This is it: ‘One Day at a Time’ is a relevant update of a TV classic

By Jim Sabataso
Correspondent

It’s been a while since I’ve intentionally tuned in to a multi-camera sitcom. Years of single-cam shows have caused my multi-cam muscles to atrophy. The sound of a studio audience, the setup-joke-laugh-repeat rhythm, it’s all so jarring and awkward. Outside of CBS, the multi-cam is virtually extinct, and snooty TV watchers (including yours truly) tend to say good riddance.

Such dismissiveness ignores the long history of the multi-cam. Sure, there have been a lot of awful multi-cam sitcoms, but let’s not forget “Cheers,” “Seinfeld,” “Frasier,” “The Golden Girls,” “The Cosby Show,” “Taxi,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” and all the other great multi-cams. When a legitimately good show comes along, the format doesn’t matter.

That’s absolutely the case with “One Day at a Time,” the new reboot of the 1975 Norman Lear series, which premiered on Netflix earlier this month. Lear once again serves as executive producer, but is otherwise hands-off, allowing sitcom vets Gloria Calderon Kellett (“How I Met Your Mother,” “Rules of Engagement”) and Mike Royce (“Enlisted,” “Men of a Certain Age”) to take over showrunning duties. Calderon Kellett and Royce know the traditional sitcom structure inside and out. Their confidence and skills are on full display here; this show is lively, entertaining and charming as hell.

I’ll admit it took me a couple episodes to get back into the multi-cam groove, but once I did, this show was a joy to watch. Like the original, this iteration tells the story of a recently divorced mother raising her two children and trying to make ends meet. This time around, however, the family is Cuban-American.

The change is anything but multi-cultural pandering. Norman Lear’s TV career has been marked by his successful efforts at bringing more cultural and racial representation to television. This is the guy who brought us “All in the Family,” “The Jeffersons” and “Good Times.” Norman Lear was woke before the person who coined the term “woke” was even born. In tweaking the formula, Calderon Kellett and Royce are simply carrying on that important tradition.

In addition to solid writing, the series is elevated by a fantastic cast. Justina Machado (“Six Feet Under”) plays devoted single mom, nurse and Army vet Penelope Alvarez. Machado has great comic timing and totally owns the role. Penelope’s veteran status adds another layer to her character, as well as some fertile ground for the kind of intelligent social commentary one expects from a Lear sitcom. One episode offers insight into the callous hell that is Veterans Affairs bureaucracy, while several others explore the character’s psychological scars from her time serving.

Isabella Gomez and Marcel Ruiz play Elana and Alex, Penelope’s children. High schooler Elena is a socially conscious high achiever, learning to reconcile her identity and politics with her heritage. Alex is the wise-cracking, smooth-talking younger brother.

As a nod to the original series, the character of Schneider is back in the mix. This time it’s character actor Todd Grinnell taking on the role of Penelope’s slacker landlord. Grinnell provides comic relief as the occasionally clueless but always well-meaning white guy amid a cast of strong Latina women.

Speaking of strong Latina women, Rita Moreno. Rita Moreno is a national treasure. Feisty, funny and always theatrical, she steals every scene she’s in. Here, she plays Lydia, Penelope’s mother, who lives with family. Calling Moreno’s performance broad is an understatement, but she’s so damn enjoyable that it doesn’t matter.

A supporting cast of Penelope’s co-workers are mostly of the stock variety. Stephen Tobolowsky is fun as her goofy, slightly sad-sack boss, Dr. Leslie Berkowitz. Less inspired, however, are the ditzy secretary and dude-bro nurse who round out the staff.

As I noted, this being a Norman Lear show, social commentary is de rigueur. Issues of immigration, PTSD, feminism, sexuality and cultural identity are threaded throughout the first season. Characters present arguments and debate them passionately. An episode where Lydia recounts her departure from Cuba as part of Operation Peter Pan — a covert operation that brought of tens of thousands of Cuban children into the U.S. in the early 1960s — ends with a heart-wrenching revelation. The topics are handled with care, and never cross the line into didactic speechifying.

“One Day at a Time” may not be my usual cup of tea, but it won me over with ease thanks to its smart writing, game cast and excessive charm — that Gloria Estefan update of the theme song is also a formidable earworm. The show is a welcome addition to the increasingly inclusive field of modern sitcoms (others include: “Black-ish,” “Fresh off the Boat,” “Atlanta,” “Insecure”). Unlike most of the TV reboots out there right now, this one dares to do something innovative and different while retaining the spirit of the original.

CHECK IT OUT
“One Day at a Time” is now streaming on Netflix.

Jim Sabataso

Jim Sabataso is a freelance writer living in Vermont.

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