‘One Day at a Time’: TV’s Most Joyous, Authentic Depiction of Latinx Family Life

The second season of the Norman Lear-inspired sitcom—now streaming on Netflix—is essential viewing, writes Melissa Leon.

Adam Rose/Netflix

It might be impossible to overstate just what a miracle of a TV show One Day at a Time is.

Not only does it grace us with a dynamite comedic performance from living pop-culture legend Rita Moreno, bursting with glamour and joyful mania in every flirtatious wink. And not only is it carried by a nearly all-Latinx cast, a feat the rest of Hollywood seems to think is hardly possible. (Imagine! A show set in Los Angeles starring people who actually look like the majority of the city. Mind-bending.) It revitalizes a quintessentially American format—the Norman Lear multi-camera sitcom, shot in front of a live audience—and uses it to disentangle urgent topics ranging from racism and coming out to anxiety and depression, each with startlingly insightful realism and depth. Oh, and it’s funny as hell.

Not only all that, but in aiming to be one of TV’s only authentic depictions of the nuances of (one of many types of) American Latinx family life, it gets a lot scary right.

Moreno stars as the diva of the family, the unabashedly feminine and sexual Lydia Alvarez, who was forced to flee Cuba for America at the height of Castro’s rule. She and her daughter Penelope (Justina Machado), a nurse and divorced Army veteran with PTSD, live together in Echo Park with Penelope’s two kids, cool-teen Alex (Marcel Ruiz) and his nerdy, budding activist older sister Elena (Isabella Gomez), whose coming-out in the months before her quinceañera last season gave the show its most resonant emotional throughline. And then there’s Schneider (Todd Grinnell), their oblivious white guy neighbor who “identifies as” Cuban, is practically part of the family, and also happens to be a recovering addict.

But seeing such a specific, personal—and yet common—anxiety processed onscreen is more than affirming. It’s validating. It tells me what I feel is normal.

The stories these characters tell are fundamentally human and, on the surface, familiar as old sitcom stand-bys. A stubborn and overbearing mom gives her daughter grief. An annoying neighbor barges in uninvited. The misfit clashes awkwardly with the popular kids at school. But by nature of who these characters are, their stories are also inherently political. Elena coming out as lesbian to her ultra-Catholic abuelita is political; so is her abuelita’s open-armed acceptance. Penelope delivering the comeback monologue of my dreams to a white man’s thinly-veiled racist comments is political. And so is the show’s multitude of nods, both little and staggering, to the trappings of everyday American Latinx life recognizable to so many, yet so seldom acknowledged onscreen.

Like Elena, I grew up a tragically awkward geek determined not to have a quinceañera (our mothers goaded us both into having one anyway), and still occasionally spiral in angst over the fact that I don't speak Spanish as fluently as I did when I was younger. Like her, I only belatedly realized the privilege afforded me by having lighter skin than the rest of my family, and sometimes worry about whether I am “Latina enough.” One Day at a Time is an intrinsically affirming show; it’s empathetic and warm, the kind that stretches your heart three sizes. But seeing such a specific, personal—and yet common—anxiety processed onscreen is more than affirming. It’s validating. It tells me what I feel is normal.

Most of the show’s references to loosely shared Latinx experiences are light-hearted, though. Alex has his first sleepover at 14, “only eight short years” after the rest of his friends did. (Mine was, um, college.) Lydia and Penelope pack food into an assortment of mismatched containers, old cookie tins, and emptied butter containers before breaking into a flag-waving Spanish chant at a game and embarrassing him. (Relatable.) Even the way outsiders often assume we’re all Mexican is played as a joke—on them. And littered throughout are a host of familiar objects, from religious candles to tins of Cafe Bustelo, making the Alvarez home feel lived-in.

All this serves as a backdrop to stories both sitcom-y traditional and unprecedented in mainstream American TV. Notably, the show’s aim isn’t necessarily to make Latinos relatable to white people—a tactic that often leads to stale, counterproductive characterizations. It simply aims to show life as it is, with the added effect of cultural context.

There are exaggerations, to be sure. Moreno’s Lydia is meant to be wildly dramatic and larger-than-life, and thus trills her R’s with comically rrrrrrrreckless abandon. As the second season (streaming now on Netflix) picks up, she also becomes a vessel for jokes now well-trodden in millennial-oriented Latinx media, for instance elder generations’ unshakeable faith in the healing powers of Vicks Vapo Rub. She’s also saddled with a few faintly creaky lines about Kids These Days and their crazy gender-neutral pronouns. (To be fair, her confusion at the term “Latinx” does reflect a real-life divide between younger and older/working-class Latinos who, as one skeptical Los Angeles Times writer put it, “probably have no idea that some of us brown folks are debating [the word] at all.”)

Still, it's Moreno who carries some of the series’ most affecting moments, too. In the first season, Lydia’s tear-filled reluctance to acknowledge to Penelope the trauma buried in her past, and to speak of the sibling she lost in Cuba, felt achingly familiar to me and to those with parents from chaos-torn countries. And in season two, her anguish as Penelope is swallowed by depression nails the helpless, heartrending feeling of watching a loved one struggle with mental illness.

The season two episode in which Penelope stops taking her meds—out of a desire to hide them from her new hunky boyfriend, played by Ed Quinn—and is overcome by anxiety and depression will go down as one of the most searingly realistic depictions of mental illness TV has ever dared. The cultural import of that is deliberate. “Old school Latinos don’t really believe in depression,” Machado explained at a recent premiere event. (Lydia repeatedly casts doubt on therapy in the series; she believes in ghosts, though, which should tell you a lot.)

Co-creator Gloria Calderon-Kellett also emphasized the importance of that ninth episode of this season. “There are so many people—just beautiful people—who are ashamed when they don’t need to be ashamed,” she said. “I feel like once we start talking about these things that are taboo, it doesn’t become a thing anymore. So I really like starting that conversation. Hoping that it can change hearts and minds.”

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None of this is to undersell the sheer effervescence of the series, or how deftly it weaves comedy into even its most tragic moments. Schneider, for instance, comforts Penelope in the midst of her depression with a story about one of his relapses: “Woke up three days later in an alley,” he says gravely. “Then the bowling ball hit me. I was in the gutter a long time.” The live in-studio audience eats it up, and the sound of their laughter goads viewers along, too. (If nothing else, One Day at a Time makes a convincing case for the merits of the multicam comedy, a format now often considered uncool or dated.)

The show is more assured in its second season, even as it lacks the cohesive arc that the build-up to Elena’s quinces did in the first. In effect, that just frees characters up for their own pursuits: Lydia and Schneider, who is Canadian, study for American citizenship tests. (“Basically to become an American you have to prove you’re a D-minus student,” says Elena upon learning that a 60 percent is passing. “Yup, just like what you have to prove to be president,” retorts Alex.) Penelope goes back to school for a new nursing certification. Elena falls in love with a shy, sweet girl who asks her to a school dance with an adorably updated version of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” Alex stands up for his sister to their father, who still hasn’t accepted that his daughter is gay. Then, more rousingly, Elena confronts him herself in a jaw-dropping, tear-inducing monologue that makes it clear he is the one who is missing out.

It all leads up to a finale that showcases each actor at their strongest, funniest, and most emotional, which I’ll leave unspoiled. Suffice to say it will linger with viewers long after they see it, and may even get them to call their moms. Netflix would be wise to kickstart an Emmy campaign for lead actress Justina Machado based on the strength of her performance in that episode alone.

Through it all, the show's optimism and earnestness make it compulsively watchable—defiant even. These are dark, cynical times after all, in which members of families like the Alvarezes are demonized or effectively held hostage on the national stage by politicians who hope to normalize such treatment. One Day at a Time acknowledges this pain, processes it, and offers a warm, welcome escape—a spot on the couch in front of the TV. It is just the sunshine we need.