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I’ll admit I wasn’t particularly excited to start in on my One Day at a Time screeners, mostly due to my limited knowledge of the series on which it is loosely based. But by the time I finished watching all 13 episodes of the first season Monday night, I was so glad I had. It’s become rather fashionable of late to declare that a show is “exactly what we need right now,” but I really believe this modern update of One Day at a Time (which premieres on Netflix on January 6) is exactly that, for a number of reasons.
First off, this is an excellent multi-cam family sitcom- something that has been missing from the television landscape lately. There’s just something special about a multi-cam sitcom that isn’t there with all the single-cam fare currently on the air (some of which, like ABC’s Black-ish, are excellent, but lack the comfort of a multi-cam look). It certainly took me back to my childhood, watching classic late 80s and early 90s sitcoms, nearly all of which were multi-cam, and all of which had that distinctive “sitcom” style that I’ve certainly missed.
But camera set-up aside, One Day at a Time works for the three reasons all great sitcoms work: smart, inspired writing, wonderful characters, and a great cast. Norman Lear, Gloria Calderon Kellett, and Mike Royce (along with their writing staff) have managed to craft a solid first season, with strong character and story arcs, and a great balance between humor and poignant family drama. But the best, and biggest change, from the traditional multi-cam family sitcom is that not every story is solved within the bounds of a single episode. Just like in life, sometimes it takes a character more than the requisite 30 minute episode running time to acclimate herself to a major change in the family. The characters are given a chance to grow and breathe at their own pace.
One Day at a Time follows a Cuban-American family, led by the versatile Justina Machado (Six Feet Under) as single mom Penelope and stage and screen legend Rita Moreno (West Side Story) as grandmother Lydia. There are, naturally, two children: the smart, Liberal-leaning teenage daughter Elena (Isabella Gomez, who shines in her more dramatic moments) and a precocious pre-teen son Alex (Marcel Ruiz). And, as with the original One Day at a Time, there’s building superintendent Schnieder (Todd Grinnell, who I would like to see get storylines of greater substance in season two). As one would expect, a great deal of the show’s comedy comes from generational clashes (most often between traditional, more conservative Lydia and the Liberal Elena) and confronting key issues of today’s world (such as immigration, teenage sexuality, and equal pay), but there are plenty of great one-liners (and some really funny Catholic jokes that this Irish-Catholic lady appreciated), and I often found myself gleefully laughing (when I wasn’t tearing up at some of the show’s excellent dramatic moments, that is).
But even the best characters and best writing don’t work without great actors at the forefront, and One Day at a Time is blessed with a strong cast led by the excellent Machado, who carries the show beautifully. Known for mostly supporting roles, Machado makes the heavy lifting of leading a sitcom appear effortless in this star turn. She has strong comedic timing and handles the emotional elements of the role with aplomb. While it may seem obvious to those who have followed her storied career, Moreno is great as the family matriarch. Sure, she is a bit too broad in the earlier episodes of the season, but as Lydia grows and changes throughout the episodes, Moreno sinks deeper into the role and imbues the character with depth. And yes, for those wondering, she still has some serious moves.
One Day at a Time is a sitcom that can be watched by the entire family, and has moments that will resonate with kids and adults alike (something that is much harder to pull off than one might think). And, on a personal note, one story arc from late in the season hit rather close to home for me and had me wishing that a show like this one existed when I was younger. However, I’m thrilled that it exists now. Hopefully we’ll have the chance to spend more time with the Alvarez family for years to come.