One side effect of watching TV’s current diversity boom as an adult is woefully wishing television had been this inclusive when I was younger. The past few years have seen the resurgence of the progressive multi-cam — broad, Norman Lear-inspired comedies that feature laugh tracks (or studio-audience guffaws), families of color, and reckonings with thorny issues. The ABC single-cams Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat paved the way for NBC’s The Carmichael Show and ABC’s dearly departed Cristela — all shows, with the exception of Black-ish, that I like but suspect I would’ve enjoyed even more as a preteen, when I didn’t know that their hoarier bits had been around for decades.
[Very mild spoilers for One Day at a Time’s first season.]
I felt punctured by that wistful envy of today’s young viewers again while viewing Netflix’s One Day at a Time, which debuted last Friday. A Cuban-American reboot of Lear’s sitcom, which ran from 1975 to 1984, the 2017 version would’ve fit right in with the cornerstones of my after-school agenda: reruns of Designing Women, Golden Girls, and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air — oft-political comedies that introduced me to still-relevant topics like date rape, police racism, and women’s pain not being taken seriously by the medical establishment. Netflix’s casually feminist One Day begins with separated single mom Penelope (an instantly charming Justina Machado) caught between her 14-year-old daughter Elena’s (Isabella Gomez) protests about the sexist origins of quinceañeras and her elderly mother Lydia’s (Rita Moreno) hand-wringing that the teenager is “throwing away [her] Cuban heritage.” Even more refreshingly, the episode ends with a whip-smart meditation on the horrifying compromises of marriage for women for most of history — an unexpectedly comic interlude that wouldn’t be out of place on Jane the Virgin, TV’s other Latina matriarchy. That contemporariness and cultural specificity are the best reasons to watch One Day’s lightly serialized first season. Also compelling are the relatively fresh story lines, which include Penelope sneaking off to therapy, her explaining porn and threesomes to her middle-school son (Marcel Ruiz), microaggressions in the workplace, and accepting a child’s coming out, specifically from an Old World Cuban-American POV.
But if you’ve never made peace with laugh tracks, or lost your tolerance for them (as I feared I might have while watching the pilot), One Day is a swamp of potential deal-breakers. It isn’t just being told which lines are the funny ones, but also the cobwebbed gags you can almost feel the writers hating themselves for scripting. The pilot launches one of the season’s thematic leitmotifs — a cultural aversion to mental-health interventions — that makes Penelope hesitant to take the antidepressants she was prescribed for the post-traumatic stress she developed during her Army service. “As a nurse, I would totally recommend [the medication],” Penelope tells her boss, Dr. Berkowitz (Stephen Tobolowsky). “As a Cuban, I would suffer in silence.” Then comes your groan: “A silent Cuban? Hey, I’d like to meet one of those.” The office scenes, which find Penelope tensing in response to her clueless white co-workers, are reliably the least funny and illuminating. Worse yet is the “wacky” landlord Schneider (Todd Grinnell) — a holdover from the original series they should’ve chucked — here a hipster caricature so unnecessary his presence feels like the product of a reverse affirmative-action program.
The broadness of this and other progressive multi-cams’ humor is probably meant to invite families to watch together, so different generations and political camps can see their viewpoints reflected on the show. Alongside references to Hamilton and the lesbian pop-culture site autostraddle.com are digs as old as television itself. Whether you’ll find this version worthwhile depends on a game of ratio: how many lumps of the familiar you’ll sit through (ideally with others) for how many dollops of the stuff that inspires discussion and new ways of seeing. Watching alone, though, I just wanted my 12-year-old child-of-immigrants self to have had the chance to relate to the intergenerational conflicts about religion and homosexuality, or the scenes in which Alvarezes explain to their white neighbor why certain historical figures mean something much different to them than they do to him. Schneider’s Che Guevara tee, elucidates Penelope, is like “if you walked into a Jewish home wearing a Hitler shirt.” Or, for younger generations: “Into Taylor Swift’s home wearing a Kanye shirt.”
With each episode clocking in at just under 30 minutes, One Day gives its more effective installments the space for earned gravity — and lets the weaker ones sink under the weight of dumb gags and stock talking points. If you’d prefer to sample the better episodes — probably the best way to enjoy the show — you should start with the pilot (“This Is It”); then skip over to Penelope and her mother’s fight about the children’s spiritual upbringing in Episode 3 (“No Mass”); check out the series’s critique of the VA’s labyrinthine bureaucracy in Episode 7 (“Hold, Please”); make room in your day to cry about the Pedro Pan project in the superlative Episode 9 (“Viva Cuba”); and finish out the season with Episodes 12 and 13, which deal with the family’s future and Elena’s queer quinceañera. One Day at a Time may try too hard to offer something for everyone, but it embraces what matters when it most counts.