A better binge: One Day at a Time is the comforting, cringe-free show you can slip into worry-free
For writer Ishani Nath, this classic sitcom remake became the perfect palate cleanser after a pandemic workday
I'm not typically a fan of watching reboots or revivals. For the better part of the last decade, studios and TV networks have banked heavily on our collective nostalgia, remaking the same stories over and over before we even have time to miss them. With 2021 alone bringing the return of older TV hits, such as Punky Brewster and Walker, Texas Ranger, along with revamped versions of shows that have barely been off the air, like Gossip Girl and Dexter, these days it can feel like a series finale is really just a finale…for now.
Don't get me wrong, I completely understand the easy joy of returning to the same set of characters and familiar storylines. It's like having a go-to dish from a favourite local restaurant: even before you dig in, you know you're going to love it. That's why it's no surprise reruns of The Office, Friends and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air saw a surge in views in 2020 too—these shows provide a level of certainty that is particularly welcome during these chaotic times. But often, when old shows are transformed for new audiences, it feels like trying to replicate the flavours of an iconic dish with completely new ingredients and, in some cases, it can even sour the original. (Lest we forget Roseanne Barr and the Roseanne revival.)
And yet, friends, I'm here to tell you about a rare reboot that is truly worth watching: One Day at a Time. Debuting in 2017 at arguably the height of Netflix's revival kick, this remake of the classic Norman Lear sitcom, reimagined with a multi-generational Cuban American family living in Donald Trump's America, is an absolute delight—and unlike rewatching an old-familiar like Friends, it won't make you cringe.
Created by Gloria Calderón Kellett, who is Cuban American, and Mike Royce, the One Day at a Time reboot centres around the everyday life of the Alvarez family: siblings Alex (Marcel Ruiz) and Elena (Isabella Gomez), their army veteran mother Penelope (Justina Machado) and her mother Lydia, played by living legend Rita Moreno. The series follows the traditional multi-camera family sitcom model, with a living room oriented so the couch faces the audience — just like in the original. The majority was filmed pre-pandemic in front of a live studio audience, so there are audible laughs during scenes, and cheers whenever Moreno makes a dramatic entrance (which has me convinced I've been entering rooms entirely wrong). I usually prefer my shows sans audience soundtrack, however, hearing the energy and reactions of a live audience took on a new nostalgic charm during a pandemic where sitting together in a theatre has become a distant memory.
Within the conventions of the sitcom mould, One Day at a Time still manages to be groundbreaking, exploring issues of gender, sexuality, racism, sexism, mental health and addiction in a way that remains refreshingly on point. When Penelope finds out her son is smoking pot, the discussion isn't just about teen drug use, but also policing and profiling of Latinx people. As Penelope manages her anxiety and depression, we watch her go through ups — finding a women's veteran therapy group — and downs — abruptly going off her medication — as well as the accompanying social and cultural stigma. By the second season, the cast includes a non-binary character, who uses "they" and "them" pronouns, and a story arc that does not hinge solely on their identity, as can so often be the case. (The series was nominated for outstanding comedy series by the GLAAD Media Awards in 2018, 2019 and 2020, though unfortunately it never took home the prize.)
Unlike the 1975 hit, the new One Day at a Time was not originally designed to air weekly. Instead, as has become custom, the first three seasons were each dropped onto Netflix all at once. I binged the show in the past, but during the pandemic, I found myself watching it at a slower pace than perhaps Netflix intended. It was a surprisingly refreshing change from shows that are designed to be consumed in a single sitting, only providing a concentrated and short-lived dose of entertainment.
And while, similar to other sitcoms, One Day at a Time doesn't necessarily need to be watched in order, I highly recommend viewing the series from start to finish before picking and choosing favourite episodes to revisit. It's the only way to truly appreciate the carefully planted subplots and nuanced character development that really make the show shine.
With 30-minute episodes and just the right mix of humour, heart and Moreno's scene-stealing pizzazz, One Day at a Time became like a daily happy hour for me. A couple episodes is the perfect palate cleanser after a pandemic workday. It's low stakes — I can be cleaning or making dinner and still keep up with the storylines — yet still functions as a pick-me-up.
Within a few days of daily viewing, I had switched my work-from-home playlist to Cuban salsa music and noticed my mood instantly lift at the sound of Gloria Estefan's version of the show's classic theme song — the lyrics for which feel particularly appropriate right now. As Estefan sings, we are all just taking things as they come, one day at a time.
Really, that's what makes One Day at a Time the perfect worry-free binge. It's comforting without being cringey, tackles tough issues without being draining and still leaves you wanting more.
Here's what you need to know.
Where to watch: Netflix
Number of episodes: 13
It takes a few episodes for One Day at a Time to find its footing, but stick with it. Think of it like meeting a new family: it takes time to get comfortable and really get to know everyone. At first, it may seem as if Carmen is just an angsty teen stereotype or Canadian expat-turned-landlord Schneider (Todd Grinnell) solely delivers lowbrow comic relief, but just wait. There's more to these characters than first meets the eye. It wasn't until Episode 3, "No Mass," that I really began enjoying my time with the Alvarez crew — and dancing along with Lydia.
Notable episode: Have tissues handy for the Season 1 finale, about Elena's quinceañera. I've seen it multiple times, and it still manages to break my heart and then put it back together over the course of 30 minutes.
Where to watch: Netflix
Number of episodes: 13
After an emotional roller-coaster of a first season, One Day at a Time does not let up. The cheesy moments are outweighed by episodes like "Hello, Penelope," an unvarnished portrayal of what untreated depression can look like. It wasn't until the fifth episode, "Locked Down," that I realized One Day at a Time largely takes place at the Alvarez home, with multiple members of a single family under one roof — a scenario that is quite relatable these days.
Notable episode: With three generations under one roof, One Day at a Time explores issues in an intentionally layered way, from activist teens to parents doing their best to understand, and grandparents who grew up in an entirely different time. That's what makes "To Zir, With Love," an episode where grandmother-grandson duo Lydia and Alex team up to give Elena dating advice, so special. The best part? This episode seamlessly weaves in discussions of non-binary pronouns and how LGBTQ+ teens navigate the world of dating, but ultimately, focuses on love rather than identity.
Where to watch: Netflix
Number of episodes: 13
Season 3 starts big with a star-studded first episode featuring Estefan, Gilmore Girls' Liz Torres and Brooklyn Nine-Nine's Stephanie Beatriz and Melissa Fumero. Originally released in 2019, the only major difference this season is Alex's growth spurt.
Notable episode: I'm going to cheat here and say episodes 10 through to the finale, purely because of Schneider. After two seasons of being the goofy, stereotypical Canadian (seriously, the jokes about drinking syrup from the bottle were a bit much), this season digs deeper into Schneider's character and struggle with addiction. The way his story unfolds, tying up loose ends I hadn't even realized were there and referencing details sprinkled throughout the preceding seasons, stayed with me long after the credits rolled.
Where to watch: Apple TV
Number of episodes: 7
After a whole lot of controversy, including a Twitter campaign from the show's creators and fans to keep the show at Netflix, One Day at a Time found a new home at Pop TV. Though the show had to transition to a cable network, shortening the episodes to around 20 minutes to allow for commercials, the only noticeable difference is the opening credits, with a five-second version of the theme song.
Notable episode: Episode 7 was not supposed to be the series finale of One Day at a Time, nor was it meant to be animated. But due to the pandemic, the show's writers and cast had to pivot, recording separately from their homes and wrapping up storylines as best they could while the world, and their show, faced an uncertain future. The show was ultimately cancelled in December, a move that, this time, was met with acceptance rather than pushback. Though I wish we had more time with the Alvarez family, this show, whether you're watching it for the first time or the fifth, remains a much-needed reminder of the power of family and community, and the importance of taking things one day at a time — something many of us can use these days.
Ishani Nath is a freelance entertainment and lifestyle journalist. She has appeared as a pop culture expert on CBC, CTV and Global Radio and has bylines in Maclean's, FLARE, Chatelaine and more. Follow her @ishaninath.