The Discomfort of Comfort

The Discomfort of Comfort


Learning to Embrace a Multi-Cam Family Sitcom, One Day at a Time

Penelope (Justina Machado) and Lydia (Rita Moreno) embrace
Justina Machado as Penelope and Rita Moreno as Lydia in Netflix’s reimagining of Norman Lear’s classic sitcom “One Day at a Time.” Credit: Michael Yarish-Netflix

When I was a little girl, long before I was inundated with images of and attitudes toward “prestige” entertainment or “high art,” and even longer before I enrolled in a university where strong opinions of such works are worn and traded like badges of elitist honor among students frantic to stake their claims as edgy and subversive consumers, I loved Full House. I would watch reruns late into the night, never in chronological order, and adored the soothingly reliable characters and their even more predictable, fancifully tidy story arcs. The laugh track was too loud, the resolutions were trite, the jokes were repetitive, and I ate it all up with a spoon. I stopped gravitating toward the sitcom, both Full House and most others, when I was about eleven years old and essentially erased anything with a studio audience from my mental list of immediate pop culture references in an effort to establish critical credibility until, in 2016, Netflix generated the return of the Tanner family with Fuller House.

At this point, I was many years deep in my metamorphosis into the hypercritical, condescending, “I LOVE Tarantino” NYU student I so desperately wanted to emulate. One tipsy night, I watched the first two episodes of Fuller House for nostalgia and curiosity’s sake, cringed the entire time, and cemented my previously-held verdict that family-friendly, multi-cam sitcoms with laugh tracks and colorful production designs were trash. I was only allowed to enjoy them in my childhood recollections, and even then, told myself, “What the hell, you really used to love that mediocre white-person garbage?”

I completely wrote off sitcoms (with the rare exception of shows like Black-ish) and pitied the executives at Netflix when I learned that they had greenlit yet another reboot of a dated sitcom, this time being Norman Lear’s One Day at a Time, which ran from 1975 through 1984. When I watched the trailer for the remake, laugh track and all, I was shocked, horrified, and deviously excited to watch another bad sitcom with a sterile, offensive take on Latinx families blow up in their faces.

But when One Day at a Time was released and I geared up to watch just a few episodes of a clichéd, rhythmic, uncomfortable sitcom through which I would cringe and laugh and pat myself on my pretentious back, I was met with my own disbelief. The show was clichéd and rhythmic, and I did cringe the entire time, but not because it was trite, a mockery of itself, or even mediocre. It was lovely, genuinely funny, comfortable, sincere, and fresh. I hadn’t prepared myself for that. I binged the entire first season, watching and waiting for the other shoe to drop, forever uncomfortable and anticipating the disappointment I knew almost all multi-cam sitcoms to inevitably deliver. Waiting for it to be racist, to be hackneyed, to be illogical, to be repetitive and, most of all, waiting for it to be another dishonest portrayal of an American family.

A year and another season later, the other shoe has yet to drop on One Day at a Time, and, still, I’ve been anxious and uncomfortable watching each new episode I’ve consumed to date. From a lifetime of exposure to antiseptic sitcoms, the prestige awarded to edgy and subversive television, and, above all else, the utter anxiety that comes with watching a multi-cam, laugh-tracked show take on relevant, intricate, and controversial issues, One Day at a Time makes me deeply uncomfortable. This is not because the show isn’t comforting—it very sincerely is—but because the balance it’s found in such a conventional format is simultaneously fresh, radical, and terrifyingly, ominously delicate.

Having just released the entirety of its second season, it is now clearer than ever that One Day at a Time, spearheaded by creators and writers Gloria Calderon Kellett and Mike Royce, never intended to bog its thesis down with the same restraints present in most “family-friendly” sitcoms. It doesn’t care about palatability or the neutering of controversial conflict for the sake of being “appropriate” entertainment. The same character and narrative tropes exist—this rendition still follows a frazzled single mother, challenging adolescent children, an overbearing grandma, an oblivious superintendent, and a variety of easily caricatured bit players. But the genius of this remake lies in its fearless yet sensitive acknowledgement of modern issues (a tough equilibrium to achieve) and well-rounded characters presented through consistently balanced writing, engaged performances, and realistic context.

Instead of treading the same Caucasian and relatively sanitized ground as the original, 2017’s One Day at a Time follows Penelope Alvarez (Justina Machado), a divorced Army veteran and nurse raising two children in Los Angeles with the help of her very spirited and very Cuban mother, Lydia (the glorious Rita Moreno). Penelope is both positive and bluntly honest about the reality of her situation, acknowledging how difficult it is to make ends meet as a single mother while earnestly making herself as available as possible to her playful and suave preteen son, Alex (Marcel Ruiz), and outspoken activist teenage daughter, Elena (Isabella Gomez). The holdover superintendent character of Schneider from the original is now a younger hipster WASP (Todd Grinnell) whose trust fund has given him ownership of the apartment building the Alvarezes reside in. While purely comical in the beginning of the show’s run, this iteration of Schneider openly yearns for a place in Penelope’s family circle and eagerly presents himself as a fun-uncle of sorts until eventually becoming our matriarch’s closest friend and confidant. And while Penelope’s divorce is consistent with the plot of the 1970s original, nearly every other story line is modernized and told through the distinctly Cuban-American experience of the Alvarez family. Like Jane the Virgin and nearly no other show before it, One Day at a Time establishes the Latinx immigrant and first-generation identity as the norm and presents white supporting characters as specifically dissimilar in a way that doesn’t erase the privilege those characters benefit from. In fact, the show actively addresses issues of racism and privilege while examining how the push and pull between Cuban and American cultures have affected the characters’ views on sexuality, mental health, feminism, religion, and patriotism in nearly every episode. This is another, if not my deepest, source of discomfort and anxiety watching this remake—wanting so badly for the show to be flawless in its treatment of contentious topics and, because of its Full House-like predecessors, expecting certain failure.

In the third episode of the first season, “No Mass,” Lydia appears in a bright robe from behind the colorful curtain separating her bedroom from the living area, sleepily meanders to the kitchen, turns her radio to salsa music, and boldly shimmies and weaves through the space to make breakfast, brew cafecito, and sensually caress a magnetized picture of the Pope on the refrigerator. When the rest of the household joins for their seemingly synchronized morning routine, Penelope notes the picture of Pope Francis and returns it to Lydia’s space, only for another to pop up on the kitchen counter moments later in a gag that earns a roar from the studio audience.1 Alongside Lydia’s thick Cuban accent, used for laughs in many light scenes, my stomach curdled at the portrayal of such a seemingly stereotypical portrayal of an elderly Catholic Latina early in the show’s run. Part of me wanted so badly to see the showrunners blast stereotypes, prove racists wrong, and present the Alvarezes as the perfect, realistic, fully-balanced Cuban-American family. What One Day at a Time understands, and what I’ve absorbed, is that to sanitize, remove cultural clichés, and make perfect these realistic characters would not only be boringly conservative and an act of erasure, but blatantly racist. Lack of representation of marginalized communities in entertainment has made it so that many viewers want the depiction of the few people of color we do get to see on screen to be likeable and wholly representative of “Latinx Culture” sans racial cliché. But to omit those cultural markers because those in power (white dudes) have abused and mocked them in the past allows their prejudices to affect audiences of all backgrounds’ exposure to authentic presentations of marginalized communities. Unlike other sitcoms in which cultural tensions and discussions of prejudice are made external and generally left outside of the living room set, One Day at a Time embraces the specificity of Cuban culture and allows characters to embrace customs compatible with their own personal identities, giving them the freedom to make fun of themselves without ever making their ethos or ethnicity the joke. The Latinx American experience is the undercurrent of the show, and one that is dealt with boldly and with great tenderness and love.

To avoid just one version of what it means to be of Cuban identity in America, the same episode that opened with salsa and Pope-adoration also involves a central blowout between Penelope and Lydia over Catholicism, faith, and, eventually, the importance of finding something or someone to inspire you—be it Jesus, John Cena, or Sonia Sotomayor. This conclusion reads as incredibly Full House-ish, tidy and pre-sorted, during which I fully cringed, but it follows an episode full of anger and resentment between Penelope and her mother. What they reach is not an agreement, but a settlement to set boundaries and respect other beliefs for the sake of family. Conflict is dealt with realistically and, due to the writing and honesty of the performances, is not corny in practice. This doesn’t make the show any less uncomfortable for me. My expectations for sitcoms have been set so low that I’m simultaneously shocked and wary when One Day at a Time pulls through and provides a poignant message, sometimes authentically messily, in a believable family moment. And watching a multi-cam family sitcom with canned/audience laughter treat tricky issues with more awareness, courage, realism, and sensitivity than many of the most “prestige” television shows of the last ten years is simultaneously riveting and difficult to digest. It’s as if the pressure to be edgy, to be provocative, has driven showrunners and writers to produce television that rejects the possibility that difficult subjects can be tackled with sincere compassion and the absence of shock value. In an effort to make statements about racism, homophobia, mental illness, feminism, sex, and imperfect families, idolized comedies and dramas seem to argue that the viewer must be shown the worst humanity has to offer when confronted with these topics. If a character is a lesbian, they will be bashed or killed (Poussey in Orange is the New Black; Tara in Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Betty Moretti in Masters of Sex). If a show wants to make a statement on misogyny, female characters must suffer sexual violence (The Handmaid’s Tale; Game of Thrones; Westworld). If a character’s boss is incompetent, they must constantly harass and jeopardize the employees (The Office (both UK and US); The Simpsons; The Sopranos). But One Day at a Time allows us to join an American family as they realistically absorb and contemplate the modern world without subjecting them to abject horror. The stakes are lowered and the audience is allowed to experience just how difficult these issues are on an ordinary level. With the structure of the sitcom comes the freedom to be earnest and, with that, the show achieves an honesty about coping with the changing world that few before it, multi-cam or otherwise, have approached successfully.

This family covenant to approach life as a unit and to handle disagreements without wholly vilifying the other party is employed throughout much of the series but abandoned when necessary. The underlying plot of the first season is the planning of Elena’s Quinceañera, a contentious subject for the strong feminist teen and an event that weaves in dilemmas regarding Cuban culture, sexism, class, and the revelation near the end of the season that Elena is gay. In the eleventh episode, “Pride and Prejudice,” the Alvarezes cope, and don’t cope, with Elena’s proclaimed lesbianism. While preparing her granddaughter for her first dance at the Quinces with a male classmate, Lydia is still in the dark due to Penelope’s fear of her religious judgment and outdated rejection. Returning from a phone call in the kitchen, our matriarch learns that Elena has just come out to her abuelita herself and is shocked to find her met with immediate and loving acceptance. But once Elena leaves to call her best friend with the news, Lydia instantly switches to agitation and soon embarks in a streaming monologue, saying,

“Look—I know you are cool with this, but you have to understand. I am a religious woman. And I’m sorry. I’m sorry but I have a problem with Elena being gay. It goes against God! Although, God did make us in his image and God doesn’t make mistakes. [gesturing to self] Clearly. And when it comes to the gays, the Pope did say, ‘Who am I to judge?’ And the Pope represents God. So what, am I going to go against the Pope and God? WHO THE HELL DO I THINK I AM?! Okay. Okay, I’m good.”2

Witnessing this, Penelope is aghast and asks, “What, you just worked that out in ten seconds?” to which Lydia curtly responds “. Because she is my granddaughter and I love her no matter what. Ya.” and swiftly follows with gleeful excitement and laughter, “So tell me, when is the parade??”3

I’m not naive enough to think that this is the most accurate representation of what coming out to your family, let alone one with a Catholic and Latin-American background, looks like in 2018. A ten-second arc to attain tolerance, an exceedingly exuberant teenager, a mother with all the best intentions and supportive gestures—these are not easy things to find in any family and can initially read as uncomfortably obtuse and sitcomishly truncated. But not only was this story line appropriate for the Alvarezes, and for the character of Lydia in particular, but it opens the door for an episode and season of television where being gay is not the central problem. We are set up to believe that there will be a struggle between Elena and her grandmother for acceptance and, instead, One Day at a Time makes the striking choice to reject that well-tread narrative, and in so doing challenges racial and ageist stereotypes. They don’t lose sight of the world at large either, introducing us to Penelope’s ex-husband, Victor (James Martinez), and his own bigotry toward his estranged daughter in the finale of the first season, “Quinces.” His homophobic inability to accept Elena’s lesbianism and more masculine presentation is displayed with realism, but the show does not entertain the idea that narrow-mindedness has merit or is acceptable in any way. Instead, a circle of family is clearly and literally built around Elena at her Quinceañera with the understanding that awful people and circumstances exist and can only be tackled together. It’s very on the nose, quite cheesy, it isn’t comfortable for me to watch, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t thoughtful and poignant television. The tenacity with which Penelope confronts Victor, the vitriol and empathy she conveys when it’s discovered that he’s abandoned Elena before the father-daughter dance, is as compelling as any other gay-bashing or tortured teenage lesbian story line on television. It could so easily have failed, and it didn’t—at least not yet.

With the generic and uncomfortable multi-cams I ingested as a child, I’d come to expect the rare sentimental or topically relevant episode to be dealt with like a dental cleaning—relevant while you’re there and then completely forgotten about for six months, a year, whenever. The sparse Full House episodes I’d seen about body image, dating, racism, or grief (in a show that centered around a mother being dead, mind you) were abandoned by the next week, all problems solved and wiped from the white-bread lives of the Tanners until the next time they needed an emotional punch. Finishing the first season of One Day at a Time, I was both incredibly impressed with what I’d watched, uncomfortable with all I needed to unpack to digest that I’d loved a laugh-tracked family sitcom, and terrified that the show would now abandon the significant topics it had addressed. The format of the antiquated sitcom implies a fully rounded thirty-minute story arc, allowing for single episodes to be extractable from the timeline of the series. Maybe it’s the freedom that Netflix provides, or more likely the genius of the showrunners and writers, but season two of One Day at a Time proved that they had no interest in following their predecessors in this regard. Not only is Elena’s sexuality not turned into background noise, but the show doubles down on its exploration of gender and sex when she begins dating a non-binary peer named Syd in one of the most groundbreaking, authentic, and ultimately normalizing episodes in queer television history titled “To Zir, with Love.” Unlike most other queer relationships on television, Elena and Syd are not punished for their quirky and very age-appropriate love, as their romance becomes an ongoing undercurrent for the remainder of the series. Despite this joyful story arch, Victor’s homophobic plotline is not dropped or sanitized either. Season two maintains that Elena and her father have not spoken since her Quinces months before and in episode eight’s “What Happened” we not only get insight into their strained relationship, but a cathartic purge in which Elena asserts herself and tells Victor:

“You know, I’ve thought a lot about what happened, and I’ll spare you the details about the anger, and the crying, and the weight loss and the empty space on my wall where your picture used to be. ’Cause I’ve decided that there’s no point in focusing on the negatives. I’d rather think about the good things that came from this. Like, um . . . you taught me a really valuable lesson. Just because I’m gay, people will hate me without knowing anything else about me. I always knew that was part of the deal. I just . . . I never expected it from my own father. But now I know not to expect the best from anyone. So thanks, I guess. Oh, and one more thing. I learned some really cool stuff about myself. Like I’m tough. I’m really tough. And when I do stumble, I have the most amazing mom who’s always right there to pick me up. So whatever, dude. I’m moving on with my life. I’m gonna be fine. I’m just really bummed out for you. You’re gonna miss a lot of stuff, and that sucks. ’Cause I’m pretty great.”4

While potentially the most powerful, this is just one of many examples in which One Day at a Time retreads and expands upon a controversial and relevant issue from the first season. While racism and the threat of new immigration policies, especially as they relate to the Trump administration (though the devil’s name is never spoken) underscore and carry many episodes, so too are mental illness and the pressures of being a single mother reexamined. We learn in the first season that Penelope is suffering from PTSD and depression and struggles to gain the support of her mother because of stigmas surrounding mental health, therapy, and medication in Cuban culture. In the ninth episode of the second season called “Hello, Penelope,” she gears up to meet the parents of her new boyfriend, Max (Ed Quinn). Their relationship is grounded and remarkably sexual in a way that few mothers, let alone women of color, are allowed to indulge on television (or sitcoms!) without judgment. She fears he will find out she is on antidepressants and, with Lydia’s full, naive approval and the optimism her new relationship has provided, Penelope halts her weekly group therapy sessions and stops taking her medication at once. This results in one of the rawest and most empathetic episodes about mental illness that I’ve ever seen on television. Watching Penelope relapse, lay in bed for days, deny assistance, remain completely affectless and, ultimately, reach out in a desperate, selfless plea to Schneider, I forgot I was watching a family sitcom. There is no laugh track for over ten minutes, no conventional beats, no quippy or speedy montage. I feared that Lydia’s gestures to help her immobilized daughter would be played for laughs, but as the episode goes on, it is made abundantly clear that we are viewing this from Penelope’s perspective—not made to look and laugh at her, but to feel the weight of her world. We sit by her side in the dark and it is uncomfortable because it’s glaringly real, important, and placed in the middle of a stereotypically clichéd format. The use of multi-cam and a reliable laugh track are the heartbeat of the show, and when both are taken away, we feel the full gravity. The rug is pulled out and both the characters and audience alike are left with the stunning understanding that these issues are not mere entertainment but an honest reflection of American life. One Day at a Time masterfully and appropriately weaves in an out of its upbeat pattern without ever losing the comfortable charm the sitcom provides, and when it exercises its freedom from a previously worn-out genre, it proves just how current, radical, and affecting it is to tell these stories, shot on many cameras, from a living room couch.

Both seasons of One Day at a Time have earned nearly unanimous acclaim from television critics and audiences alike, but it’s yet to gain any sort of popularity in the zeitgeist. And I understand. Because of prestige television, the age of edginess, the trite failures of most laugh-tracked family shows and their subsequent remakes, and the undeniable abundance of new TV content, it’s an incredibly hard sell. Just as I did when I first heard of the series, I’m sure prospective audiences assume they know what’s in store and challenge the idea that what’s familiar, what’s relatively clean, what’s comfortable cannot be good television. But this show is not Full House, Fuller House, The Big Bang Theory, or even the goddamn Cosby Show (radical as it was). One Day at a Time takes these shows, the histories of this format, and only uses them as a blueprint for the deeply fresh and sensitive story they’re telling. They use the comfort sewn into the fabric of the family sitcom to carry the blunt conversations and existential problems most American families, Cuban or otherwise, are having around their very own kitchen tables. It is relevant, it is thoughtful, and it has yet to disappoint me in a way that breeds great anxiety for the future of the series. But I’m comfortable with that.

  1. One Day at a Time, Season 1, episode 3, “No Mass,” Directed by Phill Lewis and written by Sebastian Jones, 6 January 2017, Netflix.
  2. One Day at a Time, Season 1, episode 11, “Pride and Prejudice,” Directed by Linda Mendoza and written by Sebastian Jones and Andy Roth, released l6 January 2017, Netflix.
  3. One Day at a Time, Season 1, episode 11, “Pride and Prejudice.”
  4. One Day at a Time, Season 2, episode 3, “To Zir With Love,” Directed by Phill Lewis and written by Sebastian Jones, released 26 January 2018, Netflix.
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