close reads

Why the New Schneider on One Day at a Time Is So Much Better Than the Old One

L-R: old Schneider, new Schneider. Photo: CBS, Netflix

Ask any child of the ‘70s or ‘80s what they remember about the original One Day at a Time, and they will most likely mention the following: its catchy theme song, the crush they had on co-star Valerie Bertinelli, and Schneider.

The new One Day at a Time — which was released on Netflix last Friday, coincidentally on the first anniversary of the death of Pat Harrington Jr., the actor who played Schneider — has very wisely kept some of the core things that defined the first version. It’s still about a woman post-marital split, trying to raise two kids on her own and often confronting social issues in the process. There’s no Bertinelli, but there are two new teens (Isabella Gomez and Marcel Ruiz) who are just as charming, as well as an appearance by the other Romano daughter, Mackenzie Phillips. The theme song still opens every episode, but since the new iteration focuses on a Cuban-American family, it’s been given a jolt of syncopated energy courtesy of Gloria Estefan. And, yes, there is still a Schneider. But as crafted by showrunners Mike Royce and Gloria Calderon Kellett as well as actor Todd Grinnell (Desperate Housewives, Grace and Frankie), he’s been turned into an entirely different character. And thank God for that, because Schneider No. 1 would not have worked in 2017.

For those who are too young to have seen Norman Lear’s original One Day at a Time, Schneider was the super in the Indianapolis building where the divorced Ann Romano (Bonnie Franklin) lived while trying to raise two teenage daughters (Bertinelli and Philips). Harrington infused the character with enough buffoonery and gentleness to make him likable. But make no mistake: Schneider often behaved like a total jackass, bursting into the Romanos’ apartment unannounced, relentlessly hitting on Ann, and presuming that his voice was, de facto, the most important one in any conversation. His standard uniform consisted of a white T-shirt with a box of cigarettes rolled in the sleeve, a denim vest, blue jeans, a tool belt, and a mustache that screamed, “I’m not a pedophile, but my upper lip hair makes you wonder, doesn’t it?” Even as a young child watching this show in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, a time when denim vests did not set off nearly as many alarm bells as they should have, I was creeped out by the fact that he had the keys to an apartment occupied by three women and could enter it whenever he pleased.

As they recently explained in an interview with critic Alan Sepinwall, Royce and Calderon Kellett knew they were going to have to “rethink Schneider in bulk.” Instead of creating a revamped version of the sleazy blowhard, they came up with a clueless but well-meaning symbol of white privilege that fits in much more seamlessly in a traditional yet contemporary sitcom.

Schneider stills helps the Alvarez family make fixes in their apartment, and there are even some clever nods to the ‘70s embedded in his personality; in the first episode, he briefly sports a ridiculous mustache, one that’s more handlebar than porn ‘stache, and it’s later revealed that he used to be the front man in a yacht-rock band. In general, though, his lifestyle lines up more with  Kramer from Seinfeld than the original Schneider: He has no real job to speak of (his parents own the building, so he lives rent-free); he has a ludicrous amount of free time; he does pretty well with the ladies (I’m guessing he has the kavorka); and he regularly pops into the Alvarez’s apartment to mooch off their food. Basically, he’s the 2017 version of the hipster doofus. Or in the words of Lydia, the abuela played by the great Rita Moreno, he’s a bobo.

The writers have given Schneider some mildly dark qualities for a family-friendly sitcom; as one episode reveals, apparently he likes to watch lesbian porn in his spare time. He’s also a recovering alcoholic. But as Grinnell plays him, there’s also a hint of Paul Rudd in this new Schneider that suggests the guy would be just as at home in a Judd Apatow movie as he is living a few steps away from Penelope Alvarez and her family in a Netflix comedy.

What defines this man-boy most — and gives him the most interesting layers — is his desire to ingratiate himself with the Alvarez family. Even though he is white and grew up wealthy, he is desperate to fit in with these lower-middle-class Cuban-Americans. But he, and the audience, are often reminded that he doesn’t have a clue what it means to struggle, be an outsider, or even consider broader perspectives, particularly in episode nine, when he walks into the Alvarez apartment wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt.

“Viva la revolución, am I right?” he says, at which point every member of the family reminds him that the countercultural image on his shirt represents a right-hand man of Fidel Castro who committed mass murder.

“It’s like if you walked into a Jewish home wearing a Hitler shirt,” Penelope (Justina Machado) explains.

“Or into Taylor Swift’s home wearing a Kanye shirt,” adds Alex (Ruiz). Naturally that finally drives the point home for Schneider. “Oh my God!” he says in horror, finally ripping off the garment and apologizing.

That scene illustrates what may be the most crucial and welcome change to the Schneider role: that his character functions as a complement to the Alvarez story, as opposed to a distraction from it.

The ‘70s was a golden age for scene-stealing supporting characters on TV sitcoms: Lenny and Squiggy on Laverne & Shirley, Fonzie on Happy Days, Flo on Alice, all of the Sweathogs on Welcome Back Kotter — to varying degrees, they each stole focus away from the designated protagonists on their respective shows, sometimes so much that they become the effective stars of those shows.

Because of Harrington’s performance, and maybe because Schneider’s quirks and shortcomings were fun for the writers to explore, Schneider became the One Day at a Time character that the American public knew best, even though the show was actually about a mother and her two girls. (Harrington also was the only actor on the show to win an Emmy.)

The new One Day at a Time breaks from that pattern. Schneider 2.0 is comical in his obliviousness, but he’s not designed to be a blatant scene-stealer. The writers and Grinnell understand that this show is about Penelope, her family, and their experience. Everything else — including the bobo who lives upstairs — has to come second. One Day at a Time 2017 is about the Alvarez’s’ world. And Schneider? He’s just living in it.

The New Schneider on One Day at a Time Is Better