case studies

One Day at a Time Is the Exact Opposite of Westworld

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

This is a dumb premise. Of course these two shows are nothing like one another — in their styles, themes, forms, goals, characterizations, and intended impacts, they are about as different as two things could possibly be and still be TV shows. It’s like looking at a Chihuahua and a Saint Bernard and saying, “Oh yeah, those are definitely both the same general species of animal.”

Here’s why that completely dumb comparison is still worth thinking about: Westworld and One Day at a Time are not just two wildly dissimilar TV shows. They are also prime examples of two diverging approaches to how TV works, and what TV can be in the increasingly vast peak-programming flood. 

On one side we have prestige, niche TV as defined by narrative innovation and puzzle-box complexity. Westworld’s ethos for the first season was to be so intricately plotted and designed that unless you devoted significant time to reading about arcane theories, you may well have had no idea what was actually going on until the last possible moment. It has all sorts of other prestige-y hallmarks, too — violence, naked bodies, all-star cast, a sepia-and-grey color palette that would make Fallout 3 jealous, and a perpetual inference that big, important themes were lurking around within its storytelling. What is humanity? Who are the real monsters? Is the central nature of human existence to be mostly evil? How many orgies do you have the energy to join over the course of a weekend?

But Westworld’s core preoccupation was with the idea that things were hidden — plot twists, identities, relationships, motivations, and the central structure of the show itself. Plot twists and cliffhangers have long been a hallmark of trashy populist stuff, going back to penny dreadfuls and daytime soaps. The Westworld version is the classy, statusy, only-for-grown-ups kind of hidden, the sort that delights in its own obfuscation and occasionally mistakes complexity for nuance. It’s part of a long tradition of thinking of things that are hard (harder to watch, harder to follow, harder to dissect) are better, more worthwhile, more intelligent pieces of art.

And then there’s One Day at a Time, which feels so deliciously easy that it’s off-putting. Multi-cam sitcoms hit their nadir so thoroughly in the last decade that a show full of saturated colors and punctuated by the laughter of a live studio audience immediately signals empty humor at best, and dull, dumb schlock at the worst. Even if you’re onboard with One Day at a Time, its rhythms and the familiar, regular, episodic happy endings do not signal challenging, innovative material to us. They feel old. They feel staid. They seem light, in the same way we mean light reading — something to pass the time, something to occupy our brains, but not something that demands our full attention: jokes, a little life lesson, and maybe a Full House­–style “awwww” to put on in the background while you fold laundry.

One Day at a Time is also doing exactly the kind of detailed, thoughtful, unabashedly emotional character work that Westworld was so desperately lacking. Its plotlines — immediately recognizable and familiar though they may be — are always grounded in who its characters are, including their histories, motivations, and individual quirks. When One Day at a Time tells an immigration story, the shape of its plot and the way each character responds comes out of previously established and continually deepening facts about who they are. Lydia came to the United States from Cuba as a teenager and has unresolved trauma around that experience; Penelope grew up in a resolutely Cuban-American family and feels slightly caught between her mother’s traditionalism and her own need for individuality; her daughter, Elena, loves her mother and grandmother but cannot identify with something as conservative as a quinceañeara. Those characters get more shading and more nuance, but their motivations are steady. We have a stake in their success. It’s easy to invest in them.

It’s not just that it’s easy to invest in One Day at a Time; it’s something we can do with confidence. We can feel safe caring about these characters, because there’s no worry that the narrative premise is going to suddenly shift from underneath us and wipe all of their memories and turn them into completely new people who look the same but who are essentially strangers.

Westworld’s breed of niche prestige hinges on narrative complexity and stylistic markers of “quality.” But it’s a mistake to think of easy, breezy One Day at a Time as less invested in a prestige identity. If anything, its audience is likely even smaller than Westworld’s (information which will remain shrouded in the secrecy of Netflix data collection). Its predominately Latinx cast makes it highly targeted toward a specific bubble of TV viewers, and although the Norman Lear format it uses was once the telltale marker of mass TV appeal, that same formal rigidity now makes it a prestige product. It will appeal to a group of people who see its throwback style and who can recognize that form for all the subtle, thoughtful, political work that can come with it.

This is why it’s so fascinating to hold these two shows up to the same analytic light — they’re not just two extremely different TV shows. They’re two wildly diverging, even inverse, versions of how to make TV in the same world of niche audiences, alternative viewing platforms, and prestige products. One Day at a Time is structurally old-school and socially progressive; Westworld is all about narrative innovation but still has some creakily outdated politics. Westworld looks fancy; One Day at a Time looks comfortable. Westworld is surprising but often emotionally hollow; One Day at a Time is predictable and emotionally rich. Westworld had a notoriously huge budget; let’s just say the lack of reporting on One Day at a Time’s financials does not suggest it was a massive, expensive production.

It’s not as though TV is a sterile quantitative science experiment where you can set up two exactly opposite outcomes and test them against each other. But if it were, these two shows would make surprisingly good test balloons into what the current TV landscape can be. They’re two diverging visions of how to make TV now, and how to talk about big social issues in fictional frameworks. And, ultimately, they’re two remarkably effective opposing cases for what people will want to watch.

One Day at a Time Is the Opposite of Westworld