‘One Day at a Time’ Is the Contemporary Sitcom TV Sorely Needs

The sitcom's not dead; it just needed some smelling salts.

Recommend a sitcom to a millennial these days and the response is an inevitable wrinkling of the nose. “A cheesy, phony multi-camera throwback? No thanks, pass the broody man pouting in the middle of that dark dramedy, please.” This has been among the more frustrating byproducts of our “Peak TV” era: The instant dismissal of shows that have the flat lighting, studio audience, and fixed living-room sets of classic sitcoms of yore, shows that would never be labeled “cinematic.” Shows that look unequivocally like television.

And yet in many ways, sitcoms are my generation’s sepia-tinged Main Street in Anytown, America, a blatantly nostalgic yearning for a simpler time manifested in the comfort of a living room that never changes. This is why the new Netflix remake of One Day at a Time, the 1970s-80s CBS sitcom about a single mom raising three daughters, is such an exciting development: The remake, developed by Gloria Calderon Kellett and Mike Royce and executive produced by Norman Lear, is a bracing reminder of what this format can do — how it can stretch to accommodate any flavor, like a hearty soup stock.

In this case, the flavor is Cuban. Netflix’s One Day at a Time stars the lovely Justina Machado as Penelope Alvarez, a Cuban-American army veteran, nurse, and single mother of two teenagers, 15-year-old Elena (Isabella Gomez) and her younger brother, Alex (Marcel Ruiz). Her mother, Lydia (a dazzling Rita Moreno), who immigrated to the States from Cuba with her now-deceased husband as a young woman, moved with the family into their Echo Park apartment after Penelope and her husband — also an army vet, now working as a private security contractor in Afghanistan — split up a year earlier. The building’s landlord, Schneider (Todd Grinnell, adorable), is an unofficial fifth Alvarez, dropping in frequently to eat dinner, drive Alex to soccer practice, and fix the sink. (Stephen Tobolowsky also stars as Penelope’s boss, Dr. Berkowitz — like Schneider, a benevolent, Cuban-loving Jew.)

ODAAT_ep101_0269.CR2

One Day at a Time is a traditional sitcom for the streaming age. Its first season is shorter, tighter, with more of a clear, unwavering arc, than a typical network comedy, most of which air 20-plus episodes per season. There are scenes and plotlines that I doubt would make it past a broadcast network’s standards and practices department, and not every episode ends with a lighthearted laugh. It might look strange at first glance, a Netflix original that looks like it belongs on ABC or CBS. But then, maybe this is what the sitcom needed all along — emancipation from the broadcast networks and their executives’ notoriously meddling notes.

The result is a textbook-perfect sitcom — seriously, the 13-episode first season is so neatly plotted and well-written, they should teach it in TV-writing classes. It’s wholesome without being stifling, and good-humored in both senses of the word: funny, but also warm and understanding. It’s specific in the details — Penelope shops at Porto’s, L.A.’s famed Cuban bakery, and when Schneider walks into the apartment wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt, the family is horrified — and yet universal in its depiction of the kinds of arguments and issues that will be familiar to so many American families. I grew up Jewish, in Canada, and yet I found myself nodding along vigorously to more than a few of the Alvarez family disputes.

One Day at a Time’s flavor is also distinctly feminist; it’s a woman-focused show centered not on a single working gal but a single working mother — not unlike FX’s Better Things, although vastly different in tone. As Penelope tells Alex when he mentions his father’s child support: “Make no mistake, when it comes to money, I’m your daddy.” Like the CW’s Jane the Virgin, three generations of Latina women are at the heart of One Day at a Time: The tensions between Lydia, Penelope, and Elena are central to the first season’s arc, and provide fodder for some of the show’s most revelatory scenes.

odaat_111_unit_02178_r

The first episode centers on Elena’s resistance to having a quinceañera, which she views as an antiquated, misogynist tradition, and which her grandmother views as an obligatory rite of passage for Cuban women. Throughout the series, Elena is defiantly disheveled — her hair is usually piled on her head in a messy bun, she refuses to wear makeup, and she finishes off her school uniform with a pair of sneakers. Her look is a reminder of how often teenage girls on TV are styled to look like young women, to emphasize their budding curves and tiny little waists; it shouldn’t be this refreshing to see a 15-year-old girl who’d rather read than shop, who wears her school uniform’s plaid skirt below her knees and who isn’t sure if she likes boys. But it is.

Elena’s stridently feminist outlook results in the kind of subtle generational friction that was a specialty of Norman Lear’s family sitcoms of the 1970s and ’80s. The Alvarez’s arguments recall the generational disputes on All in the Family and Sanford and Son (and, now, NBC’s The Carmichael Show, another sitcom that owes a debt to Lear). One Day at a Time doesn’t glide past the contradictions that inevitably pop up from trying to raise two smart-alecky teens, but digs into them and uses them as fuel for drama and laughs.  Penelope dismisses Elena’s complaints about “micro-aggressions” and “mansplaining,” telling her daughter she has to ignore all that and go on with her life. “You want to see sexism?” she says. “Be a woman in the army.” Lydia, of course, has her own solution: win over the men using your feminine wiles. “Hypnotize them,” she says, “and then you do whatever the hell you want.” (If Rita Moreno doesn’t win all the supporting actress awards for her performance, I’ll eat my hat.)

Again, Elena persists — why do men always have to believe they’re in charge even when women do all the work? Why can’t they know a woman’s the boss? “Oh, but then they would be so upset,” Lydia replies. Finally, it emerges that Lydia wants Elena to wear makeup so that people will take her seriously. “Beauty,” she tells Elena, “gives you power.”

Despite the centrality of these kinds of “issues,” One Day at a Time’s breezy writing and excellent ensemble prevents these discussions from coming off as too didactic or theoretical. At times, The Carmichael Show — another talk-y sitcom driven by generational tension — can feel like your parents have forced you to sit down for a difficult conversation you’ve been avoiding. On One Day at a Time, these kinds of conversations always feel as if they’ve been shaped not by a room full of TV writers, but by life itself. We may have become inured to the sitcom’s shamefully un-cinematic aesthetic, but that unchanging living-room set is more than a production convenience — it’s a wonderfully versatile stage for the everyday drama of raising a family.

One Day at a Time is streaming on Netflix on Friday, Jan. 6.