In an interview about the upcoming Roseanne revival, actress and producer Sara Gilbert answers a question about how much impact the show has had on television in the years since Roseanne was first on the air. “Not enough of it,” Gilbert answers. “Not enough working-class shows that show people struggling to pay the bills.” Gilbert’s right. But at the same time Roseanne is returning, one of the very best current television series, a show that hits squarely at the heart of these issues, has no assurance that it’ll come back for a third season: Netflix’s One Day at a Time.
Like Roseanne, One Day at a Time is part of the too-small cohort of TV shows that depict an American family with real financial insecurity. The lineage is a little scrambled — as a revival, One Day at a Time actually brackets Roseanne Barr’s working-class vision of the American family. The original version of the series was one of the ‘70s era TV sitcoms that broke barriers in depictions of financially insecure families, single motherhood, and teen rebellion. The new One Day at a Time inherits all the memory of its original version, but it’s also part of the TV world that Roseanne made, a world where moms talk openly about how they can’t afford to buy their kids fancy clothes. It’s a vision of the TV mother as someone who talks about unemployment, and who teaches her kids to be thrifty, and who has open conversations about gay rights and gender identity. One Day at a Time is all the things we celebrate Roseanne for doing (and even more besides), and it’s all the things we lament as too hidden in most family TV shows. We need lots of these shows. But guaranteeing that One Day at a Time comes back for another season is a good place to start.
There is a strange facet of arguing for the renewal of a Netflix series: Unlike a show on network or cable, there’s no way to know what the show’s actual viewing figures are. There’s no way to calibrate how big or small its audience is (it must be pretty small), no way to orient that number around how much it costs to make the show, and no way to compare it to other series. And because all of that’s unknown, I have the gift of arguing for One Day at a Time in a comparative vacuum. There’s no need to hem and haw about how much money it probably does or does not make for Netflix; all I can do is look at the show itself, and think about how great and funny and moving it is. I can point to how right it feels for the current moment. I get to ignore whatever the actual audience size is, and say instead that its existence will always be a benchmark for how I think about what TV can be in 2018.
The political, of-the-moment argument for renewing One Day at a Time is hard to miss — the biggest story of our current national life is that Americans with different beliefs have a hard time talking to one another. And One Day at a Time is a show about a family, the Alvarezes, who have meaningful disagreements and who muddle through them. We are mired in seemingly intractable debates about immigration; One Day at a Time’s Lydia (Rita Moreno) is a Cuban immigrant who struggles to balance feeling American and feeling ties to Cuba. Slowly, gradually, we’re trying to develop a better understanding and better language for mental health issues; One Day at a Time’s second season had one of the best depictions of depression on TV in the last year. Even more slowly and more gradually, we’re moving toward visibility and acceptance for gay and non-binary people. One Day at a Time pushes that visibility forward with humor and grace.
Not for nothing, it’s also a show that has a female showrunner, a slate of season-two directors who are all either women or people of color, and a writers’ room and guest cast list that would satisfy any inclusion rider in a heartbeat.
In truth, though, while I think all of the stuff I’ve just outlined is immensely important, calling One Day at a Time a vital series for our current political moment makes it feel like homework. It’s easy for an issue-driven show to come off as a box-checking exercise, something that goes through the motions of relevancy and ends up feeling pedantic or shallow. There’s a reason calling something a “Very Special Episode” is not a compliment, and I wonder if the combination of One Day at a Time’s deliberately old-school structure and its seeming potential for a Very Special vibe has turned people away.
One Day at a Time is not homework. It’s so delightful and affirming that I don’t know whether to recommend you gulp it all at once, as fast as you possibly can, or whether to coach you to savor it slowly. It hits on many levels, leading with silliness and fun and then sliding into your gut with amazing stealth. In its second season, its characters have only gotten more assured, especially its two lead women, Penelope (Justina Machado) and her mother, Lydia. Moreno’s performance as Lydia is bigger and often more visible: she walks away with every shot she’s in. But Machado’s Penelope is just as fantastic, and in fact, she has a touch of the original Roseanne’s ability to pivot sharply from pathos to humor and immediately back again. And it’s a comedy. Once you get into its rhythms, One Day at a Time is truly, outstandingly hilarious. There’s a scene in the second season where Moreno’s Lydia opens a curtain, and it was so funny it crushed me.
Netflix should renew One Day at a Time because it’s a great show; when the outlet seems willing to make every conceivable variety of TV property and buy the ones it can’t make, that should be reason enough for a third season of a show that’s this good. But I can’t get over the homework-y argument, either — there are so few TV series that have really nailed a sense of this American moment, right now.
It reminds me of a tiny subplot in an episode of the original Roseanne, where Roseanne’s congressman knocks on her door and she gives him an earful about his plan to lure new companies to their state with tax incentives. He’s completely overwhelmed. And then she happily accompanies the now-terrified congressman to his next several house visits; he can’t shake her enthusiasm. One Day at a Time is also unapologetic about political awareness and political participation, in a way that’s somehow heart-warming and bracing. But the reason I was recalling that little story had more to do with my desire to be the Roseanne in that scene. Poor unsuspecting people come knocking on my door and I buttonhole them endlessly before following them home. Watch One Day at a Time!, I tell them. It’s shameful Netflix hasn’t renewed it yet! Here, let’s go tell your friends…