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The Importance of 'One Day at a Time'

The Importance of 'One Day at a Time'

When I first started watching One Day at a Time a couple of weeks ago on Netflix, I knew nothing about it except that it was a comedy featuring a Cuban-American family. I didn’t know what to expect.

Within two episodes, I realized something: this show is important.

Sure, it’s funny (although, full disclosure, it’s shot in front of a live studio audience and is accompanied by a laugh track, which always ruins humour a bit for me) but the comedy is certainly not the defining element of the show. No, what makes it important is the fact that it takes on hot-button topics in a way that explores issues from all sides and many viewpoints. It’s intersectional, intergenerational, intercultural.

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The Alvarez family whom the show focuses around is Cuban-American, and their Cuban roots are intrinsic to everything they do. It’s deeply a part of who they are, and it will not be left by the wayside or forgotten, even for a moment. In fact, the very first episode opens with teenaged Elena (Isabella Gomez) fighting with her mother Penelope (Justina Machado) and her grandmother Lydia Riera (Rita Moreno) over her upcoming quinces. For Penelope and Lydia, a quinces is a Cuban tradition that cannot and will not simply be abandoned, while Elena sees it as a deeply sexist tradition that originated in an outdated time.

Frequently, the Cuban and American identities of the Alvarezes bump up against each other, most commonly with Elena and her younger brother Alex (Marcel Ruiz); both struggle with wanting to fit in with their American friends and classmates, while still being proud of where they come from. Lydia, who is Cuban down to the marrow of her bones, struggles with the idea of becoming an American citizen—although she loves the country that saved her from Fidel Castro’s regime, she cannot bear to give up one iota of her heritage.

Having a family that spans three generations living under one roof (with all of them identifying with being Cuban-American in different ways) lends itself to plenty of perspectives on a wide variety of issues. The Alvarezes are often joined in their home by their Canadian landlord, Schneider (Todd Grinnell) and Penelope’s boss, Dr. Leslie Berkowitz (Stephen Tobolowsky). In and among all that is Penelope’s past as a doctor for the US Army in Afghanistan (and her subsequent divorce from her husband), Elena’s ongoing journey in discovering her sexuality, Alex’s growth from a young boy into a teenager, and Lydia’s constant presence as the eccentric, loving, fierce, and opinionated grandmother who is the backbone of the entire family.

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With such a cast of characters, there’s no end to the topics One Day at a Time tackles with aplomb, all while maintaining its comedic billing.

  • Sexism: in the second episode (the episode which made me realize how special this show is), Penelope suffers sexism at the hands of her male coworkers—except Penelope doesn’t view it as such, because to her, sexism is still men “smacking her on the ass and going ‘Oye, mamita!’” It’s Elena who points out that sexism is much more subtle than it had once been: it’s things that might not seem like a big deal, but that chip away at you over time. Realizing this, Penelope stands up to her coworker and boss, who hadn’t even realized what they were doing; often, sexism (like racism) isn’t the result of malicious intent. It’s unconscious, instinctive (as demonstrated by Schneider), unless pointed out and opposed.

  • Racism: As Cubans, the Alvarezes are often subjected to racial slurs, insidious comments, or requests to “keep it down”. The topic of visible minorities is also addressed, when Penelope points out to Elena that she faces less harassment than her brother because her skin is a lighter colour.

  • Coming out: As Elena comes to the realization that she’s gay, she confides first in her brother, then her mother, grandmother, and father. Coming out isn’t a one-step process, it happens over and over again; and although Elena is not always met with immediate acceptance, she is never for a moment to feel less loved by her family (with the notable exception of her father—but the moment in which the rest of Elena’s family determines to love her enough to make up for her father’s absence will bring tears to your eyes).

  • Depression and mental illness: Penelope suffers from PTSD and depression as a result of her years in Afghanistan, but due to her heritage feels that taking medication to improve her condition makes her weak (not helped along by her mother, who is strongly opposed to anti-depressants). Penelope realizes just how important anti-depressants are to her well-being when she attempts to go off them because she’s been feeling better, and quickly slides into a depressive state, although it’s still something she’s embarrassed about and fears others will judge her for.

  • Parenting: as a single mother, Penelope often struggles to balance her work life with her home life and ensure that she makes enough time for her children. Lydia is around to pick up much of the slack, but that frequently results in a blurring of the lines between the duties of a parent and the duties of a grandparent. Penelope often feels that Lydia is overstepping her bounds (which she is afraid reflects on her own performance as a mother), while Lydia is desperate to prove that she’s still useful so that her daughter won’t send her to a home.

And so. Much. More.

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This show is important to some of the nearly 60 million hispanic people living in America. It’s important to LGBTQ youth who haven’t yet come out, or those who have, or those who are still figuring things out. It’s important to people struggling with mental illness. It’s important to women, to single parents, to grandparents who want to feel like they still belong.

And even if you don’t fit into any of those groups, it’s still important.

And funny, too. (You get used to the laugh track after a couple of episodes.)

One Day at a Time consists of 2 seasons—in total, 26 thirty minute episodes. The entire series can easily be binged in a couple of days (or a single day, if you’re dedicated). Recently, the show’s co-creator Gloria Calderon Kellett took to twitter to plead with people to watch or rewatch the show over the next couple of days, as number of views is how Netflix makes renewal decisions.

So if you haven’t taken the time yet to watch One Day at a Time, here’s your chance.

And if you’ve already watched it, here’s your excuse to watch it again.

Seasons 1 and 2 of One Day at a Time are available on Netflix worldwide.

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