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TELEVISION
One Day at a Time – ¡El Rrrrremix!
M.G. Poe

 The cast of the Netflix reboot of  One Day at a Time , including Rita Moreno and Justina Machado (Image © Netflix). 

The cast of the Netflix reboot of One Day at a Time, including Rita Moreno and Justina Machado (Image © Netflix). 

I admit I was skeptical when I heard the king of 1970s television sitcoms, veteran writer/producer Norman Lear, creator of such American television classics as All in The Family and The Jeffersons was, at 95 years of age, returning to television after a more than 20-year hiatus to reboot one of my favorite sitcoms, One Day at a Time, and with a Cuban-American family at its nucleus. As the daughter of Cuban-American parents who emigrated to the United States in 1961 seeking political asylum from Fidel Castro’s communist government, I have always been sensitive and often critical of the stereotypical ways in which Hollywood portrays Hispanic families. Hispanic cultures vary widely depending on country, and “la la land” is notorious for selling stereotypes, labeling us Latino, while depicting the diverse gamut of countries, ethnicities and cultures as a singularly flat one. We don’t all have a look, and we come in all shapes, sizes, and colors.

The original One Day at a Time, aired on CBS from December, 1975, until May, 1984. It starred Bonnie Franklin as newly divorced single mother, Ann Romano raising two teenage daughters, older, rebellious Julie, played by Mackenzie Phillips and younger, “goody-two-shoes” Barbara, played by Valerie Bertinelli. In the pilot, the trio moves from “small-town” Logansport Indiana to “big city” Indianapolis, where “Ms” Romano hopes to get a fresh start. Pat Harrington, played the nosy, but always helpful building “super” Dwayne Schneider. The half-hour show dealt with a single mother juggling life as a career woman in the 1970s-80s, and two teenagers growing up in a single-parent household. As with all Norman Lear creations, One Day at a Time focused on the socio-political issues of the times, bringing into the family living room subjects like sexism, racism, bigotry, women’s rights, the sexual revolution, abortion, and more on a weekly basis.

The new One Day at a Time, in its second season and streamable on Netflix, was developed by Gloria Calderón Kellett (herself, a child of Cuban-American parents) writer, Emmy Award winner, Mike Royce, known for his work on Everybody Loves Raymond, and the legendary Norman Lear. The re-booted version remains a story about a newly divorce single mom, Penelope Alvarez, played by Justina Machado, with two kids, feminist, gay quinceañera daughter, Elena (Isabella Gomez), and twelve-year-old wise-cracking son, Alex (Marcel Ruíz). Mami (Mom) is also a veteran suffering from PTSD, as well as a first generation American of Cuban decent. Friendly, “super” Schneider, (Todd Grinnell) still lives in the building, however, he now owns the building, too. The brilliant addition to the cast is Abuelita Lydia, who lives with the family and is played to near perfection by Academy Award winning actor Rita Moreno. True to form, the new ODAAT explores, the current issues of today including sexism, bigotry, sexual identity, homophobia, religious freedom, immigration, the economy, and veterans’ affairs—PTSD and healthcare availability. It also rather successfully attempts to spotlight the generational issues affecting American families of immigrant decent.

Instead of Indianapolis, the Alvarez family lives in Los Angeles’ Echo Park, a curious setting for producers of ODAAT to pick for the Alvarez family, considering that out of the more than 2.2 million Cuban-Americans, or Americans of Cuban decent in the United States, 1.49 million of them live in Florida, predominantly in Dade (Miami), Broward (Ft. Lauderdale), and Palm Beach Counties. Still, like its more well-known counterpart in Miami, Echo Park was once known as “Little Havana,” and, though the new ODAAT is partly based on Calderón Kellett’s childhood growing up on the West Coast, it does make me wonder why a sitcom about Cuban-Americans would take place anywhere else other than the heartland of Cuban-America, South Florida. As anyone remotely Cuban in California will tell you, culturally diverse Los Angeles is a lonely place to be Cuban.

ODAAT does manage to deftly weave specific Latin cultural references into universal humor. I found myself laughing at the originality of the script, balancing Spanish and English languages together, tongue-in-cheek hilarity ensuing when translation between the two languages creates altogether new words in a variation of Spanglish, like the wonderworking powers of Bibaporrú. Bibaporrú is the extraordinary miracle-cure of all Cuban Grandmothers, as vital to healing as Windex was to family patriarch Gus Portokalos in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. My own mom still swears by its curative powers: “Embarate de Bibaporrú,” she’ll say. “¡Te juro que te lo cura todo!”—“Smother yourself in Bibaporrú; it will cure everything!” For you non-Spanglish speakers, Bibaporrú is otherwise known as Vicks Vaporub.

Despite the scripted goofiness (like the first ODAAT) the characters are likeable and endearing. At the end of Season One, during Elena’s fiesta de quinces, her father, Victor, unable to deal with his daughter’s lesbianism abandons the party before the traditional father/daughter dance. When mami Penelope walks onto the dance floor instead and says, “I got you,” and dances with her daughter, the audience feels it. When the whole family follows suit, you feel it even more. Moments like these are poignant, and there are plenty of them.

Set design is rich and intricately specific. In fact, Vanity Fair calls its “specificity” of props “spot-on,” and true to that, items reminiscent of many typical Cuban households pepper the set and unapologetically pop out at the viewer: the can of Café Bustelo atop the refrigerator; the Jesús Cristo statuette on the window sill by the sink; the aluminum café Cubano cafetera on the stove ready to make un cafecito; the plátanos verdes on the kitchen counter; the large statue of La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, patron saint of Cuba, displayed in a wall nook in the foyer the “three Juans” in their tiny boat beholding her. Images from my childhood. Things that smack of authentic Cuban culture. Justina Machado says the show’s attention to detail is precisely what makes it so special. “As audience members,” she repeats, “you notice those things.” Sure enough, you do.

The new ODAAT has gotten a host of positive reviews, too. The New York Times Television Review calls it, “energetic and progressive,” and Vanity Fair says the show is “meaningful with boundless potential. Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 97%.” It succeeds in doing that dual thing Norman Lear has always done well: bringing light to the social issues of the day with depth and compassion, while presenting with humor the absurdity of the human condition in ways that leave us laughing right alongside the studio audience laugh track. Shot in the old-school TV sitcom multi-camera approach, watching this new version of ODAAT is more familiar than I anticipated. Its stories are not all my Cuban stories, but they are, in ways, many of all our stories.

Having said that, the show still carries the usual vein of stereotypical immigrant mish-mash and is not free of pandering to American audiences’ expectations regarding minority stereotypes, especially through its dialogue. Disappointingly, even Lear’s legendary talents aren’t enough to fully overcome this penchant persisting throughout our pop culture. ODAAT is inimically guilty of forcing its cast to participate in those subtle prejudices and racist micro-aggressions so unique to our American way. When at the beginning of Season Two, in response to her mother’s prodding to get a summer job, 15-yr-old Elena states, “It’s like what they say, ‘do what you love and the money will follow,’” Penelope responds, “Ay baby, that’s for rich white ladies who want to make jewelry.” That comment is trite, illogical, and a misnomer. Such a comment, stated in that way, would be unheard of coming out of the mouth of a Cuban American, or any Hispanic, except in the land of American English-language television. Hispanics in other countries and to each other, just don’t speak that way; the word “white” would have been omitted from the statement, because making overt distinction about their shade of skin color versus whatever is considered to be “white” in the USA would not have been a consideration in any other language but American English. Issues with “whiteness” versus “other” is a predominantly American one. Hispanics are a multiracial, multi-ethnic community and there are Caucasian Hispanics, as well as Afro Hispanics and Asian Hispanics, and even, Lebanese and Jewish ones. Why sacrifice the integrity of the show for cheap laughs that deprecate and stereotype the characters and that don’t make sense anyway? There are too many of these unnecessary moments, and in this case, blame must fall squarely on writer/producer Gloria Calderón Kellett. As a child of Cuban-American emigrants, she should know better.

Perhaps the producers of ODAAT allowed such dialogue to prove an obvious point: that as much as we desire to get along in this great big melting pot called America, we also want to be acknowledged for our individuality while not being marginalized for our differences. When we learn to stop labeling each other and see beyond color, ethnicity, background, religion, gender or sexual orientation, is when the privilege gap established by those in power will cease, and we will all be equal.

The crowning jewel in the new ODAAT though, is its theme song. Originally recorded by Polly Cutter, “This Is It,” has been remixed and re-produced Salsa-style by music industry great, Emilio Estefan, and performed by his wife, Emmy Award winning Gloria Estefan. Both are first-generation Cuban-Americans from Miami. Estefan who says she was “instantly hooked” when, as a senior in high-school, the original show premiered in 1975, tells Vulture magazine, “Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that one day I’d have the pleasure and honor to record a new take on that classic theme song that was etched in my brain since I became one of the show’s biggest fans!” The show’s accompanying title sequence features cast photographs, snippets of old Echo Park’s “Little Havana” in its heyday, and snapshots of Calderón Kellett’s own family. The remix and the opening, with their buoyant, feel-good, Latin beat and old-world, Spanish-styled images are, hands-down, the best part of the show and will go a long way toward re-invigorating viewers at those moments when ODAAT “muddles through” its own sophomoric awkwardness as its writers evolve beyond their own socially conscious limitations.

Until then, ODAAT fans, including me, will have to continue to watch and just take it as it comes, one day at a time. 


M.G. Poe is a social commentator, activist, cat woman, time-traveler, anarchist Ursula le Guin-style, deliberately dismantling authority one thought-byte at a time. Read more of her writings and eclectic observations on life at mgpoe.com and follow her on Instagram @darkvikingqueen.