With a few successful exceptions, multi-camera sitcoms have been on life support critically and commercially for years. Younger viewers brought up on movies and single camera series reject the bright lights and laugh tracks associated with one of America’s longest-running TV genres. Many networks, including broadcast, have invested heavily elsewhere, even as “The Big Bang Theory” continues to dominate ratings and “Fuller House” nets (presumably) big numbers for Netflix.
Combine the new generation’s disdain for the format with the fact most critics dislike its most popular entries, and it’s no surprise stories keep circulating that the genuinely great multi-cam sitcom is dying; a dinosaur impossible to resurrect respectably, no matter what mad scientist wants to open a park.
If that’s true, then “One Day at a Time” is the mosquito preserved in amber, and showrunners Gloria Calderon Kellett and Mike Royce the experts extracting Norman Lear’s DNA. The two developers, along with Lear as an executive producer, have taken the long-retired sitcom and revamped it for modern America. No, it’s not shot like a documentary, nor does it offer meta commentary on its actors or make any other easy grab for popular comedy tricks for younger viewers. Instead, its content and characters been adeptly updated for a new generation — even those who don’t think they can stomach an old school sitcom.
Instead of a working-class white woman at its core, the new “One Day at a Time” focuses on Penelope (Justina Machado), a military veteran now working as a nurse, single mother, and all around badass. She’s separated from her husband, who’s working as private security in Afghanistan, and lives with her mother, Lydia (Rita Moreno), and two kids. Nicely updated (without so much as a name change) is the Schneider character, here played by Todd Grinnell, who is the landlord of Penelope’s building and a very active member in the Cuban-American family’s household.
Told in largely episodic fashion, Kellett and Royce push through a lot of key exposition and heavy dramatic moments in the pilot episode. Though a tad weighty, it pays dividends down the line, as “One Day at a Time” throws itself into topical content akin to Lear’s classic series. (For those of you too young to remember such work, think of “The Carmichael Show” as a prime example.)
Episode 2 tackles modern sexism, specifically in regards to “mansplaining.” The oft-misconstrued word gets an accurate definition and a prescient example in the half-hour examination, buoyed by a well-layered performance by Machado. Slowly and steadily her anger rises along with her awareness, but never does she go so comically overblown that we can’t take her seriously. We do just that, as her points are as educational as they are entertaining.
The same could be said for Episode 3’s deft balancing of a generational divide: religion. Lydia is adamant the family not miss church, but Penelope is more forgiving of the leniency. Rather than an overly angry spat leading to a trite resolution, each character gets to say their peace and does so in a loving manner. Penelope’s final exchange with her mother is moving, a credit to Machado as well as the always terrific Moreno.
“One Day at a Time” won’t have you rolling in the aisles — as its incorporation of grounded dramatic content limits the time (and build-up) needed for the onslaught of humor modern audiences have grown accustomed to — but what’s here is sincere in its intentions, honest to its characters, and clever on every level. Most importantly, despite its bright colors and brighter lights, “One Day at a Time” never stoops to the cheap tricks of its modern counterpart, “Fuller House.” There’s no blunt callbacks meant to blatantly mine nostalgia (often without any actual punchline). There’s no repeat cameos made to feel special every. single. time. by manufactured applause. There’s no puppies or children paraded around simply to make you croon, “Awww.”
In short, there’s nothing fake about this multi-cam sitcom, and that’s more than enough to set it apart from the pack.
“One Day at a Time” is now streaming all 13 episodes of Season 1 on Netflix.