One Day at a Time – Season 2

One Day at a Time – Season 2

Netflix’s Hit Sitcom Makes a Solid Return


It doesn’t break new ground and it will hardly leave you in stitches, but One Day at a Time continues to be one of TV’s tenderest shows. Its affection for its characters remains unchanged and its commitment to highlighting issues of class, race and mental health is both noble and absorbing.

Rating: 8/11


In one of the later episodes of One Day at a Time‘s second season, a character performs a “big ask”. For those that don’t know (’cause I sure as hell didn’t), in the US parlance a “big ask” is to make a performative gesture to pose a question to someone. It’s a teenage thing, mostly, and is usually in service of asking if someone will got to a dance or homecoming with you. Anyway, one character makes their big ask thusly: they performs Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire“, clad in a red suit jacket and white tie, with customised lyrics suited to the person their asking. As far as spectacles go, it’s equal parts cringey, goopy and corny as all hell, but goddamn if it won’t make you grin like a simpleton.

That’s One Day at a Time in a nutshell. Focussing on the everyday struggles of Penelope Alvarez (Justina Machado) as a nurse, veteran and single mother to two children, the show wears its heart proudly on its sleeve, containing a wholesomeness that feels of a piece with a bygone era. Which is no accident: One Day at a Time is a remake of the Norman Lear sitcom of the same name from the 1970s and, like its predecessor, is a multi-camera show filmed in front of a live studio, which currently is airing on Netflix in the late 2010s. I know, nothing about that sentence makes any fucking sense, and neither will my assertion that really – like, really – it’s quite a wonderful show.

There have, of course, been updates to the series from the original. For one, the family at the show’s centre is now made up of the Cuban-American Alvarezes, consisting of Penelope, her grandmother Lydia (Rita Moreno), and her children Elena (Isabella Gómez) and Alex (Marcel Ruiz). Penelope is also a veteran of the Army Nursing Corps who suffers from PTSD, Elena has recently come out to her family as a lesbian – which her estranged father does not approve of – and the Alvarezes’ landlord Schneider (Todd Grinnell) is a recovering addict. So, without being facetious, you can see how much fodder there is available for a family sitcom to use on an episodic basis.

To its credit – while almost every episode of One Day at a Time does feel, on some level, like a Very Special Episode – it’s heartening to watch the show tackle these various issues with a sharp and empathic eye. Whether it’s addressing Penelope’s ill-advised attempts to go off her meds, Alex’s exposure to racism on a weekly basis or the very real concerns of having a firearm in a house where both a person prone to depression and a gay teenager reside, there’s a thought-through approach to each of these matters that prevents them from becoming preachy or overwrought.

At this stage, though, I should get the obvious concern out of the way by conceding that, yes, the humor on this show is fairly broad. But then, that’s kinda par-for-the-course with the whole “live studio audience” thing. The jokes need to be constant and loud, otherwise you’d only have a dozen or so people in the crowd laughing at any given time, which would be awkward to say the least. That’s not to suggest that there aren’t occasional jokes and situations that are comically inspired, but I’d be lying to suggest that the humour is the chief draw of this show. Let’s put it this way: even the laziest jokes on One Day at a Time obliterate the cleverest punchlines on The Big Bang Theory. Not a high bar to clear, I know, but I’m just sayin’.

Anyway, the reason One Day at a Time has become such an unlikely critical darling and success with audiences is its willingness to embrace sincerity without undercutting the harsh reality that its characters occupy. In this sense, it’s perhaps best explained as a show that deftly walks the line between earnestness and mawkishness. It’s old-fashioned, yes, but in the best sense of the word, holding onto the values of family and togetherness while ignoring the retrograde, ever-more pervasive desire to revert America back to “the good old days”.

This is key to the show’s appeal, especially when its main characters are Cuban-Americans, a demographic that has recently been persecuted as if their ethnicity automatically makes them in violation of the idealised version of America (mostly by arseholes in cheap hats). Whether dealing with real-world concerns such as these or more domestic issues, the show perfectly conveys the modern concerns of living in a world that appears to be headed backwards while refusing to be caught up in the backslide.

Honestly, One Day at a Time seems to occupy a space that somehow totally bypassed America’s love affair with postmodernism and meta-obsessed entertainment. Not that that sort of stuff doesn’t have its place, it’s just definitely not this show’s endgame. It doesn’t aim to flummox or outsmart audience, nor undercut its messages with a sly wink here and there. It’s tempting to call One Day at a Time a byproduct of the New Sincerity movement, but that would overlook the fact that it never feels as if the show is reacting to anything in particular. It just wants to tell this story as best it can.

That story in question is about family, commitment, love and outrageously overthetop gestures in service of all three. Every episode has a moral tucked into its fairly standard plotting, which tend to overflow with predictable misunderstandings and obstacles that the characters are forced to face in order to become better people. I can’t help describing it this way, because that’s exactly the sort of show that One Day at a Time is. And I kinda love it for that.

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