'One Day at a Time': TV Review

Courtesy of Netflix
Easy to binge 13 episodes at a time.

With Rita Moreno and Justina Machado leading the way, Netflix's remake of the classic Norman Lear sitcom feels fresh and familiar and funny.

Netflix's second stab at remaking/rebooting a nostalgically relevant family sitcom is far more artistically successful than the first, as, rather than being beholden to the stars and comedic voice of the original, the new One Day at a Time has been made only with 2017 in mind. Anchored by a tremendous ensemble and a forceful creative team and led by executive producer Norman Lear and showrunners Gloria Calderon Kellett and Mike Royce, Netflix's One Day at a Time is timely, soulful, consistently funny and, more than anything, blessed with great warmth.

The original One Day at a Time, created by Whitney Blake and Allan Manings, premiered just before my formative early television development and mostly exists in my mind as a delivery system for its catchy theme song, "This Is It," meaning that the Netflix version comes unencumbered with any personal associations. This One Day at a Time is completely its own thing, requires no knowledge of the original, and Gloria Estefan's take on the theme maintains the hook of Polly Cutter's version while giving it a flavorful update.

This Day is the story of the Alvarez family, including single mom Penelope (Justina Machado), a nurse and Afghanistan veteran; socially engaged daughter Elena (Isabella Gomez); son Alex (Marcel Ruiz); and Penelope's mother Lydia (Rita Moreno), a widow with dance moves and Cuban pride to burn. Oddball superintendent Schneider (Todd Grinnell) has become a spoiled, but well-meaning, hipster in this incarnation, which also features Stephen Tobolowsky as Penelope's boss, Dr. Berkowitz, and Fiona Gubelmann as the medical office's enthusiastic-but-dim receptionist.

Developed for Netflix by Royce (Enlisted) and Kellett (How I Met Your Mother), it's the latest show to illustrate how the multicamera format can be used in a way that is comforting and old-fashioned, without giving in to the popular misconception that it's a structurally entrenched and stagnant format. For a family show, the presence of a studio audience is inherently welcoming, erasing some of the boundaries between viewers and the onscreen clan, which can be more important than ever when the family in question is one that, to put it politely, hasn't been overrepresented on TV. Shows like Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat have illustrated that the invitation to laugh that the studio audience represents is hardly necessary — but that doesn't mean it's unwelcome, especially when, for the most part, those in-person laughs aren't braying or overemphasized in the sound mix.

From wacky neighbors to clueless bosses to the sassy grandma prone to misusing idioms, One Day at a Time is making no claims about being too good for the very sitcom-y tropes that shows have been using for decades, and I admit that I initially cringed when the crowd roared for Moreno in her first appearance, except for two reasons: First, that reaction wasn't an every-episode affair, and, second, if you're in a sitcom audience and Rita Moreno bursts out from behind a curtain, "applause" is probably as spontaneous a response as there is.

But One Day at a Time isn't stuck in the past, and the conventional sitcom elements are pegs on which to hang the show's many distinctive elements. While there's a conversation that probably needs to be had regarding why a show about a Cuban-American family has been cast with primarily Puerto Rican actors, the writing keeps the national identity of these characters from ever feeling merely incidental, whether it's the music and culinary references, a backstory built around Operation Pedro Pan or a bristling rebuke of an iconic Che T-shirt. Any time you fear One Day at a Time might be slipping in the direction of stereotype, the character of Elena lets the show call itself on the potential misstep before it gets there.

The actors aren't Cuban — I suspect the producers would give a "one step at a time" answer, and I'd offer something along the lines of, "At least it isn't Al Pacino," though that doesn't make concerns invalid — but the characters are, and their identities and beliefs are informed at every turn by that background. That becomes a prism through which the show approaches religion, gay rights and the stigma of mental-health issues, for example, in a manner we'd surely describe as Norman Lear-esque, for logical reasons.

As was also the case on Netflix's The Ranch, a show I appreciate more than a lot of critics seem to, the lack of running-time restrictions allows One Day at a Time to execute the required sitcom punchlines, but then to also dedicate three or four minutes per episode to being utterly earnest. The writers also fiddle with format by stretching the 13-episode first season around the serialized buildup to Elena's quinceanera and with several episodes that play with time or the contained locations.

More than anything, what One Day at a Time does is lay out a reasonable sitcom foundation before turning the stars loose. Primarily, though, the success of this first season can be attributed to Moreno and Machado. Moreno is a national treasure, and it's hard not to be aware that you're watching an 85-year-old actress playing, without any lack of credibility, a 73-year-old character and doing it with the sort of energy you'd normally associate with a hungry star making the most of a first break, not an actress with an EGOT on her résumé. Does Moreno's Cuban accent stray into that realm where "YouTube" sounds like "JuTube" and that's often supposed to be the joke? Probably, but even in those moments where there's the "easy" line reading that might suffice, Moreno sells something where the timing and cadence make it hard not to laugh. My notes are an accumulation of words I didn't know I needed to hear Rita Moreno say until she said them. "Hanky-panky," for example. And the accent is malleable enough that it ceases to be funny when the moment calls for drama. The writers predictably go to Moreno dancing whenever the opportunity presents itself, but wouldn't you?

Slightly more surprising (or more revelatory) is Machado, who has been on the edge of stardom for over a decade dating back to Six Feet Under, usually with well-played secondary roles in dramas. I'd say that it's a wonder nobody has given her a sitcom vehicle before, but it's probably just Hollywood being Hollywood. Guess what, Hollywood? Justina Machado is a sitcom star. The actress' drama chops come in handy when she needs to honor Penelope's PTSD struggles, her crises of mothering and her professional uncertainty, but she's also a splendid comic lead, miraculously matching Moreno's energy at every turn and getting laughs without the accent to fall back on.

Machado and Moreno are working at a high level from the beginning, and Gomez gradually comes up to meet them over the 13 episodes, helping the emotion of the finale land. Grinnell and Tobolowsky also thrive over the course of the season because their characters, introduced as superficially zany or befuddled, are allowed to show growth and increased understanding in a show in which whiteness is what's depicted as "other."

As I've said so many times, the problem with Netflix's Fuller House is that it's stuck in the rut of believing that the audience that loved Full House wants nothing more than a '90s family sitcom Xeroxed without evolution or renewed relevance. The success of One Day at a Time is a tribute to writers taking what worked about old-school family sitcoms, giving it value that will make it resonate with a contemporary audience and having a cast able to make the most of both the familiarity and the freshness.

Cast: Justina Machado, Rita Moreno, Isabella Gomez, Stephen Tobolowsky, Marcel Ruiz and Todd Grinnell
Showrunners: Gloria Calderon Kellett and Mike Royce
Premieres: Friday (Netflix)