As a remake of Norman Lear’s groundbreaking, topical series, Netflix’s One Day At A Time wades into all kinds of hot-button issues, from immigration to LGBTQ rights—many of which are, fittingly enough, hashed out around the dinner table. But the series, developed by Gloria Calderon Kellett and Mike Royce, never promotes an agenda beyond wanting to deliver poignant moments and trenchant humor. There’s a push for inclusivity, on and off screen, but above all else, One Day At A Time strives to be warm and funny.
It more than succeeded in its first 13 episodes, which introduced the Alvarez family, led by single, working mom Penelope (Justina Machado, who’d better get some Emmy love soon). As grandmother Lydia, Rita Moreno provides glimpses into the decades-long career that made her the first person of color to EGOT (and second overall, in a tie with Helen Hayes). Relative newcomers Isabella Gómez and Marcel Ruiz round out the ensemble as an activist teen and precocious tween, respectively, while Todd Grinnell pulls off Schneider’s tricky progression from leering super to clueless-but-supportive neighbor/landlord.
The reboot does right by its predecessor, mixing social commentary with snappy one-liners and just the right amount of plucking at the old heart strings. It’s also updated the characters’ concerns to weigh in on the current deportation policy, mental health stigma, and the mistreatment of veterans. What keeps it all from feeling like a series of Upworthy videos is the writers’ light touch and the exceptional, proudly Latinx cast, whose chemistry sells the more melodramatic beats.
Season two debuted on Netflix today, with more pathos and zero signs of the sophomore slump. Overall, it’s an improvement—Kellett, Royce, and their team of writers execute their vision of timely yet timeless storytelling more effectively than ever. Things get a little hairy in an episode that doesn’t have as much to say about gun control than initially thought, but threads from the first season are woven into new stories to create a rich tapestry that covers everything from modern romance to post-traumatic stress. The new episodes also make it clear that this is a show that fits perfectly in the Netflix model, even as they underline the format’s shortcomings.
Lots of TV shows have adopted a certain amount of serialization, a move that’s more tolerable in dramas than comedies. Yet even the more successful cases can find themselves sacrificing meaningful characterization for plotting that doesn’t always pay off. And aside from Black Mirror, the bulk of Netflix’s original content necessitates it, otherwise a binge-watch turns into one-, maybe two-shot viewing. The streaming platform’s had considerable success with heavily serialized shows like Orange Is The New Black and Stranger Things, but it’s also guilty of bloated episode counts that seem especially egregious on the Marvel shows.
When an ending is botched, this emphasis on the macro can cast even standout episodes in a new light. One Day At A Time is in no such danger; it nails both its season-one and season-two closers (if the group dance in “Quinces” made you cry, make sure you watch “Not Yet” with a whole box of tissues). But the new season doesn’t have the same through-line as the first, and plays faster and looser with stories in general. It’s clear that a hookup with a burly paramedic (Ed Quinn) who could double for a Magic Mike Live dancer will turn into something more serious for Penelope—as it should—but the conflicts that arise are still curveballs. To its credit (and my gratitude), the show expands on Elena’s coming-out, pairing her with a nerdy but adorable genderqueer teen who finds her activism attractive, not off-putting. It also sets Elena on silly (but not to her) adventures in Twitch streaming and summer job blues.
These smaller moments and mini-arcs are necessary to draw new viewers as well as retain returning ones, because they create more entry points in an increasingly connected (and potentially uninviting) TV landscape. But there’s also enough continuity that, combined with multifaceted representation of an under-seen community, makes watching One Day At A Time an especially rewarding experience.
There are two consecutive episodes in the back half of season two that encapsulate this better than any others, and also offer terrific spotlights for the show’s best performers. “Hello, Penelope” takes a deeper dive into the character’s depression and post-traumatic stress, addressing recovery and discrimination. Machado’s performance is heartwrenching in this episode; she effortlessly embodies the heights of infatuation and the throes of depression, which she struggles with after leaving treatment and going off her antidepressants. What she eventually learns is that, though it may not manifest in the more recognizable ways (lethargy, bouts of sadness), her depression will always be there.
Penelope’s mental health creates a significant amount of tension between her and Lydia; the elder Alvarez woman ascribes to a more spiritual form of healthcare, and also believes that we can ward off depression with good food and exercise. Their conflicting approaches come to a head here, but it’s the resolution that shakes them both to their cores. In her darkest moments, Penelope wonders how she can ensure her kids are healthy in every sense if she isn’t: “If you’re not well, how can you teach your kids to be well?” Her anguish is palpable even before she reveals her greatest fear: that she might pass any of this on to Elena and Alex.
Lydia is also concerned with tradition and things being handed down, only she has more positive expectations for what her child and grandchildren might inherit. No one will ever have her style, obviously, but as she tells her priest, she wonders why Penelope suffers from anything if she’s her daughter. It’s the other side of the obligation coin: Penelope feels she has to keep her depression and anxiety to herself, while Lydia thinks she can transmit her heartiness to her daughter. They share the same parenting anxiety, despite the generation gap.
“Storage Wars” is in similar emotional territory, but in place of the slight sense of dread that lingered throughout much of “Hello, Penelope,” it has a zany energy that’s better suited to the story. Here, we learn Lydia is a pack rat who’s tucked away boxes of seemingly useless items in the garage that Penelope so desperately wants to use. Moreno owns every moment of the broad comedy, adopting a faraway look when reminiscing, or giving an exaggeratedly wounded response to all of Penelope’s questioning of whether or not she needs a banged-up lawn chair or boxes of 30-year-old magazines. But all the silliness just makes the ending pack more of a wallop, as Lydia tells Penelope and the kids just how much significance all this old junk has. “Everything has value when you have nothing,” she tells them, a potent reminder of her arrival in America as a child. The chair is a keepsake from her marriage, and the magazines made her “feel like a girl again instead of an exile.” It’s also a quintessential moment for immigrants in this country—explaining the value of your cultural history.
Together, these consecutive episodes highlight the series’ layered storytelling, as they both question and define heritage. What’s more impressive is that they would work just as well separated by an episode or two, or even watched days apart. They’re complementary yet can stand on their own. That’s because while the show remains eminently watchable as a whole, it’s also honed its episodic storytelling, which is something TV needs more of these days. It’s no coincidence that the bottle episode “Hold, Please” was the standout of season one, but One Day At A Time doesn’t have to restrict itself to one setting to make a great insular episode. The rich characterization means we can drop in on Elena’s latest march or Alex’s first proper school dance and laugh when the event goes awry, but also grasp how it went down. As a show that is still growing its audience, making entire seasons available mostly helps One Day At A Time. But unlike Lydia and Penelope, Netflix and other programmers shouldn’t be so worried about what they pass on from one installment to the next.