One Day at a Time: Rita Moreno and Justina Machado in joyously reimagined 70s sitcom

Don’t be put off by the hints of canned laughter. First-class acting and deep pathos ensure this sitcom holds its own with the best of the genre

The classic multi-camera format of traditional sitcoms – think brightly lit studio sets, audible laughter, broad comedy – has mostly fallen out of favour as the less restrictive single-camera format has taken the genre to more sophisticated heights in shows like The Office, The Good Place and Schitt’s Creek.

The first hint of canned laughter is often enough to put people off, which may be why no one I know has watched the joyous 2017 series One Day at a Time.

The focus of this multi-cam sitcom, a reimagining of the 1975 series, is Cuban-American army veteran and nurse Penelope Alvarez, who lives in a rent-controlled apartment in Los Angeles with her teenage children, Elena and Alex, and mother, Lydia. It’s a simple set-up, but its impressive pedigree and deep pathos ensure it holds its own among the best of the genre.

One Day is developed by legendary producer Norman Lear, who produced the original and has a legacy of introducing progressive ideas and controversial topics into the homes of millions via such shows as All in the Family and The Jeffersons. He was, thankfully, wise enough in his 90s to know that an old white man isn’t the right person to write a story about a Latinx single mother, so recruited Cuban-American writer Gloria Calderón Kellett as co-showrunner, who developed the show to reflect her own experiences. A commitment to authenticity trickled down to the writing team, which in the first season was half women and half Latinx.

The impressive Justina Machado with Todd Grinnell in One Day at a Time.
The impressive Justina Machado with Todd Grinnell in One Day at a Time. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

The strong cast is led by an irresistible performance from Justina Machado as Penelope. Machado has long been a strong supporting actor – I know her best from the stunning Six Feet Under – but her ability to balance dramatic weight and infectious effervescence suggests she should have been starring all along.

As flamboyant abuelita Lydia, living treasure Rita Moreno is likely the only EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony winner) to ever star in a sitcom. Drawing on an unparalleled career, Moreno brings poignancy, humanity and sexuality to a role that could easily devolve into caricature. Young actors Isabella Gomez and Marcel Ruiz ably round out the Alvarez family cast; Gomez in particular has a lot to contend with as her character, Elena, comes out during the course of season one and faces heartbreaking rejection from her father. Notably, all four leads are Latinx.

The writers have capitalised on the acting talent by imbuing every episode with heavy issues, from Trump and immigration to sexist micro-aggressions to post-traumatic stress. Each is handled with depth and compassion, often via multi-generational clashes in which equal space is given to all perspectives, allowing characters to grow and change in response. The result is compelling. I dare you to get through more than a few episodes without tears.

Rita Moreno, likely the only Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony winner to ever star in a sitcom.
Rita Moreno, likely the only Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony winner to ever star in a sitcom. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

The specificity of telling authentic stories like these paradoxically makes the show strikingly relatable. It doesn’t matter that I’m not a Cuban-American teenager who came out at my quinceañera; what matters is that the story arc was written by a Latinx woman who had a similar coming-out experience, and as a result the story feels real. It doesn’t matter that I’ve never experienced the trauma of fleeing my home country as a child, as Lydia did; what matters is that Moreno left hers at age five and never saw her brother again, and this authenticity comes through in the show. The intense realness underpinning the material circumvents any cultural chasms, connecting deeply on a human level.

While One Day has rightly received praise for its Latinx and queer representation, it is as remarkable for its depiction of a formidable matriarchy. Despite their differences, all three generations of Alvarez women navigate life’s challenges with that distinctly feminine combination of strength, wisdom and empathy. The positive effect this has on young Alex is a quiet but convincing case for the power of female leadership.

Consistently appearing in critics’ “best of” lists and holding a near-perfect critical score on Rotten Tomatoes wasn’t enough to keep One Day afloat: Netflix cancelled the series after three seasons, citing too few viewers. A strong social media campaign saw US network Pop TV save it for a fourth season (which is unfortunately unavailable to stream in Australia at the time of writing), but Covid delays and network changes permanently killed it late last year.

The cancellation may be par for the course in an increasingly ruthless streaming landscape but it feels particularly exasperating that a universally adored show by and about women of colour was deemed disposable. Moreover, as distressing global events continue to develop around us, the wisdom and warmth of the Alvarez family is exactly what we need more of. For now, 39 glorious episodes will have to suffice.

The first three seasons of One Day at a Time are available to stream in Australia on Netflix. For more recommendations of what to stream in Australia, click here


Greta Parry

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Lovesick: a romantic comedy like High Fidelity but with STIs instead of feelings
Love triangles and banter play out against personal tragedy in this laugh-out-loud comedy full of genuine chemistry

Sinead Stubbins

11, Jun, 2020 @5:30 PM

Article image
Detectorists: a sitcom about amateur archaeologists that's a bonafide heartwarming joy
Each short episode of this charming series about a bumbling small-town metal-detecting club is a perfectly calibrated good mood

Adam Fleet

27, Jan, 2021 @4:30 PM

Article image
The Last Man on Earth: a tender and powerfully life-affirming post-apocalyptic sitcom
An office temp from Arizona believes he’s the sole survivor of a pandemic in a show bringing sublime comic weirdness and philosophical comfort to our own crisis

Van Badham

14, Apr, 2020 @5:30 PM

Article image
The Mindy Project: Mindy Kaling’s quirky, irreverent sitcom is an ode to romance
Kaling’s early pre-Office project embraces the contradictions of millennial womanhood with delightful and entertaining abandon

Claire Whitley and Eleanor Danenberg

03, Oct, 2021 @4:30 PM

Article image
Mother and Son: the great Australian sitcom is a masterclass in the art of the squabble
Garry McDonald and Ruth Cracknell are terrifically spiky and shouty in the acclaimed vintage comedy that’s still so funny, all these years later

Luke Buckmaster

07, Mar, 2021 @4:30 PM

Article image
Frontline: satirical skewering of TV current affairs programs is still uncomfortably relevant
Like the older, antipodean cousin to The Office and Veep, the classic 90s comedy is still as sharp and occasionally even more painful

Walter Marsh

14, May, 2021 @8:00 PM

Article image
Superstore: the workplace sitcom the world needs right now
It’s tricky for a comedy to deal with real-world issues without disappearing up its own woke-hole. It helps that this one is also gloriously stupid

Andrew P Street

22, Jul, 2021 @5:30 PM

Article image
Love: offbeat romcom about addiction, dating and two basically terrible people
If you don’t come to this early Netflix Original for its central ‘mismatch’ love story, do it for the stellar supporting characters

Katie Cunningham

18, Feb, 2021 @4:30 PM

Article image
Glow: Netflix's Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling is full of rich and relatable stories – and big 80s hair
Comedy-drama about 1980s women’s wrestling is proof you can make a TV show diverse without making it about diversity

Amal Awad

06, May, 2020 @3:30 AM

Article image
The Good Place: how a sitcom made philosophy seem cool
Never studied philosophy? No worries! Here’s a beginner’s guide to the concepts that make the gags in The Good Place so, well, good

Andrew P Street

29, Jan, 2018 @5:00 PM