DECIDER - ‘One Day At A Time’ Season 2 Is Still Shockingly Great At Topical Comedy
It’s not a surprise that a Norman Lear-produced situation comedy has figured out the perfect tonal balance for topical comedy and affecting family pathos. It is a surprise that a Norman Lear-produced situation comedy has figured out the perfect tonal balance for topical comedy and affecting family pathos in 2018. As it did in its heartfelt and altogether lovely first season, the Netflix-revived One Day at a Time wades in the troubled waters of modern-day America and the hostilities that face a Cuban-American family that includes an army vet mom (Justina Machado) dealing with lingering injury and depression, a recently out lesbian daughter (Isabella Gomez) whose father walked out on her quinceañera as a result, and oh, right, the new president thinks brown-skinned people are rapists and murderers and has enabled racism among his supporters. Soooooo, yeah, lots to deal with for the Alvarez family.
The thing about topicality in a sitcom — especially in a traditional multi-cam, studio-audience (or laugh track) sitcom — is that the serious themes tend to grind the broader comedy to a halt, and then the comedy bits have to essentially start from zero. You’re killing the vibe in the room, in other words. Lear’s shows in the ’70s and ’80s — All in the Family, Maude, the original One Day at a Time — defied this repeatedly, but that was also a different era, when comedies were paced more slowly and viewers had fewer options. When you’ve got dense, intelligent, hilarious comedies like The Good Place or Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt a click away, it’s got to be intimidating to ask the audience to surrender a laugh for a moment or two where you might feel … bad. Or sad. Or contemplative.
Credit, then, to showrunners Mike Royce and Gloria Calderon Kellett for threading that needle and then some in One Day at a Time‘s brilliant second season, which drops on Netflix next Friday, January 26th. I admit, for as much as I had loved season 1 and was eagerly anticipating these new episodes, it took me a second to remember my faith in this show’s alchemy. The first episode back deals with the racism faced by young son Alex in school; episode 3 incorporates Elena and her LGBTQ-activist friends as they prepare for a protest and take a time-out to educate Penelope and Lydia (the forever enchanting Rita Moreno) on the brave new world of gender-nonconforming pronouns. The magic that happens is that the topical stuff is addressed plainly and respectfully, without sarcasm or dismissal; these are genuine teaching moments, in case you want to watch this show with your kids. Or, honestly, with your less-plugged-in parents. (If there’s a better family-viewing option on Netflix, I don’t know of it.) But then the show always pivots right back to comedy, and they’re even more deft in these hairpin transitions this season. I can’t say this for certain, but I have to imagine One Day at a Time has delivered the first great “Latinx” joke in a multi-cam sitcom.
This isn’t just An Evening At the Especially Woke Improv, though. The topical humor wouldn’t work if the underpinnings of the show weren’t such solid and carefully-drawn family relationships. Season 2 deepens and specifies these family bonds. Lydia’s especially close, doting relationship with grandson Alex; Elena’s position as the family killjoy; Penelope as the juggling-a-million-things-and-trying-to-better-herself mom. These situations are relatable and the characters inspire real devotion. In this era of This Is Us, TV that makes you cry isn’t exactly rare, but no show on television makes me cry from a place of deep and real affection for its characters like One Day at a Time does.
It’s a quick binge, too, at 13 half-hour episodes, but try to savor them as much as possible. This show is doing something special, and you’d do well to stop and appreciate that once or twice. Even the best, funniest topical humor can often feel either smug or lecturing, if not both. One Day at a Time has (very quickly) figured out a way for smart, topical comedy to exist in the Trump Era while emphasizing heart and empathy over having all the answers. The Alvarezes are living on the same minefield we all are, and they’re figuring it out bit by bit. What’s more quintessentially American in 2018 than that?