Television

One Day at a Time Bucks the Dramedy Trend

The show defends joy as a legitimate answer to life’s tougher questions.

Marcel Ruiz as Alex, Justina Machado as Penelope, and Rita Moreno as Lydia, seated at a table in a scene from One Day at a Time. Alex and Lydia fist-bump across the table in front of Penelope.
Marcel Ruiz, Justina Machado, and Rita Moreno in One Day at a Time.
Ali Goldstein/Netflix

On Netflix, TV is in an edgy moment. BoJack Horseman has taken the cartoon to dark and painfully honest places. Sex Education makes the awkward obscenity of teen life deeply, uncomfortably explicit. Big Mouth is so overt about the pitfalls of puberty that it’s not clear whether it’s safe for actual teenagers to watch. Russian Doll thematizes existential self-hatred, although it does suggest there may be light at the end of the tunnel if you die often enough first. Life is atomized and hard—hard in ways that we can’t comprehend and aren’t equipped for, and that no conceptual structure can quite contain. If there’s a genre for our time, it’s the dramedy. If there’s a word for it, it’s LOLsob.

Against this backdrop of angsty irresolution comes a third season of One Day at a Time, an almost unbelievably traditional sitcom that has stoutly resisted the downcast trend. Gloria Calderón Kellett and Mike Royce’s show is the antithesis of edgy reinvention. It’s the sobLOL of television: punctuating short, predictably structured episodes about a Cuban American family with the rich cackle of single mom Penelope Alvarez (Justina Machado). It insists (and this might be a light philosophical intervention) that life is hard, but laugh-out-loud joy is essential to being able to deal. It supplies resolutions that aren’t quite ambitious enough to be answers, but it makes up for their shortcomings with fun. Rita Moreno, playing the grandmother Lydia, is a party unto herself and really sells the healing properties of a good time.

Granted, sometimes those resolutions are a little pat (even if they’re rarely as neat as they were on the genre’s forebears). Sometimes they’re slightly saccharine. But sometimes they’re moving and immense and earned. What they register—unflaggingly, and with a ton of humor—is a faith in redemption. People will disappoint you, sure, but they are capable of growing toward you too. And so (to mangle a metaphor) it’s worth going another round with them.

The cleanest example of the show’s willingness to dangle absolution over its characters is an arc in the show’s new season, its third, involving the family’s landlord and friend Schneider (Todd Grinnell), a recovering alcoholic who starts drinking again. It’s a bleak escalation in a season that deals gamely and nonhysterically with the Alvarez son Alex’s (Marcel Ruiz) dalliance with marijuana. Schneider finds Lupita’s son’s stash because he knows how addicts hide things, and by the end of the season he’s started hiding things himself—including his relapse, sparked by his father’s reappearance in his life. His father’s cruel rejection makes Schneider spiral, and Alex is the one who finds him, pantsless and ranting, in the building’s laundry. The show has tried hard to make room for Alex’s young, masculine bravado alongside his sister Elena’s woke gayness, so it’s tough to watch him discover the weakness Schneider’s macho posturing conceals. Grinnell shows Schneider suffering quietly over the trust he’s sacrificed, specifically how much it meant to him that Lupita trusted him to take care of her son when no one else trusted him with anything. It’s a sitcom problem with no sitcom solution.

Slightly less successful is the arc described by Lupita’s ex-husband, Victor, who like her is an Army veteran, one whose untreated PTSD led to addiction and suicidal thoughts. He’s better now, rebuilding his life and remarrying a Lupita look-alike (played by co-showrunner Kellett), but it’s hard for the family he left behind to be uncomplicatedly happy for him. He devastated Elena in Season 1 by walking out of her quinceañera after she used the occasion to come out of the closet, and it becomes clear this season how much that rejection has shaped her behavior, from her habit of overenthusiastically announcing her gayness to all and sundry to her nervousness about appearing in public with her “Syd-nificant other,” Syd.

One Day at a Time is skilled at tracing the psyches of its central women and their very different relationships to femininity, makeup, and family tradition, but it doesn’t quite know how to address similar concerns for its men. The season’s last episode has Elena trying to gamely play along with her father’s attempts to include her in his new life, including agreeing to be “Best Woman” at his wedding, and it ends with the kind of fantasy fulfillment that only a family sitcom can deliver. Victor tells her exactly what she needs to hear: that he abandoned her and owes her a debt and wants to do the work to make to it right. It’s a lovely moment, but it isn’t remotely believable. The show is too smart about a particular kind of Latino family to believe that Victor could transform so thoroughly so fast; a more likely scenario is the one Elena’s gay older cousin describes, where she’s out to her family but it “didn’t stick.”

Something similar happens with Lupita’s brother Tito (Danny Pino). He’s the errant son brought up in a way many Latino viewers will recognize; spoiled by his mother, preferred over his sister, he’s seen as clever and marvelous and infallible where she is hardworking but flawed. His work trumps hers, and while little is asked of him, his every contribution is maximally celebrated. The problem, which the show only partially takes on, is that Tito didn’t show up to his ailing mother’s sickbed when she was in a coma last season, leaving Lupita to deal with everything herself. That Tito is shiny and charming doesn’t change the fact that he’s unreliable and ungrateful. But the show likes Tito too much to really call him to account.

One Day at a Time’s warmth for even its most flawed characters, its willingness to give them a second chance, is part of what makes it a truly traditional, sometimes corny sitcom. It doesn’t, for instance, show Tito letting Lupita and Lydia down again, proving him to be the thoughtless bastard we suspect he really is. Heartbreak isn’t its currency, and it doesn’t confirm Lydia as a flawed mother who raised a son to be the most selfish version of himself. It lets you have the feel-good moment. But the show frequently smuggles some growth into its longer arcs, even when they’re built by those familiar resets. It’s true that Tito’s actions aren’t really interrogated, and neither are the consequences of raising boys the way Lydia did—and does, with her grandson Alex. That’s a conflict the show is sidling up to crabwise, and I really do wonder what will happen if and when it finally confronts machismo head-on. (The show did take on Lydia’s habit of haranguing Lupita this season, so it is at least theoretically capable of criticizing its most charming character.) This season abounded in charming but troubled men; I can’t wait to see what its fourth season (if there is one) does with them.

One Day at a Time works despite the flat lighting, the familiar sets, the live audience, and the predictable formulas. It works despite a severe lack of irony and an earnestness so absolute it should be downright obnoxious. It works in part, I think, because this show captures stories about American family life that we haven’t necessarily figured out how to tell ourselves. We’ve had a curly-haired, brash, effervescent single mom before—cf. Lorelai Gilmore—but we haven’t seen her in group therapy, or working through PTSD, or living in a tiny apartment, or figuring out how to slowly introduce her kids to the more illusory aspects of her strength, or reconciling the Cuban and American aspects of her culture. Solitude isn’t an option for Lupita, and that’s OK: She doesn’t necessarily want it. Lupita’s limitations and anxiety attacks don’t stop her from experiencing joy, and Lydia’s verve is undiminished by her near-death experience: “If you want me to accept you for being you, you have to accept me for being me,” she tells her daughter, and rejects her granddaughter’s efforts to get her to stop dancing and act her age. The show defends joy as a legitimate answer to life’s tougher questions, and Lydia, like the sitcom she stars in, won’t stop being herself, no matter what’s in fashion or how much the doctors tell her to lose the heels and lean on a cane—or on irony, or on a more dour assessment of life and its challenges.