For my second essay in the 52 essays in 2017 challenge, I had a different theme planned. I was going to review a PBS show that is about to start, Victoria. I had the chance to catch a free viewing a while ago and I was planning on looking all On Board with my life by reviewing it. But then another show came along and it has me so excited, I decided to pull the Victoria review until later and focus on this show instead.
So what is this exciting show that I love so much?
One Day at a Time.
Old people like me will know that this new Netflix show is a reboot of an old 70s/80s show. In the original, a single working class mom gets a divorce and winds up in a teeny apartment taking care of her two daughters while working to stay afloat. It started Bonnie Franklin and many of you may remember that one of her younger daughters was played by Valerie Bertinelli (who was hot and one of my first crushes ever).
The new show follows the same structure, a single working class mom with two kids is working to stay afloat after a painful separation (not yet finalized with divorce). But new show also adds in new elements, like the family it’s focusing on has a son (instead of the two daughters of the original) and the grandma lives with the family. The mother is a military vet- oh, and the family is also Cuban American.
While I am not usually a fan of sitcoms, I can get drawn into them, usually through my children. They start watching the show and I sort of pay attention while I’m doing other things and eventually I start watching and enjoying the show as much as they do. This has happened with mixed success-I loved Parks and Rec and consider it one of my all time favorite shows. But I find How I Met Your Mother to obnoxious. And I despise (and have even banned) The Office (US version).
One Day at a Time reboot got me interested not through my kids but through nostalgia. I did find a lot in the original series that I really identified with, also being in a working class family, and yes, there was very much a Bertinelli factor, so I wanted to see what they’d do (or how’d they mess up) with a program of my youth. What does a working class family look like today compared to in the past?
Turns out that answer is complicated.
Because while it’s made clear in this series that being a single mom is economically difficult and even stifling (like when single mom, Penelope, played by Justina Machado, finds out that her employer is paying her less than a male co-worker that started after her and quits, the first thing on her mind is the consequences her family will face because she stood up for herself), the family’s economic struggles are also not what the show is predominately or even partially about.
No, this show is the of the old school classic sitcom era. Episodes exist less to to tell an individual story about an individual character (think: ‘focus episodes’ in the Walking Dead that feature storyline for one single character), and more to contemplate an issue together as an audience through the series characters. What should parents do when their children are caught viewing porn? What do we think about immigration once there’s an individual face on the issue? How do we really feel about those Che Guevara t-shirts?
As a Chicana (US born of Mexican descent), I was a little put off at first by the focus on a Cuban American family. Cuban Americans are notorious in the Latino community (however it is defined) for being more conservative than other Latinos. They get special rights of immigration that other Latinos don’t (if they set foot on US soil, they are fast tracked for legal status, usually achieving it within a year) and earlier generations of Cuban immigrants generally were very wealthy anti-Castro/communism. They got their special relationship with the US based on agreement with US policy, whereas many other Latino groups (like Chican@s/Mexicans) have specific disagreements with US policy and are so considered criminals.
But as another person watching the series with me pointed out, the choice to focus on Cuban Americans may have made sense simply because that way there could be a more obvious and natural ‘face’ on the conservative viewpoint (think: All In the Family). In other words, there’s a legitimate reason many Cubans are conservative, whereas Chicanos are almost defined by their leftist stances. To try to make a Chicano conservative wouldn’t work just wouldn’t work the way it does with Cuban/Cuban Americans that have actual conservative community.
So I decided to keep an open mind and recognize that for all my bias, I actually know very little about Cuba but have always wanted to know more. This provided a perfect opportunity for me to learn.
But for anybody who may be looking for a detailed explanation of Cuban American stances on the Cuban/US political relationship or Cuban history, you’re not going to get it through this show. And that’s a shame because there were several opportunities to get into a discussion. For example, when the family’s white landlord, Schneider (played by Todd Grinnell), visits while wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt, the whole family yells at him about what a murderer Guevara was and that he shouldn’t be wearing anything with Che on it at all. But then the subject is dropped. I got that Cuban/Cuban Americans have specific reasons for disliking Guevara, but outside of calling him a murderer there was no explanation as to why Cuban/Cuban Americans specifically dislike him, or why other Latinos found him compelling enough to make him their leader or even what Cuban/Cuban Americans think of other Latinos that even worship him. While of course I would’ve preferred a break in the show to watch a documentary (haha) or a reference to particular books as we saw in Luke Cage, at the very least, it would’ve been nice to see the Che Guevara t-shirt convo happening with another Latino. We didn’t get that, and it was a disappointment.
But even as there are no broad or deep analysis of Cuban/American policy or history in One Day at a Time, there are many many more ‘general Latino’ situations/critiques that are dealt with in hilarious, compelling and surprisingly touching ways that make excellent T.V.
Take Elena’s (the older daughter, played by the effervescent Isabella Gomez) Quinceañera. This celebration of a girl’s ‘coming of age’ (which happens when she turns 15), is the storyline that threads thru the entire series, and is reportedly based on the experiences of show producer and writer, Gloria Calderon Kellett. The Quinceañera is an increasingly conflicted space in Latino communities and households, often pitting traditional elders against younger generations that are farther away from the full investment in the Catholic Church that their elders are. At the same time, many decry the monetization of what is essentially a religious ceremony and others wonder why only girls get this ceremony. Many are also creeped out by the prospect of calling 15 yr old girls ‘women,’ especially within cultures that often see those girls married off in their teens.
All of these subjects are elegantly and humorously covered in One Day at a Time. But perhaps most bravely, the show dared to imagine what a Quinceañera might look like or mean to a young girl who bristles under the stifling constraints of ‘womanhood’ defined by a Quinceañera. What does it mean to ‘become a woman’ when you don’t like dresses and are maybe a raging feminist? What does it mean to ‘become a woman’ (and so, according to the church, able to marry, bear children, etc) and you are a lesbian? Or maybe not? Because you’re still only 15 and just not sure where your life will take you or what you’re meant to be?
I’ll not spoil the way the Quinceañera story wraps up, but I will say that for all the Queer Love that Netflix’s Sense8 gets, I found One Day at a Time‘s storyline to be far more touching and lovely and even better storytelling in many ways.
The standout of One Day at a Time is Rita Moreno, cast as the family’s matriarch, Lydia. That I know of, she is the first older Latina on TV since George Lopez’s mom in his show. And she doesn’t disappoint. Abuelita Lydia is sexy, sexual, funny, conservative, and an immigrant. She is definite in her ideas (see: the ongoing lipstick joke) but at the same time, willing to find ways within her conservative beliefs to still love her family and be there for people who need her. She feels that immigrants should go thru the system and ‘be legal’ as she did. But she also experienced enough trauma in her own legal immigration experience that when Elena’s US born friend with an immigrant family needs help, she shows compassion. And Moreno’s storyline with Elena on the subject of makeup is one of the most touching storylines I’ve seen on any show in a long time.
If over the top humor is your thing, One Day at a Time doesn’t fail you. Penelope gets put in many of these situations, including one that sees her stuck in a doggie door. Machado plays the different situations well and always manages to stop just short of getting hysterical or out of control–but at the same time, I found these over the top situations to be the weak point of the show. It’s not that I have a problem with slapstick humor, it’s more that I don’t believe that there’s any likely situation in the world that would see any mother stuck in a doggie door. For slapstick over the top humor to work for me, it needs to be grounded in reality, like when Roseanne and Dan throw their furniture out on the front lawn. While it seems unlikely that something like that would happen, it is very funny to think about all the times in your life it could’ve happened. And of course, there’s always a few people here and there where it did happen. That’s what makes it funny. Situations like the doggie door or over the top characters like Schneider just don’t make sense to me. Why waste your time on a character or a situation that would never exist in real life? But having said that, I do recognize that some people like over the top humor exactly because it’d never happen in real life–so if that’s you, this series has that for you!
But even as I have mixed feelings about sitcom humor, One Day at a Time, for whatever weak points it may have, always comes back to the compassion and love of family. And it was during the times when Penelope and Lydia were fighting about taking the kids to church or Elena was worrying about how to come out that I found myself remembering the classic era of situation comedies when families (even my very messed up often violent family) would use the situations on particular shows to start conversations within their own families. What would you do if that was happening to you? What would I do in that situation? One Day at a Time invites us all to reflect from a position of compassion and love, even when somebody is doing something we don’t agree with.
The greatest honor to me was when my kids saw what Penelope did in the final scenes in the final show, and they turned me and said, ‘We know you’d do that too, Mami.’ Everybody knew that the situation and person that caused Penelope to have to do what she did was wrong, and the series doesn’t look away from that pain. But it focuses on the love. It focuses on the best in us, the stuff that has been there all along.
There’s a lot to be said about representation and finally seeing a Latino family sitcom. It allows us to imagine a new world, one that is defined by diversity of thinking and people–and that is important. But more so, shows like this also reflect to the world what is already here. And loving, political, kind Latino families are already here. We’ve been around for generations, laughing, crying, making mistakes, and surviving anyway just like everybody else.
A welcome reminder as we move into 2017.