'One Day at a Time' tells one of the best teen coming out stories of all time
A Cuban-American remake of a beloved Norman Lear sitcom is such a smart idea, you wonder why no one thought of it before now. Take the social progressivism of Lear's work — this is the man who created All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Maude and more — and combine it with a cast and setting befitting such a tone in 2017. On paper, it's really quite compelling. But in practice, it's nearly perfect.
One Day at a Time is Netflix's latest foray into a traditional, multicamera sitcom, following some success with The Ranch and Fuller House. But unlike those two, which sacrificed some creative exploration in favor of winking to the audience, One Day at a Time is thrilling, engaging, intelligent TV, the first great show of 2017.
Its cast is a family, consisting of mother Penelope (Justina Machado), grandmother Lydia (Rita Moreno), kids Elena and Alex (Isabella Gomez and Marcel Ruiz), plus hangers-on like Penelope's boss, Dr. Berkowitz (Stephen Tobolowsky) and their landlord Schneider (Todd Grinnell). The cast's group chemistry is unreal, so much so that when they're faced with a challenge, it's a thing of beauty to watch them band together and grow. One in particular — a character's coming out story — is so deftly handled, it immediately joins the annals of best depictions of LGBTQ characters on TV.
(Editor's note: Spoilers ahead for the first season of One Day at a Time.)
Elena is a feminist firebrand whose passions baffle but amuse her mother and grandmother. Her close friendship with a goth girl, Carmen (the just perfect Ariela Barer), is remarkably close, to the confusion of her family. She isn't much interested in boys and resists the idea of a quiñceanera, only agreeing to do it when she decides to do it for her mom.
In episode seven, "Hold, Please," we learn why: Elena likes girls, and isn't sure how to tell anyone in her life about her sexuality. When she finally does in the 10th episode, "Sex Talk," it's a beautiful moment of self-acceptance and joy that she can share her identity with her mom. She quickly tells the rest of the people closest to her, growing more confident as a person with every declaration of who she really is.
The way One Day at a Time depicts Elena differs greatly from how, say, American Crime's second season depicted its gay teens, Taylor and Eric. That show was about the drama of explored sexuality going deeply wrong; Elena's story is ultimately about love and acceptance.
It takes extra time for various people in Elena's life to come around to her declaration. Lydia hesitates at first, but comes around after remembering Pope Francis' words on not judging gay people. Penelope takes a full episode (No. 11, "Pride & Prejudice") to grapple with her own reaction, which is not born of hate or homophobia, but discomfort with change. She even goes to a gay bar to talk with a lesbian friend (Judy Reyes) about her discomfort — but winds up opening up to a man she meets there instead:
I want her to have the most perfect coming out story. ... I should be feeling really happy that she feels comfortable enough to come out to me. But I just keep thinking: It's not the way I pictured it. I always imagined that we would bond over boy stuff, how hot they are, how dumb they are. The pregnancy scare; I hold her hand while she pees on a stick. We don't trust that stick, so she pees on a second stick. It's negative, and we go get sushi. ... It's not the same.
Penelope's disappointment is remarkably and refreshingly genuine. She's a great mother with nothing but love for her daughter, but she's also her own person with her own ideas of the world. She had an understanding of what her future with her daughter would be like. Of course she would be taken aback and need to recalibrate. She gets on board soon after, and Elena does have her perfect coming out story. But what makes it not just perfect, but real, is how honest One Day at a Time is about Penelope's reaction.
Elena's father Victor never accepts her sexuality, sadly, ultimately rejecting her publicly by not dancing with her at her quiñceanera in the season finale. It's a dagger in the heart, quickly followed by a salve: Penelope steps up in Victor's place. "I got you," she says, dancing with her. Slowly, they're joined by the other members of their unconventional family unit — Alex, Lydia, Schneider and Dr. Berkowitz. They dance slowly and quietly, shutting out her father's act of ignorance with an act of love and acceptance.
Stories about queer women, much less queer teens of color, are still rare on TV. Even after being introduced, many LGBTQ women characters are shunted to the side or killed off. Elena's story is, unfortunately, still the exception on TV. She's the kind of character of which we need to see more.
Luckily, One Day at a Time offers a great example of what other creators looking to tell inclusive stories should do: Hire a diverse writers room. Elena's story was apparently greatly influenced by writer Michelle Badillo's own experience. It's no wonder the story feels so authentic. (Full disclosure: I attended Loyola Marymount University and studied screenwriting with Badillo and fellow One Day at a Time writer Caroline Levich.)
There are myriad reasons to love One Day at a Time, from how it plays with the multicam format to Machado's touching, fully realized performance as Penelope (get your #JusticeForJustinaMachado shirts ready come Emmy time). But it's Elena's story that sticks in the mind and heart the most. In 2017, as hate reigns in so much of American political discourse, a sitcom about a Cuban-American family is telling a story about love and acceptance. That's the kind of show we need right now.
One Day at a Time is now available on Netflix.