‘One Day at a Time’ Review: A Sitcom Reboot Done Right

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Netflix has a very uneven track record when it comes to its original programming. While the streaming service certainly has some of the best shows on TV like Stranger Things and Jessica Jones, there are also very weird projects like Sense8 or the absolutely bananas, in a bad way, OA. Then there is the very bottom of the barrel with revival sitcoms like Fuller House. Now Netflix has launched a new sitcom that is not so much a revival but a remake of a classic show. One Day at a Time has premiered on Netflix with an almost entirely Latino cast and it is fantastic. One Day at a Time is a quintessential guideline for how you reboot a TV show.

More Than Just a Reboot 
The big strength of One Day at a Time is obviously the cast. The family that stars in Netflix’s revival looks like nothing the cast from the original sitcom from the late ’70s and early ’80s, although the premise is the same. Netflix’s One at a Day a Time still follows a newly single mother raising her two children and she is frequently “helped” by her landlord who is still named Schneider. This is about where the similarities end, however. The mother at the head of Netflix’s One Day at a Time is Penelope (Justina Machado), a Cuban-American Afghanistan War veteran whose estranged husband went back to war rather than be with his family. Penelope has help raising her children from her own mother, Lydia, who is played by the amazing Rita Moreno.
Penelope and Lydia, and the actresses playing them, are the selling points of One Day at a Time. It’s not only refreshing for a traditional four-camera sitcom format to explore something other than the regular middle-America family dynamics but the actresses are hilarious and heartwarming. The nearly all-Latino cast does more than make the new One Day at a Time more “PC.” It gives the show a whole new perspective and makes something very old feel very fresh. Four camera sitcoms, especially as of late, have never felt this timely or relevant.
Through these characters One Day at a Time is able to explore surprisingly deep social issues and themes. These moments never feel preachy or even slightly unfunny, mostly because they come out of real circumstances that the characters would face. The second episode deals with sexism and how it has changed in recent years. Through Lydia, Penelope and teenager daughter Elena, One Day at a Time presents three generations of women and their thoughts on sexism. It’s an incredibly thoughtful episode that also has matriarch Lydia at one point volunteering to bury a body when she thinks her daughter has committed a serious crime. This type of wackiness never feels out of place, either. No matter how ridiculous One Day at a Time gets, things are always grounded in real emotion and character.
 
Laughs with Heart and Soul
One Day at a Time does more than make you think and laugh. The family at its core is full of extremely likable and hilarious characters. Rita Moreno as Lydia is a scene-stealer in every sense of the word. Lydia is brash and outspoken but there is also a real heart to her character. Lydia genuinely cares about her daughter and grandchildren. It would be so easy for One Day at a Time to have Lydia fall into the standard snipping senior-citizen sitcom role. While Lydia certainly has her larger-than-life moments she feels like a very real and very whole character.
The same goes for her daughter Penelope. It would also be easy for her to be the put-upon single mother who is exasperated by her family, the perpetual fun killer and straight (wo)man. Penelope is not that at all — she’s funny, smart and warm while still having an edge and sense of authority. Penelope calls herself a “bad-ass” in the pilot and it’s true. Justina Machado sparkles in the role in a way that is so obvious that it’s a marvel it took her this long in her career to get a starring role.
Even the cheesiest of characters have a heart to them in One Day at a Time. Character actor Stephen Tobolowsky plays Penelope’s boss Dr. Berkowitz. Throughout his prolific career Tobolowsky has tended to play garish live-action cartoon characters. There are elements to Berkowitz that fit that mold, but by the end of his first appearance there is enough self-awareness to make Berokwitz feel like a real person. Landlord Schneider, played by Todd Grinnell, is another almost outlandishly goofy character but by a combination of acting and writing, he is reigned in enough to be funny and far from exhausting.
Taking the Good with the Bad
Not everything in One Day at a Time is perfect. Episodes typically run about 30 minutes, which leads to some unevenness. Since the typical sitcom episodes only last 22-24 minutes, some episodes of One Day at a Time feel like they are dragging in parts. The pilot is particularly shaky, as several different plotlines are jammed together for introduction purpose. One storyline, which involves Penelope taking anti-depressants to deal with the stress of raising her family without her husband, gets particularly underutilized in the first episode. Maybe it’s best for a comedy to not deal too heavily with anti-depressants but in other episodes One Day at a Time proves it can handle the heaviest of subjects, and make them funny.
The kids are a little wonky as well. The actors are great, not even by child actor standards, they are great for any age. They have superb comedic timing and never feel like they are mugging to the camera. The problem is that Penelope’s kids, her aforementioned daughter Elena and son Alex, are not incredibly well-drawn characters. Elena is a staunch feminist but she is so upset about everything that she teeters on becoming unlikable and whiny.
Elena’s brother, Alex, doesn’t seem to have much of a character at all. He describes himself as the “pretty one” in the family but there are other times where he is a semi-sullen pre-teen who is just there to deliver whatever kind of joke One Day at a Time needs at the moment. There is not a solid through-line for Alex, and Elena is too stubbornly the same note. Fortunately, there is room for Elena and Alex to grow. They do show potential in the first season of One Day at a Time, they are just not as fully formed or funny as the adults that surround them.
One Day at a Time is an obvious throwback, but unlike many other revivals and reboots it doesn’t revel in the nostalgia. There is certainly something comforting about jokes being answered by real-time laughs and each episode taking place on just a handful of sets, but One Day at a Time is also fresh and exciting. It’s the just right mixture of new and old and hopefully there will be many more seasons to come.
All episodes of One Day at a Time are currently streaming on Netflix.
(Images courtesy of Netflix)

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