Multi-camera sitcoms have always had a tough hurdle to overcome in the Golden Age of TV, as the rise of single-camera comedies has made the format feel a little bit pedestrian.
But great storytelling can transcend format, and the second season of “One Day at a Time” is easily one of the most emotional and heartfelt shows to premiere so far in 2018. It even, in its way, proves creatively daring, especially as it pushes the boundaries of what’s possible in the multi-cam format.
The story of the Alvarez family, a working-class multigenerational Cuban family led by Justina Machado as Penelope, who’s struggling to balance being a single mom, dealing with her exuberant mother (Rita Moreno), going back to school to become a nurse practitioner, and maybe even carve out a bit of a life for herself.
While Marcel Ruiz as Penelope’s younger son Alex remains charming, and Todd Grinnell and Stephen Tobolowsky are key members of the supporting cast, it’s the women at the core of the show who are its lifeblood.
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Machado has always shone as the lead, able to shift on a dime to hit the show’s broadest comedy moments as well as its more dramatic stings. Meanwhile, Isabella Gómez continues to stand out as one of TV’s most unique teenagers — after coming out of the closet in Season 1, Season 2 continues to define her as more than just her age or sexual orientation, letting her thrive in all her nerdy, dorky glory.
And Moreno is a gift we continue not to deserve, able to turn the most simple line delivery into a hilariously dramatic tour de force. Her rhythms as a performer have really come to define the show, giving it a flow that defines it beyond other multi-cams.
This season, the stories continue to engage with today’s political climate, though with minimal mention of “45” — instead, the acknowledgment of the shifting tones comes on a more grounded, day-to-day level. It’s far more about how the political affects the personal, because it’s not the grandstanding Presidential speech but the casually racist remark made in an ice cream shop that truly stings. There’s an element of buried rage you can feel here, but as Penelope says at one point: “If you get angry, they win; if you don’t get angry, they also win. It’s complicated.”
Episodes also take on issues revolving around gender non-conformity, video game streaming, and the fact that parenting teenagers is quite a different task from parenting kids. Penelope’s attempt to find some balance in her life (including a new love interest) and her ongoing battle with depression continues as well, a reminder that there’s no such thing as an easy fix for these issues, no easy answer to any of life’s biggest problems.
If you’re looking for emotional catharsis — AKA the opportunity to ugly-cry into your pillow — there are no shortage of episodes in Season 2 that offer up their fair share of gut punches. A key episode flashes back to a simpler time for the Alvarez family, laid out in sharp contrast to the present, while the final two episodes bring with them some heartbreaking moments and tough choices for everyone involved.
There are a couple of narrative turns that aren’t all that shocking, but what keeps them compelling is the depth of emotion associated with them. Executive producers Gloria Calderon Kellett and Mike Royce have ensured that the best aspects of the multi-cam format play these scenes as pure theater, bending the rules of reality at times for the greatest emotional catharsis. Quiet when it needs to be, but as vibrant and real as its characters when the moment calls for it, “One Day at a Time” is rich with the sort of specific details that give a show a universal feel. One of 2017’s greater critical injustices was that Season 1 never got the full appreciation it deserved. Let’s not make the same mistake with Season 2.
“One Day at a Time” Season 2 is streaming now on Netflix.