One Day at a Time Is a Sitcom That Doubles as a Civics Lesson

The charming new Netflix revival is a scene-by-scene study of how people can lose their tempers without also losing their minds.

Michael Yarish / Netflix

Not too long ago, it was fashionable to fear that Americans are losing the fine art of conversation. We are forgetting how to talk to each other, the warnings went; we are forgetting how to listen to each other. Recent years, though, have swapped that fear for another anxiety: that we have become bad not just at conversing, but, against all odds, at arguing. Our debates devolve Godwinward. Our discussions quickly veer into harassment. We yell. We roll our eyes. We troll. We hide behind memes. We despair—because, while democracy demands debate, what the American version may not have anticipated is that debating is a skill as much as it is a pastime. And skills can be lost, so easily.

I mention that—bear with me for a moment—because of One Day at a Time. Yes, the remake of Norman Lear’s classic ’70s sitcom that premiered this month, with a full 13-episode season, on Netflix. The show that centers, this time around, on the Alvarezes, a Cuban-American family, headed by a single mother (Justina Machado), living in Los Angeles. The show that is, both as entertainment and as cultural commentary, exceptionally good.

The revived One Day at a Time is fantastic in part because of all the things that will typically make a sitcom fantastic: sharp, witty writing; charming, multi-faceted characters; plot lines that, in their seamless synthesis of the wacky and the serious, suggest life in all its messy complexity. But the show’s revival is great for another reason, too: It makes arguments about argument itself. One Day at a Time is a show that is, in the best ways, about fighting. And, just as importantly: It is also a show about making up.

The show’s premiere episode begins, appropriately, with an argument; the family is debating whether Elena (Isabella Gomez), the matriarch Penelope’s 14-year-old daughter, will be marking her upcoming birthday with a quinceañera. Elena is an outspoken feminist and a budding activist, and she resents the patriarchal implications of such a gendered coming-out party. In that she chafes both against her grandmother, Lydia (Rita Moreno), who is fiercely protective of the family’s Cuban heritage—and constantly worried that her Americanized grandchildren will forget their roots—and against her mother, who imagines that a celebration of her daughter will be, at the same time, a celebration of the sacrifices she has made to ensure Elena’s success.

Each woman is correct. Each one is also limited in her vision. And so the trio find themselves at an impasse—until Penelope suggests that she and Elena debate the matter … from each others’ perspectives.

“You mean a Lincoln-Douglas debate, my speciality?” Elena, who has been newly named the head of her school’s debate team, scoffs at this suggestion. “I once successfully argued against gravity, so.”

Viewers are, to be clear, at this point mere minutes into the first episode of the One Day at a Time revival. And yet. Penelope and Elena throw themselves into their debate, to great comedic effect. Their exchange continues for several rounds, ending first with Penelope ceding—“I hear you, and you don’t have to have a quinces,” she tells her daughter—and then with Elena agreeing, finally, to the party, the planning of which will occupy the family until the season’s final episode.

This initial drag-out disagreement ends in the time-honored sitcomic manner: Each woman validated, each one listened to by the other, they hug it out. Arguing is temporary, after all; family is forever.

It’s a theme that gets repeated throughout the episodes of One Day at a Time: Characters see the world differently; they clash; they talk; they come to understand each other. And then they embrace, literally and otherwise. Elena and her grandmother disagree about the wearing of makeup: For Lydia, the stuff is a symbol of empowered femininity; for Elena, it’s a tool of oppression. They argue about it, each one frustrated … until they have an epiphany based on empathy: Elena feels as uncomfortable wearing lipstick, Lydia realizes, as she does when she is caught without it. The pair agree to disagree. They share, yep, a heartwarming hug.

As a theme—lather (literally), rinse, repeat—this is all as old as the sitcom itself. Family-focused shows have long relied on the fighting-followed-by-forgiveness framework, both to create drama and to resolve it so that characters will live to fight another week. The first episode of the original One Day at a Time itself began with an argument—between Ann and her teenage daughter, Julie, who wanted permission from her newly divorced mother to go on an overnight co-ed camping trip.

But One Day at a Time’s revival isn’t merely about its central family; it is, just as much, about the world its members occupy. The new series goes out of its way to suggest that the Alvarezes are representative of many of the social trends that define life in the America of 2017. It features a character who is questioning her sexuality. And a recurring plot line about immigration policy. Penelope herself is a single mom and an Army veteran; she is also a physician’s assistant who struggles with PTSD and depression. An early episode of One Day at a Time finds her realizing that her colleague, a male nurse—who does the same job she does—earns more money than she does, while she supports her family, and he supports only himself.

Penelope is angry and indignant about that injustice, until her boss, Dr. Berkowitz (Stephen Tobolowsky), explains the extremely humble origins of this instance of pay inequality: “In my defense,” he tells her, “he did ask for more than you did, and I have a lot of trouble saying no. And, you see, he made me feel that somehow I was lucky to have him.”

Men asserting themselves, women doing the opposite, their managers being complacent: It’s the stuff of Lean In, basically, made relatable through the stuff of Lear. And, in typical Lear fashion, the new One Day at a Time has found yet another way to make itself at home in the world of 2017: Characters, in this show, are extremely aware of language and how it can be weaponized. They talk about mansplaining, and microaggressions, and sexism, and reverse sexism, and racism. They demonstrate familiarity with the world of online debate—often anonymous, often primed for indignation—even as they interact with each other in person. They are extremely aware of their own copious capacities to offend other people, knowingly or not.

“You know you’re the only non-Latino I trust to fix stuff,” Penelope tells Schneider, the Alvarezes’ handyman and honorary family member. She pauses. “Oh, is that racist?” she says, realizing that it might well be. She pauses again. “It’s okay, it’s just us.”

Later, Schneider, a self-proclaimed feminist, injects himself into the family’s conversation about mansplaining to, yes, explain to the women gathered around him how mansplaining works. He expounds for a moment until he realizes the irony. “Sorry I cut you off,” he says. “Talk as long as you want. Not that you need my permission. I’m just—you know what? I’d like to hear from the ladies. Women. Females. You guys. Not guys. Humans.”

He covers his mouth.

“Wow,” Lydia tells her fellow ladies women females humans. “You broke Schneider.”

There are many, many exchanges like this as the series goes on. The Alvarezes and the group of people in their orbit are constantly misspeaking, regularly getting things just a little bit wrong. And yet, within their extended family, the fraught dynamics that can characterize the discourse of the world beyond them—the rushes to judgment, the impulses to assume bad faith—don’t much apply. Scheider can mansplain, and catch himself mansplaining, and apologize, and be embraced by the women he mansplained to. Penelope can tell Schneider, after he’s made the family a dinner consisting of venison, nettles, and other hipster delights, “We all thank you for this very caucasian meal.Lydia can pronounce it “JewTube,” and Dr. Berkowitz can laugh it off, because he knows—he trusts—that she didn’t mean anything by it.

Which is also to say that the Alvarezes, both actual and honorary, give each other the benefit of the doubt. They may argue, often—this is a sitcom, after all—but while they may lose their tempers, they never lose their respect for each other. They disagree. They misunderstand. They find themselves doing the things all of us will, eventually: saying things they don’t quite mean, in ways they don’t quite intend. They confuse. They offend. They screw up.

But then: They explain and forgive and move on. And, above all, they assume each others’ good intentions—because they are a family, and that, after all, is what families do.

And what are families—the people we have not chosen for ourselves, but to whom, nonetheless, we are bound—if not microcosms? Of nations, of cultures, of societies? One Day at a Time is a family sitcom that takes the widest possible interpretation of “family” itself: It understands its own family not just as a collection of parents and kids and friends, but also, seen in a certain light, as a metaphor for the rest of us. It is about the American family as much as it is about this particular American family. We will argue among ourselves—that, too, is what families do—but we will be at our best, the show suggests, when those arguments are constructive, and permissive, and above all guided by empathy. One Day at a Time is in that sense a sitcom that is also a civics lesson. Good faith, after all, won’t fix everything. But it’s a pretty good place to start.