“ONE DAY AT A TIME”
Imagine a Netflix show about a divorced Latina veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder. Her ex-husband has rejected their lesbian teenage daughter. Her best friend is in recovery and active in Alcoholics Anonymous. Her mother can be overbearing and has also secretly stashed a gun in their shared apartment.
This should probably be a gritty drama, or maybe a sour-smart single-camera auteurish dramedy. Instead it’s the beautiful, improbable “One Day at a Time,” a multicamera family comedy.
The show debuted last year to positive reviews but still displayed some freshman awkwardness. In its second season, available Friday, it’s closer to its ideal state of flow, putting character ahead of plot and trusting itself and its moments a little more.
Justina Machado stars as Penelope — sometimes Lupe, sometimes Lupita — a single mom, nurse and veteran raising two children with the help of her widowed, immigrant mother, Lydia (Rita Moreno, the brightest star in our solar system). This season, Penelope gets a viable love interest, the almost unbearably hunky Max (Ed Quinn), a veteran himself and an EMT. He towers over the rest of the cast, and the moment he’s on screen opposite Lydia, it’s impossible not to think “I hope that giant man picks up Rita Moreno.” He does — it takes a few episodes, but it is worth the wait.
Season 1 had a more urgent through-line about the teenage daughter Elena (Isabella Gomez) eventually coming out to her family in the lead-up to her quinceañera. This season doesn’t have one central story, and that lack of a to-do list is a blessing and a curse: The show is looser and funnier than before, but it also sputters a little toward the end of the season, before an emotional finale that walks right up to but does not cross the corniness barrier.
But the trade-off is worth it, adding in room for stories about Lydia pursuing citizenship (“these colores don’t run”), Penelope struggling with the demands of studying for a new certification, and Elena taking over fix-it duties for the building. Schneider (Todd Grinnell), the quintessential sitcom neighbor, is more grounded, and in one terrific scene talks with Penelope about her PTSD and his addiction crises. After a stretch of sobriety, he says, he relapsed. “Woke up three days later in an alley. Then the bowling ball hit me.” The audience laughs for a beat. “I was in the gutter for a long time.”
Lines like that really only work in a multicamera format, a structure that relies on present laughter as part of its punctuation. Studio audiences make shows feel bigger, and “One Day at a Time” is a show that’s big — maybe even broad — with its line deliveries, its staging, even in its sad moments. CBS’s “Mom,” about a formerly estranged mother-daughter duo, is another current multicamera show with edge and depth (and that network’s “The Big Bang Theory” remains wildly popular). But otherwise this is a style that’s become unfashionable, something comedy nerds sneered at; “laugh track” is shorthand for not merely unfunny but also worthy of scorn.
If any show could re-establish the format as a place for innovative, modern comedy, it’s “One Day at a Time,” energetically political and progressive. Partially that’s because the show hails from executive producer Norman Lear, alongside creators Gloria Calderon Kellett and Mike Royce. Lear helped popularize the modern incarnation of the multicam comedy, with shows like “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons.” That rhythm became the standard for family comedies right on up through, say, “Everybody Loves Raymond.” Then the tides turned, and single-camera shows like “Modern Family” or “black-ish” are now the standard bearers.
So despite its retro vibe, “Day” feels almost daring. Its lack of cynicism makes it easy to marathon and also sets it apart from the revered comedies of the moment, like “Veep” or “BoJack Horseman.” Its devotion to that straightforward sitcom setup makes it more accessible than shows like the highly serialized “The Good Place,” or the structurally inventive “Atlanta.” It’s suitable for most ages, but without the crushing inanity of a “Fuller House.”
More than anything, though, “One Day at a Time” is a show that radiates delight. Moreno purring that Max is “a stallion” isn’t just funny, it’s joyous. The younger brother Alex (Marcel Ruiz) standing up for his sister to their homophobic dad isn’t just awwww, it’s potent and affirming. We’re all looking for comedy that numbs the pain, but “One Day at a Time” cultivates an intimacy and sense of belonging that goes a step further, introducing a level of genuine human happiness into the experience.