Update: since the initial publishing of this post, One Day at a Time has been cancelled by Netflix, stirring debates and controversy.
When Norman Lear’s original One Day at a Time first aired on CBS in 1975, its success hinged on whether audiences would respond to a story very different from the typical sitcom. A single mother, Ann Romano (played by Bonnie Franklin), struggling to raise a couple of sassy teenage daughters in the Midwest (played by Valerie Bertinelli and Mackenzie Phillips), tries to balance nurturing and discipline, family and work, while getting some great advice from the building’s scraggly bachelor handyman, known only as Schneider.
As it turned out, audiences were ready then to engage with the tumultuousness of this family’s situation, and to confront messy storylines like addiction, eating disorders, and abandonment in a few “special” episodes each season. Balancing comedic moments with some darker undercurrents, the series aired until 1984, audiences tuning in as the family underwent a few transformations and faced many of-the-moment problems. After nearly a decade, the series ended.
In 2017, One Day at a Time returned, this time to Netflix, a well-poised old dame of a show with a great styling team who made her look better than ever. The head stylist — Lear himself, who is an ally and champion of the kind of second-wave feminism the show thematized in the 1970s and 80s, consulted with the show’s producers on how to create a similar setup newly relevant to audiences after a 33-year hiatus. The key to the success that the series has garnered with audiences in its three seasons is a profound reinvention. The central family is now Latinx and their problems are current, provocative, and not the usual ones of most television sitcoms.
Netflix‘s One Day at a Time, this 2.0 version, uses two main tools in this update: relevant storylines and top Latina actors.
Now Cuban-American, the family is again composed of a single mom, played by Justina Machado, who seems dark if for no other reason than she cut her teeth on HBO’s Six Feet Under. Machado’s matriarch is a veteran from the armed forces, has anxiety and possible PTSD, and works to hold it all together. Diverging from the original, the update features a son, played by Marcel Ruiz, who grapples with peer pressure, the possibility of drug use, and other adolescent issues. The daughter, played against stereotype by Isabella Gomez, is a lesbian who negotiates coming out to her family and friends and dates a non-binary partner.
Schneider, played by Todd Grinnell, is a subtle homage to Pat Harrington’s original, part jester and part philosopher. The updated character openly owes his patina to being in recovery and the wisdom he obtained en route to sobriety. Rather than infrequently treating these more compelling topics, like addiction and relapse, racism, immigration, deportation, adulthood, responsibility, and sex for special episodes, the 2017 versions goes there every single time. Casting the inimitable Rita Moreno, (the youngest almost 89-year-old you’ll ever see), as a youthful Cuban abuela that is more showgirl that curler-head is a deft move, allowing the show a multigenerational lens and a range of opinions on the many controversial topics it touches.
— Lin-Manuel Miranda (@Lin_Manuel) March 14, 2019
Audiences appreciate the edgy subject matter of One Day at a Time and the show makes great use of guest stars who lend fire and texture to the show. In season 3, Stephanie Beatriz and Melissa Fumero from Brooklyn-Nine-Nine have recurring roles, while the great Gloria Estefan plays herself (in addition to singing the title song). As the queen mother of Miami Cubans, Estefan is both chimera and real, seamlessly fitting and a punch of star power that will hopefully see the show through to a fourth season.