One Day At A Time
As someone who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, I had to suffer through every permutation of the “Very Special Episode” trope, from Punky Brewster chanting “Just Say No” to Jessie Spano caterwauling “I’m So Excited.” So after watching “Nip It in the Bud,” I just hope that young people today appreciate the level of growing pains television went through before One Day at a Time could present such a nuanced take on the subject of marijuana.
Now that recreational use of cannabis is legal in California — where ODAAT is set — the timing seemed right for the series to address how the new laws might affect a curious teenager like Alex Alvarez. At age 15, his desire to experiment with pot is hardly surprising. But ODAAT won’t shy away from the fact that even casual marijuana use can have serious consequences for someone like Alex, because he lives in a country where racial inequality continues to run rampant.
Much of the episode initially follows the typical trajectory of the “What do I do? My kid is doing drugs!” storyline: Alex manipulates Penelope into letting him attend a “chill outdoor music festival,” which she and Schneider — dragging their Woodstock ’94 outfits and barnoculars out of mothballs for the occasion — sneak into so they can spy on him. But, OMG! It’s called “Bud. E. Fest,” its headliners are Wiz Khalifa and Willie Nelson, and a dancing marijuana plant is commingling with the concertgoers. Alex gets caught vaping and Penelope reads him the riot act when they get home. Problem solved!
Ah, no. (Though, thank you, Penelope, for teaching overprotective parents everywhere how to “Waldo” your kid by dressing him or her in a red and white striped shirt for easy detection.)
During Penelope’s group therapy — still headed up by original One Day at a Time alum Mackenzie Phillips and still one of the strongest elements of the new series — the pros and cons of marijuana use are, erm, hashed out. Some are fans of its therapeutic properties, be it for pain management or stress relief. For Penelope, it’s more about not wanting Alex to know that she’s tried pot herself. She refuses to be seen as anything less than perfect. But her fellow lady veterans are there to remind her that, sorry, girl, you’re not perfect, and there is no way in hell Bud. E. Fest was the one and only time Alex has done weed. They direct Penelope to search her son’s room — and to make sure she shares whatever she finds with the group instead of flushing it down the toilet. Heh.
Penelope follows her friends’ advice, but since she knows nothing about the art of hiding drugs, a recovering addict like Schneider is her unexpected ace in the hole. It takes him maybe half a second to spot the fake deodorant can holding Alex’s stash, and Penelope’s heart sinks.
At this point in the episode, it can be tempting to go, “It’s weed. Get over it, Penelope,” especially when she starts questioning her aptitude as a mother and needing Schneider — the only expert she has on hand —to reassure her that Alex doesn’t have a drug problem. To balance things out, the secondary plot of “Nip It in the Bud” features the reappearance of Dr. Berkowitz’s medicinal marijuana lozenges from “Hermanos.” Apparently they weren’t just another punchline to Doc’s sad family life, but a hilarious plot device to illustrate what happens when drugs accidentally fall into the hands of an elderly Cuban woman played by Rita Moreno.
During an evening at the opera with Elena, Syd and Dr. B, Lydia swallows a bunch of “Lemon Dopes” to stave off a coughing fit. This means we get to watch Moreno: 1. Impersonate the Woozy Face emoji. 2. Exhibit paranoia over capture by the Castro family. 3. Talk back to the actors onstage (which is how I was able to figure out what opera they were seeing; more on that below). 4. Scarf down (and lick the cheese dust from) a whole bag of Cheetos.
Anyway, back to Penelope. I promise the payoff to her overprotectiveness is coming. Does her need for Schneider to tell her that Alex is doing “one of the weakest forms of marijuana” seem a little ridiculous? Yes, but remember, Schneider has shown more care and concern for Penelope than most of her own blood relatives. So I say the more earnest bonding scenes between these two, the better. Sure, it’s weird that he does jigsaw puzzles of the Alvarez family, but maybe someday he won’t need to PhotoShop himself into one.
When Penelope confronts Alex for the second time, she gets to the real reason why her son’s new hobby scares her to death. It’s something she wasn’t able to admit in group, or even with her privileged BFF: Since Alex is only 15, he would still be breaking the law if he’s ever caught with marijuana. And between his skin tone and last name, the cops might not let him off as easily as they would someone who looks like Schneider.
Penelope tells her son about the time when she was 17, and she and her girlfriend were picked up for smoking pot on the beach. Her white pal, Caroline, was let go with a warning, while Penelope was arrested. It wasn’t until a Latino police officer intervened that she was allowed to go home with her own warning: “You can’t be doing this kind of stuff. It’s different for us.”
For the white kids, getting caught with marijuana makes for “a cool story,” she explains. But racial profiling is a very real thing, and if it happens to Alex, he “could end up in prison.” (Psst, Alex, you know there’s a whole TV show on that subject, and it might just exist in your universe.)
So, Penelope isn’t taking any chances with her kid, which means he’s gonna have to submit to unannounced drug tests. And good on her for doing that, for two reasons: First, this all connects to my ongoing praise of Penelope for refusing to allow her son to follow in the footsteps of the coddled males of his family. He’s learning the consequences of bad behavior at an early age, providing him with the skills necessary for all the hardships life throws at you. Second, it’s a constant reminder to the audience that, yeah, we do have an unfair system riddled with racial disparity in this country that doesn’t end when Netflix clicks over to the next episode.
Besides, if Alex can kick the habit now, perhaps he won’t end up banned from the opera one day like his stoned-out-of-her-mind abuelita.
This Is The Rest!
• Name me a better girl squad on TV than Penelope’s women-in-the-military support group. No, I didn’t think you could.
• The opera Lydia, Dr. B, Elena, and Syd attend is La Clemenza di Tito, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. It makes Syd’s Mozart T-shirt choice — which they paired with a tasteful blue pantsuit — all the more on point.