Over the course of three and a half seasons, Alex Alvarez has established himself as One Day at a Time’s indispensable pillar of support. Who could forget when he took over the last-minute preparations of Elena’s quinces, Hamilton-style, in season one? Or helped his sister breathe her way through an anxiety attack last season? Having been blessed with an easygoing demeanor, Alex tends to be the voice of reason (damn you, Stephen Tobolowsky, for getting to say it before I did!) among the spirited women of his family. The downside to this is there hasn’t always been room for ODAAT to give his character space to explore his own ambitions.
But now that Alex is getting older, the series is recognizing this gaping hole in the teen’s story. While he deserves to take center stage, I’m pleased that “Perfect” refuses to let him do so without presenting his story in a female-centric format: As the only male member of the Alvarez family, Alex is afraid he can never live up to the success of his grandmother, mother, and sister. Good! Let him be intimidated by the three remarkable Latinx women who have groomed him to be just as enterprising. This is a construct that I don’t plan on getting sick of seeing on television, so keep it up, ODAAT!
Quick tangent here to address the episode’s B story, which featured parents-to-be Avery and Schneider dealing with their first fight after Dr. Berkowitz gifts them with a terrifying life-size clown doll named Ruckus. It’s an entertaining enough subplot, and Tobolowsky, India de Beaufort, and Todd Grinnell are on top of their game as always. But other than reaffirming that Schneider and Avery are great together and that Lydia really needs to throw Dr. B a bone (give this poor guy something to live for already!), its main purpose is to keep the rest of the cast busy.
Since Penelope’s frugality is well-established, and her son is an expensive-footwear connoisseur, Alex’s cagey request for $500 in “Perfect” has fiasco written all over it. Determined to figure out why a teenage boy would need that kind of money, Penelope goes down an internet rabbit hole that soon has her convinced he’s either weighing the benefits of calf implants or planning to be the next Joe Exotic. (“I’m thinking exotic-pet deal gone wrong.”) Once she learns he just wants to take a fashion-design class, she’s not only relieved that he won’t be starring in Tiger King 2, but she’s prematurely sketching out his future as the next Brandon Maxwell.
Alex, understandably, didn’t want to tell his mother what he was up to because, given her track record, he figured she would think the class was a waste of time and money. But Penelope is demonstrating a significant amount of growth here with her unflinching support of her son’s aspirations. I’m not so sure she would’ve been this open to forking over $500 three episodes ago. Then again, she knows from personal experience that “free” doesn’t always mean “better”: When Penelope was a teenager, Lydia wouldn’t let her take a hip-hop dance class, instead offering to teach her daughter herself. There was just one tiny problem with that plan: “There are no castanets in hip-hop, Mami.” (Speak for yourself, Pen. I’ll take a free dance class from Rita Moreno anytime — once we’re all out of quarantine, that is.)
So when Lydia makes Papito a similar proposal, Penelope rescues Alex from a fate of matching street outfits by agreeing to pay for his class. But it comes with a catch, one that Penelope doesn’t even notice she’s creating: an unreasonable amount of pressure. Before Alex has even stitched a single piece of fabric, Penelope talks about how she’s making an “investment in the future of fashion,” and that she expects him to be a judge on Project Runway.
You don’t need to be Karlie Kloss to know those shorts Alex “makes” in his first class are store-bought. And I don’t blame him for his fake-it-till-you-make-it scheme: What would you do if your well-meaning mother were pressing you for details on your fashion line when you can’t even operate a sewing machine yet? At least Penelope is proud of Alex’s initiative. That is, until Lydia points out the made-in-China tag on the shorts. (“How far away is this class?”)
Penelope confronts Alex, who is down on himself because he loved the class but is so far behind his fellow students skill-wise that he’s too embarrassed to continue. When Pen assures him that “it’s okay to not be perfect,” Alex explains that the “strong, independent” women in the family haven’t done much to teach him otherwise. Lydia is an immigrant who built a fabulous life for herself with little more than determination and charisma. Penelope is “a military veteran whose job is literally saving lives,” while Elena is on a fast track to becoming “the first doctor-lawyer-president.”
What I appreciate about these kinds of scenes in ODAAT is they not only achieve the primary goal of the parent imparting wisdom onto the child, but the parent also experiences a lesson in self-improvement. Penelope, recognizing how happy Alex is pursuing fashion, encourages her son to keep at it — “Dare to suck!” — because he will get better if it’s something he loves. (Remember how, back in season two, she almost gave up on her dream of becoming a nurse practitioner after too many failed exams?) Alex, in turn, helps his mother understand that her overzealousness can be damaging, implying a fear that she’ll love him less if he’s not perfect all the time. When Penelope realizes that she may be harming Alex more than helping him, I felt her pain right in my heart.
By the end of his second class, Alex is showing significant improvement, having figured out the sewing machine well enough to come home wearing a patchwork jacket of his own creation. The uneven sleeves fall off, and the hems are sloppy, but who cares? Besides, Alex has to stay in fashion now, because Lydia, who has volunteered to be his model, needs to finish up that story about how she once slapped Naomi Campbell …
This Is the Rest!
• Has any other show mastered cross-generational humor the way ODAAT did with that “Dr. Ake”–Dr. Dre–Drake joke?
• I know she just bought a couch, but Penelope may want to start shopping for a new bed for Alex. Marcel Ruiz is too tall for that setpiece.
• I know from a story-line perspective it made the most sense to have Dr. B perform Avery’s ultrasound, but isn’t he a general practitioner? Wouldn’t wealthy scions like Avery and Schneider go to an upscale OB/GYN in Beverly Hills?