In the penultimate episode of ABC’s Ugly Betty, the Suarez family tries to show their support for its youngest member, Justin, when they learn that he’s gay. They plan a surprise coming-out party replete with rainbow cookies and informational packets from GLAAD. They’re ready to shout, “We know you’re gay and that’s okay!” when he walks through the door. They are, of course, a loving caricature of the supportive PFLAG parent, epitomized by Debbie from Queer As Folk. Marc, the gay fashion assistant played by Michael Urie, stops them just in time, telling them to ease back. “It’s not about you being fine with it, it’s about Justin being fine with it,” he says. Understanding your sexuality, particularly if you’re not straight, can be a complicated, fraught process for teens, and Justin’s coming out that season was about allowing him to figure it out for himself.
But what about the parents? On shows like Ugly Betty, The Fosters, Pretty Little Liars, Gossip Girl, and Glee, they act as idealized models of behavior. They might express some initial discomfort, but ultimately, they support and love their children “no matter what.” That’s what makes the coming-out narrative on One Day at a Time unusual. In Netflix’s reimagining of Norman Lear’s 1975 sitcom with a Cuban-American family — which premiered on the streaming network last Friday — the 13-episode season’s through line involves a teenager figuring out her sexuality. It, too, focuses on the the 15-year-old daughter Elena’s (Isabella Gomez) internal process. Elena might like girls, but she’s not sure, so she decides to date the most popular guy at school to see if she does. (She does.) But what sets the show apart from other family sitcoms or dramas is its desire to let the parents go on their own journey of acceptance.
“Are you okay with this?” Elena asks her mom, Penelope (played with exacting emotional precision by Justina Machado), when she tells her she sees herself with another woman. “Of course I am,” she replies. “I love you, and I want you to be happy.” But in the next episode, which picks up just hours after the previous one, Penelope goes to her neighbor/landlord Schneider’s door to make a confession. “Can I admit something dark to you?” she says. “I hate that I feel weird about it, but I do.” She spends the episode voicing her doubts to one person after another, first talking to her mother (Rita Moreno), then a lesbian friend in her female veteran’s group, and finally, a fellow patron at a gay bar. “It’s not the way I pictured it,” she tells him. “I always imagined we’d bond over boys together.” She tells him that it’s been a day and a half since she first got the news, and he tells her to not be so hard on herself. “She’s been thinking about this for months or years. You just found out,” he said. “Your heart is okay. You just need some time for your head to catch up.” It’s a process for her too.
In most TV narratives, coming-out stories take up an episode or two, so the focus is rightly placed on the youth’s personal journey. On Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Willow explores her attraction to Tara at college while they practice witchcraft. (Her parents were absent to the point of comedy.) Dawson’s Creek let Jack McPhee date Joey before realizing he was gay. (His mother had a mental illness, so coming out was a high school struggle rather than a familial one.) Once and Again saw Evan Rachel Wood’s Jessie figuring out her relationship to her best friend, but perhaps because of its cancellation, the show never got to the parents. All these shows did the important work of showing gay and lesbian teenagers what it was like to figure out your sexuality and experience the thrill of a gay kiss, something that is still rare to see on TV.
But it also means we’ve mostly gotten pretty limited representations of how a parent might respond, which typically falls into one of two extremes: support or rejection. Model parents from Burt Hummel on Glee to Stef and Lena on The Fosters act as paragons for how to handle a conversation around your kid’s sexuality. Penelope’s initial reaction on One Day at a Time, and her own self-criticism, can be seen as her inability to follow the model that she has no doubt absorbed from popular culture. She doesn’t want her daughter to think that she is anything less than 100 percent supportive for fear of how it might affect her.
When a parent does feel discomfort around their child’s sexual orientation, we don’t see them taking active steps to overcome it. Early on in Degrassi: The Next Generation, which has consistently had LGBT characters and storylines, Marco had a virulently homophobic dad who refused to acknowledge his son’s coming out (during a stage production of Hamlet no less!). On Pretty Little Liars, Emily’s mom initially has a negative response, until she softens and tearfully apologizes for her overreaction later that season. Usually, we do see the parents come around, but we don’t see how they got there.
And then there are instances where homophobia comes down on a character like an invisible hammer. One of the first, and most devastating, portrayals of a queer youth appeared on Winnie Holtzman’s beloved and short-lived My So-Called Life. Rickie Vasquez never officially comes out as queer, but he’s understood as someone who flouts gender conventions (he would put on eyeliner in the girls’ bathroom, for instance). In the Christmas episode, “So-Called Angels,” he shows up to school with bruises from his aunt and uncle. Unbeknownst to him, they leave town, leaving Rickie homeless. (Not-so-fun fact: homeless youth are disproportionately LGBT kids of color.) While Rickie’s storyline was topically groundbreaking, it never engaged with the question of “how did this happen?” in the narrative. You only saw the aftermath, and even then, his experiences were filtered mostly through how his friend, Angela Chase, and her mother tried to help (or not). Rickie’s abusers, his aunt and uncle, only exist as bogeymen.
On One Day at a Time, that person, while far less villainous, was present too. Victor, the patriarch who no longer lives with his family, returns for Elena’s quinceañera. When she comes out to him, he reacts with hostility, telling her, “You’re 15, you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.” He suggests to Penelope that Elena’s coming out is the result of bad parenting. Penelope seems to be able to calm him down, at least for a while, convincing him to at least stay for the quince. But when she comes out at the festivities wearing a white pantsuit and a bejeweled top, it’s evidently too much for her father — he leaves her right before their father-daughter dance. It’s a heartbreaking moment, momentarily assuaged when her mom goes up to her in his stead.
Part of what makes One Day at a Time’s coming-out narrative so compelling is how deftly it makes use of the medium of serialized storytelling television, and particularly, streaming television. Both the teen’s and the parents’ stories can be told, because the narrative isn’t relegated to a one- or two-episode arc. It’s threaded over a series of binge-able episodes, with various points of conflict, beginning with suggestions of queerness, Elena’s own exploration, her coming out, her mother’s processing, and, finally, her father’s rejection. “You get to see all the different reactions that people have when a person comes out,” Gomez, who plays Elena, told Vulture. “People need to know that it’s okay to be taken aback, and it’s okay to not wholly accept it right away, and to be confused, and even angry.” While the finale completes a satisfying arc, there’s a feeling that there’s still a lot more story to tell when it comes to Elena and her father. Even though it’s working within the genre of a multi-camera family sitcom, One Day at a Time understands that acceptance isn’t a smooth path, that it has fits and stops, but it has the inherent optimism that we’ll get there eventually.