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.
Machado’s a warm and ingratiating presence who holds the whole thing together, and she seems just as comfortable busting her kids’ chops as she is reciting the painful details of how her marriage fell apart. But the comic miracle of the whole thing, unsurprisingly, is Rita Moreno, who time and again takes bits of business that would feel painfully hammy and/or stereotypical(*) in the hands of virtually any other actor and turns them into hilarious moments that feel genuine. You’re still aware that you’re laughing at her pronunciations, her fetishizing of the Pope, or her tendency to break into dance at a moment’s notice, but there is so much joy and life in her performance that it doesn’t matter in the slightest. It’s among the best things she’s done in a long, illustrious, EGOT-winning career.
(*) Lydia is modeled on Calderon Kellett’s own mother (pictures of both her mom and Moreno are peppered throughout the show’s opening credits), and she, Royce, and the other writers are also smart enough to hang a lamp on the most stereotypical moments, usually with Elena complaining about what her abuela is up to — right before she smiles and gives in, because who can resist a Rita Moreno salsa?
Comically and narratively, Lydia winds up occupying a lot of the space that Schneider did in the original, which leaves the new hipster iteration a bit adrift. Grinnell is amiable and has his moments, but Schneider’s among the new version’s thinner characters. (Dr. Berkowitz is even thinner, but Tobolowsky has never had to be given much to get laughs from it, as he proves again often here. His delivery of a line in the finale is the funniest moment in the whole season.)
There’s a loose story arc across the 13 episodes about the planning for Elena’s quinceañera, around which Royce, Calderon Kellett, and the other writers wrap other stories, light and dark, and try some entertaining formal experiments along the way. One episode is told out of sequence — at one point waaaaay out of sequence, as we get a flashback to Lydia as a young woman in Havana (I’m hoping for a full episode of that in season 2) — as Penelope readies herself for her first date since her husband left, while another involves characters coming and going from the apartment while Lydia is on hold with the VA as she tries to get approval for treatment on the shoulder she injured in Afghanistan. It’s a little bit old, and a little bit new, all at once.
Though Franklin died in 2013 and Harrington a year ago, the remake incorporates a few other alums from the original. Michael Lembeck directs one episode, and Mackenzie Phillips turns up for another, where she gets to make the biggest wink to the source material while discussing a movie she recently saw:
“Another remake! I mean, it was nothing like the original, but I like them both!”
Like any good Gen X-er, I have all the nostalgia in the world for the ’70s One Day at a Time, but I like this version better. It’s an excellent start to the new year in television, and a fitting continuation of the legacy Norman Lear began all those years ago. Lear’s 94 years old, and while Calderon Kellett and Royce did the bulk of the work in developing and running this version, it was Lear’s idea to dust off this particular property, to make the family Latino, and to make veterans’ issues a core part of the story. When I’m 94, I hope I’ll be able to come up with a good idea for what to eat for breakfast.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org