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History of TV: The hilarious and heartwarming 'One Day at a Time'

September 23, 2021
3 min read time

Family-centric sitcoms will thankfully — hopefully — never go out of style. What they will do is evolve to give us a heartwarming take on the times. One such piece of recent treasured television history is about a Cuban-American family living in Los Angeles and taking everything One Day at a Time.

That includes matriarch Penelope Alvarez (Justina Machado) dealing with PTSD from her time in the United States Army Nurse Corps and now single parenting her daughter Elena (Isabella Gomez) and son Alex (Marcel Ruiz) with help (whether she asks for it or not) from her mom, Lydia Riera (played by the incomparable Rita Moreno). The family is rounded out by their landlord, Schneider (Todd Grinnell), and Dr. Leslie Berkowitz (Stephen Tobolowsky), Penelope’s boss. 

The comedic ensemble tackles morality, politics, mental illness, gender identity, addiction, racism, and so much more by skillfully blending humor with grounded sentimentality to find common ground across race, gender and status.

The good television re-make: A rare jewel

In the steady hands of creators Gloria Calderon Kellett (Jane the Virgin, How I Met Your Mother) and Mike Royce (Everybody Loves Raymond), One Day at a Time is based on the 1975 show of the same name —both with Norman Lear (All in the Family, The Jeffersons) attached. Even the original theme song, "This Is It," composed by Jeff and Nancy Barry was updated, featuring Cuban instrumentation thanks to Emilio Estefan and vocals by Gloria Estefan to suit the new tone of the show, while paying homage to family ties.

While it shares the single mother concept as well as themes such as wanting to give the next generation opportunities not experienced by the previous one — plus an ever-present superintendent named Schneider — Netflix debuted the 2017 update through a fresh lens as well as a slew of topics not tackled by the original.

Sitcom structure

Being on Netflix allowed a full 30-minute run time; longer than most network multi-camera sitcoms. Stories have a little more space to breathe and dive deep in those extra minutes, and it paid off for achieving a tone that made One Day at a Time some of the best-written television in the late 2010s. The Writers Guild of America, West even honored the season two finale "Not Yet" as one of the best in 2010s film and television. Comedy writers, if you can find that script, study it. There’s something to finding the comedy in tragedy that is timeless, epic, and thoroughly relatable.

The all-important character arc

While we’re often attracted to sitcoms for the escapism provided by the archetypal characters set up by a show’s particular situation and tone, allowing the characters to grow and mature can open up story possibilities and enrich the world. In One Day at a Time, right from the pilot episode (where we’re thrown into the quinceanera debate between three generations) the tone may be lighthearted, but the takeaways are real.

"You’re throwing away your Cuban heritage," Lydia says to her granddaughter. "Yeah, the bad part," she throws back at her. Along with, "I’ll learn more Spanish when you learn English." Penelope — the generation in between the two — lies somewhere between the polarizing views, wanting to celebrate her daughter’s heritage while also recognizing that she is of an entirely new, American(ized) generation.

Elena eventually agrees and quinces becomes the whole first season arc. That journey also reveals to Elena that she is a lesbian and she comes out to her family. The pilot also introduced Penelope’s mental health struggle and Schneider’s many addictions. Each of these subjects is treated with respectful levity and delivered with sincerity. It’s important to note that these characterizations, just like in real life, don’t resolve in an episode or even a season. They are lifelong for the characters, who grow from them.

Over the course of the series, Lydia, a Cuban, also becomes a U.S. citizen, as does Schneider (who was previously a Canadian). Alex is still into sneakers, and Penelope’s happy ending? She gets her nursing degree and name on the door.

In retrospect

You only live twice, it turns out. While Netflix gave the heartwarming comedy space to grow, One Day at a Time was also the first original program canceled by the streamer to find a home on a traditional network television — Pop TV. The same cable channel that gave another quirky comedy a place to call home: Schitt’s Creek. Thus One Day at a Time saw a season four that opened with the 2020 census — a very timely topic for Hispanic people — while acting as a quick way to relay character history to new viewers. Then COVID-19 hit, and the show considered pivoting again, this time into animated before eventually the curtain closed for good on the Alvarez family.

The series won two Primetime Emmy® Awards for Outstanding Multi-Camera Picture Editing for a Comedy Series, an Imagen Foundation Award for Best Primetime Television Program, along with a number of other accolades. Proof that the collective consciousness will always have room in the viewing schedule for these kinds of stories: Hopeful, hilarious, family-driven — and proudly Hispanic.

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