Norman Lear is one of the most important producers in TV history, but for a long time he’s been one of its least influential.
With ’70s sitcoms like All in the Family, Maude, The Jeffersons, Good Times, and more, Lear proved that sitcoms could tackle hot-button issues and feature emotionally thorny characters and still be beloved, but the business seemed to treat this as a lesson that could only be applied to Lear’s own shows. If Lear’s creative DNA could be found elsewhere in the decades that followed, it was often in dramas, or in shows that borrowed some of the less controversial aspects of his work. (You can trace the origin of Fox’s comedy brand, for instance, to the sound of the audience roaring with delight at the sound of Archie Bunker’s flushing “terlet.”) When Lear largely stepped away from the business in the ’80s to focus on his political activism, it seemed like the period when Archie and Meathead could debate the Vietnam War or Maude could get an abortion on CBS would go down as an anomaly of pop culture history.
Recently, though, primetime has been flooded with the spiritual descendants of Lear: sitcoms like black-ish and The Carmichael Show, which manage to weave frank talk about social issues in among the punchlines, and which are comfortable pausing the laughter from time to time to deal with the serious emotional realities of their characters’ lives. So it feels good to finally have an actual new Lear show alongside the many tribute acts, with Friday’s Netflix debut of a One Day at a Time remake.
And it feels even better that the new One Day is so good, and so vital — a throwback to an earlier era that also feels like it absolutely belongs in this one.
The original series, which Lear developed from an idea by Whitney Blake and Allan Mannings, starred Bonnie Franklin as a divorced single mom, but is best remembered today for three things: 1) The bouncy theme song, “This Is It,” 2) Launching the career of Valerie Bertinelli as the younger daughter (and to a lesser extent, Mackenzie Phillips as the older daughter, before her career got sidetracked by substance abuse problems), and 3) The scene-stealing performance by Pat Harrington as obnoxious but well-meaning apartment superintendent Schneider. Still, the very premise of a mom raising daughters on her own was a political statement in its time, not to mention a relative TV novelty. (Only a few years earlier, ABC wouldn’t let The Brady Bunch writers explicitly treat Carol Brady as divorced from the girls’ father.)
The new version, adapted by Gloria Calderon Kellett (How I Met Your Mother) and Mike Royce (Men of a Certain Age, Enlisted), makes the family Cuban-American, with Army veteran mom Penelope (Justina Machado from Six Feet Under) raising kids Elena (Isabella Gomez) and Alex (Marcel Ruiz) with the help of her mother Lydia (the legendary Rita Moreno) while working as a nurse for Dr. Berkowitz (Stephen Toblowsky). There’s still a Schneider (Todd Grinnell) — now a bearded hipster who comes from money but envies the closeness of Penelope’s family — the layouts of the apartments are similar, and there’s an irresistible Gloria Estefan cover of the original theme song, but the new version is content to forge its own path.
The show’s the latest example of a trend started by CBS’ Mom, and that also includes Netflix’s The Ranch: traditional-looking multi-camera sitcoms that are unapologetically big and broad in their comedy, but most interesting when they’re functioning as small, dramatic character studies.
So on the one hand, Schneider moonlights as lead singer in a yacht rock band and is frequently shirtless, and much mirth comes from Lydia’s thick Cuban accent (she came to American in the ’60s as part of Operation Pedro Pan). But on the other, the show features frank discussions about PTSD, immigration policy, organized religion, sexuality, and more, and many of its best moments are simple, sincere conversations where the characters discuss their greatest hopes and deepest fears. And it has that vintage Lear gift of being able to gently glide between the two modes, so that a joke about the amount of makeup Lydia wears every day can lead to a heartfelt moment, while in turn a series of more dramatic storylines involving Elena’s outspoken political interests turns into a running gag about how the more conservative Lydia wishes her granddaughter were less annoying.