Politics

The New Yorker Recommends: The Sitcom Triumphs of “One Day at a Time”

If you believe that the multi-camera sitcom—with its cheap sets, canned laughter, and formulaic structure—is irredeemable, Netflix’s “One Day at a Time” might supply some evidence to the contrary. The show is a remake of the nineteen-seventies original, a popular Norman Lear creation about a working-class single mother in Indianapolis. The new iteration, a richer and punchier affair, features a Cuban-American family in Los Angeles, led by a single mother named Penelope Alvarez (Justina Machado). Machado plays the part with gumption and verve. But, even if she didn’t, the writing would pull its own weight. Just as “Jane the Virgin” reinvigorated the conventions of the telenovela, “One Day at a Time” wrings every drop of potential from the tropes of the sitcom.

The show’s success has much to do with its characters, who often match Penelope in depth and feeling. Dwayne Schneider (Todd Grinnell), the building’s super, would on a lesser sitcom be a walking hipster punch line, but here he becomes an emotional anchor for the Alvarez family. The star of the show, perhaps, is Penelope’s aging mother, Lydia, a diva played by Rita Moreno, who hasn’t lost an ounce of charisma since “West Side Story.” Then there’s Penelope’s son Alex (Marcel Ruiz), a charmingly vain child and expert diffuser of tension, and her daughter Elena (Isabella Gomez), a headstrong teen who, in one episode, screams “Earth murderers!” at the students who won’t use the new recycling system that she has developed for the cafeteria.

As Elena’s fifteenth birthday approaches, her battle with her family, especially her grandmother, over whether to have a quinceañera—a tradition whose values she abhors—leads to subtle conversations about gender roles and heritage, and to Elena’s eventual realization that she is a lesbian. Ideas that would normally be relegated to an “issues episode”—racism, mental illness—are part of the emotional fabric of the show, and handled with a light but sensitive touch. A tear-jerking monologue by Lydia about fleeing from Cuba slips effortlessly between scenes of family chatter. In the second season, after Donald Trump is elected President, even happy-go-lucky Alex lashes out at the racial slurs tossed casually in his direction. If the show breathes new life into archetypes, it also succeeds in turning abstract political issues into deeply personal experiences. What more could a sitcom do?


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