Brow Beat

One Day at a Time’s Cancellation Didn’t Surprise Me. The Uproar Over It Did.

It’s more clear than ever what the show means.

Rita Moreno, Justina Machado, Stephen Tobolowsky, Todd Grinnell, Isabella Gomez, and Marcel Ruiz in <em>One Day at a Time</em>.
Rita Moreno, Justina Machado, Stephen Tobolowsky, Todd Grinnell, Isabella Gomez, and Marcel Ruiz in One Day at a Time. Netflix

Great shows get canceled all the time, and the world keeps spinning. It happened to Firefly. It happened to I Love Dick. There is a universe, then, where fans of Gloria Calderón Kellett and Mike Royce’s Cuban American reboot of Whitney Blake and Allan Manings’ One Day at a Time—and I count myself among them—could have taken the show’s cancellation by Netflix in stride. I didn’t expect many to share my disappointment: Grateful though I was for each season we got, my hunch was that One Day at a Time was too niche and too light for its disappearance to matter. But the outcry has been bigger than anyone anticipated, especially for a show that (per Netflix) just didn’t get enough viewers. Some of that pushback can probably be chalked up to the infelicitous way Netflix made the announcement—over Twitter, using that chummy brand voice that implies corporations have feelings to offer a “just business” justification. But there’s more to it, I think.

The show’s fan base doesn’t seem to be just Latinos who’ve tired of popping up mainly on drug shows and telenovelas (even fantastic meta ones like Jane the Virgin) and who rejoice at seeing Rita Moreno being magnificent on her own terms. Or people like me who got shy and thrilled about seeing family dynamics that resembled their own for the very first time. The response seems bigger and more general. The show just felt good—precious, even. Rita Moreno is 87 years old and an American treasure; every scene she’s in feels, accordingly, like a gift. “I’m not entirely sure how I’ll manage without the ability to exercise that manic, theatrical side of me that’s been loitering on the edges of my life for years looking for a home,” Moreno tweeted—and anyone who has listened to her reflect on the meager stereotypes Hollywood offered her throughout her career despite her winning an Oscar knows how true that is. Even her farewell is touching, both for its graciousness and its Lydia-like flair.

But I don’t think the response to the show’s cancellation is reducible to Moreno, either. We’re living through a period of near-total civic disillusionment, and while plenty of shows are responding to this moment in vivid and provocative ways, few of them are doing so by approaching almost every character in merry good faith. One Day at a Time is one of them. Even Lupita’s negligent brother and alcoholic ex-husband are presented as capable of pretty extraordinary change.

Irony and dystopia sell, so I figured audiences would find One Day at a Time to be both too classically a Norman Lear sitcom and too direct, bordering on preachy, about the subjects it addressed. In a TV landscape suffused with difficult, semi-philosophical programs, One Day at a Time has no dark nights of the soul, no jagged dramedic turns, no plot twists, no prestige antiheroism. Everyone just shuffled along, gamely and with humor. Not even its most poignant moments—and there are many—leave you feeling empty or even confused. It’s not a mysterious or difficult show. When One Day at a Time portrays desperation, for instance, the source is evident: It’s money. Time. Stress. Rejection. PTSD. Sometimes: racism. Sometimes: fear. The crises are real and plausible, but they’re also refreshingly (and maybe artificially) concrete. There’s no digging into inchoate masculine impotence, or feminist frustration, or ennui, or a gnawing disappointment in the American dream. (To be clear, these are all fine subjects, but they’re all over TV right now, and a great way for a genre to sag under philosophical mission creep.) When Lupita’s sinking under the weight of things, she talks it out with her support group. When Lydia wants anything at all, she makes an entrance. Elena is loud and wordy. Papito is smug and obvious. Schneider wants to belong. When depression and alcoholism show up, they’re problems to be dealt with rather than states to poetically interrogate (or indulge). One Day at a Time isn’t philosophically or generically ambitious. As sitcoms go, it’s almost laughably obvious and structured and plain. It also demonstrates why that structure works.

I spent most of One Day at a Time’s third and final season fearing that the show would take a right turn toward grim realism, hollow out the pleasures that kept me watching, and discipline me for thinking they mattered. An all-too-frequent twist in these genre-bending days is to thwack the viewer for having formal expectations by subverting them; in the aftermath, you feel silly and naïve and sad. I expected, in short, that Lydia would die, and that the show would spend the aftermath careening toward a more prestige-oriented concept of itself. It’s hard to explain how hard I was emotionally bracing myself for the death of a character whose marvelous frivolity was central (and whose bursts of seriousness were correspondingly wrenching). It was a ludicrous expectation—I see now that the show was never going to break its basic promise to its viewers—but at the time it made sense. After all, I wasn’t sure how long Moreno was going to want to do the show.

It’s unfortunate that the decision was made for her. And I hope it doesn’t stick, because shows that stick hard to their premises and their promises are rare, and there appears to be more appreciation for that right now than anyone thought. There may be hope. There’s a developing middle space these days between cancellation and the reboot—like Arrested Development and Roseanne and Veronica Mars, which were picked up years later with roughly similar casts. I’m talking, of course, about the bizarre possibility of same-year resurrections. Community and Brooklyn Nine-Nine fans managed to bring their shows back on different networks or platforms; fandom matters. I’ve been more surprised by the outpouring of love for One Day at a Time than I was by its cancellation. I thought this was over, but—having been wrong at every turn—I hope to be wrong again.