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Why One Day at a Time’s Old-School Format Makes It Feel More Modern

L-R: Isabella Gomez and Rita Moreno in One Day at a Time. Photo: Michael Yarish / Netflix

There’s something important to be said not just for the types of stories we see, and the characters we see portraying them, but also for the way those stories are told. The fact that Netflix’s Latino reboot of Norman Lear’s One Day at a Time is a familiar, comfortable, rhythmically and visually recognizable multi-camera sitcom is going to do some particular things to your brain as you watch it. “Ah,” you will think, as you settle into the vibe of its saturated colors and studio-audience laughter, “I know what this is.” You will expect the pattern of its humor, you will nod with recognition when the kooky landlord makes an entrance, and you will chuckle knowingly when the wacky grandmother says something in a funny accent. In its narrative contours and deep in its DNA, One Day at a Time is not a fancy modern update of the Lear original — it leans heavily on the shape of the original, complete with the stagelike apartment set and its centrally placed sofa.

In this sense, One Day at a Time feels similar to a few other TV projects over the past several years, especially shows like The Carmichael Show or The Ranch. Each of those shows is a deliberate effort to use the sitcom frame as an entry to certain points of view — for The Ranch, the sitcom’s rhythms make rural white agricultural life look less alien, and they give specificity to the real financial strain of being a farmer. On The Carmichael Show, the sitcom’s pattern of stereotypical characterizations (protagonist, partner, joker, stick-in-the-mud, nitwit, smart aleck) becomes scaffolding for Socratic dialogue about issues of the day. There are also shows like Black-ish, where some of the more staid formal pieces of the sitcom have been shed in favor of newer structures, but the deep DNA of the family confronting and exemplifying social realities is still there.

One Day at a Time is like those examples, but if anything, it feels even more like a throwback. And it’s the multi-cam sitcom structure that launches One Day at a Time out of “solid new show” territory and into something that feels especially pointed toward this moment in American life. A multi-cam sitcom, especially one set in someone’s house like One Day at a Time, always has that sense that you’re looking into a mirror. On one side of the screen, there’s a sofa in the soundstage’s living room, surrounded by what we’re being told is a typical American home. On the other side of the screen, your sofa, and your home. (Oh sure, you’re watching the show on your phone now while you ride the subway to work, but deep in our TV-watching Ur-memory, we know that’s the implication.) The form itself assumes an equality with the audience, with all its visual setup and all of its trope-y structure meant to reflect your own static mundanity back at you. Normal home, normal dopey landlord, normal family structure, normal American problems.

It’s not format alone that makes One Day at a Time feel particularly sharp — it helps that the people who populate the show are rounded, fully formed, carefully built individuals. They have concerns and backstories that drive the story, so when the series dives into After School Special territory, those narratives are grounded in what we already know about these people, what they care about, where they come from. A huge piece of the show’s success, of course, is due to remarkably strong acting and writing. Justina Machado and Rita Moreno are so good, bringing a tricky, smart balance to the show’s carefully calibrated tone. When Machado’s role as the mother requires her to carry many of the more serious, dramatic beats, Moreno’s ebullient Cuban grandmother often steps up as the comic relief. But they’re equally comfortable switching roles, which keeps both of them from calcifying into predictability. And the show is funny, with that amazing, almost effortless silliness that seems like it should be so easy and is nearly impossible. Moreno’s Lydia making breakfast for the family is the best, funniest thing you’ll see all week.

But what allows the One Day at a Time reboot to fire on all cylinders is how it marries structure and content — how it takes our unquestioned assumption of sitcom humanism within this format and sketches it in with these specific details. Like the original, the Netflix version is about a single mother struggling to raise her adolescent kids. The similarities more or less end there. Here, that mother is Latina, an Afghanistan war vet, a nurse who experiences misogyny at work, and a woman who’s honest with her family about their financial stress. She is proud of her Cuban heritage, she struggles to balance her mother’s ideas of traditional femininity with her daughter’s desire to rebel against them, she needs a new car, and she needs the VA to get her an appointment with a chiropractor for her busted shoulder. A surprising amount of dialogue is in Spanish; there are no subtitles. This, One Day at a Time argues, is what “real” America looks like, and it does so by using a television storytelling form used to tell “real” American stories since the days of Mary Kay and Johnny and The Dick Van Dyke Show.

There’s a long history of using that basic sitcom assumption of normalcy as a jumping-off point to expand the audience’s concept of “normal.” It’s a history that’s defined by Norman Lear, One Day at a Time’s original creator, but by also shows like Roseanne, The Cosby Show, and Will & Grace. We’d lost that thread a little for the past few decades, and our appetite for sitcom conventions needed to be jolted with new conventions, like the painful awkwardness of The Office, the narrative trickery of How I Met Your Mother, or people we could laugh at rather than with. Right now, as we all look for what is and what is not “real” America, and blame those who cannot see our version of reality, and blame ourselves for our own isolation — right now is the perfect time for a show that takes its nonwhite, immigrant, queer, hardworking, quinceañera-throwing characters’ fundamental humanity for granted, and assumes its audience will do the same. Thanks to the ever-isolating media bubbles we live in, it seems unlikely One Day at a Time will reach a large-enough audience to be a real political force, but even still, it’s the perfect time for a show that models empathy and compassion, and does so with humor.

There are other ways to do this kind of humanizing, political work — a multi-cam sitcom is hardly the only storytelling form that can present marginalized characters with empathy and respect. (Indeed, One Day at a Time’s closest TV cousin may be Jane the Virgin, which takes its structural inspiration from telenovelas.) But a sitcom, particularly one as welcoming and friendly as this one, has the added benefit of letting its audience feel safe. We are operating within known spaces. The familiar, reassuring resolution of each episode always blinks on the horizon, so we know that even when things get uncomfortable, everything will work out all right in the end.

That multi-cam happy ending is a political comment in its own right. For this Cuban-American single mother who struggles with money and issues of identity and just trying to access her veterans benefits, the structure of her story promises us things can be okay. It’s a remarkable, easily forgotten, vitally important message, brought to us by the magic of a studio audience, ample jokes, and the soothing intimacy of an old-school TV form.

ODAAT’s Old-School Format Makes It More Modern