In its third season, Netflix’s One Day at a Time remains as openhearted and optimistic as ever, a cheery throwback to the “issue” sitcoms of the 70’s, like its predecessor in name and spirit, with producer Norman Lear still attached at the age of 96. I said before that if you can get used to its sitcom rhythms you can quite easily fall for these characters and the female led Alvarez family, with the fiery Justina Machado at the helm.
In Season 3 the show continues to reinvent the “very special episode,” by confronting issues of sexual harassment and MeToo, alcoholism and drug use. But it’s not as heavy-handed as you’d think. When Alex (Marcel Ruiz) is caught smoking marijuana, there’s no guarantee that he won’t continue to do so and an acknowledgment on Penelope’s part that she can’t force it, though she warns him that in his case he’s risking more than the average white kid. And when Elena decides to have sex with girlfriend Sid, not only does she go through with it (surprising enough on a sitcom episode about a teenager contemplating sex), but the show actually portrays it as a positive experience and lets Penelope wonder how she’s even supposed to feel about it, given that Elena faces no physical risk as a lesbian.
Even with the familiar structure of topical episodes, these spins on them are refreshing enough to help the show feel new in its approach. It helps that the series is dominated by the strong performances of actresses Machado, Rita Moreno (irreplaceable as Lydia) and Isabella Gomez, all well defined, opinionated, fiercely expressive women who share the screen in equal measure and occasionally leave poor Alex out in the cold (although there is an attempt to give him more to do this season besides listen and react to the women in his family). Machado is a treasure though, as Penelope remains the heart and soul of the family, a woman who deals with the demands on her by her kids, mother, job, neighbors, and battles with anxiety and depression (not forgotten about as a one-off episode from last season), with the compassion, strength and resolute toughness that make her a force to be reckoned with. Even her season long romance with a guy she’s not that into makes perfect sense for her character, the rare single mother on TV who’s allowed to have an unapologetically healthy sexual appetite.
A new storyline this season sees some depth for supporting player Todd Grinnell’s Schneider, who falls off the wagon and does a really nice job actually showing what looks like for a guy we’ve only ever seen as an immature goofball- he’s so good that even Penelope’s forgiving attitude had me questioning her judgment, given the risky nature of his problem. The fact that I found myself worrying for the safety of fictional sitcom children is a testament to how much this show makes you care about its characters. The raising of real world issues, politics and struggles of working class people of color balanced out with such a cheerful, sunny outlook is a unique combination that makes me wish the series got more attention and wasn’t continually on the bubble of cancellation every year. I’d like the Alvarez family to stick around for as long as possible.