Reflecting On The Power And Importance Of ‘One Day At a Time’ (2017-2020) And Its Audience
Storytelling, across any form, has the power to help its audience feel less alone. The best will utilize every tool it has to do so, from layered characters that reflect our flaws and ambitions to themes that tackle issues that are sometimes too hard to face. It’s the reason I got into this industry in the first place: to tell stories with the hopes of helping at least one person in my audience feel less alone. When discussing the movies and shows that motivate me to continue this mission statement, I rarely omit the recent reboot of One Day at a Time (2017-2020). This is a program that recognized the struggles its characters had and used them to educate, inform, and create a bond between viewer and creatives in a way I can only hope to achieve someday. Tragically, the show was officially canceled last week, amidst its fourth season, sending an emotional wave throughout me and others I know who were lucky enough to follow the series. With that, I’d like to discuss the importance of “ODAAT” and the power of its cast, crew, and audience, who have a ferocity unmatched by many others.
Spearheaded by Gloria Calderón Kellett and Mike Royce, this show was a revitalization and modern reboot of the 1975 series of the same name (created by Whitney Blake and Allan Mannings). The 2017 version sees the Alvarez family, a group of Cuban-Americans, trying to make life work in their apartment in Echo Park. The head-of-household, Penelope (portrayed by the ferocious Justina Machado), is a veteran who’s trying to make the best out of life for her two kids, the brilliant Elena (Isabella Gomez) whose intelligence is only matched by her inherent dorkiness and passion for “doing-the-right-thing,” and Alex (Marcel Ruiz) who’s just trying to navigate “teenager-ing(?)” in the modern age. But, hold the curtain (or don’t because they’ll be ripped open either way) for Lydia, Penelope’s mother, who stays in her living room, ready to offer love, advice, dancing, and laughs (perfectly captured by the spirited Rita Moreno). Along for the antics are The Alvarez’s building landlord, Schneider (Todd Grinnell), who’s just trying to find his place and Penelope’s boss, Dr. Berkowitz (Stephen Tobolowsky), who… well, kind of wants the same. This show explores incredible themes and subject matter, earning its critical acclaim and darling place in its audience’s hearts.
Stories Worth Exploring
Crafting well-rounded, lovable characters is a feat in itself, but forcing those characters through weaker plotlines often negates the lasting impression a creator hopes to achieve in their work. Luckily, Kellett and Royce team up with an incredible writer’s room to tell stories that needed to be told, touch on themes long untouched, and show how much easier it is to overcome hardships with the people you love. From the struggles of growing up as a teenager to the topics of sexism, racial discrimination, religion vs. sexuality, alcoholism, breaking cultural traditions, and one of the most effective and compelling portrayals of depression that I’ve ever seen, this show (and its creators) are aware of their position and the effect they may have. They so expertly balance these with lighter situations, like talking about masturbation when the parent is the one who’s caught or learning to drive from a clinically lonely Doctor (I mean, seriously, I just want to hug Dr. Leslie Berkowitz). The most perfect moments can be found within that balance, creating expert writing and character work with each episode.
Race, Culture & Ethnicity – Getting a bit personal, I grew up away from my birth parents, which means I have very little exposure to my ethnic culture (Korean-American). Instead, I was brought up by my friends’ families and community members of my hometown, predominantly Hispanic and Latinx. I grew up smelling tamales and feeling the flour of homemade tortillas from my “abuelas”. I was mesmerized by the beautiful dancing, colors, and sounds of their cultures, traditions, and celebrations. I saw a lot of them in the Alvarez family, cementing my bond and emotional reactions through each click of the “next episode” button. It meant seeing the characters go through racial struggles, which was challenging as I thought about the people I owe my upbringing to going through the same. The conversation about race has been ongoing, and breaking the stigmas and stereotypes surrounding the Hispanic community is necessary. No one deserves to be treated lesser because of what they look like, where they’re from, who they are, or who they love, and this show doesn’t let you forget that. Through multiple episodes, some as a passing line of dialogue that adds a deeper meaning to the plot conflict and some as the focus point of the episode at large, the creators provide an outlook on equality and diversity that is poignant, encouraging, and, at times, heart-breaking.
Defying Traditions – Elena is a fan-favorite character, from her comical moments pursuing social justice to her realization of shortcomings that allow her bouts of clarity and growth. In the first season, Episode 10 (“Sex Talk”), Elena comes out as lesbian to her mother, who shares it with Lydia, Elena’s extremely religious (like “pictures of the Pope on her bedside table” type) grandmother. Her reaction to this news is one of the best moments of the show, but that is just the surface of the creators’ exploration of tradition vs. progression. Beyond that, there are great episodes where Lydia’s more traditional beliefs are challenged, often putting her at odds with the family and acting as a true portrayal of some families’ older generations. While there are many great moments of this to discuss, one of the most prominent is the season one storyline about Elena’s quinceañera. This celebration of age serves as a right of passage, but it’s one that she finds trouble supporting upon learning of the history of the tradition and goes back and forth on whether she wants to participate. Obviously, we want to see Elena happy as the person she is and her beliefs and practices, but part of us understand Lydia’s side (whether we agree with it or not). As much as Lydia adds humor and charisma, her character brings some of the most necessary conversations to the screen; exchanges that show how traditions are fine, but time is changing and clinging to those traditions in spite of the people you love may be more damaging than initially thought. It’s beautifully done and the portrayal of Elena as a real character (who’s not just defined by her sexuality is perfect). Bravo writers, showrunners, and Isabella Gomez.
Normalizing LGBTQ+ Representation – I would be burned at the stake if I didn’t mention Elena’s romantic partner (or “Syd-nificant Other”). Elena finds her first romantic relationship with Syd (featuring an endearing performance by Sheridan Pierce), a non-binary individual with a childlike curiosity and a loving heart (introduced in the season two episode, “To Zir With Love“). What’s great is apart from that episode’s initial plot, teaching the family about the importance of pronouns and acceptance of any gender, Syd’s identity is normalized. From then on, everyone uses Syd’s preferred ‘they/them’ pronouns and it’s not a struggle or repeated conversation. It’s a reflection of how the acceptance and practice of people’s pronouns should be, without being overwhelming or preachy. Much like Elena’s sexuality, Syd’s pronouns are normalized, only being a piece of who they are without being all that they are (which is so [for lack of a more professional word] radical). The storylines that follow for these characters can apply to anyone of any sexuality in any type of relationship. We see them struggle with trust, first kisses, and communication, and they’re treated as regular characters that just so happen to have those struggles. As a bisexual individual, I can’t help but value stories that see the importance of normalizing characters regardless of their color, gender, or sexual orientation, so this really brought a smile to my face.
Mental Health – I could write a separate essay about One Day at a Time’s portrayal of mental health and how to cope with it, referencing the discussions of Veteran’s PTSD and therapy or Penelope’s fear of passing her anxiety onto her kids, but, I’m sure my editors are already concerned about the length of this piece, so I’ll just focus on the highly acclaimed episode, “Hello, Penelope” (season 2, episode 9). Earlier in this season, despite butting heads with her mother, Penelope joined group therapy for veterans, soon after being prescribed anti-depressants to help alleviate some of the mental weight she’d struggled with. In this episode, she decides she’s doing better, so much so that she doesn’t need those pills anymore. This sends her into a spiraling arc that is heartbreaking and ultimately relatable, bringing out some series best performances from Machado and Moreno. Upon recommendation, Penelope records a message for herself, the contents of which I won’t specifically talk about, but a message discussing her fears, her doubts, and the dark thoughts in her head. I don’t know if this is true for others, but I remember where I was when I first saw this scene: on my lunch break at the children’s pizzeria and arcade I worked at, held captive by a feeling of self-disappointment. Hearing that message, and how vulnerable Machado and the writers brought themselves to be affected me directly. I don’t know what I would’ve done without a hint of guidance, a nudge in a proper general direction, but that voice-memo, that dialogue, that character…Those words were full of suffering but spoken with the energy of someone who just wants to be okay for the people around her, and she’s given a helpful reminder from Lydia and Schneider that she needs to be okay for herself too. She needs to be okay for herself too.
It’s one of the many moments where I felt this show reached out of the screen and hugged me, telling me everything would be okay and that I was part of this family. I don’t believe I’m alone in that feeling, whether from the above episode or another. I marvel at the vulnerability this show wields through sitcom antics and coming-of-age growing pains. It’s not all serious talks in this show, but these important conversations are folded into brilliant humor and moments of pure joy, heart, and celebration. That balance is the reason this show’s fanbase fought long and hard to bring it back, and it’s why the show was saved from Netflix’s initial dismissal of it. Even if a new cancellation was solidified this past week, the fanbase came out as expected: in waves, volumes, and brigades.
The Audience and the Brigade
I’ve talked a lot about the show’s personal impact on me, but I’ve been well aware of its fanbase since I started rave-tweeting about episodes. The fanbase is extensive, showing the same passion and power that the cast and crew boast. Having talked to a few fans over the years, many revealed why they’re so tied to this show. Most love its relatability, identifying humor and struggles that reflect their own cultures and families. Others discuss its significant stride in normalizing characters of varying sexualities and genders. Some just love its three-camera format that provides comfort for them; one person in particular specifically citing their support for director Pamela Fryman (of How I Met Your Mother acclaim), who directed 12 episodes of this series. So, in 2019, when the show was not renewed for a fourth season by Netflix, fans quickly attempted to aid the showrunners, turning as much attention to the show as possible.
Hoping that award recognition might make the show more favorable for companies, a plan was hatched by the bright minds of Twitter users, Katy (username: @odaatKaty7) and @softsylena. They created a group chat of devoted fans that would coordinate voting strategies for the show. This heroic chat was deemed the “ODAAT Voting Bridgade” and features dozens of members (myself included) who succeeded in voting their favorite show into winning several Tell-Tale TV awards that year. With their objective achieved, the brigade continued contact, but not just to discuss our favorite show. We became a family, sharing our true selves without fear of judgment or faults. In a recent message to me, Katy summed it up perfectly, “This little show… brought us all together… from across the world, and created this special feeling of belonging and family among everyone who watched.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. In its legacy, this show had an innate power to bring people together and change lives.
The show would be saved by PopTV later that year, making it the first show to jump from streaming to cable, and begin production on Season 4 at Sony Pictures Studios. Unfortunately, the pandemic forced the production to shut down after Season 4, Episode 6, with their final aired episode being an animated special explore differing political beliefs in a family. Later in 2020, the show was officially cancelled, with the cast and crew reminding everyone to focus on what the four beautiful seasons they had and not dwell on the news. Fans expressed their support and the shows legacy is cemented.
A ‘Thank You’ To The Character of Schneider (Finding A Family)
The lovable goofball character is a staple of the sitcom formula. While this show boasts ample amounts of humor and heart from the likes of Dr. Berkowitz, Lydia, and Alex, I would endlessly kick myself if I didn’t talk about Schneider and how his character amplifies one of the most consistent themes in the show.
I find relatability in a lot of Schneider’s character, from the events that may have harmed him to how he decides to treat people despite those events. It’s easy to hear about his life as an alcoholic and his paternal upbringing, and make the assumption that he’s a cynical character whose sole purpose is to make the audience giggle at his naivety. Schneider isn’t any of that. He has genuine excitement in life and cares for the people he loves. He’ll wake up in the middle of the night to console Penelope as she shares her depressing voice message as quickly as he’ll join Lydia in some salsa dancing. He’ll give Alex a man-child’s advice on growing up and truly value Elena’s importance and purpose as a human being. He is a character who combats his issues by helping others feel less alone, which is a trait I’ve strived to achieve since I was young.
When someone heard about the abuse I would face from my sole-known parent, they’d be quick to assume I’m a shy or hateful person and that I wanted to extend that pain to others. But I was saved by the families around me. I was saved by my community and the foundation of support for my filmmaking and self they provided. It truly took a village to raise a child, but here I am! Raised! And I realized something very important about that; I am the person I am today IN SPITE OF my trauma, not because of it. Schneider is someone whose care and love stems from him growing in spite of his shortcomings as well. It shows people that the person you are is not set in stone by the cards you were dealt or past faults. You can become your own person – change into someone you’re truly happy with – and grow with the support and recognition of those around you; those who quickly become (in Schneider’s case and mine and hopefully others reading this article) a family, bound by love even without blood.
When it comes to that feeling of being less alone, Schneider gave that to me through his triumphs and, yes, rock bottoms. He showed me the person I could be and the love that could be spread to everyone and anyone willing to take it. That through antics, through challenging situations, there’s always a couch to go on and people worth “couching it up” with, and that’s all you need. Life’s hardships are easier to overcome with people you love. In my opinion, that’s the show’s most prominent theme and it’s perfectly reflected in Schneider.
I need to say “thank you” to Todd Grinnell for providing a spirit guide through times of deep self-inquisition on the person I am and meant to be. On-screen and on a float during the 2019 Pride Parade in Santa Monica, waving a beautiful purple, blue, and magenta flag at me, you’ve helped me feel less alone in more ways than one. I hope to meet, work with, or even chat with you one day and I’m excited to continue to watch your career continue. — signed, Johnny Rome
When I started writing this article, I recognized its four purposes (depending on who you are). If you’re a fan of the show, this article serves as a recap of what made it so important to people like you and me, and I hope you found comfort in it. If you’ve never heard of the show before, then hopefully, this entices you to give it a chance and experience everything I got to (and didn’t get to) discuss. Thirdly, if you’re one of the people who brought us this show, this article serves as a ‘Thank You.’ That extends to the showrunners, the cast, the crew, the writers, and everyone else. You’ve truly made a difference to so many people, and it’s been fantastic following the Alvarez family these four seasons. Gracias por todo.
The fourth purpose is for anyone with an itch to create and tell stories. It’s essential to recognize the power that storytelling has and utilize it as you see fit. Whether a show, play, book, film, game, poem, or other media, you are in a position to tell the story most important to you, knowing your art has the capability of helping someone feel less alone. If nothing else, I hope this article reveals that to you and possibly pushes you to tell the story you’ve been dying to tell. Why wait? To follow your passions and grow into your purpose is a beautiful thing. Beautiful like bonding with a TV family on the couch or an outing with friends that makes you understand the possibilities of growth beyond pain or trying a new look that makes you smile and nod in the mirror for the first time in a while.
You’ve got a corner supporting you, so tell the important stories. We can’t wait to see them. Familia para siempre.