Netflix’s One Day at a Time manages to explore current social issues, reflect on our troubling political climate while still remaining hopeful and making us laugh until we cry (and sometimes cry until we have trouble breathing properly).
It’s no surprise, given that the academy award splits TV into either ‘drama’ and ‘comedy,’ that television tends to follow two distinct patterns when it comes to storytelling: it’s either a gritty look at the world around us, tackling serious issues with an often severe sort of realism; or it’s a lighthearted, heartwarming bit of escapism designed to make us laugh at the absurdity of life.
Of course, this is a broad generalization when it comes to describing TV. Some dramatic shows manage to add some humor in their narratives (even if it’s the gallows kind), while the best comedic ones are good at deftly weaving in a few dramatic storylines between all the requisite sitcom hijinks and character bits.
With its live studio audience and multi-cam format, it’d be easy to write off One Day at a Time as being solely in the latter category. And make no mistake — this show is really, really funny. The writers do tremendous work at setting up hilarious situations and each of the cast members have impeccable comedic timing.
Yet as genuinely funny as the show is, it also explores weightier, more serious storylines pulled directly from our current reality in an organic way and without ever dipping into melodrama or feeling like an after school special.
It’s a sitcom that depicts life in our current reality
To keep the language in this article G-rated, I’ll just say that we live in a complicated time here in America.
And if it wanted to, One Day at a Time could ignore that reality and remain essentially apolitical. There are enough tropes in the sitcom bank to go ten full seasons without really dipping into anything too political or serious, and the writers on this show are talented enough to mine those very fertile grounds for its 13-episode seasons.
However, the show chooses not to do this at all. Instead, it expertly weaves in storylines having to do with lgbtqia+ issues, mental health, immigration, racism and addiction — to name just a few.
The first season had an overarching arc that explored Elena coming out to her family, but was interwoven with storylines about addiction, mental health and sexism.
The second season came out the gate with a story about the realities of being Latinx in Trump’s America, then went on to explore issues of gender identity, immigrant identity and featured an episode that focused on depression and recovery and is one of the best half-hours of television I’ve ever seen.
Rather than turning a blind eye to the world we currently live in or the reality of what it means to be human, One Day at a Time instead addresses difficult issues — both those related to this current administration and those related to just being a real person with real people problems — head on, with sensitivity, thoughtfulness and realism.
It gives us characters and stories that we don’t often see on TV
One Day at a Time gives us two kinds of representation we rarely get to see on TV (it actually gives us at least half a dozen kinds of representation but I’ll focus on two here): it gives us a middle-class, intergenerational Cuban-American family, and it cares enough about that Cuban-American family to show them as being more than victims of suffering.
The show focuses on the family dynamics between Rita Moreno’s Lydia, a first generation Cuban immigrant, Justina Machado’s Penelope, Lydia’s daughter and a second generation immigration, and her kids — the white-passing, non-Spanish speaking Elena, played by Isabella Gomez, and Alex, played by Marcel Ruiz, who retained his ability to speak Spanish and is his grandmother’s favorite.
Many of the show’s greatest comedic bits — and biggest sources of tension — comes from the interplay between these three different generations living together in one household.
We get to see this proud immigrant family converse — and sometimes argue — in Spanish, get ready for Elena’s quinces, talk about the healing properties of Vick’s VapoRub (which, as a sidenote, I totally thought was just a Filipino thing and am tickled to find out that it just seems generally like an immigrant thing).
In fact, the everyday — if hilarious — nature of many of the storylines is what makes this representation so unique.
Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie once spoke of the danger of telling only the single story. That doing so creates stereotypes and that “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
What One Day at a Time does that’s so important, especially now, is give us a counter narrative to that single story of what life is a like for an immigrant family in the U.S. So many stories about Black and brown families center around suffering and crisis, as though stories told about Black and brown individuals are only valid if they focus on the painful parts.
But people of color are more than their suffering or their trauma. Immigrant narratives are more than painful journeys of identity and rejection and insecurity.
Of course, they are these things, too — but what One Day at a Time understands and highlights so clearly on-screen is that the stories of immigrants in this country are more than these things, too. They are funny and heartwarming and sometimes a little bit ridiculous; they are difficult in ways that sometimes have nothing to do with being an immigrant.
This is what makes One Day at a Time so unique in its storytelling — and so powerful and so necessary. It shows us immigrant families when they’re hurting, but it also shows us immigrant families as they heal, when they’re happy, and as a source of hope.
It offers an honest look at real-world problems and situations while still remaining hopeful
One Day at a Time explores a variety of very heavy, very difficult issues — but it also does something that elevates it from just a really good show to a truly great one: It remains hopeful.
There’s this tendency to equate realism with grittiness and austerity, sometimes dipping so far as to present nihilism as a kind of realism.
One Day at a Time takes the exact opposite approach of this. It tells us that, yes, life can be and is often hard and unfair and unjust, and, yes, we live in a scary world right now.
But it takes care not to mire us in that world of difficulty and fear and injustice; it pulls us past those realities that might lead us to nihilism and instead reassures us that there is still hope to be found in this world — and that that hope is found in arms of the people who love us.
The characters of One Day at a Time are frequently confronted by just how hard life can be, just how unfair this world is. But in those moments of difficulty and hardship, they find solace and strength in those around them.
They show us that while we might be separated by our differences — differences in birthplace or religious belief or sexual preference — the love that we share between us is enough to keep us together and to keep us moving forward.
It’s that message of hope and sincere belief in the power of love that makes this the perfect show to soothe your soul in these troubled and troubling times. I know that it is for me.
One Day at a Time seasons 1 and 2 are streaming now on Netflix!