A new multi-cam sitcom would raise eyebrows even if it weren’t a remake, let alone one shacking up with Fuller House on the same streaming platform. That format‘s heyday is long gone, having lost out to single-cam series as TV became increasingly more cinematic. The static shots and broad humor now have a diminished place in the TV landscape, where single-cams like New Girl and It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia feature much more dynamic storytelling. Which makes Norman Lear’s revisiting of both the format and a past project all the more curious. But the venerable TV producer successfully reworks the Bonnie Franklin and Valerie Bertinelli vehicle, One Day At A Time, for multi-cam holdouts and second-screen viewers alike.
Lear executive-produced Whitney Blake and Allan Manings’ 1975 sitcom, and serves as a guiding hand in this Netflix reboot from Mike Royce and Gloria Calderon Kellett. The new One Day At A Time manages to be as timely as the original, despite not being on a weekly schedule. It has many of the touchstones of the great multi-cam sitcoms of the past (and not just the shows that Lear oversaw): a mix of gentle humor and incisive commentary, big and small personalities, and a whole lot of heart.
One Day At A Time gets a lot of mileage out of those old standbys, but it doesn’t run solely on its retro charm. There are plenty of new twists on the old format, starting with the predominantly Latino cast, led with a firm but loving hand by Justina Machado. While that makeover made headlines when the reboot was first announced, it’s not an unusual move for Lear—he did, after all, develop series like The Jeffersons and Good Times. He was also involved in the reimagining of the Anglo rag-and-bone men of Steptoe And Son as the black Sanford And Son.
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Nor is this Lear’s first time backing a show with a Latino family at its core: that would be the short-lived Pablo Rodriguez sitcom, a.k.a Pablo, which turned out to be one of his rare missteps. The 1984 series offered little more than ethnic humor that bordered on stereotypes, and it was quickly canceled. One Day At A Time’s bicultural family is much more developed, thanks in no small part to Kellett, a Cuban-American writer who previously worked on How I Met Your Mother. The series’ multigenerational household is run by Penelope Alvarez (Machado), a single mom who’s a nurse and Army veteran. But she’s not quite raising her two teenagers alone—she gets plenty of help (and grief) from her mother, played by Rita Moreno in a scene-stealing role.
It’s all familiar territory, even if you missed out on the original series. The single mom’s backstory has been revised a bit, but her determination and dedication still shine through. Penelope struggles to balance her personal and work life, though she’d probably never describe it that way. Her military service left her with a shoulder injury and PTSD, but she’s initially only willing to seek help for the former. The insufficient infrastructure in place to help returning service people is ripe for criticism, which One Day readily dishes out in an exceptional episode about the Veterans Administration. So is the stigma surrounding mental illness, which is addressed throughout the season’s 13 episodes.
True to its sitcom nature, One Day has many lessons, but no judgment. The youngest Alvarez woman, Elena (Isabella Gomez), is a socially progressive teen, whose knee-jerk rejection of her grandmother Lydia’s ways provides plenty of humor along with conflict. Penelope often plays the moderate moderator, but she’s still much more forward thinking than her mother. But One Day treats them all with respect. It would be easy to relegate Lydia to caricature territory: She salsas while she cooks! She’s a devout Catholic/papal groupie! But the writing and Moreno’s performance round out the character, who shows as much growth in her seventies as her grandkids in their adolescence.
Even with its thoughtful characterization, One Day At A Time can’t quite manage to break free of its multi-cam confines, which necessitate frequent family dinners and office meetings to make sure everyone’s in the shot, including the new hipster Schneider (Todd Grinnell). But centering on the home and workplace actually makes perfect sense. Royce and Kellett have turned a multi-cam sitcom into a great working-class comedy that’s as aspirational as it is realistic. In real life, people worrying about money usually inspires the kind of laughter that can quickly turn to tears, but here, those stories are a source of commiseration and comedy. The result is a viewing experience that’s at once specific and universal, which makes for not just a successful multi-cam sitcom, but a great TV show, period.