By Elisabeth Granzow
At first glance, One Day at a Time (2017-) seems like a typical, easily forgettable sitcom. It makes use of the good old live-audience-trope of the traditional sitcom genre, which is often connected to pure escapist television by cueing the viewer to laugh. However, after binge-watching the two seasons of the Netflix comedy, I realized that One Day is a hidden, thought-provoking gem, not only within the sitcom genre, but in the whole television landscape. The comedy is created by Gloria Calderon Kellet and Mike Royce and presents nuanced and complex representations of race, gender, sexuality and class with lovable characters and heartwarming storylines. One Day accomplishes so many things, which makes it worthwhile for broad audiences despite it being hidden within Netflix’ extensive list of programs.
Over the past few decades, half-hour comedies have been more experimental in style and content by portraying diverse topics such as race, gender and sexuality. One reason for this shift lies in the diversification of the television market, which now also includes popular streaming services and their original content, such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime. These programs are often popular with critics and less dependent on ratings and a mass audience than mainstream network sitcoms. Therefore, these formats are considered niche programs that target more specific demographics and do not have the pressure of appealing to everyone. One Day falls into the category of a niche program, since it is part of the vast selection of original content by Netflix. The streaming service just recently released the second season of One Day, which has received widespread acclaim from critics and audiences.
The show about a Cuban-American family includes a range of current topics, such as PTSD, depression, immigration and racism. What I found most astonishing about this series, however, is that it combines urgent political commentary with the very traditional format of the mainstream family sitcom. One Day is filmed in front of a live audience and incorporates the laughter and reactions of the enthusiastic viewers in the studio. Most of the scenes take place in the living room of the family and are shot with a three-camera set-up. Thus, One Day is reminiscent of the more traditional mainstream network sitcoms. In addition, it is actually a remake of the popular sitcom with the same name (1975-1984) by Norman Lear, who is also a producer of the new One Day. It is surprising to find this format on Netflix rather than a network channel. The more acclaimed network sitcoms like Modern Family and Black-ish (both on ABC) stylistically diverged from these traditions by using the “mockumentary” style or voice-over narration. One Day, on the other hand, uses typical, seemingly outdated, sitcom conventions, which are usually linked to low-brow entertainment and escapist TV, which is considered to lack political or societal value.
However, I would argue that One Day is more successful and complex in political commentary than the stylistically more experimental sitcoms on the mainstream networks such as Black-ish or Fresh Off the Boat (also on ABC). The majority of the mainstream family sitcoms are still traditional and conservative in their content, representing the norms of American society and families, such as the nuclear middle-class family with the father as the head of the household and breadwinner. Some of these shows present non-white families and might discuss racial identities as in the sitcoms mentioned above. Yet, their race is often the only thing that sets them apart from the other white middle class families prominent on TV. Therefore, these network family sitcoms still follow the blueprint of normative nuclear families and use diverse racial identities as a way to stand out and make the program more marketable. Since these series are made for a broad audience with the aim to make their viewers laugh, the issues around race, gender and class they address are often resolved in a simplified manner in one 22-minute episode.
One Day seems different from these traditional sitcoms. The comedy presents a multigenerational Cuban-American family and centers around Penelope Alvarez (Justina Machado), a divorced single mother who raises her two children, Elena (Isabella Gomez) and Alex (Marcel Ruiz), together with her mother Lydia (played by the amazing Rita Moreno). The sitcom does not have a patriarch or any important father figure. Elena’s and Alex’s father is mostly absent and battles with alcoholism and PTSD. Penelope, with the support of her mother, is the one who holds the family together while working full-time as a nurse and attending school to become a nurse practitioner. The working mother is also a veteran who is dealing with PTSD and takes antidepressants.
What is so refreshing about this show is that it portrays many issues Americans deal with on a daily basis and connects them to the political state of America, for example the lack of fundamental support of veterans from the government or the economic struggle of single parent households. While addressing many “American” issues, One Day also discusses the diversity of ethnic and cultural identities in the US and is one of the few shows depicting the life of a Cuban-American family, which is sadly rare, since the Latin American community is still highly underrepresented on US television. Furthermore, the sitcom frequently addresses topics of immigration and the fear of deportation. Lydia, for example, gives moving monologues about leaving Cuba, when she was a child and had to leave her parents and older sister behind.
The uniqueness of this seemingly traditional sitcom stems from the complex challenges the Alvarez family is facing, which are not resolved in one single episode. Instead these challenges are recurring, which highlights the complexity of the characters’ identities and experiences when they have to face sexism, racism and homophobia. Elena, for example, comes out as a lesbian to her family in season one, but this is not resolved in one episode and her challenges to grow up in a heteronormative world are continuously addressed. A cross-season storyline depicts how Elena and her family deal with the fact that her father is having problems accepting her sexuality and that it is “not just a phase” for her.
Though all these topics seem very serious and are sometimes heart-wrenching, this show is still a sitcom that aims to make the audience laugh. This is why I think One Day is such a hidden gem on the TV landscape. While it incorporates serious issues around identity and oppression, the family celebrates life, their culture and the happy things they experience. Despite the fact that some of the jokes and punchlines come out a bit flat in a typical sitcom manner, much humor is also evoked through the different identities and perspectives of the characters, especially between the family’s three generations. Another source of humor is Dwayne Schneider (Todd Grinnell), the ignorant but well-meaning white landlord. In various episodes, he relates Lydia’s immigration experiences with his own immigration as a wealthy Canadian, therefore completely overlooking his privileges as a rich white man. Thus, One Day accomplishes being cheerful, optimistic and thought-provoking at the same time.
The complexity of the storylines and characters combined with charm, humor and important political messages make One Day a sitcom that has the potential to be appealing to a wider audience. The sitcom is also a great example of a female-centered program co-created by a woman. With its fantastic female cast the show also empowers three generations of Cuban-American women. Lydia, Penelope and Elena represent the significant bond of women within a family and are inspiring role models for Alex, who is raised to be a sensitive, thoughtful and confident young man by his sister, mother and grandmother. Thankfully, after much suspense, Netflix finally renewed the sitcom for a third season. Many fans were concerned that Netflix would not renew One Day because the program might not stick out to viewers browsing through Netflix’ vast content. I can only encourage everyone to watch One Day at a Time with the hope that many more seasons will come.
The two seasons of One Day at a Time can be streamed on Netflix. The sitcom has been renewed for a third season.