There are few TV shows that build stories across an entire season as effectively as One Day at a Time, a seemingly simple family sitcom that spends the back half of its seasons casually detonating carefully planted emotional time bombs that leave both the characters and the audience wondering why they’ve been so blindsided.
And in season three — newly streaming on Netflix — the show’s confidence in its ability to tell serialized stories while still offering the pleasures of well-done episodic ones has grown exponentially.
The season’s final four episodes expertly weave together numerous threads the earlier episodes have developed, some of which started as apparent one-offs or even running gags. It’s the kind of season that only a show this good can pull off, where even early episodes that seem to have no real bearing on what’s to come end up being a major part of the season’s emotional picture.
I’m not sure One Day at a Time season three is quite as solid, on the whole, as the show’s superb second season, but most of the missteps come early on and are seemingly designed to help bolster the show’s chances of a renewal. (This is the rare Netflix series that typically comes down to the wire when waiting for news of whether it’s been picked up.) Thus, episodes that rely a little too heavily on, say, very special guest stars (Gloria Estefan!) are easily forgivable if it means we get more of this show in the future (please?).
And never mind those early missteps. Like the show’s first two seasons, One Day at a Time season three starts a little slow and then builds to an impressively moving ending that only underlines how far this group of characters has come — and how far they have to go.
One Day at a Time is terrific at building arcs for every single one of its regular characters — and a few of its guest stars as well
What linked the first two seasons of One Day at a Time was immediately obvious. The first built to the quinceañera of Elena Alvarez (Isabella Gomez), the oldest child of Penelope Alvarez (Justina Machado, who gives one of TV’s single best performances), the single mother at the show’s center. The second was slightly more complicated, but it was built around Penelope’s attempts to balance her increasingly busy professional life (complete with going back to school) with a personal life that was suddenly heating up. It made for a season that organically threw everything at the wall.
Season three is trickier. Its unifying aspect seems to be, more or less, the passage of time, but it marks time subtly. (Perhaps ... one day at a time?) Elena prepares for her driving exam, and Penelope continues to push toward her degree as a nurse practitioner. Lydia (Rita Moreno), the family matriarch, recuperates from the stroke that nearly killed her in season two, while also dancing around (often literally) a flirtation with Penelope’s boss, Leslie Berkowitz (Stephen Tobolowsky, at his funniest). Neighbor/building superintendent/landlord Schneider (Todd Grinnell) pursues a new romantic relationship. Youngest child Alex (Marcel Ruiz) is grounded after experimenting with pot.
None of these story threads sounds especially exciting on paper, I know, but their cumulative effect is to make it seem as though roughly a year of the family’s life has passed by the time you make it through all 13 episodes. Even though the season clocks in at around six hours in total, it feels more momentous than that, and in a good way. By grounding its laughs, its tears, and its storytelling in the ups and downs of a family, One Day at a Time avoids feeling gimmicky.
The passage of time motif also allows the show to tackle some heavier subjects without feeling as if it’s just a sequence of very special episodes. In particular, as the subject of addiction comes to dominate the second half of season three, the show never once feels like it’s delving into the territory of ’80s sitcoms where the characters took a hit from a joint and immediately became drug-craving fiends. Its depiction of addicts falling off the wagon, of the emotional darkness that might lead them there, and of the way their loved ones don’t know how to navigate the minefield they leave behind has deep empathy for both addicts and those who love them but have their patience tested.
But by rooting its storytelling in time passing, One Day at a Time also manages to build effective character arcs for all six of its regulars, as well as several of its recurring players. (Just wait until you see what the series does with Penelope’s ex-husband Victor and his new girlfriend in the last few episodes of the season.) In a more compressed timeframe, it’s hard to argue that everybody would be going through something. Spread out over a year, it’s easier to hit the highlights of every character’s journey.
Alex, in particular, benefits from the season’s structural gambit. As the character whom this woman-centric show occasionally doesn’t quite know what to do with, Alex comes into his own in season three. His tumultuous adolescence and his punishment for smoking weed lead him at first into conflict with the women in his family and then to a place where he becomes the family rock, because he’s the only one around all the time (since he’s grounded and can’t leave the house).
The episodes themselves are beautifully constructed, too, with some of the best third acts in television today; multiple episodes conclude with moments as likely to leave viewers in tears as they are in laughing. (Still: No show on TV right now is better than One Day at a Time at coming up with a joke to close an episode on a bang.) Whether it’s Elena contemplating having sex for the first time with her significant other, Victor dropping a bombshell to Penelope, or Rita Moreno downing a whole bag of cheesy puffs, this is a show that knows the importance of a strong ending.
I always feel like I’m selling One Day at a Time short, because it’s so easy to talk about it in terms of how beautifully crafted it is, or in terms of the serious topics it tackles, or in terms of just how much it might move you or make you cry. It is a very funny show, one of TV’s funniest in fact, if only because nobody is as good at wringing every ounce of laughter out of a joke as this cast.
A Valentine’s Day episode around season three’s midpoint — which traps all of the characters in the Alvarez apartment for some farcical fun — is a sparkling mix of rom-com, “everything falls apart” calamity, and heated making out, while several other episodes capitalize on Tobolowsky’s unique ability to make just about any ridiculous outfit somehow even more ridiculous by the mere act of wearing it.
But mostly I feel like I sell the show short when I try to recommend it because I just love it that much. As I started watching season three, even when a joke didn’t land or a storytelling choice didn’t quite pay off, I felt a little like I was welcoming an old friend back. It’s impossible to say whether anybody but me watches this show, thanks to Netflix’s obfuscation of its own numbers, but if you haven’t, yet, it’s time to start. One Day at a Time is a TV treasure, and it would be a shame to see it go away. You wouldn’t take my friends from me, would you?
One Day at a Time is streaming on Netflix.