The first thing you might know about Netflix’s One Day at a Time is that it’s a reboot of Norman Lear’s 1975 sitcom of the same name.
But the first thing you should know about Netflix’s One Day at a Time — released on January 6 — is that it’s a fantastic show unto itself.
As produced by Lear, Mike Royce, Gloria Calderón Kellett, and Michael Garcia, the 2017 version of One Day at a Time centers on a Cuban-American family, headed up by newly single mother Penelope (Justina Machado) — though her mother Lydia, played by the legendary Rita Moreno, might take issue with the idea of someone else being the head of the Alvarez household.
The thing is, Penelope isn’t just balancing her demanding nursing job with the constant demands of raising a teenage daughter and slick preteen son. She’s also dealing with the aftershocks of serving in the military. Her soon-to-be ex-husband — also a veteran — became addicted to alcohol and pain meds, her shoulder’s giving her endless grief, she doesn’t want to go to therapy, and the VA is a bureaucratic nightmare.
Basically: The Alvarez family has a ton of real problems on its collective plate (sometimes including their hipster landlord, the show’s wackiest and weakest element). But the series is so full of empathy for its characters, and its actors are so game to dive into any conversation or game, no matter how silly, that One Day at a Time becomes a joy to watch almost immediately.
So while there are plenty of things to love about Netflix’s latest comedy, here are three things that make it particularly special.
One Day at a Time addresses larger issues just how life does: when they come up as a matter of course
It stands to reason that this show would follow in the footsteps of Lear’s previous sitcoms, which are known for tackling topical issues with candor and bracing wit. Netflix’s One Day at a Time is no different — but it walks that tightrope with particular grace.
Given that it’s 2017, the issues facing the Alvarez family aren’t exactly the same ones that faced the Coopers in 1975. Penelope isn’t just a single mother but also a veteran who’s constantly fighting for respect and resources. Lydia worries that the family is forgetting it Cuban roots, which she counteracts by flaunting her flawless dance moves and rich, thick accent every chance she gets.
But the new generation of hot topics tends to come from Elena (Isabella Gomez), Penelope’s headstrong daughter whose hobbies include reading, studying, and railing against the nefarious influence of the patriarchy in all its insidious forms. Her views differ from her mother’s, which in turn differ from her mother’s.
The biggest and best arguments on One Day at a Time tend to happen between any combination of these three women. When they all get in a fight about Elena’s quinceañera, for example, it’s rooted in each of their specific expectations and desires, rather than a blanket need to argue. Penelope, Lydia, and Elena love each other to death and back; even if they frustrate the hell out of each other sometimes with their intrinsically different perspectives, they know they’ll be there to support each other at the end of the day.
The Alvarez family is, in other words, the kind of sprawling and loving group that Lear specializes in: sitcom families that can disagree with each other one second and cry happy tears together the next. And thanks to a particularly skilled duo, the Alvarez family thrives in the multi-camera sitcom format, where they can deliver their overlapping arguments and heartfelt talks in front of the incomparable energy of a live audience.
Rita Moreno and Justina Machado instantly become one of the best mother/daughter pairs on television
If there’s anyone who knows how to make an audience eat out of the palm of her hand, it’s Rita Moreno.
As the lovably melodramatic Lydia, the actress (who was one of the first to win the quartet of an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony) gets to openly relish the spotlight and bend it to her will. Moreno, sporting huge glasses and a matter-of-fact confidence, sweeps about the set like she’s on a Broadway stage. She can turn something as innocuous as singing “Happy Birthday” to Penelope’s boss (an adorably bemused Stephen Tobolowsky) into a solo tour de force — and she does.
However good Moreno is, though, she isn’t the one who has to anchor One Day at a Time.
Just like her character Penelope, Justina Machado has to juggle several roles at once. Penelope is the grounded mom, the frustrated veteran, the reluctantly depressed woman, the fun-loving Toni Braxton enthusiast who can’t make breakfast worth a damn. Machado makes every single one of these roles her own, letting Penelope be goofy or passionate or devastated as the moment calls for.
Together, Machado and Moreno sketch a beautiful relationship between Lydia and Penelope that’s contentious and deeply loving all at once. With these two pivotal roles in their capable hands, One Day at a Time has the flexibility to throw whatever challenges it can think of at its cast and know that they’ll be handled with the utmost care.
The show truly shines when its characters are honest with themselves about who they really are
Throughout the 13-episode first season, Penelope and Elena are both trying to face up to who they truly are — though they don't realize how much the other is struggling until they finally confide in each other.
On the one hand, there's Penelope fighting with all the stubbornness she's got against the idea that she might be depressed, that everything she's gone through might be taking some kind of toll on her beyond extreme sleep deprivation. On the other, there's Elena slowly realizing that her apathy toward dating boys isn't directed toward the “dating” part of the equation so much as the “boys.”
One Day at a Time tackles both reckonings with incredible warmth. Penelope goes to a group for women veterans where she can let loose all the frustrations and playful disdain toward civilian problems she's been sitting on for so long. Elena confides in her little brother — who accepts the news with a shrug — and eventually comes out to her mother in one of the season’s very best scenes.
Instead of tying up Penelope’s depression in a neat group therapy bow, though, One Day at a Time shows Penelope struggling to get over the idea that therapy is for the weak, which has been ingrained in her for so long. And instead of having Penelope accept Elena’s confession without question, the show has Penelope spend the next episode hating herself for feeling disappointed.
Usually, a sitcom would end either story at the moment when they could most quickly be resolved. But One Day at a Time has no interest in neat resolutions, because, well, that’s not how life works, is it? Life is messy, prone to flare-ups and ego clashes and misunderstandings that can be painful or hilarious depending on the day. All you can do — as this sitcom does so well — is take it one day at a time.
The 13-episode first season of One Day at a Time is currently available to stream on Netflix.
Corrected to reflect that the first season is 13 episodes, not 12.