Popdose’s Ted Asregadoo and Will Harris were so pleased with the reboot of One Day at a Time on Netflix, that they wanted to have a longer chat about the show. The series centers on Penelope Alvarez — the mother of two teenage children living in LA. And while Penelope’s situation is similar to Ann Romano in the 1975-1984 series, it’s different in many ways. First off, Penelope is a vet who served as a nurse in Afghanistan, but now works for a doctor in a clinic. She has a 15-year-old daughter and a 12-year-old son, and Penelope’s mother lives with them in their apartment and helps care for the children. Penelope isn’t divorced, but separated from her husband — who is working for a private security firm in Afghanistan. Now it’s not uncommon for rebooted shows to change things up. After all, the reboot of Battlestar Galactica changed the gender of some characters, omitted other characters, introduced new characters and storylines that weren’t in the original series, but kept some of the overall 1970s narrative intact. And like BSG, One Day at a Time carries over storylines do not shy away from controversial issues — some of which you’ll read below.
Ted: In my review of the show, I wrote about my knee-jerk skepticism about the reboot of One Day at at Time. But after finishing the first season, I have to say that I think in some ways, this reboot surpasses the original. Perhaps it’s the issues they tackle in the rebooted series are current to many parents, but there’s also one of the big issues of the show that seems to get overlooked in the wake of one of the characters coming out at gay, and that’s Penelope’s PTSD from serving in the war in Afghanistan. And it’s not only her PTSD, but also her husband’s inability to deal with his from serving in the same war that tears their marriage apart. That’s some heavy stuff for a sitcom.
Will: I have to admit that I had my own skepticism about the idea of a One Day at a Time reboot, particularly when it was specifically underlined as being a case of changing the family from white to Hispanic. Not because I was particularly bothered by them doing it – I mean, I liked the original series, but I wasn’t an uber-fan or anything – but just because it seemed like a classic network move: “Let’s take an existing property, switch it up just enough that it’ll draw the attention of the critics, and run with it!”
But that was my mistake, because I should have realized that Norman Lear wouldn’t just randomly recycle one of his productions for the sake of getting back into the prime-time lineup. There’d have to be something about it that made it worth doing. In this case, there were actually several things, and as you’ve noted, the majority of them have virtually nothing to do with the change in the characters’ ethnicity. In fact, I’d argue that there are really only two aspects that the ethnic switch-up really brings to the table, at least in this first season: the ongoing plotline about Elena’s quinceañera and, of course, pretty much everything connected to Rita Moreno’s character. But the quinceañera actually serves to bookend the entire season, which makes pretty damned crucial, and…well, hell, if Rita Moreno hadn’t been in the show, I’m not sure I’d have gone out of my way to watch it in the first place, so it’s hard to even imagine the show without the switch-up!
Ted: I agree about Rita Moreno. She saved the show from becoming a rather ho-hum affair. I’m not sure if it’s because she’s so great at scene-stealing (and more power to her for doing so), or that she just knows what a character like Lydia needs to do to keep things light when they need to be, and sympathetic when the role calls for it. Penelope is, to me, a very interesting character because she’s struggling to make a bunch of things in her life work all at once. Just like Bonnie Franklin’s character did in the original, Penelope has a lot on her plate. Sure, she has her mother and Schneider to help with the kids, but she’s also navigating the politics of her job, dealing with her war injuries (both physical and psychological), and really wanting to get back to dating. Each episode has her dealing with a whiplash number of issues — and if it wasn’t a sitcom, I think viewers would lose their minds at all the things she has to navigate in each episode. Justina Machado — not really known for comedic acting — does a pretty good job taking the lead. She’s bubbly, and can deliver lines that require her to be both angry at times and just plain goofy.
Todd Grinnell as Schneider is pretty damn funny, too. He has some really good lines and, more often than not, hits them out of the park. One of my favorite jokes involved him talking about being Canadian and saying something to the effect: “It took me a long time to learn to say “I’m sorry about that” (using an American pronunciation, of course). Isabella Gomez as Elena also has a difficult role, but she plays her part quite well — and, in a sense, becomes one of the most important characters because many of the major story issues center on her. Marcel Ruiz as Alex is good, but his role is mostly the wisecracking brother — so he doesn’t get to stretch out too much. We can get to the secondary characters in a moment, but I guess for me I’m just really impressed that given the standard sitcom elements employed in One Day at a Time, it feels fresh — and it’s kind of a welcome change from the formula many of the more popular shows have been using for over 20 years.
Will: And not that I think you did so intentionally, but let’s not forget about the inestimable Stephen Tobolowsky, who – as Penelope’s boss, Dr. Berkowitz – reminds viewers with virtually every appearance he makes on the screen that he’s a peerless character actor and utility player, able to both play the straight man and deliver a punchline with equal skill. It’s also notable that the series manages to deftly combine Penelope’s home and work life as the season progresses, and while the manner in which it does so isn’t exactly breaking new sitcom ground, the end result is a character pairing which leaves you thinking, “I didn’t realize I needed this until I got it, but now I’m glad they gave it to me.” Or maybe that’s just me. All I know is that any series with as strong a one-two punch as Moreno and Tobolowsky in its cast is one with enough street cred to make it worth your time, even if it is a reboot.
Ted: Bing! I didn’t intentionally forget to mention Stephen Tobolowsky because…bing! I was going to save him for our next go around. So, bing!
For those who don’t remember Tobolowsky played Ned Ryerson in Groundhog Day and was one of the highpoints in that film. In One Day at a Time, he plays Dr. Leslie Berkowitz with less slapstick and without any BING! What I like about his character is that although he’s kind of a pushover, and a bit meek, he’s a very sweet guy who brings a lot of support to this fractured family. Yes, he genuinely likes Lydia, but he’s willing to wait for her to take their relationship from friendly/flirty to full on romance. I’m sure we’re going to get there in the next season, but it was nice to see older people on the screen dating and facing a budding romance. However, I think romance is a secondary element for their characters. Right now, he and Lydia represent moral anchors on the show and are go-to characters when they need to turn on “the funny.”
I’ve alluded to the popular formulas for sitcoms that involve a lot of irony and cynicism, but do you think with One Day at a Time, we’ll be seeing more sitcoms delve into somewhat taboo issues, but use humor and a not-so-subtle optimism as ways for characters to learn and grow?
Will: It would certainly be nice to think so. Although it’s hard to say for sure just how deeply Norman Lear was involved with the revival, it’s certainly not hard for a TV aficionado to watch this incarnation of One Day at a Time and feel Lear’s spirit in it. Then again, you could say the same of NBC’s The Carmichael Show, which Lear didn’t have anything to do with. There are a lot of people working in the television industry who grew up watching Lear’s shows, and the influence of those are is still being felt today. The bigger problem is the networks: they generally prefer to steer clear of anything that might smack of controversy or, you know, that might actually require an audience to think. Thankfully, that’s not a problem for Netflix, nor is it an issue for any of the other streaming giants, so to answer your question, I’m gonna say maybe, but – thanks for the set-up – let’s just take it…one day at a time.
Ted: I can hear the laughter followed by applause from the studio audience with that last remark, Will. You’re right about Netflix taking risks that networks won’t take, and I think that’s why many producers are pitching shows to Netflix over other places. I can’t remember who it was who said that Netflix understands their role in the creative process. They don’t give performers “notes” once they greenlight a project, nor do people who were never associated with your project show up to the set and become producers — unlike other shops. I’m glad Netflix is branching out into sitcoms. It’s a genre that could use a real kick in another direction and One Day at a Time seems to have done that for me. I think our fellow Popdose colleague, Keith Creighton, wrote to us that he was really wondering what the producers of the show were drinking when they made the first episode, but now he’s obsessed with the show. Maybe it’s having that effect on a sizable number of people as the series gains word of mouth traction — or so one can hope.