One Day at a Time is a traditional sitcom with a traditional sitcom’s sensibility. Its jokes are often broad, and its more dramatic moments very clearly aim to move you. It’s a show that is not ashamed to wear its heart on its sleeve.
In a series like this — and especially while playing a woman like Lydia Margarita del Carmen Inclán Maribona Leyte-Vidal de Riera, the abuelita with a personality as large as her full name — it would be tempting for an actor to set her dial to 11 and keep it there. But Rita Moreno, the living Hollywood legend who portrays Lydia with enormous confidence, flirtatious energy, and an endless reserve of warmth, never takes her performance too far over-the-top. She hits punch lines with snap. She rarely enters a room without a flourish. She leans hard into her emotions when a scene calls for it. But Moreno also projects the sense that she is in absolute control of what she is doing at all times.
A performance like Moreno’s doesn’t always earn accolades, perhaps because old-school sitcoms like One Day at a Time, the Cuban-American reboot of the original Norman Lear hit, with its multi-camera approach and live studio audience laugh track, don’t come cloaked in the same perceived prestige as a drama, limited series, or edgy single-camera comedy. I’d also argue that at 87 — 87! — Moreno is such a pro that she makes what she’s doing look easy. It isn’t.
In a lot of ways, One Day at a Time is blocked like a stage play, which means there is less room for editing that cuts away from a misjudged facial reaction or excessive emoting. It’s much harder to hide when you’re overdoing it, which may, in part, explain why traditional sitcoms get dinged for bad acting more than other types of shows do. But there’s never a reason to try to hide Moreno. She’s always in tune with the moment and her character.
It’s especially hard to play someone like Lydia, with her thick-as-a-chunky-Cuban-cigar accent, propensity to bust a salsa move, and unabashed vivacity, without reducing her to a caricature or using every opportunity to dominate a scene at the expense of everyone else in it. Moreno not only resists those urges, she doesn’t seem to have them in the first place. She keeps Lydia fully grounded and recognizably human.
“I wouldn’t be caught dead having a stroke,” Lydia says defiantly in the season-three premiere to her daughter, Penelope (the excellent Justina Machado), when she suggests that her mother tell their other relatives about her recent health scare. It’s a funny line on paper. Moreno makes it really funny by not emphasizing the humor in it. She makes the more nuanced choice by going for the genuine emotion underneath the line instead of grabbing at the obvious joke. Who among us hasn’t heard our grandmother, or mother, or mother-in-law, say something very seriously without realizing it’s completely hilarious?
The stroke Lydia refers to is the one she had at the end of season two. Obviously, she survived through the latest season. (And beyond: Although Netflix canceled the show after three seasons, it was recently saved by Pop TV.) But the mere suggestion that she might not make it induced a sense of actual, palpable panic among the show’s viewers. That’s because, even though Lydia is not the central character, she is absolutely central to the show, its family unit, and the audience’s appreciation of both. Machado’s Penelope gives ODAAT its framework, but Lydia, and by extension Moreno, gives the show its joists and its beams. It wouldn’t be remotely as sturdy or stable without her, a fact that became super-clear when, for a moment, the show threatened to take her away.
A Closer Look at Rita Moreno’s Performance
“She was who she was, until the day she died.” (Episode 3, “Benefit With Friends”)
Moreno knows exactly how to wield language and physicality to give a performance depth. Just look at this exchange between Lydia and her granddaughter, Elena (Isabella Gomez), in which Elena asks her abuelita, whose health is now slightly more precarious, if she could stop wearing high heels.
Lydia launches into a story about her own abuela, Maria Luisa, a woman who wore her ruby stilettos everywhere, even snorkeling. It’s a silly line that gets a laugh. Her mini monologue is only a few sentences, but Moreno’s inflections tell an entire story. When she rolls the “r” on ruby for an extra second or two, it practically conjures the bright crimson of those shoes. When she says elegant, Moreno lowers her voice and exhales a full breath of oxygen into the word. She makes it sound like a superpower. As she says it, she holds up her hands as though she’s showing off a freshly applied manicure. She doesn’t just make you hear “elegant,” she enables you to see it.
Then Lydia gets really emotional. “She was who she was,” she says of Maria Luisa, “until the day she died.” Her eyes become glassy. Her chin trembles. Her voice catches on “was,” as if she’s about to cry. Lydia is talking about the grandmother she loved and still misses. But Moreno knows that Lydia is also talking about losing her own identity.
In that little pause between “was” and “until,” she communicates Lydia’s greatest fear: She doesn’t want to die. She suffered a stroke, and it scared her. That is an awful lot to convey in the space between a verb and a preposition, but because Moreno is so precise in the pace of her speech and the words she emphasizes, she gets it in there. She even raises the game of her scene partner, Gomez, a little. Watch how Elena sits up a little straighter on the “who she is” when she asks her abuela, “Do you think she could be who she is,” and then lowers her shoulders on “in a slightly lower heel?” Like Moreno, she’s using her physicality to put her dialogue in bold text; the fact that she’s borrowing a page from Moreno’s playbook also hints at the familial connection between them, suggesting there’s maybe a bit of Lydia in Elena, too.
Because this is a comedy, the moment eventually circles back to humor. Elena pushes too far by suggesting that Lydia might also use her cane sometimes. Her grandmother responds: “Take the win.” Moreno hits the line quickly, barely letting in any air between Elena’s suggestion and Lydia’s refusal to consider it. It’s timed on a dime. It’s an actor hitting her mark without moving a muscle.
“You use a Trader Joe’s bag as a purse.” (Episode 8, “She Drives Me Crazy”)
Moreno does a lot of genuinely funny things in this scene, in which Penelope discovers that her mother has put “fix Penelope” on her list of things to do before she dies.
Take the way she pointedly slashes her throat when Alex comes in with packages of teeth-whitening trays that Lydia clearly ordered for Penelope; the way she shoves the accusation, “You use a Trader Joe’s bag as a purse,” in Penelope’s face; or how innocently — then not-so-innocently — she pirouettes though a line about how, as a wife and mother, she did “her best work on her knees” before clarifying, “I kept that floor very clean. I had to. Your father and I made love on it all the time.”
But the most important thing she does is know when to get out of the way. In the second half of the scene, Penelope blows up at her mom for making her feel like a failure for getting divorced. She knows how to hurt Lydia most: by making her feel like she’s failed at being a good mom. “A perfect mom doesn’t make her kid feel like this,” yells Machado, who is great here. Moreno looks down, hurt, maybe a little ashamed. She says nothing except a “bueno” so soft I had to rewind Netflix three times to confirm the word. And then she exits, slowly closing the curtain to her bedroom.
A lesser performer might have reacted to Penelope with eye rolls or sighs or exasperated hand gestures. Particularly in a sitcom, actors often go that route because they feel it’s their job to always go for the joke. But Moreno understands that this exchange is about Penelope finally expressing herself, and that her co-star will shine more if she dials down her own light. That’s what a great supporting actor does.
“I got real high, baby.” (Episode 10, “The Man”)
When Lydia realizes that her do-no-wrong grandson, Alex, was grounded for experimenting with pot, she chastises him. He promises never to do it again. They hug it out. So it’s entirely unexpected when she confesses: “I did it, too … I, too, rode the green dragon.”
“Wait,” Alex responds. “You got high?” “I got real high, baby,” she says bluntly.
Lydia is a hyperbolizer of the highest order and Moreno leans into that with the grandeur she injects into that green dragon line. Then she hyperbolizes in a different way: by sounding completely blasé. “I got real high, baby,” the pièce de résistance of this exchange, lands with a sense of authority and adds a layer of irony, as if she were an expert on what she refers to as “the mary-juana” and has enough of a frame of reference to distinguish regular high from “real high.” (She isn’t, and she doesn’t.)
Shortly after, Lydia’s same fears about death and loss resurface. She expresses sadness over the fact that Alex is getting older. “Soon,” she tells him, “you will not want to spend time with me.” “Yes, I will,” Alex insists. “Yeah?” Lydia says with a smile. She’s pleased, but her tone says, “That’s nice, but you’re young and you don’t know what you’re talking about.” In the span of three minutes, Moreno goes from sounding confidently youthful to fully aware of how many years separate her from her grandson. She does it so seamlessly, you don’t even notice what an elegantly executed transition it is.
The Other Contenders
There has been no shortage of fine supporting performances on TV in the past year. On Better Call Saul, Rhea Seehorn continued to reveal new facets of Kim Wexler as she shifted from being Jimmy McGill’s support system to the audience’s surrogate, watching in perplexed horror as he turns from con man lite into full-on fraudster.
In the limited series A Very English Scandal, Ben Whishaw gave an astonishing performance as Norman Josiffe, the mistreated former lover of closeted British politician Jeremy Thorpe (Hugh Grant). Whishaw is simultaneously scary and empathetic in the face of being brutally scorned and comes undone with absolutely no actorly pretension.
As Dee Dee Blanchard in The Act, Patricia Arquette slides from maternal sweetheart to heartless abuser and back, over and over again, in one of her two terrific limited-series turns this year. (The other was her lead role in AMC’s Escape at Dannemora.) There is nothing sweet whatsoever in Kieran Culkin’s take on douchey asshole Roman Roy on HBO’s Succession. He’s a bitter cocktail that goes down smooth, so laissez-faire about his own laziness and lack of ethics that you can’t stop watching him. The fact that a character like Roman is so oddly appealing in the Trump era is a testament to the quality of Culkin’s performance.
And name another supporting actor who was able to portray every one of her co-stars with spot-on accuracy and affection. There is only one, and her name is D’Arcy Carden, who plays Janet on The Good Place.
As great as all of these supporting actors were, though, Moreno rose to the top because she’s so consistently dialed-in to her character’s motivations and rhythms. She’s the kind of artist who is easy to take for granted because she’s always been on our screens and stages. But after more than 60 years in the business, Moreno is as skilled and vibrant an actor as she ever has been. On One Day at a Time, she’s playing an incredibly challenging role — a woman with big, over-the-top tendencies — but never once does it feel like she’s overacting. She turns Lydia into a woman with a complex interior life. She knows exactly which emotional buttons to push, and when. Actually, she invented a lot of the buttons.
Vulture’s sixth annual TV Awards honor the best in television from the past year in six major categories: best lead performer, best supporting performer, best writing, best direction, best miniseries, and best show. Eligible contenders had to have premiered between June 1, 2018 and May 31, 2019.
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