'One Day at a Time' Season 4: TV Review

It's back, and it's funnier than ever.
3/24/2020

Canceled by Netflix last year, the beloved Latinx family sitcom returns on Pop TV.

The first three seasons of One Day at a Time marched to their own beat. Often, the show's rhythms were predictable: a light, expository Act 1; a fretful, complicating Act 2; then a dramatic, compassionate Act 3. Centered on three generations of a Cuban-American family in a gentrifying Los Angeles neighborhood, the series was widely praised, especially right after its cancellation by Netflix last year, for its adept handling of various issues. Among its many topics: gender roles, LGBTQ+ acceptance, immigration, mental health and balancing cultural traditions with necessary progress.

But another key to ODAAT's earnest appeal — and fierce fandom — might well be those regular turns into darker or more intense emotions. The show seemed to understand that life, even for sitcom characters, can't be just hijinks and one-liners. The point wasn't mere brightness, but the grace of coming into the light after crawling through the dark.

Take the show's approach to teenage Elena's (Isabella Gomez) quinceañera — a storyline that the writers have built on beautifully for at least three years. Introduced in the pilot, when her traditional grandmother Lydia (Rita Moreno) and modern mother Penelope (Justina Machado) both push for the reluctant, overthinking teen to undergo the cultural rite of passage, the quinceañera is ultimately adapted for the Alvarez family's needs when it doubles as a coming-out party for Elena.

But the 15-year-old is also wounded when her estranged father (James Martínez), who abandoned his children after his divorce from Penelope, refuses to tolerate this modification to tradition — and thus his daughter's identity. After his departure from the quinceañera, the remaining Alvarezes movingly rally around Elena, but the show also never shies away from her primal pain.

ODAAT has been, in other words, the rare series to take advantage of Netflix bloat (by expanding its tonal palette, and thus its topical and emotional range), rather than suffer from it. And so as much as the series' 11th-hour pickup by Pop TV made for one of the most memorable feel-good entertainment stories of last year, it's been difficult not to wonder how a truncated run time might chop down such an essential component of the ODAAT formula.

Pop TV only supplied critics with the first three episodes of the new season, so it's difficult to evaluate at the present moment how creators Gloria Calderon Kellett and Mike Royce are tackling the preordained 21-minute run (with notable commercial breaks). Though none of the episodes features the emotional gravity that the show has worn on its sleeve, what is clear is that the writers are striving to provide as much continuity as possible.

Last season ended with Penelope graduating from her nurse practitioners' program, and the strongest of the new episodes deal movingly with her lingering "scarcity mind-set" and her constant anxieties about money despite herhigher income bracket. The funniest of the upcoming installments, meanwhile, flips a sitcom trope by having Penelope's teenage son, Alex (Marcel Ruiz), accidentally stumble upon her masturbating. Moreno reminds us that she's been doing Emmy-worthy work all along with her hissy, scandalized delivery of Lydia's extravagantly regressive take on self-pleasure: "It is a dirty, sinful habit for sad, ugly people.... No one in our family has ever done that!" And, of course, an informative, census-themed scene in the premiere, with guest star Ray Romano, proves that the show's writers room is full of nerdy Elenas.

The fourth-season episodes also make clear that the core cast has become a perfectly calibrated comedy machine. Offered sharper jokes than ever before, the ensemble, performing in front of a live studio audience, is wondrously friction-free. (ODAAT has never been more consistently hilarious.) Even the previous weak links, Todd Grinnell and Stephen Tobolowsky, who play the more broadly sketched Schneider and Leslie, respectively, are now wholly integrated into the cast. And yet nothing beats the one-on-one scenes between Moreno and (also Emmy-deserving) Machado, who manage to evince between them decades-long layers of mother-daughter tension, as well as bottomless wellsprings of affection.

Still, the small changes linger. Vastly condensed is the Gloria Estefan-sung theme song (one of the few I never skip past), and the Season 3 cliff-hanger with Lydia finally returning to Cuba for the first time in two or three generations seems to have been completely dropped. Each of the three episodes for review begins with Penelope in her veterans' therapy group — an expository framing device that introduces the problem of the week more efficiently, but somewhat cuts into the show's lived-in-ness. 

Still, the show's leanings toward a kind of connection it's never thought particularly urgent before — romantic love — may offer a new path forward. I’m sure One Day at a Time will have a lot to say on the subject.

Cast: Justina Machado, Rita Moreno, Todd Grinnell, Isabella Gomez, Marcel Ruiz, Stephen Tobolowsky
Creators: Gloria Calderon Kellett, Mike Royce
Premieres: Tuesday, 9:30 p.m. ET/PT (Pop TV)