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5 reasons One Day at a Time is one of the best, most empathetic shows on TV

The Netflix sitcom, starring Rita Moreno and Justina Machado, makes an old format feel new and crucial again.

Just look at this beautiful family!!
Adam Rose/Netflix

The quickest way to describe Netflix’s One Day at a Time might be “a single Cuban-American mom keeps her family together,” but that only scratches the surface of what the show can accomplish within a single episode. Every chapter finds a new way to bring relevance and life to the multi-camera family sitcom, a format that executive producer Norman Lear — who created the 1975 show that inspired this Netflix reboot — fine-tuned decades ago.

As created by Gloria Calderon Kellett and Mike Royce, this version of One Day at a Time — which came back for a second season on January 26 — tackles the joy and pain and seemingly impossible resilience of veteran Penelope Alvarez (Justina Machado) raising her family in Echo Park, Los Angeles. It tells the everyday struggles and triumphs of the Alvarez family, from teen daughter Elena (Isabella Gomez) learning what it means to be gay to Penelope’s mother Lydia (Rita Moreno) struggling to let go of her dream of returning to Cuba, her beloved homeland.

But maybe you’re still sitting there wondering how you can reasonably be expected to take on another show when you have all these others in your queue. Maybe you’re reasoning that this show feels outdated and unnecessary in the grand scheme of things, so you might as well fire up another series about a dystopian hellscape ruled by nefarious robots or whatever.

If so, here are five reasons you’re wrong and need to give One Day at a Time a fighting chance to work its effervescent charm on your cold, dead heart.

1) Contrary to reports, the multi-cam sitcom format is far from irrelevant, let alone dead

Where once the multi-cam sitcom — which is filmed in front of a live studio audience and/or supplemented with a laugh track — reigned supreme, the format fell out of favor in the mid-2000s with the rise of mockumentary-style comedies like The Office. As TV storytelling got more ambitious, the reality-breaking conceit of a nearby audience waiting to laugh at all the designated punchlines seemed to many like an outdated concept.

But shows like One Day at a Time are here to prove why this doesn’t always have to be the case. In fact, in the right hands, the multi-cam sitcom can bring a real sense of warmth and familiarity to its stories — an advantage One Day at a Time uses beautifully as the Alvarez family welcomes us into their home.

When the Alvarezes are living their best lives, the audience can literally cheer them on. When they run into a real problem — often via a hairpin tonal turn that few comedies can pull off — the audience’s hushed silence makes it even clearer how devastating the moment is. In the excellent season two finale, there are moments both crushing and triumphant, each enhanced by the audience’s reactions.

2) One Day at a Time tackles weighty, topical issues without being anchored to timely news events

As entertainment struggles to keep up with our rapidly changing world, filming any remotely topical storyline runs the risk of becoming outdated far before it actually airs, usually months later. But One Day at a Time has found a way to tell stories about living in Trump’s America without anchoring them to the minutiae that makes following the news in Trump’s America such an exhausting endeavor.

When the show flashes back to September 2001, the year when Elena was born and the world changed forever, it does so in the context of showing how that day affected the entire family in the present. When Lydia reveals that she never became a citizen, Elena’s insistence that she do it stems from a real fear that the government’s escalating war on immigrants could mean her grandmother gets deported. When Penelope’s younger son Alex (Marcel Ruiz) gets taunted with racist epithets at school — not to mention a “build the wall!” jeer — the entire family rallies behind him, even as they acknowledge that this kind of everyday racism isn’t going away anytime soon.

Instead of talking about any individual news stories or laws — or, indeed, mentioning Trump by name at all — season two of One Day at a Time weaves the world into its family stories far more naturally, by showing how individual people are actually affected.

And, crucially, it demonstrates a whole lot of empathy in doing so.

3) Every single character gets great, empathetic material in season two

Mike Yarish/Netflix

While season one mostly centered on Penelope’s attempts to give her family the best lives possible and Elena’s realization that she’s gay, season two deepens these stories while spreading the narrative around so that everyone gets something to make their characters even more well-rounded than they already were.

Penelope, against all her instincts, falls for Max (Ed Quinn), a strapping paramedic so tall she just barely comes up to his chest. (When she admits she just wants to “climb him like a beanstalk,” it’s impossible not to empathize.) Elena, now officially out of the closet, explores what it means to date as a gay teen — and accept herself when her father refused to at the end of the first season. As Lydia studies for her US citizenship test, she grapples with the fact that the Cuba she knew and loved so fiercely is gone.

Even their oblivious landlord Schneider (Todd Grinnell) and Penelope’s bumbling boss (Stephen Tobolowsky) get great material this time around, making real cases for themselves as important parts of the Alvarez family’s lives (which wasn’t always the case in season one, fun though they were). And while Alex is mostly used as a dose of comic relief, Ruiz has nonetheless found a real groove for himself as Lydia’s suave, insightful right-hand man.

One Day at a Time, in other words, tells relevant stories by making its characters deeply believable — and when it puts those stories in the hands of some truly fantastic actors, it’s hard for them to miss.

4) This show proves once and for all that Rita Moreno is an icon

Rita Moreno might as well have a spotlight following her at all times, she’s that magnetic.
Mike Yarish/Netflix

Lots of shows have a sassy grandma. No show but One Day at a Time has one played by Rita freaking Moreno.

Moreno, one of the only EGOT winners on the planet, is a legendary talent with an unparalleled knack for performing in front of a live audience. As Lydia, Moreno gets to embody a rich, fiercely loyal character with a penchant for melodramatic flourishes — in other words, a character perfectly suited to her.

Lydia ricochets through scenes with determination and a steadfast belief that she is always right. She often dances her way across the stage, as if neither Lydia nor Moreno can keep their inherent passion for living life as loudly as possible under wraps, letting it burst out of them in choreographed waves. And when Lydia is sad, Moreno’s ability to snuff out the light that shines inside her character is heartbreaking.

On any other show, Moreno would be the clear standout. But this isn’t any other show, so there is someone else who deserves individual recognition.

5) Justina Machado is the kind of rare talent that deserves every shred of praise we can give her, please

Justina Machado, national treasure.
Mike Yarish/Netflix

If Justina Machado can’t get any kind of award recognition for her work on One Day at a Time, the system is well and truly broken.

As Penelope, Machado has a trickier job than Moreno. She has to keep the family grounded as their designated straight woman, not to mention tackle most of the show’s heaviest moments.

But Machado, with the help of the One Day at a Time writers, makes this balancing act look easy. It says everything that some of her best material in season two comes from the incredibly disparate stories of Penelope’s desperation in the face of her depression, and her lust (and blossoming love) for Max.

Her Penelope is a headstrong taskmaster because she has to be, but also an effervescent joy because she wants to be. She struggles with PTSD, depression, and anxiety but goes into each day determined to make something good out of it. She loves her family with her entire heart, so much so that whenever one of them is hurting, a glance at Machado almost always reveals sympathetic tears spilling onto her face.

There is a scene in the finale that is so crushingly good, as Penelope works through her fear and frustration in a wide-ranging monologue that, according to my colleague Todd VanDerWerff, Machado completed in a single unbeatable take. She’s so comfortable in Penelope’s highest and lowest moments that Penelope is one of the most beautifully fleshed-out characters in a sitcom today, period. It’s as much of a joy to watch Machado work as it is to watch the Alvarez family, and the people who love them, live.

The first two seasons of One Day at a Time are now streaming on Netflix.