I’ll admit, it took me way too long to give One Day at a Time a shot, but once I did, there was no turning back. As a Puerto Rican born and raised on the island that had to leave to find better opportunities, I really felt identified with the show and its Cuban characters. In a medium historically characterized by the antiquated concept of the American Dream, one that is flooded almost exclusively with white-American representations, One Day at a Time, like The George Lopez Show before it, goes to great lengths to redefine the American Dream for not just the Latinx community living in the United States, but also immigrants from all walks of life that have had to leave their homes in search of better life.
It is an absolute shame that this series is facing possible cancellation, as its discontinuance will be doing a major disservice to the Latinx community, immigrants, the American entertainment industry, and the American population as a whole. At a time when the current U.S. administration has continuously employed the rhetoric of fear and hate speech to polarize the nation and undo decades of social progress, a show like One Day at a Time is essential. It serves as an identifying marker for Latinx and immigrant communities, a cultural text that creates a space for these minority communities to feel a due sense of belonging they have potentially been robbed of because of this country’s history of discrimination and its current administration. For those unfamiliar with the immigrant experience, One Day at a Time provides a positive representation of one of many minority cultures that have undoubtedly contributed to making the U.S. the country it is today. Furthermore, the show addresses a number of non-ethnically/racially oriented issues that every individual, not just minority communities, face.
One Day at a Time should not be cancelled and here’s why.
The Socio-Cultural Issues Explored
Almost every episode is structured around a central issue that manifests itself through one specific character. As we watch the character struggle to resolve the issue at hand, we are inclined to sympathize and even identify with the character; in this way, the audience becomes invested in the character and goes from passive to active viewer. The issues taken up by the show are usually current, controversial in nature, and thus important to discuss considering the U.S.’s current sociopolitical climate. In fact, I would venture to say that the show addresses what I theorize will be considered two of the greatest contributions of our generation to social progress: the de-stigmatization of both mental health and the LGBTQ+ community.
In season 1 episode 7 (“Hold, Please”), the main character’s daughter, Elena, played by Isabella Gomez, expresses that she might have an interest in girls to her brother Alex (Marcel Ruiz) after she realizes he’s heard what she thought was a private conversation. Alex receives the information beautifully informing Elena that “Anyway, it doesn't matter; it's not like you'd be in trouble. I mean, who cares, right?” Alex promises to keep her secret until she is certain so she can manage the situation calmly and in her own time; although he lets it slip to their landlord and family friend, Schneider, he too does a good job of keeping Elena’s secret. When Elena officially comes out in episode 10 (“Sex Talk”), her mother, Penelope (Justina Machado), is surprised to find that she does not handle the revelation well; although, she manages to mask it from Elena well aware that her difficulty processing the information could negatively impact her daughter.
In the next episode, Penelope’s feelings of guilt grow exponentially when her mother (Elena’s grandmother), Lydia (the ever-fabulous Rita Moreno), seems to accept Elena’s coming out without hesitation. In conversing with Lydia, Penelope finds that, as suspected, Lydia is not okay with it because she is a devout Catholic. However, in a wonderful twist, Lydia quickly comes to terms with Elena’s situation when she remembers that “God does not make mistakes” and that the current Pope, who represents God, said he cannot possibly judge other people. Of course, Penelope only needed a bit of time to get used to the idea of Elena being gay, and, in no time, is perfectly fine. Elena’s father, on the other hand, is another story.
Other than the religious obstacle, there’s Latino machismo to overcome, something her father does not manage to completely do until the third season. When Elena comes out to her entire family at her Quinceañera celebration by presenting herself in a suit, her father, who was already frustrated with Elena’s sexuality, walks out on the father-daughter dance because he can’t take the “embarrassment.” The process is not an easy one, but, eventually, everyone, including Elena's father, comes to terms with Elena’s sexuality.
Mental illness surfaces quickly in season 1 when Penelope and her mother must come to terms with the fact that Penelope needs anti-depressants and therapy to handle her PTSD and demanding single-mom life. This storyline returns in season two when Penelope stops taking her meds and subsequently slips into a horrifying depression, an occurrence that leads Lydia to fully accept that medication and therapy is not for locos. Season 3 episode 9 (“Anxiety”) is particularly interesting because of the way it manages to portray what anxiety looks, sounds, and feels like to the person dealing with it. Whenever Penelope has an anxiety attack, the color drains from the screen and the imagined scenario (which is always the worst-case scenario) plays out in black in white. When the audience is brought back from the attack, color returns and Penelope is hyperventilating, struggling to ground herself. The real brilliance of the episode, however, is in Penelope’s realization that she should not keep her anxiety and depression to herself. Previously, she thought she was acting in her family’s best interest by not telling them; she did not want them to worry about her. But when Penelope finds out that conditions like anxiety are hereditary and witnesses Elena having an anxiety attack, she realizes that being honest can not only help her children, but also help remove the negative connotation mental illnesses carry.
For someone like me who struggles with anxiety, this episode meant the world; just as Elena’s coming out story must have held some positive significance for everyone who has been through the process of coming out. Providing this level of emotional realism and, as a consequence, comfort is no small feat; many of us struggle on a daily basis, if not with these particular issues, then surely with others, and having a show that can alleviate the stress for half an hour is priceless.
It's Not Just Popular Culture Rubbish
The actors cast for the leading roles do a phenomenal job of bringing their characters and the interpersonal relationships between them, however hyperbolic, to life. Hyperbole, of course, is inevitable in sitcom comedies. Character representations, the conflicts that structure the plot, and the resolutions that solve them are all hyperbolized; it’s part of what makes sitcoms entertaining to watch. Too many people condemn the obvious hyperbole of sitcoms claiming sitcoms are formulaic popular culture drab with nothing of real artistic value to offer. While this position can certainly be argued, the defense people often offer is rooted in what Ien Ang calls “the ideology of mass culture” in his book Watching Dallas: Soap Opera and the Melodramatic Imagination. In the ideology of mass culture, “some cultural forms – mostly very popular cultural products and practices cast in the American mould – are tout court labelled ‘bad mass culture’” (94); that is, if its mass/popular culture, then it's trash. This is exactly what many people rely on when passing judgement on mass culture texts; this is where statements such as “pop music is stupid” and “Hollywood movies are worthless” are rooted. The ideology of mass culture essentially “makes a search for more detailed and personal explanations superfluous, because it provides a finished explanatory model that convinces, sounds logical and radiates legitimacy” (Ang 96); in other words, it suffices to say that its popular culture to defend the position that its bad. Void of any additional explanations, I can’t help but think that those who make such simplistic claims of value judgement have merely succumbed to the ideology of mass culture for fear of being considered silly. One Day at a Time is a shining example of what popular culture and, more specifically, good television can do. It provides a level of emotional realism viewers can connect with and, more importantly, confronts and successfully resolves common familial challenges. While many of the resolutions reached in the show are highly idealistic, they nonetheless provide the pleasure of seeing a difficult situation resolved. For better or worse, it serves as a base of comparison for how we personally have confronted such situations or as a template, however fantastic, for how we can face such situations when they arise.
It's Flat out Uplifting
Not an episode goes by that I don’t laugh out loud at Lydia’s coquettish style, dramatic entrances, and feisty personality; the humor is definitely on point. However, more importantly, the Cuban family’s circumstances are such that the show revolves around their struggles. Lydia fled Castro’s Cuba as a teenager with her sisters set on making a better life for herself and her future family. Of course, in the process, she had to leave a lot behind; nostalgia and homesickness often get the best of even Lydia’s hard façade. Lydia tells her entire story and it’s heartbreaking; nonetheless, we see how she triumphed and succeeded in providing a better life for her family. In every episode there is struggle, but even when it is not resolved satisfactorily, the family ultimately comes together; let’s face it, this is a message we all need to hear more. Family is everything, family can get you through.
Penelope’s career and parenting struggles are no less uplifting than Lydia’s triumphant immigration tale. She is flawed and the show makes a point to illustrate it (who could possibly relate to a perfect character?). She often overreacts, but always admits when she’s wrong and proceeds to apologize; while I don’t find this the most realistic representation (I still struggle with admitting when I’m wrong), it serves as a good ideal to strive for.
The theme song alone, “One Day at a Time” performed by Gloria Estefan, is enough to get you out of a funk. The instrumentation of the salsa song carries a clear Caribbean essence that will get any viewer moving; as a Puerto Rican viewer, it certainly gets me going. The lyrics, as I’m sure you can tell from the title, are as uplifting as the rhythm and they focus on taking life as it comes; after all, if life is constant struggle, what better way to deal with it then with music, dancing, and optimism?
Rita Moreno’s Portrayal of Lydia Makes Aging Look Like a Privilege, not a Death Sentence
Having recently turned 30, I experienced a bit of an existential crisis; all of the sudden I was panicked at the prospect of aging fearing that as the years set in my youthfulness and vivacity would fade, turning me into a boring shadow of who I used to be. One Day at a Time came into my life just two months later and proved my pessimistic ass wrong through the character of Lydia. Lydia does not cling to youth; instead, she radiates it. Despite the many sacrifices and struggles she endured in her life and the inevitable physical consequences of aging, Lydia wakes up every day with a smile on her face, dancing to Cuban music, ready to make breakfast and get her family’s day started on a positive note.
Even when those who love Lydia try to convince her that she has to take it easy by not wearing heals and going easy on the dancing, which has been her passion since she was a child, she eloquently and emotively explains that those things are part of who she is, and she refuses to let them go. Of course, considering the fact she has a history of stroke and that she loves and respects her family immensely, she acquiesces to her family’s request. Elena, who was the one most intensely insisting her grandmother take it easy, eventually reaches a compromise with Lydia so that Elena can rest assured her grandmother is being health-conscious and Lydia can continue feeling like herself. Lydia’s unfaltering sense of humor, faith, self-love, and passion in every episode are a reminder that life is what you make of it. Life does not need to get duller as you age.
Through the character of Lydia, the show’s writers and creators also address the issue of American citizenship. For someone like Lydia whose identity and sense of self are tightly fastened to her home country and culture, the prospect of gaining American citizenship and renouncing her Cuban citizenship is heartbreaking. Many immigrants and peoples who have left their homes for better opportunities in the U.S. can surely relate to this; while I’m not technically an immigrant (Puerto Rico is an American territory and, as a consequence, Puerto Ricans have American citizenship), if I ever had to choose between the two I would be devastated as well. After one of Elena’s friend’s parents were deported to Mexico and being reminded of the current administration’s threats to immigrants, Lydia agrees to go through the process of acquiring her American citizenship; but in true Lydia fashion, she does in a blaze of Cuban style.
Ultimately, whether you want to give the show a chance is up to your aesthetic and entertainment preferences, but if you have an inkling that this show might provide some sort of pleasure, please give it a watch; it may go a long way in keeping the show from being cancelled. Even if it’s not your cup of tea, One Day at a Time means a lot to a lot of people. Cancelling one of the few, perhaps even only, shows that positively displays the struggles of a Hispanic family with a history of immigration at a time when racial and ethnic tensions are high is a mistake. There’s much to learn from the show and, if nothing else, it’s a source of much needed comfort for minority communities that continue to be discriminated against and marginalized in their own home.
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