotypes about people her age who were raised in very conservative countries. When One Day At A Time discusses gun control issues, the fearlessness of the writing that observes that having a gun in the home of a young gay person and a woman with post-traumatic stress is probably a recipe for disaster is a welcome breath of honesty. That type of honesty, in conjunction with fearlessly confronting racism, romantic complications of older people (widows and divorcees), voting rights, and the rising tide of anti-immigrant sentiments in the United States, makes One Day At A Time Season 2 once again defies the expectations of a sitcom as a simplistic medium. Who would have guessed that a Netflix sitcom would manage to discuss ethnic diversity among Cuban-Americans in a way that even Crash did not?!

The borders of theme and character are wonderfully blurred by Syd and Elena's relationship. Syd starts the season as a social commentary character and Elena has some strong principles - like believing that school dances are archaic and patriarchal. But when Syd comes over, sings an adorable song to ask her out, Elena melts in a very human way that seems entirely organic for her character.

On the character front, the Alvarez family is fleshed out through the flashback episode "What Happened" (episode 8), which shows many of the key incidents in Penelope and Victor's life together and the season progesses without a sense of cohesion to it. While the first season was bookended by Elena's quinceanara is more amorphous, though Lydia and Schneider's attempts to become U.S. citizens pop up at the beginning and end of the season.

In the second season of One Day At A Time, the primary characters are:

Penelope - Divorced now from Victor, she is alarmed when Alex gets in trouble for punching another student. She is disappointed when she finds herself failing her nurse practitioner courses and even more shocked when she hooks up with a cute guy she knew in Afghanistan, who is working as an EMT in Echo Park and she sees at work. She is hesitant to let her family know about Max and tries to instill a good work ethic in her children by helping them get jobs. She comes to believe she no longer needs therapy and takes herself off her antidepressents, which leads her to lash out at Schneider. When she discovers the apartment has a garage that she is entitled to, she has a conflict with her mother . . . who has been using it for decades. Max tells her he is in love with her and that leads her to open up emotionally to him,

Elena - Penelope's liberal daughter, she is now sixteen, fighting for every possible cause she can think of and she has her first crush. She is shocked to learn that she is passing for caucasian when someone mistakes Schneider for her father. She discovers that it is a tough thing to be a young lesbian, who has to actually confirm a girl's sexuality instead of just anonymously sniffing her hair. She becomes furious when she learns her grandmother does not vote. She gets involved with a gender non-conformist girl who she is scared to even spend time alone talking with. The two bond over Doctor Who and social activism. When she learns that Victor is in town, she tells him off . . . to a point. She is reluctantly forced to confess to her home-schooled girlfriend that she is not popular at school,

Alex - While at the planetarium, he is verbally attacked and responds by punching a child from another school. He continues to trade upon his youthful good looks. He is mortified when he is seen by classmates see him out at the movies with his mother and how his family cheers at his baseball games. He comes to work at Dr. Berkowitz's office filing to pay for his new sneakers, where he learns to respect how hard his mother works. He goes to the school dance with a ridiculously older looking girl, but is left by her at the dance,

Schneider - The landlord at Penelope's apartment, he is a former addict, who is now obsessed with spinning. He has learned Spanish to better "be a part of the family." He decides to apply for his American citizenship, but spends more time playing video games with Elena instead. He subcontracts out to Elena for fixing things around the apartment building because he is so lazy. He dates a terrible woman who is running for PTA president, but is a consistent and solid friend to Penelope,

Dr. Leslie Berkowitz - He is so encouraging of Penelope's coursework that he leases the next building over to expand his practice. He is still romantically interested in Lydia. He is continually disappointed by how Lydia sees him as a just a friend. He wants to be more than friends with Lydia and he takes advice from Alex on how to make Lydia more interested in him. He helps Penelope out with things like getting her PTA service hours up and even takes dance lessons to impress Lydia,

and Lydia - Penelope's mother, she hurts herself on a tree root, which leads to the revelation that she has never voted! She teaches dance out of the apartment now and picks up some of the slack around the house when Penelope goes to school. Her failure to vote reveals that she is not legally a citizen. She begins studying for her citizenship exam and irks Penelope when she confesses that she has a gun in the house. She begins stalking Dr. Berkowitz at the opera when he starts to put distance between the two of them. She turns out to be a hoarder and she starts outfitting Alex with her dead husband's vintage clothes.

The acting in One Day At A Time Season 2 is pretty wonderful. While Justina Machado leads the cast and manages to prove she has extensive dramatic chops, she is also hilarious in the second season of One Day At A Time. Machado works opposite a very talented cast and seldom breaks (though when she yells "Fubar!" it is hard not to laugh at the joke, as well as her smirk) amid some very funny jokes. Machado and Rita Moreno have amazingly good on-screen chemistry that cements the realism of Penelope and Lydia's relationship.

Outside of the surprise of how much diversity Stephen Tobolowsky brings to the role of Dr. Berkowitz (though it seems he has less on-screen time this season), the real shock on the performance front is Ed Quinn. Quinn plays Max and he is added to a cast that is firing on all cylinders when he arrives. Quinn is more than just a guy who seems like he is cast when Patrick Warburton is unavailable. Quinn seems like he might have been cast initially for his impressive physical presence, but he has great deadpan deliveries and an uncommon sense of comic timing. Quinn and Machado have decent chemistry and they play off one another very well to make the Max and Penelope relationship plausible and delightful to watch. In fact, the final scene Quinn and Machado share in the second season is one of the best of the season.

And One Day At A Time Season 2 exceeds the hopes generated by those who enjoyed the first season. The episodes are funny and complicated and entertaining in a way that uses impressive writing, good direction, and an incredible cast to deliver a truly great season of television.

For other works from the 2017 - 2018 television season, please check out my reviews of:
"The Elongated Knight Rises" - The Flash
"Fort Rozz" - Supergirl
"Vaulting Ambition" - Star Trek: Discovery
Grace And Frankie - Season 4
"The Last Day" - Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.
"Twice Upon A Time" - Doctor Who
The End Of The F***ing World - Season 1
The Orville - Season 1
The Punisher - Season 1
Inhumans - Season 1
Stranger Things - Season 2
Rick And Morty - Season 3
"Beebo The God Of War" - Legends Of Tomorrow
"Crisis On Earth-X, Part 2" - Arrow
Twin Peaks - Season 3 ("The Return")
Game Of Thrones - Season 7
The Defenders - Season 1
Friends From College - Season 1


For other movie and television reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2018 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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