I’m open to the idea of being completely wrong about this. Maybe this has to do with my personal experience, and the places I grew up, and the exposure I had to other Spanish-speaking countries and their particular way of talking. And, granted, I have met only a handful of Cubans throughout my life. But let me assure you I am not lying when I say no Spanish-speaking person I have ever encountered has ever referred to a “quinceañera” as a “quinces”. A “quince”, yes. But “quinces”? Never.
That’s the only complaint I will level against One Day at a Time, the charming sitcom that premiered just a week ago on Netflix. The show is, of course, a remake of the sitcom of the same name that aired in the seventies and eighties and was created by revolutionary television producer Norman Lear.
Lear liked to take on social issues through the lens of different demographics (white middle class in All in the Family, black middle class in The Jeffersons, black working class in Good Times, etc.). In its original form, One Day at a Time was the story of a single mother raising her two children on her own (a more daring concept back in the seventies), and in its current incarnation, takes an extra step by focusing on a demographic previously unexplored by Lear’s expansive output: Latino Americans.
The premise of the show doesn’t change much, at the center is still a single mother. Penelope Alvarez (Justina Machado) is a Cuban American and a war veteran who is -like in the original- working hard to raise her two children. This time, however, she is being helped by her mother, played by the great Rita Moreno.
I don’t usually write about television on this blog, but something about this show compelled me to jump on the internet and make sure to stick up for it. Not that people are reacting badly to the show, or anything (most critics seem to like it), but the second I started watching the show, I imagined a segment of people who wouldn’t consider watching the show by the mere fact that it is a traditional multi-camera sitcom. You know, the kind where you can hear the audience laughter.
So, yeah, truth be told, I am only writing all of this with the intention of convincing people to not dismiss One Day at a Time because we as a culture seem to have moved on from the traditional sitcom format (although the ratings for The Big Bang Theory suggest otherwise). In any case, I will try to make this brief and say there are basically two big reasons why I think One Day at a Time is an exceptional show that deserves to be watched.
The first is that it’s a terrific sitcom. Complaining that a traditional multi-camera sitcom is stagey, or that its set-up punchline rhythm is predictable, or that you can’t just get over the laugh track is like complaining that there is too much singing and dancing in a musical, or too many horses in a western. This is both a genre and a format. As it’s the case with every genre that becomes popular, there have been a lot of bad multi-camera sitcoms, especially in recent years when the people writing them seem to have forgotten what made the great sitcoms of the past work in the first place.
Well, thank God for Norman Lear, and whoever else played a role in helping creators Gloria Calderon Kellett and Mike Royce so perfectly understand the potential and the nuances of execution of the sitcom. At its best, the sitcom can be one of the most fluid and narratively economic forms of entertainment. For example, almost every episode of Newsradio (one of my favorite shows of all time) is a masterclass in tightly plotted screwball comedy.
Similarly, One Day at a Time flows beautifully between broad (yet genuinely funny) jokes and moments of serious personal drama. Justina Machado proves to be an admirable lead and a awfully dynamic performer, being able to handle the shift from sarcastic humor to heartfelt introspection from one line to the next. And what can you even say about Rita Moreno, calling the woman a National Treasure would be an understatement.
Now, the second reason I think One Day at a Time is an exceptional show that deserves to be watched is closely related to this first one. At it starts with the fact that I wholeheartedly believe that the multi-camera sitcom is one of the great contributions of American culture to the world, and deserves to be preserved and nurtured just like the Italians preserve commedia dell’arte, or the Japanese preserve kabuki. Basically, I feel about the sitcom the way Ken Burns feels about Jazz and Baseball.
Now, it’s important that the sitcom is an inherently and uniquely American invention, and it’s important that One Day at a Time is premiering at the time that it is. Throughout the history of television, the sitcom has been crucial in shaping the image American have of themselves. It was a big deal when sitcoms with black characters became big hits. It was also a big deal when sitcoms with gay characters became hits. A sitcom with a Cuban-American family at the center, right now, is quite important.
But make no mistake. I’m not suggesting that One Day at a Time‘s quality is linked to whether or not it becomes a hit in confrontation to the dismal political state of the country. This show is a thing of beauty in and on itself. The sitcom is an American art form, perhaps the most American of art forms, and there is something beautiful about seeing these characters talk about their history, immigration, deportation, and all other sort of every day issues in this format.
The sitcom, at its best, is the art form of the American people. These characters are the American people. And that’s a beautiful thing.