On Friday, Netflix premiered the second season of One Day at a Time, a wonderful, joyous show that continues to deftly balance broad comedy and serious issues of the day. I could quibble with a few things about season two, but instead I’d like to talk about what happens in the finale, which is the kind of Very Special Episode that gives Very Special Episodes a good name. This, of course, means there will be spoilers for how the season ends (and a lot of other things along the way), coming up just as soon as I apply some Vicks VapoRub…
“Not yet, mi vida.” –Lydia
Long before we had to endure the plague of “we like to think of our season as a 10-hour movie,” TV critics had grown used to the cast and producers of traditional multi-cam sitcoms insisting, “It’s like we’re doing a one-act play every week!” Some of this is medium inferiority complex, some is leaning on people’s formative years (more often than not, actors and directors started out as theater kids in school), and some is the fact that performing on a stage in front of a live audience really does have the feeling of theater, even if the actors on Broadway don’t get to stop and reshoot scenes if a joke bombs and the writers want to try a different one. It certainly feels more like theater than like making a movie, which a single-cam comedy more closely resembles.
Every now and then, though, a sitcom episode will aspire to something genuinely theatrical — and, in the case of something like One Day at a Time‘s “Not Yet,” will pull it off beautifully.
It is, essentially, a half-hour of stage monologues for each member of the cast other than Rita Moreno, who spends most of the episode playing unconscious in a hospital bed. (She gets a big speech at the end, but it’s presented as dialogue with Tony Plana’s Berto.) Each monologue has its own theme (why Dr. Berkowitz is willing to sacrifice other more serious relationships because of his feelings for Lydia, why Elena never learned Spanish, Schneider’s journey into alcoholism and recovery), each has its own bit of physical business (Schneider setting up all the lights he brought to the hospital) so it’s not just an actor standing at center stage to emote, and each gets a little comedic palate cleanser before the next one, usually involving the family busting on the nurse played by Timm Sharp.
This could be cloying and shamelessly manipulative. Instead, it works spectacularly, building and building with such emotional force that by the time Penelope was giving her mother permission to let go of this world and move on to the next one, I was curled into a ball on the floor like someone had just shown me a long-lost episode of The Leftovers.
It helps that all the actors commit to it, and are up to the challenge. Stephen Tobolowsky essentially has a second job as a monologuist, between his podcast and other public appearances, so I knew he’d kill it, and he did. But just when I was about to write down, “JUST LET TOBOLOWSKY KEEP TALKING” in my notes, Isabella Gomez, or Todd Grinnell, or, especially, Justina Machado came out and matched him, with the rawness and vulnerability level increasing with each speech, based on how long and how well each character has known Lydia(*). But it’s also smartly directed by Pam Fryman so that it doesn’t feel like the episode is stopping to watch each performer talk, and the writing by Gloria Calderon Kellett and Mike Royce is spot-on for each character and their relationship with the indomitable Lydia.
(*) I’ve been revisiting the first season to show my daughter, and in the series premiere, there’s a reference to Penelope having only lived in the apartment for 10 months. This season’s “What Happened,” meanwhile, has Penelope and Victor moving in right before 9/11. I asked Royce about it, and he said the idea was that Lydia and Berto stayed in the apartment while Penelope and Victor re-enlisted, and that sometimes the kids were traveling with their parents, and sometimes back in LA in the apartment. So even though Schneider’s a relatively new friend to Penelope, he and Lydia go waaaaaay back.
And it’s then that the episode somehow goes even more theatrical, with the arrival of Berto, and Lydia transforming from a comatose woman in a hospital gown to a vibrant woman in an evening gown, on the verge of joining her beloved in the afterlife. It’s a moment that could be done single-camera, and perhaps be just as effective, what with Moreno and Plana being wonderful actors, the weight of the moment, etc. But for all the grief the multi-cam format takes about actors pitching their performances to the back row of the bleachers rather than the audience at home, or for the audience being encouraged to laugh at jokes that aren’t particularly funny, there’s a very specific kind of magic that comes from that audience that you just can’t get shooting on film. It materializes twice: first when Berto appears and says he’s come to pick her up, as you can feel the crowd catching its breath at the realization of what this means for Lydia, and then the way the audience just explodes when she tells her one true love that he’ll have to wait a little longer, because she still has things to do here on Earth with Lupe and their grandkids. There can be canned, or at least coerced, studio audience applause, too, and that can be maddening, but when it feels and sounds genuine the way it does here… man, there ain’t nothin’ like it.
And that is why I will indulge the “one-act play a week” talk, because every once in a blue moon, an episode like “Not Yet” more than earns that description. Bravo.