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Why One Day at a Time Is Must-See TV

It's everything a show should be right now

Sadie Gennis

One Day at a Time's second season hit Netflix in January, and many fans tore through the tear-jerking yet always delightful 13 episodes before the premiere weekend was even out. That made the following two months, during which Netflix was suspiciously mum about One Day's future, feel even more endless. Many viewers hadn't considered that they might have needed to savor the episodes of the perfectly earnest sitcom, because something that good has to get renewed, right?

Netflix proved that wasn't necessarily the case when it painstakingly took its time weighing the future of the critically beloved Norman Lear reboot, which effortlessly blends the nostalgia of the multi-cam format with timely explorations of modern issues. (A Vulture article diving into the machinations of Netflix's decision process later implied One Day eventually scored a third season because it's personally beloved by executives and because while the audience is small, it's the right kind of audience for the streaming service.) But during this two-month waiting period, viewers and critics alike didn't just sit back and wait for the potential ax to come down. They rallied, they tweeted, they pleaded and they fought for that third season in a way that Hollywood veteran and One Day at a Time star Rita Moreno has never seen in her nearly seven-decade long career.

Gloria Estefan Joins the One Day at a Time Family

"It's very meaningful and it's very important. But I have never, in my experience at least, seen critics, the TV critics I'm talking about, come out like this for a show," Moreno told TV Guide at the ATX Television Festival in June. "And I mean they were really reprimanding [production studio] Sony and Netflix like, 'We're waiting. What's going to happen? What's the delay? What's the problem?' I've never ever seen that in my life. Norman Lear was astonished. He had never seen anything like that."

"It's fabulous," Moreno added with a smile.

When One Day at a Time premiered in 2017, the fresh take on Lear's iconic 1970s sitcom didn't initially make much of a splash. But through a strong word-of-mouth campaign it developed a passionate fan base that grew attached to the Alvarez family, which includes Lydia (Moreno), the flamboyant grandmother who fled Cuba as a young woman after Castro seized power; Penelope (Justina Machado), Lydia's (slightly) more reserved daughter and a single mother struggling with depression, anxiety and PTSD after serving in the military; Elena (Isabella Gomez), Penelope's eldest child who's a passionate activist and whose coming out journey provides much of the heart of the first season; and Alex (Marcel Ruiz), the suave youngest member of the Alvarez family whose desire to fit in often means he's embarrassed by his vibrant family's antics.

One Day At A Time

Mike Yarish/Netflix

Unlike the original, which followed a white family in Indianapolis, the Alvarez family is Cuban-American, and their Latino heritage, while it never defines them, typically informs how the characters approach the various issues the show tackles, which so far has included racism, gender identity, immigration and religion. But while One Day at a Time is an issue-conscious series, it never veers into preachy territory, and that's largely because it uses these sensitive topics as a springboard to launch empathetic dialogues between characters, specifically the three generations of opinionated Alvarez women, rather than tell the viewers what the "correct" opinion is.

"It's nice, because the dominant culture is often what's represented. And so you don't get a sense of what women of other cultures are like. And here are three vastly different women who all happen to be Latinx. But they're so different!" showrunner Gloria Calderon Kellett said. "[Lydia] is old school and traditional and has a lot of more conservative viewpoints... Penelope's more of a moderate and is sort of in the middle. And then obviously Elena is very progressive."

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When Kellett was developing the show she didn't specifically set out to create three specific, political viewpoints in the characters, but she said it was just a natural progression based on the conversations she has had with people across the generations in her own life. And no matter where the women fall on the political spectrum, each character is treated with the same warmth and care as any other. No one is ever just the comic relief or a narrative foil; every single character is given the space to explore their passions, their fears and -- most importantly -- their flaws.

"[The role of Penelope] has everything," Machado explained. "It's written as a person. It's not just put in a box, which sometimes they tend to do to Latino actors -- especially Latino actors."

As Machado explained, the three boxes typically forced upon Latino actors are: the asexual cop, the oversexualized woman and the suffering mother. "And I've played every single one of those," she mused. "So the fact that there's this beautiful character that's flawed and passionate and [has] fears and [is] multilayered -- that I've never had before."

"See, I love that," Moreno added. "The flaws, that's what makes us human beings... That's what makes us so special and that's what makes us very real because I love the flaws. Of course, one of my favorite things in life is to have an argument or a serious emotional Latino disagreement with the daughter and the granddaughter because we are such different people, but that's marvelous. And the clashing that goes on and how we suddenly get so Latina! ... That's so great."

Although One Day at a Time often uses the characters' differing perspectives to explore multiple sides of relevant issues through disagreements (some are light and accessible, while others bear far more emotional weight), it also knows when to bring in gut-wrenching drama, and it's usually when it's least expected. There may be no better example of this than the Season 2 episode, "Hello, Penelope," in which Penelope decides she's in such a good place she no longer needs to take her antidepressants or go to therapy. She soon begins to unravel, isolating herself from her family, her boyfriend Max (Ed Quinn) and her best friend/neighbor Schneider (Todd Grinnell). It's only after recording herself talking to herself and playing it back later that Penelope is able to hear how frightening her state of mind is when she's off her medication. After listening to her tape and some wise words from Schneider, who opens up about his addiction issues, only then does Penelope begin to understand her struggle with mental health is something she will likely have to cope with for the rest of her life.

One Day At A Time

Mike Yarish/Netflix

The episode hit home with viewers, some of whom even reached out to the One Day team to thank them for telling an honest and relatable story about what struggling with depression looks like and how to help people who are suffering. Machado noted how particularly important it is to see an issue like this explored from a female perspective because so many women, especially mothers, have a tendency to get so caught up in taking care of other people they don't make space to take care of themselves, and that it's good reminder that people like Penelope need taking care of too.

Despite tackling such complicated subject matter, One Day at a Time never feels as though it strays too far from its sitcom roots. The series regularly pulls off one of the most impressive balancing acts on TV, effortlessly transitioning from some of the most heartbreaking scenes that have aired this year -- like when all of Lydia's family members visited her hospital bed where she lay in a coma, unsure if these were the last words they'd ever get to say to her -- to some of the most wonderfully absurd, like when Elena's partner asked her to the school dance by performing a customized spoof of Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire."

One Day at a Time's ability to pull this off is a true testament to the talent of the writers' room, which Moreno joked is "like the UN." When Kellett was developing the show, she made it a priority to gather an inclusive writers' room to ensure they had people on staff who could bring authenticity to the stories they wanted to tell. Half of One Day's writers' room is Latinx and half the room is female. The staff also features multiple queer writers as well as writers who range from their mid-20s all the way up to 95, when Lear, an executive producer, stops by. Kellett also made sure the show's entire staff -- all the way down to the production assistants -- is diverse, creating a pipeline of opportunities for people who don't often easily have access to them.

When asked how the diversity of the room has impacted the show's storytelling, Kellett pointed to the conversations the writers have with each other, particularly the ones that involve the staff's white, male writers who often don't have personal experience with many of the issues the show tackles. As questions are raised in the room, the staff is able to draw from their conversations with each other to inspire storylines in the show that help open the eyes of the dominant culture -- whether that's the white, male writers in the room or the viewers at home -- to issues and other perspectives that they weren't even aware existed.

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It's because of the inclusive team Kellett has gathered that One Day has also become one of the leading barrier-breakers for exploring the often ignored queer Latinx community. Elena's journey over the first season found her slowly discovering her sexuality until she felt comfortable and confident enough to come out to her family. "It's so overwhelming in the most delicious of ways," Gomez said. "When I came into Season 1, I was very unaware of the lack of representation and the lack of accurate representation and I also grew up in a bubble of privilege where my family was very accepting and had I liked girls, they would have been like OK and moved on."

One Day At A Time

Mike Yarish/Netflix

Gomez's personal experience is a far cry from Elena's, whose liberal mother Penelope initially struggled to understand her daughter's identity and whose father Victor (James Martinez) abandoned her before the father-daughter dance at her quinceañera after finding out she was a lesbian. But in a touching moment, the rest of Elena's family -- including her chosen family of Schneider and her mother's boss Dr. Berkowitz (Stephen Tobolosky) -- met her on the empty dance floor, wrapping Elena in a tight embrace and showing her that even if her father didn't accept her, she had everything she needed in them.

After Elena's emotional coming out in Season 1, the second season found her in her first queer relationship with the off-beat Syd (Sheridan Pierce), who Elena's family never quite understands but lovingly embraces. And in the upcoming third season, One Day will deepen the exploration of what it's like to be a young queer person in love, including a sure-to-be-awkward sex talk with Penelope. Kellett hopes that stories like Elena's will not only help viewers feel less alone, but facilitate important discussions among young fans -- many of whom haven't seen stories like theirs portrayed onscreen before.

"I remember when Brenda lost her virginity on [Beverly Hills, 90210] and how important that was and what that conversation was with all my friends the next day, because I was the same age as them," Kellett said. "And for young lesbians, there is no representation of that, so we're really honored to be able to show Elena, 'what is it like being in a relationship? What is it like for this young woman? What are the stories that are involved in that? And I'm so grateful to our queer writers who help us fill in the gaps of what that looks like so we can do it in a way that is authentic to the experience."

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But while One Day at a Time's ability to tell these authentic stories of typically marginalized and underrepresented communities has helped make it often feel like necessary television in this day and age, there's also a universality that appeals to anyone across cultures, ages and sexual orientations. Maybe it's because of the show's broad appeal that during the recent discussions of class representation on TV, sparked by the revival and subsequent cancellation of Roseanne, One Day at a Time was often overlooked. But when it comes to the depiction of the struggles of the middle class, few do it better than One Day, and there are even fewer shows that even are attempting to tell these stories about families of color.

"I think it is really a moment in time thing because for a period of time, I felt like aspirational stories is what was the norm," Kellett said of the current desire for middle-class stories. "People really wanted to see an aspirational family. I think the Cosbys were an aspirational family. And certainly black-ish is aspirational, and Eva Longoria on Devious Maidswas like a rich Latina. I think initially we were like, 'oh, let's just show that we also have money.' And now, I think over the past few years, and certainly with this administration, there is a longing for the middle class. They feel a little lost in the shuffle, so to be able to see a family on TV that's also struggling with money and with paying bills and with working hard and their kids going to school and how expensive life is, I think it speaks to more peoples' experience and so they want to see that too and they appreciate it."

"They want to escape, but that's the beauty of the Alvarez family too," Machado added. "Because you aspire to be like a family like this."

While One Day at a Time is a perfect embodiment of this era of television -- smart, boundary-pushing, inclusive and a necessary beacon of hope -- the team behind it is well aware of how unfortunate it is there aren't more shows like it on air. But by drawing on the comfort of the past through its nostalgic multi-cam format and by picking up on this present moment in culture in which inclusivity isn't just a buzzword but inching ever closer to a given, One Day at a Time is helping set the tone for that desired future. The Alvarez women represent a spectrum of experiences, but they are far from the only ones, and the One Day team hopes to soon have other voices join theirs in celebrating all the different perspectives that can -- and should -- happily coexist onscreen.

"I want to see doors open up for other people like us," Machado said. "I want to see shows out there. I want it to be the norm as opposed to the exception."

One Day at a Time's first two seasons are available to stream on Netflix now. Season 3 is expected to debut in 2019.