Critic's Notebook: Netflix Needs to Renew 'One Day at a Time' Already

Netflix's superb Norman Lear-produced multicam comedy returned nearly three months ago. What's the holdup on a third-season renewal?
Adam Rose/Netflix

I don't know how to put a price tag on heart.

I barely know how to recognize it when I see it in a TV show.

As ephemeral as the idea may be, it's possible that no show currently on TV has more heart than Netflix's One Day at a Time. It's as inclusive, warm and welcoming a TV show, both in front of and behind the camera, as one could ever hope for. It's accessible and positive and, an important thing for a comedy, it's very, very funny.

And, nearly three months after the second season premiered on Netflix, One Day at a Time is still awaiting a renewal for a third season.

Series creators Gloria Calderon Kellett and Mike Royce have been tweeting for over a month urging people to check out One Day at a Time, with a tone that implies urgency or concern or, at the very least, wariness, and that has prompted a slew of Save Our Show columns and open letters from TV critics. This is one of those.

Let's pretend that maybe we all jumped the gun a tiny bit on panic. The first season of One Day at a Time premiered Jan. 6, 2017, and a second season wasn't ordered until March 4, 2017. So if we take that as precedent, since the second season premiered Jan. 26, the perfect week to renew One Day at a Time would be this one.

Right, Netflix?

A couple of years ago, we wouldn't have needed to worry at all. Netflix didn't cancel things, which was a tremendous relief since in the absence of publicly available ratings information, it was impossible for outsiders to measure success or failure and to understand why the streamer would cancel anything.

Since Netflix began canceling things, it's been relatively easy to say (in lieu of tangible numbers to prove) that what prompts premature cancelation have been factors like general lack of buzz (Girlboss); general critical evisceration (Gypsy); or the perception of vast, untenable expense (Sens8 or The Get-Down). There are occasional outliers where you have to guess. The second season of Lady Dynamite, for example, was brilliant and the show was generally adored in the creative community, but although the Maria Bamford comedy made my top 10 for last year, I didn't write about the series when it premiered and so I'm as guilty for perpetuating a lack of buzz as anybody.

I didn't write about the second season of One Day at a Time when it premiered either, so consider this a rectification.

It's my assumption that One Day at a Time, which shoots in front of a live audience in Los Angeles, is not as taxing on Netflix's bottom line as Sens8, though if it is, the creative team should definitely agree to stop going on expensive international jaunts if that's what it would take to get a third season.

In its formal frugality, One Day at a Time is, in fact, a sterling example of something that Netflix has been aggressively trying to do in recent years. A lot has been made of how much of Netflix's library was in the multicam format and how the streaming service wanted to start delivering original multicams as part of that ecosystem. The results have been mixed. Disjointed lasted one season, even with a co-creator (Chuck Lorre) who has rarely done wrong in the format on broadcast TV. I liked The Ranch more than most, but Danny Masterson's departure has soiled whatever brand that show once had. Netflix's first original, in-house multicam, Alexa & Katie, premieres this Friday and it has a review embargo of Wednesday, which isn't meant to suggest that the teen comedy is awful. It's not. It's just being made for a young audience. But as long as Netflix is determined to keep performing CPR on the multicam genre, it seems to me the most inspirational thing the company could do is keep the faith with a show that does multicam right.

With Mount Rushmore-level icon Norman Lear as part of the creative team, One Day at a Time is, like the dearly departed The Carmichael Show and the resurrected Will & Grace and Roseanne, a reminder of the pleasures of the format when done properly and a reminder that the key to doing the format properly is often having people who know what they're doing in multicam, again on both sides of the camera. One Day at a Time has used the limited number of sets as an opportunity for creative inspiration. Several of its best episodes, like the first season's "Hold, Please" and the second season's "Locked Down," have essentially been bottle episodes, keeping the Alvarez family in their primary apartment set and orchestrating the action like a 30-minute theatrical farce.

I feel like noting that both of those episodes were written by Dan Hernandez & Benji Samit, who also co-wrote this season's marvelous "Citizen Lydia," one of several episodes that have used the contained format for passionate debate and celebration of topical issues, never treating them in a one-sided fashion. I'm so reticent to praise One Day at a Time for its approach to social issues, because I fear that when you talk about "messages" or "values" that it turns some viewers off. Can I just say that One Day at a Time tackles everything from patriotism to gun control to LGBTQ tolerance to religion to PTSD and rarely feels preachy.

The cast has a big part in selling those episodes that feel "very special" without resorting to feeling like the sort of Very Special Episodes we used to mock sitcoms for doing. Isabella Gomez and Justina Machado were the discoveries of the first season. It's not that TV viewers didn't know and love Machado from a variety of guest-starring and down-the-call-sheet regular roles over the years, but that's not the same as knowing she could do multicam comedy. Look at the second season's "Hello, Penelope" to see the difficult thing Machado is achieving on One Day at a Time, because in an episode in which her character goes off of her antidepressants to avoid her new boyfriend's judgment, Machado balances audience-friendly zaniness and completely grounded drama in a way that's amazing to watch. She never forgets that her job is to make the a studio audience laugh or that she's playing a character whose issues have to be honored.

The same is true of Gomez, whose character's coming-out arc was the emotional centerpiece of the first season. Gomez's Elena starts the second season in a much more broadly comedic mode and for an episode or two I wondered if the silliness was cheapening the character, only to have it become clear that letting Elena be flailing and perhaps a little over-the-top in her expression of first love was exactly what the character needed to sell more sincere beats later in the season.

That brings me to Rita Moreno and the reality that if One Day at a Time had been an Emmy favorite last year, we probably wouldn't be having doubts about a renewal today. Netflix likes getting to play at the Emmys as much as anybody — perhaps more, since awards attention adds to the long tail of viewer discovery.

I can't tell you why One Day at a Time received only a single Emmy nomination last year  for editing — which is not the sort of badge of honor Netflix is going to be able to promote around. Moreno is giving one of the best supporting performances on TV. Period. Emmy voters got a little overwhelmed by the "Saturday Night Live is back!" narrative last year and had to give three nominations in the category to SNL regulars. It was silly then; it looks sillier now. It won't happen this year and it feels unlikely that Amazon is going to be able to get a pair of nominations in this category (or possibly many categories) for a Transparent season that felt like it aired a hundred years, and one show-rocking scandal, ago.

So let's try again this spring to build noise around the fact that what Moreno is doing on One Day at a Time is truly special and that's by the standards of an actress who is, by all empirical measures, truly special. At 86, Moreno dances and sings and, like her co-stars, she knows how to play her character for big, back-of-the-room laughs and also for precise daggers of sadness and remorse. There are hints of the sort of big accented theatrics that Emmy voters loved for years from Sofia Vergara on Modern Family, but that character has always and reliably been mocked for her struggles with English, to the point where the writers stopped being able to give her anything else to do. Moreno's Lydia has her own exaggerated Cuban accent where the accent is almost never the sole basis for the punchline; it's just a piece of a fine actress's comic arsenal meant to twist or punctuate or underline the joke. I don't know why Moreno's performance didn't stick with Emmy voters last year, but it's a treasure, and I suspect there are going to be vacated slots in that Emmy category. Let's get her in there.

Unfortunately, Netflix isn't going to wait until Emmy nominations are announced to determine the future of One Day at a Time, which means the best way to encourage the company, in addition to these Save Our Show pieces, is to urge viewers to watch, since obviously there are many who have not. I may not know Netflix numbers, but Netflix does.

I've always felt like One Day at a Time was being hampered by the familiarity of a title that has given the show little other than a character named Schneider (Todd Grinnell is also terrific) and a wonderfully rearranged theme song from Gloria Estefan. I just don't think "familiarity" is a hook that works with viewers surfing on Netflix's platform, or at least it doesn't work for me. What makes me stop is that feeling of "Wait, what the heck is that?" as I pass through Netflix's recommendations. I'm clearly not a normal Netflix user, yet I feel like more than a few viewers probably pass by the One Day at a Time listing and go, "Been there, done that" and move on to thrillers from Israel or dark comedies from Denmark.

So if, for some reason, you made it this far in my column and you haven't watched One Day at a Time, let me try this: Forget that there was a popular sitcom with the same name. This isn't that.

It's a comedy about a Cuban-American family. The grandmother has traditional values and the mother is a military veteran, if those are things that might incentivize you. The daughter is a huge nerd and she's also gay, if those are things that might incentivize you. The son (Marcel Ruiz also totally deserves praise) plays baseball! Stephen Tobolowsky is in it and Stephen Tobolowsky has never not made things better. Remember how great Moreno looked at the Oscars and how you said, "Boy, I wish there were a place I could see more of that Hollywood legend"? Well, as the theme song says, "This is it!" It's topical and provocative, but if that's the kind of thing you dislike, it's not too topical or too provocative! It's a comedy! It's hilarious enough to cause you to snort-laugh frequently. It's emotional enough that I can basically guarantee you'll cry occasionally and not sad tears, but tears of nurturing and togetherness.

Like I said, One Day at a Time has more heart than any show currently on TV.

So far, it has 26 episodes available to stream on Netflix. You can watch them now.

But what do you say we make it 39, Netflix?