One Day at a Time is the Most Progressive Show on TV

There have been a ton of reboots from older shows like Full House and Gilmore Girls that have come back in the past few years, some of them “eh” and some of them excellent. One Day at a Time, a reboot of the 70s hit sitcom, is perhaps one of the greatest examples of just how phenomenal a reboot can be. It’s not necessary to have seen an episode of the original–2017’s One Day at a Time stands on its own merit. Not only is it a fresh and funny sitcom, it deals with tough issues with a lot of grace. It also has nearly episodic discussions of how things deemed “political issues” don’t just stay in the realm of Washington, D.C., but affect this ordinary family’s life every day.

While the original series focused on a white family, the family in the center of the 2017 version is Hispanic. The series focuses on single mom Penelope, her daughter Elena, son Alex and mother Lydia. Lydia and her departed husband left their families to come to the United States from Cuba before Penelope was born, and the family’s Cuban heritage is a large part of each of their identities.

The prejudice and racism that the family faces is a part of their daily lives, and the show doesn’t gloss over  the details of the lack of regard each character receives from the world outside of their family and how it differs from everyone else’s. Lydia has a thick accent. Elena can pass as being white but has to grapple with being a diversity pick in a writing program. Alex is told to go back to Mexico by a boy his age. Schneider, the white manager of the building the family lives in and family friend, often provides an excellent foil for just how easy his life is compared to that of the Alvarez family.

The show doesn’t stop just at racism, however. The particulars of immigration and citizenship are talked about often. One of Elena’s friends is an illegal immigrant whose parents were deported and no longer has a place to live. The family is terrified for Lydia when they learn she is not a U.S. citizen yet and only has a green card because the current administration might decide to deport her anyway. They never mention Trump’s name in the show, but his presence is always felt and the real fear that he creates for this family is palpable.

The show also breaks stereotypes when it comes to its lead, Penelope, played by the incredible Justina Machado. Penelope is an army veteran who served multiple tours as a nurse and sustains a shoulder injury as well as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. One episode entirely focused on her frustrations with the Veterans Affairs and how little they do for her. Now working as a nurse at a clinic, she dreams of becoming a doctor but knows that she can’t go to medical school and be the kind of mother her kids deserve. Instead of giving up, she goes back to school to become a nurse practitioner and constantly struggles with the balance of work, school and her family.

Penelope is also a stand-out character in that she has PTSD, depression, anxiety and takes medication for them. The show refuses to let this slide by the wayside, stressing how constant this part of her life is. She deals with the stigma of antidepressants and therapy, especially by her mother, Lydia, and the cultural issue of reconciling her Cuban identity with doing something that her mother says Cubans should never do. Penelope constantly reevaluates her situation and tries to improve it, but never knows how to reconcile these parts of her identity.

The relationship between Lydia and Penelope is perhaps one of the most well-drawn, realistic mother/daughter relationships on television. Lydia only ever wants what’s best for Penelope, but often has no idea what that is and ends up impeding her instead. Penelope in turn is constantly frustrated with Lydia, especially when it comes to the issues of Lydia trying to raise Penelope’s children. One of the most memorable episodes comes from the two of them fighting about whether or not the kids should go to church, pitting devout Catholic Lydia against non-believer Penelope. The show is so empathetic to both of them, recognizing and understanding the good in both of their viewpoints, and eventually letting them see the good in each other.

 

This generational divide is something that comes into play in many of the issues the show discusses, especially with the issue of sexism. Elena, Penelope, and Lydia are all women that face sexism, but of three different generations that have learned to deal with it in different ways. Lydia has internalized a great deal of sexism while Penelope recognizes its existence while ignoring its implications in her life. Elena, on the other hand, is unwilling to put up with any of it and tries to get her mother and grandmother to refuse to allow it to happen.

Perhaps the show’s greatest triumph is Elena. Fiercely activist and anti-traditionalist, Elena was the embodiment of our generation’s progressive ideals from her first appearance. However, as the first season progresses, Elena is given one of the most incredibly moving, beautiful, and realistic coming out stories on television. She struggles with compulsory heterosexuality, watching porn, coming out to her mom and brother, telling her Catholic grandmother she’s a lesbian, getting cruelly rejected by her father, and overcoming all of it. And that’s just in the first season.

Elena’s story is given so much nuance and grace. She’s allowed to be messy and unsure and angry. In turn, Penelope is allowed to be confused and hurt because this is a part of her daughter’s identity that they can’t share while wishing she could just be happy for her. Even though Elena is rejected by her father, the first season ends with her mother dancing with her at her quinceanera in her father’s place, and the rest of her family coming to join them in support.