A few weeks ago I saw a call on Twitter asking people to watch at least four episodes of One Day at a Time so that it would be picked up for another season. Always up to help artists of color, I decided to do it. Two days later, I had binged on both seasons, staying up far too late when I had important meetings the next day. It was worth it to laugh with such involuntary and unexpected abandon at this TV gem. And, this activism worked. The show announced yesterday that it would have a third season on Netflix.
One Day at a Time is a remake of a show that ran from 1975 to 1984 about a divorced single mother raising teenage daughters in Indianapolis (Bonnie Franklin, Mackenzie Phillips and Valerie Bertinelli). It was one of the first shows about single motherhood on TV, coming about three years after Diahann Carroll played widowed single mom Julia.
The new show reimagines the family as Cuban Americans living in Los Angeles. Mom Penelope Alvarez (played by Justina Machado) is an Army veteran and nurse who struggles with PTSD and depression while working to set up her family for success. The teenagers are a rebellious, independent elder daughter, and a vain, yet loving pre-teen son. The building’s owner/super Schneider is bumbling and awkward, but always there for the family. The big addition to the remake is – wait for it – Rita Moreno playing Penelope’s mother Lydia, stealing every scene she’s in. The second season is more serious than the first, and I will admit that I shed more than one tear while I grew attached to this crew.
The show is family friendly, but candid about the key issues of our time, including equal pay, gender binaries, sexual identity, affirmative action, aging, mental health and immigration. The characters and the plots are complex. In the first episode, it’s time for daughter Elena to have her quinceañera, which she resists as an exercise in misogyny. In another storyline, Elena’s friend Carmen, a lovably grumpy goth chick, is hanging around a lot. While Lydia speculates about Elena’s sexuality and their relationship, it turns out that Carmen’s parents have been deported and Carmen has to move away. In another episode, son Alex doesn’t want the family to come and be all “Cuban” at his baseball games.
The intergenerational relationships are heartwarming, and insightful about all the ways in which people who love each other can still do wrong. Rita Moreno plays Abuelita as only she could – sexy, limber, frank, and sarcastic, with steadfast ethnic pride. She talks daily with her dead husband, and smugly shares how good they were at tearing up the sheets together. When Elena gets into an exclusive writing program in season two, her acceptance letter tells her she is their “diversity” candidate. Feeling dissed, Elena doesn’t want to go, but Lydia can’t understand why not. “Finally,” she declares, “an award for being Cuban!”
There’s a spate of remakes these days. I can be as nostalgic for the images and stories of my childhood as anyone, but in the context of MAGA, nostalgia could lead us in all sorts of undesirable directions. I picture scary remakes of “real American” shows like The Dukes of Hazard featuring the fight to preserve Confederate statues, or a modern Gunsmoke with armed teachers defending rural schoolchildren.
I became quite alarmed by a new magazine showing up in airport bookstores called REMIND. The issue I saw featured a photo of Florence Henderson from the Brady Bunch. What do we need to be reminded about, exactly?
A collage of covers on their website features not one person of color, unless you contort yourself to count Betty Boop, who is a caricature of a white artist who copied the style of a Black artist. I guess they missed Diahann Carroll as Julia.
But the beauty of a remake is that a familiar concept draws large audiences – say, Latinos who grew up in the 70s and 80s and had few choices other than to watch shows that totally excluded them, or girls whose notions of feminism were shaped by the original One Day at a Time. Familiarity is comforting, and comforting someone connects you to them. Once comforted, the viewer is more open to pivots and a little bit of education.
I found a fan of both the original and the new in my friend and Race Forward colleague Rosana Cruz. Cruz, whose pronoun is “they,” is the 45-year-old child of Cuban immigrants who grew up in Miami. They had a strong attachment to the original One Day at a Time, partially driven by a baby crush on Bertinelli. “It was a single mom, and I had a single mom,” they said. “You didn’t see feminist struggle or women’s problems that weren’t about taking care of your man.”
Cruz discovered the show when it first aired, binge watched it with son, Rey, 14. Both loved it. Cruz instantly identified with Elena. “I looked exactly like that – the ugly glasses, hair pulled back. She’s a lot like me in high school, becoming politicized.” Cruz and Rey were hooked by the “diversity” candidate episode, impressed that the show tackled race so directly.
Cruz realized that placing the Cuban family in Los Angeles enabled some escape from stereotypes, while handling Castro and Cuba with a light touch. “That’s just a complicated and evolving ideological scenario, and there’s no way to really do it justice in a sitcom,” they said. Cruz and Rey were excited about getting Cruz’s mom to watch with them, but this real-life Abuelita was too offended that none of the actors were Cuban to watch for long.
I loved hearing the language of social justice on TV in everyday conversation. Words like “feminism” and “climate change” are part of my daily dialogues, but capturing political conversation in fiction is not so easy and often sounds stiff.
The show falls down in this regard occasionally. Penelope suffers from PTSD and depression, a topic approached with great sensitivity. In one episode, she’s on the phone holding for a Veterans Administration worker to give her a doctor’s appointment. She sits on hold all day long, leaving the kids in front of the phone when she has to step away for a minute. When she finally gets a human being, and that person tells her to call back tomorrow so “I can make the 4:45 bus,” Penelope goes off. But before she does, there’s a long pause. It signals that she’s about to say something important. That pause, just a touch too long, which I find common in television’s “important moments,” makes the dialogue too precious, less natural and a little bit less compelling. But this is a quibble about a show that gets it right much more often than not.
Political debate in One Day at a Time is often triggered by Elena’s assertions, which Lydia calls annoying. They are annoying, marked by the excessive self-righteousness of youth. But these plot points, and many others, allow us to watch this family disagree - even deeply, hurtfully - yet keep trying to move closer to each other. That’s a pretty good lesson in other contexts too. One Day at a Time made me chuckle and weep, not because I saw my childhood in it, but because I saw my current America. I can’t wait to do it all again with Season 3.