I first watched One Day at a Time at the behest of my best friend. When I saw the opening montage of old-timey salsa dancing clips and pictures of Latinx families, I thought, “This is completely unrelatable. I’m not going to enjoy this.”
As this article’s title suggests, I was very wrong.
One Day at a Time follows a non-nuclear Cuban American family of four: a middle-aged single mom, her two teenage children, and their widowed maternal grandmother. The show regularly juxtaposes them with two white characters: their landlord, who is also their neighbor and friend, and their doctor, who is the mom’s employer. First introduced in the 1970s as a sitcom, it is now being refreshed and retold on Netflix, and has earned a 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and 8.3 on IMDb.
At the core of One Day at a Time are its characters. As a Latinx family of color, they drive most of the plot and easily separate the show from other mainstream sitcoms. Through the eyes of Penelope, Elena, Lydia and Alex, we explore divisive and poignant issues: racism and ignorance, religion and tradition, relationships and sexuality, mental illness, substance abuse, and the idea of family (in both its dysfunctionality and also its absence). All this is executed with a lot of heart and vivacious acting, and peppered with quick wit and occasional political jabs. Every short 23-minute episode had me laughing and bawling, sometimes both at the same time.
Penelope (played by Justina Machado), the mom of the Alvarez household, is an Army nurse. She recently returned to the U.S. after service in Afghanistan. Balancing her duties of being a dedicated mother, daughter, and nurse, she tries to stay on top of things but often falls short. This delicate balance is imperiled by her own struggles with PTSD, a bitter remnant from her service.
One Day at a Time has the effervescent power to normalize issues that often get caught in our throats. Through Penelope, the show displays how help is out there if you’re willing to seek it and that coping strategies look different for each person. The show encourages speaking earnestly about mental health, while acknowledging that recovery is not a continuous or smooth path. This effort doesn’t just stop at mental health.
Elena (played by Isabella Gomez) is Penelope’s 15-year-old daughter. Defined by her intelligence and studiousness, she knows nada about relationships. Though obnoxious and somewhat obtuse, her character arc is tender. Elena cares deeply about women’s rights, often clashing with her ignorant brother and traditional grandmother. She is at that age, on the cusp of adulthood, bottling up her self-righteous rage as she realizes how unjust the world is. Now halfway through her teenagerhood, she is uncertain about both her familial and romantic relationships.
Within her family, Elena is both the star child and the black sheep, and her growth comes from how she reconciles those divergent identities. As she matures, her arc naturally includes some hard-to-swallow life lessons that we can relate to; I saw a lot of my own life play out in hers. There is a particular scene involving Elena and Penelope – no spoilers – that I cried while watching. I insisted my mom watch it as well. In that scene I saw a conversation between us that could have happened but never did. It made me feel a lot less alone. As many of Elena’s scenes are, it was potent, genuine, and most importantly, hopeful.
Living with them is Lydia (played by Rita Moreno), Penelope’s very Cuban, very Catholic mother. Despite her age, she is full of vitality and very flirtatious. She is exceedingly delightful, entering and exiting the room with all the grace one can imagine of Rita Moreno. She is frequently found in her room chatting with her deceased husband that she imagines (no one else can see him, but we don’t ask questions), who offers a kinder perspective of her troubles. She acts as the matriarch of the family, cooking feasts, doing chores, and taking care of the others, all without complaint.
Unfortunately, her main problem is the generational gap: Lydia is the accidental foil to Penelope and Elena, seeing through the lens of a more traditional time. For example, she encourages Penelope to find a man to run the household with and insists Elena have a quinceanera, despite the latter’s objections. She means well but it doesn’t always come across that way. Their conflicts speak to a big question among today’s reflective youth: are our traditions still relevant, especially if many of them were shaped by patriarchal norms and sexist gender roles? Ultimately, each character makes their own decisions, guided by the well-meaning – but often unsolicited – advice from grandma. This hilights the significance of open-mindedness and respect for individual agency within a family.
Then, there’s Alex (played by Marcel Ruiz), Penelope’s middle-school son. He’s loveable, mischievous, and his grandmother’s favorite. Through his character, we explore what it means to grow up and learn the hard way that the world is not on your side. He navigates problematic friendships while still wanting popularity; learns more about Cuba and its history; and is forced to quickly mature in his father’s absence. Despite all this, he retains his cheekiness and charm as he grows from a self-centered boy to a supportive and giving one.
Penelope, Elena, Lydia, and Alex are by all means flawed characters, which is what makes them so endearing. In more dated sitcoms like Friends and Modern Family, the characters’ unchanging flaws are what drive the hijinks of every episode. One Day at a Time is fresh because its characters recognize their wrongs and actively seek to better themselves. We laugh and cry at their mistakes which, though seemingly unending, often reveal the good within them. They feel like friends instead of tropes.
Watching ODAAT reminds of my own humanity: the joy of being with people I love, the pain of not being understood, and the exhaustion that ensues when everything feels out of my control. It acknowledges issues I and many others struggle with in a way that feels like an earnest conversation rather than a series of pandering one-liners. At its core, One Day at a Time shows us a glimpse of what a family could look like when they, despite all their bumps and warts, continue to care for each other in the best ways they know how.