One Day at a Time
It all started with a minibar soda can, accidentally knocked over in the throes of passion….
If that hadn’t happened, we wouldn’t have this gem of a One Day at a Time episode (or it would’ve all been about Lydia’s quest to procure Alex a pair of Kanye West’s newest sneakers, and there are only so many Yeezy/Jesus puns Rita Moreno can utter before the joke gets stale). Sure, if Elena and Syd had just moved their foreplay either slightly to the left or to the right, Penelope would’ve been none the wiser — and a lot less stressed. But I found “The First Time” to be special not only because of its positive portrayal of Elena and Syd’s first sexual encounter, but also because of the frank, judgment-free conversation between Elena and Penelope afterward.
When Lydia comes home with a $300 pair of sneakers that the still-grounded Alex asked her to buy (using his own money), Penelope is outraged that her son hasn’t yet learned the value of a dollar. She shows Alex how everything on her credit card statement is budgeted — except for a random $7 charge from a local hotel.
A call to the hotel reveals Elena used her emergency credit card there, and it doesn’t take long for Penelope to pry the truth out of her 17-year-old daughter. Justina Machado proceeds to steal the rest of the episode as she processes the news that Elena is both sexually active and that she didn’t use her mother’s Indiana Jones minibar technique. Through only the use of her eyes, Machado conveys comprehension, sadness, worry, disbelief and eventually, the closest she can come to acceptance.
Just as she did when Elena came out to her in season one, Penelope immediately seeks counsel from her veterans-group pal and “lesbian Yoda” Ramona (the always-awesome Judy Reyes). But Penelope soon realizes that her concerns about Elena have nothing to do with her being gay. She’s a barrel full of emotion because she knows her daughter is having sex, and with no maternal-guidance precedent, Penelope is at a loss as to how to be there for Elena in a constructive manner. Back in the analog age, when Penelope was 17 (“and a half!”) and sexually active, it was a lot easier to keep Lydia in the dark about her daughter’s carnal knowledge.
I can understand Penelope’s apprehension about having “the talk” with Elena; she doesn’t want to present sex as “dirty,” but she also doesn’t want to come off as too loosey-goosey about it, either. The good news is, she came through it with flying colors, because all she needed to do was listen to her daughter. Yes, there were a few words about how sex shouldn’t be taken “lightly,” but instead of some haughty “I know better than you do” speech (which is all television seemed to throw at teens when I was growing up), she presented compassion and a sympathetic ear.
The episode then cuts to “Yesterday,” where we see Sylena’s monumental decision play out. Just like any typical teenagers, Elena and Syd have zero privacy — and they’re ready to move beyond the making-out stage. Next thing we know, Elena is forking over her credit card to secure a hotel room and cover incidentals like a knocked-over minibar soda can. Syd then establishes the room will be paid for in cash earned from playing in “a competitive Magic: The Gathering league.” And, no, that is actually not the nerdiest thing about this enterprise — that has to be the X-Files theme music kicking off Syd’s sexy playlist.
Once in the hotel room, we are presented with a beautiful portrayal of two teenagers engaging in sex for the first time (Brava, Michelle Badillo and Caroline Levich, who wrote the episode): There are tender declarations of love, and the establishment of both a safe word (“Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” because, of course) and consent. Even the minor conflict thrown in for heightened drama — Elena is a virgin, Syd is not — is dealt with in such a mature fashion that it ends up being a speed bump rather than a roadblock.
To watch a scene where the revelation that both partners are not on equal sexual footing, and to have it not end with either the relationship in jeopardy or the experienced partner pressuring the other into having sex anyway, is unbelievably uplifting. Syd earns the title of Best Romantic Partner Ever in the way they say all the right things to mollify an insecure Elena: They insist that they weren’t in love with their previous partner, but they are in love now, and more importantly, that they “wanted to make sure this happened on [Elena’s] own terms.” (Write a book on this stuff, Syd. Please.)
What’s also wonderful about this scene is Syd’s infinite patience with Elena as she sorts through her feelings. Regardless of her Syd-nificant Other’s bombshell, Elena is understandably scared about taking this next step, because she knows sex changes everything, and not always for the better. So, Syd promises Elena that they’ll wait for her to feel comfortable — even if that day never comes — and they’re just as content to watch a Harry Potter marathon.
That latter option turns out to be a huge turn-on for Elena, which then leads to the aforementioned minibar-adjacent makeout session — and more.
We then return to Elena and Penelope. As much as the scene between Elena and Syd made my heart soar, it was this exchange between mother and daughter that illustrates how far television’s portrayal of teen sex has come since the 1990s. When I was growing up, series like Beverly Hills, 90210 and My So-Called Life spoke openly about this topic, but more often than not, with an ominous agenda that usually translated to “Sex has consequences.” Even once TV shows evolved into more accepting depictions of teen sex — Dawson’s Creek, Gossip Girl, Glee etc. — supportive chats with the parental units were not a priority.
For the closing scene with Elena and Penelope alone, ODAAT deserves every accolade. Penelope lays down one reasonable rule: Elena is not allowed to have her bedroom door closed when Syd is over. But other than that, their discussion is a mutually constructive one. Elena says she had a good experience with Syd, Penelope is happy for her daughter, and that’s all.
Because that’s what every teenager deserves.
This Is The Rest!
•Now that there’s gonna be a sequel to the 1984 Ghostbusters, does that mean Schneider is renting out the Ecto-1 for the Jason Reitman-helmed production? (If he’s not, then you know Alex is getting on that, like, now.)
• If you’re old enough to have watched the first-run version of One Day at a Time, then you may have noticed something familiar about the desk clerk at the hotel where Elena and Syd have their super-awkward check-in. That’s because “Chad” is played by Glenn Scarpelli, who joined the original ODAAT cast in 1980 as Alex Handris, the son of protagonist Ann Romano’s boyfriend.
• Time to play “Who’s More Awful?” Was it: The guy who bought the last four pairs of Yeezys and wouldn’t let Lydia buy one box off him? Or, the not-so-Good Samaritans who shamed him into relenting via their own institutional racism:
White girl bystander: “Do you know how long she had to save up for those?”
White guy bystander: “Yeah, man, don’t be a racist — give the maid the shoes.”