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.
Some other thoughts on season two:
* As I mentioned in the intro to the above-linked conversation with Kellett and Royce, the gun control argument in the fifth episode was one of the few times this season where you could feel the show straining to work in a more dramatic moment and/or a political issue. Usually, the flow between goofy comedy, like Lydia’s accent or Schneider’s obliviousness, and the more dramatic/topical material feels natural, and earned. But it’s also okay — especially with a show where, because it’s on Netflix, the audience is likely to watch multiple installments in one sitting — for One Day to occasionally do an episode that’s 100 percent jokes, because the heart is well-established by now.
* Though there wasn’t as clear a through-line from season’s beginning to end the way there was with Elena’s quinces and her coming out, season two had some strong arcs of its own, particularly Penelope trying to juggle all her usual responsibilities at work and home with the relationship with Max and the recurrence of her mental health issues. I could just as easily have written an ode to the theatricality and emotion of the ninth episode, “Hello, Penelope,” which was another remarkable Justina Machado showcase. And while the specific cause of Penelope and Max’s breakup has been done before (I feel like every Lauren Graham character runs into this problem sooner or later), it was played well and honestly here, with nobody getting mad at each other, but both being disappointed at the impasse.
* After being used as the fulcrum for a lot of drama last year, Elena’s embrace of her sexuality was primarily used for comedy this time (outside of the 9/11 episode, where she reconciled with Victor) as she got into an ultra-nerdy relationship with Syd (whose rewritten “We Didn’t Start the Fire” lyrics — Women’s March, science march, labor march, tax march, equal rights, bathroom rights, diversity on TV!” — were terrible and wonderful), and embraced her inner butch by dressing like the original show’s Schneider while working as hipster Schneider’s apprentice. Occasionally, the show will push Elena’s awkwardness too far — season one established that while she wasn’t popular, she was in a bunch of clubs at school, so the homecoming dance subplot where she had to pretend to have friends felt a bit much — but Gomez has turned out to be a really game and versatile comic presence on the show. (Even the homecoming story was saved by her goofy dancing.)
* Last season, they waited until the finale to have Moreno yell out “HEY, YOU GUYS!” as an homage to her Electric Company days. Here, we only have to make it to episode four for her to declare, “I like to be in America!” Anyone want to guess what next season’s Moreno meta line will be?
* Good to see Ivonne Coll from Jane the Virgin as Lydia’s rival for Berkowitz’s affections. Moreno’s been on Jane, and if ever there were two shows built for easy cast crossover (thanks to both the Latina aspect and their respective blends of serious and silly), it’s these two.
* The 9/11 episode was the one being rehearsed on the day I visited the set and the writers’ room. It’s always impressive to see how much thought goes into even the most minor details, and how much fruit can come out of really talking things out. The scene where the family is watching President Bush’s speech, for instance, originally had Penelope and Victor stepping away in the middle of it. One of the writers, Michelle Badillo, argued that nobody — especially not an ex-military couple like these two — would walk away before POTUS was done talking in a circumstance like this. Another writer, Dan Signer, suggested the scene begin just as Bush is wrapping up his remarks, and when he looked up the text of the speech, everybody realized the closing passage was much more thematically on point with the rest of the scene, and it became an easy switch.
* In working on my Sopranos book, I was reminded that Judy Reyes played Paulie Walnuts’ girlfriend in an early episode, so the moment in the 12th episode here where Reyes does a perfectly Paulie “OHHH!” at realizing she said something clever in the support group made me extra happy.
* The Penelope/Max romance, on top of Berkowitz and Lydia’s on-again, off-again relationship, essentially ate up most of the time that would otherwise have gone to workplace scenes for Penelope, which means no Lori and minimal Scott. To be honest, I wouldn’t have even noticed if I hadn’t finished these screeners and then immediately looped back to the start of the series, where those two are more prominent; I would say the narrative priorities this year were correct.
What did everybody else think?