Friday, January 6, 2017

REVIEW: 'One Day at a Time' - Penelope and Lydia Clash with Elena Over Her Quinceañera in 'This Is It'

Netflix's One Day at a Time - Episode 1.01 "This Is It"

Penelope tries to convince her feminist daughter Elena to have a traditional quinceañera to celebrate her 15th birthday and to honor her Cuban roots.

"This Is It" is a strong introduction into the world of One Day at a Time - Netflix's remake of the hit comedy series from Norman Lear. It's warm and inviting while also complicated and topical. This premiere has the room to breathe and flesh out the characters and their conflicts. It allows for the plot beats and punchlines to happen without it feeling too rushed. That's a luxury made possible because of Netflix and being able to run for 30 minutes. Every minute of this premiere is put to good use. Sure, some character introductions are better than others. It's intriguing to see the white characters - Todd Grinnell's Schneider and Stephen Tobolowsky's Dr. Berkowitz - designated as "others" and not always know how to react to Cuban cultural customs. And yet, both of those characters are pretty broad without any clear purpose for being important figures in the family's lives. But then, the core family dynamic is pretty strong. Yes, the kids just have to be annoying right now in order for everything to be overwhelming to Justina Machado's Penelope. However, it still works. It's an interesting story arc filled with a ton of nuance - especially once the anti-depressants become involved in the story. So once again, this is a solid premiere for the show that proves it's capable of being a familiar sitcom while also being about something relevant to the world of 2017.

Of course, a fair amount of time in the premiere has to be spent on setting up these characters and their backstories. Penelope is a veteran who now works as a nurse. She is also separated from her husband, Victor, who has decided to keep working overseas. She is now raising their two kids, Elena and Alex. She has the help of her mother, Lydia. But more often than not, her family gets in the way of the traditions and memories she is trying to create for them. Raising her kids is more difficult than ever before. Every decision she makes seems to be the wrong one. She is never certain of anything. She's trying her best. And yet, her kids are still doing things that get on her nerves. Things are fairly simple when they come to Alex. He just wants new sneakers for school. Penelope says he can buy one online. Instead, he buys multiple pairs and has a scheme to wear them and return them to get full refunds. That shows that he'll be a troublemaker Penelope needs to keep an eye on. He ultimately does learn his lesson. Penelope punishes him and also makes sure he has a decent pair of shoes. So, everything does work on with this parenting issue. It largely just adds to the stress of an overall chaotic life.

Things are much more complex and complicated when they come to daughter, Elena. She is a radical teen who is always finding some cause to rally against. It's a consistent character detail. It could become annoying after awhile. It largely works throughout this premiere - even though Penelope and Lydia carry the heavy-lifting of this story. Elena doesn't want to have a quinceañera because of the misogynistic connotations of the ceremony's history. She doesn't see the need to throw a party to celebrate her becoming a woman and being able to be married off to a man. It's fascinating to see Penelope and Lydia have different reactions to this statement. All generations of this family have a different perspective on the issue. And yet, they all come from the same Cuban background and know the importance of a tradition like this. Lydia just sees it as something that is done no matter what. She may be old school but she doesn't want to hear any arguments about not throwing a quinceañera. Penelope doesn't take Elena's concerns seriously because the ceremony is no longer like what it was. She just wants her daughter to have a fun party where she can take embarrassing pictures of her - just like Lydia did when she was Elena's age.

It's a very fun back-and-forth between the characters. Elena is able to successfully argue Penelope's perspective better than Penelope. That still doesn't get her to see the benefits of this party. It's this argument that really threatens Penelope's sanity. She doesn't know how to get through to her daughter. If she forces it, then Elena will rebel by failing in school. She doesn't see how she can win. It's not until she learns to voice her feelings in a genuine way that she is able to get through to Elena. Penelope wants to throw this party in order to prove to the rest of the world that she is capable of being a single parent. This family isn't poor like Alex fears. But Penelope has to work so hard just to keep everything together. She is responsible for keeping this family together and making sure her children have better lives and opportunities than she did. Penelope can be a total badass when she needs to be. She can have fun at work and boast of the skills she learned while serving in the army. But she still feels like she has something to prove with Victor no longer around. So, Elena will do the quinceañera for her mother. She has a good enough reason to do it. She may be overeager to embrace all the traditions. But it's progress nevertheless for the mother and daughter.

It's also fascinating to watch the mother-daughter bond between Penelope and Lydia. Lydia lives with the family to help Penelope with the kids. She knows to leave when asked. But her old-school beliefs clash with Penelope a number of times. She fully believes that Penelope and Victor will get back together. She sees it as only a matter of time until the family is whole again. Penelope isn't hoping for that though. They had some serious problems made only worse by him taking a job overseas. Now, his influence is only sending some money every month to help with the kids. The same mentality is also present when Penelope wants to start taking anti-depressants. It's clear that she has some issues going on that may be more than the stress that comes from raising two kids. Right now, the stress of that makes her want to take the pills. Lydia believes Penelope should just suffer through it. It's rough right now but she at least has the support of her mother. In the end, that's all that she needs. The two hug and later spoon. That's enough. It's a nice feel-good moment to end the premiere on. It's funny too. But will that continue to be enough for Penelope throughout the season? That's unclear.

Some more thoughts:
  • "This Is It" was written by Gloria Calderon Kellett & Mike Royce and directed by Pamela Fryman.
  • Of course, a big applause roars from the studio audience as soon as Rita Moreno pulls those curtains apart and makes her big debut on the show. That's an appropriate reaction to have upon seeing EGOT winner Rita Moreno for the first time. It's fun and helps the show with its throwback nostalgia of the sitcom format.
  • Schneider's addictions seem to be treated as punchlines. That's weird. He reveals that he is five years sober and that's followed by a joke about rum cake. Then during Penelope and Elena's debate, he jokes about making bets when he shouldn't because he also has a gambling problem. These are serious issues mostly played for laughs. Hopefully, they signal a more nuanced character in the future.
  • Similarly, Dr. Berkowitz is largely just a typical sitcom boss. He's there for Penelope by listening to her problems and offering her a prescription. He does genuinely care for her. But he also makes jokes about messing up his own kids. That's weird. 
  • Lydia's accent is pretty amusing as well. And yet, it can't be the sole reason for laughter. Yes, some things she says will be funny because of how she pronounces them. But the jokes are better when it's rooted in something meaningful with the character.
  • Schneider believes Alex should get his shoe idea on Shark Tank. That's not such a good idea. First of all, it's not a business. It's just a way for Alex to scam his way into free shows without having to pay for them.
  • That opening scene with Penelope and a patient was just way too expositional. It shows that Penelope can be a ton of fun while also very forceful and good at her job. However, the guy was too much of a creep to be all that engaging or funny.

As noted in previous reviews from shows that released their seasons all at once, every episodic review was written without having seen any succeeding episodes. Similarly, it would be much appreciated if in the comments, the conversation would only revolve around the show up to this point in its run.