Of all of the situation comedies to roll out of Norman Lear’s laugh factory in the 1970s — All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Good Times, Maude — the least appreciated and most resilient of the bunch had to be One Day at a Time. Featuring Bonnie Franklin as a divorced liberated mom trying to raise two kids in Indianoplace, One Day was shunted around the CBS schedule five times in its first season alone, yet amazingly ranked 12th, right behind Happy Days. It was a top-10 show five out of the next six seasons, but the network couldn’t stop playing shell games with it. Sundays at 8:30, Mondays at 9:30, Wednesdays at 8 — this was before the VCR revolution, when all TV was appointment TV. Yet the show’s fans kept hunting down One Day to follow the family’s ongoing travails and see if Mackenzie Phillips had made it to that week’s taping.
That same resiliency seems to be in the DNA of the show’s rebirth. Launched on Netflix in 2017, with Justina Machado heading up a mostly Latino cast and set in the Echo Park neighborhood of L.A., the new One Day has a voice all its own. It has rebounded from cancellation and a move to non-streaming TV, and now this week it is airing a brand-new episode — animated, with all the voices done from the actors’ homes — after having its production shut down in March mid-season.
Substance abuse, PTSD, ageism, 9/11, same-sex teen dating, immigration, self-love, private Instagram accounts, open relationships — it’s hard to think of a social issue that One Day hasn’t taken on in its first three and a half seasons. And it’s done so while delivering LOL comedy featuring characters and situations that reflect the varieties of Latino experience in America.
“When we are 18 percent of the population and we are 5 percent of what’s on television in largely stereotyped roles, that affects how the country sees the Latinx experience,” the show’s co-creator Gloria Calderon Kellett told me at the TV critics’ winter press tour, just before the Season 4 launch. “With our show we are able to show different ages, different colored skin of Latinos, different points of view — we have naturally built-in conservative, moderate, and liberal points of view. These are people that love each other and are trying to build bridges to each other while also trying to humanize the Latinx experience.”
When Netflix derailed One Day after last season, the show’s fan base made it clear they’d follow the Alvarez family anywhere, even to stodgy old cable. Kellett and co-showrunner Mike Royce got resilient and pitched a Netflix show to cable channels. As Rocky the Squirrel would say, that trick never works, but it did here. Pop TV signed on for Season 4, and sweetened the deal by simulcasting episodes on a channel people had actually heard of, TV Land.
There is a certain amount of speechifying and liberal box-ticking on One Day that you either have a taste for, or you don’t. Season 4 started with a public-service-announcement episode about completing your census form (Ray Romano made an appearance as Brian the Census Guy). Then there was the one about female masturbation, and here it bears mentioning that this episode, like most episodes of this show, was written by a woman. And for those of you who are sickened by listening to us married people carry on about our wives and husbands and spouses, the last episode before the COVID-19 shutdown ended with Penelope (Justina Machado) proposing to her off-again, on-again beau Max that they get … into a committed-ish relationship.
All of this would be unbearably snowflake if One Day weren’t a well-done comedy that successfully channels its predecessor. The transformation of Schneider, the building landlord, is a case in point. In the 1975 version, Pat Harrington’s Schneider was a lovable lout who was convinced he was God’s gift to women — a perfect, Bobby Riggs-like foil for the age of women’s lib. Today’s version, played by Todd Grinnell, is also a womanizer, but one with a substance abuse problem, a lot of money, and a desperate need to be seen as the woke white person in the room. It’s quite a departure from the Schneider of old and yet oddly on-brand, too.
And who would’ve thought that going back to ad-supported TV would prove to be a shot in the arm? Look, there were some really compelling episodes from the Netflix years. The one in Season 3 where Penelope goes on vacation and has to reconcile with her insufferable brother Tito (Danny Pino) went on for quite a few more beats than is customary in a typical TV sitcom. That was a luxury of not having to write for commercial breaks.
But it turns out these guys are really good at writing a tight, 19-minute episode. The recent one featuring a search for a positive pregnancy test’s owner — can you imagine that story line in 1975? — strung viewers along until the big reveal at the end. Likewise, the Valentine’s Day episode involved a surprisingly suspenseful guessing game as to who was getting hitched on the rooftop of the building. I hate to say it, but commercials do force comedy writers to make every second count.
About half a million viewers have been tuning in this season to watch One Day. I have no idea what that augurs, nor does anyone else, it seems. All I know is that the other Latino-cast reboot of 2020, Party of Five, which I also thought was great, has already been cancelled.
I asked Mike Royce if he knew how the show had been performing for Netflix, since Netflix is notorious for killing shows for all kinds of reasons, not just ratings.
“Netflix doesn’t, of course, release their numbers,” Royce said. “Which is why I’m happy to reveal that we were the highest rated show on Netflix.”
At a certain point, you just have to laugh. Speaking of which, enjoy the new animated episode of One Day at a Time tonight — it’s thoughtful and a hoot — then join me back here Wednesday for a discussion about how it came together with Mike Royce.
One Day at a Time's animated "Politics Episode" airs tonight at 9:30 PM ET on Pop TV.
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Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.