Saturday, January 7, 2017

REVIEW: 'One Day at a Time' - Penelope and Lydia Fight About Religion and the Need to Be Needed in 'No Mass'

Netflix's One Day at a Time - Episode 1.03 "No Mass"

When Lydia disappears after a heated argument with her daughter about religion, the smooth running of the household falls apart in her absence.

Rita Moreno is one of the finest actresses out there. She is a national treasure! That should come as little surprise considering she has won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony. She's had such a phenomenal career of impressive work. It's wonderful to watch her still at the top of her game even at age 85. It's truly inspiring. This show added the Lydia character to give more dimension to the family dynamic. There was no counterpart on the original series. And yet, Moreno has quickly made Lydia feel like an essential component of the show. Penelope would be struggling even more if her mother wasn't there to help her take care of the kids. That is made abundantly clear in "No Mass" - which is easily the best episode of the show so far. The bond between Lydia and Penelope has already been so special. Moreno and Justina Machado are doing such varied and nuanced work as the characters. They work well together. As the audience gets more grasp on the characters, the more emotional and moving it becomes when they fight. That plus giving that material to top-notch actresses makes the storytelling truly captivating. The fight that Lydia and Penelope have in this episode is raw and emotional. But more importantly, it's very real and doesn't try to approach an easy answer to the conflict.

The episode opens with Lydia waking up and getting breakfast ready for the whole family. It has simply become a part of the routine for this family. Elena and Alex know that as soon as they walk out of their bedrooms that breakfast will be ready for them. Penelope takes comfort in knowing that a cup of coffee will be there for her and that she doesn't have to worry about doing all of this for the kids. She also knows that her mom will be there for Elena and Alex after school. This allows Penelope to work and not have to worry about the kids during her job. Of course, it means Lydia's influence is felt throughout the whole apartment. That's a tradeoff the whole family has to make. It means pictures of the Pope are everywhere. Lydia is a very religious person and wants her family and the apartment to reflect those values as well. Because she does so much for them, she believes she can do this. It's a way to make sure that her feelings and importance are heard. She doesn't want to feel like a family member taken in out of pity.

Of course, all of this sets up a clear conflict between Penelope and Lydia. Penelope wants to spend more time with her kids. She feels them slipping away from her. She's working in order to provide for the family but that means she doesn't get enough time to actually spend with them. Lydia and Schneider know more about what's going on in Elena and Alex's lives than Penelope does. They know the details of history projects and can repeat humorous stories from the day. And yet, it still feels like Penelope is being left out. She wants to connect. She wants to spend more time with her kids. And yet, the only free time they can find is Sunday mornings. That usually goes to church. But now, Penelope is questioning whether she wants to keep going every Sunday. At first, she doesn't think it's a big deal to miss one week. That's how this fight gets started. She just wants to take one hike with the kids and skip church. But it's a story that ultimately builds up to Penelope questioning God's existence. Her mother believes whole-heartedly. Religion's influence is felt in everything that she does. It brings her comfort. So, it's a shock to her that her family could be so cold on the subject.

It's hilarious watching Penelope and Lydia try to fix this out in a church. Penelope has spent the day worrying about where her mother is. Without the morning routine, Penelope struggled to get her kids breakfast. It wasn't as easy as Lydia made it look. Plus, she has to rely on Schneider to look after them once school is over. Of course, he's glad to do it because he's trying to avoid his latest one-night stand. But it's different and everyone misses Lydia. However, Lydia takes this fight as the family saying they no longer need or respect her. She cries out desperately to not be put in a home. It's a very fun line reading by Moreno. She was so worried about the other church lady eavesdropping but she was the one who ultimately let the big secrets out. Penelope has to reassure her mother that that will never happen. She needs her too much in order to deal with the kids. It's a nice moment of the two of them embracing each other and loving what they do for this family. And yet, it still doesn't solve the bigger fight happening between them about religion.

The big scene doesn't happen until both Penelope and Lydia return home. Penelope is sure that she doesn't want to go to church anymore. Instead of just missing a week, she's truly questioning whether God exists. To Lydia, that is absolutely heartbreaking. As she explains why, it is truly overwhelming with emotion. At first glance, Lydia may just be the overly religious grandmother stereotype. But religion actually brings her comfort and peace. To her, it was the only way she could get through her daughter's deployment. She prayed everyday that Penelope would return home safe and healthy. Prayer got her through that experience. That's why she knows God exists. That's a fantastic argument that she makes because it is deeply rooted in the characters' experiences. It's easy to understand and get invested in this moment because we can feel the pain Lydia has in remembering those days. Penelope didn't know how difficult that time was for her mother. She is still traumatized by that experience. And yet, it changed all of their lives. Penelope's uncertainty over God's existence isn't as fleshed out as Lydia's side of the argument. It's just important that Penelope no longer believes. She has her own way of coping with the world and finding strength and clarity in the worst possible situations. She hasn't turned to religion like Lydia. But that doesn't lesson her own experiences of the world. At the end of the day, they are still family and will have to respect and honor their differences. The show does that in a nice fun way with Lydia once again going through her morning routine and this time putting a picture of Serena Williams on the fridge next to the Pope. That's all that she takes away from this big conversation with Penelope. It goes a whole lot deeper than that. But it's also clear that Lydia heard what her daughter was saying and listened to it. 

Some more thoughts:
  • "No Mass" was written by Sebastian Jones and directed by Phill Lewis.
  • More details are provided as to why Schneider loves spending so much time with Penelope's family. He comes from money but never really had this family dynamic. His father gave him this apartment building to manage. Plus, his apartment is huge and filled with many expensive products. But he also loves the sense of family that Penelope and Lydia can provide. He prefers that to the numerous step-moms he's had.
  • The joke about Schneider watching telenovelas with his nanny which turned into his family life being like a telenovela was perhaps just a tad too broad to work. These details are important to define his character. But they often feel like punchlines and nothing more.
  • Of course, Elena would want to refer to God as a non-gender specific being. But that's just wonderful setup for Lydia's reasoning for why God has to be a man. If God were a woman, the world would have far fewer problems.
  • Dr. Berkowitz doesn't seem like a good father at all. That comes from a one-sided phone conversation he has with his 37-year-old, unemployed daughter. But again, that moment is mostly broad punchlines and doesn't get at something much deeper with the character.
  • It's humorous that Alex didn't know that going to church was optional. He just thought it was something he had to do because that's how he has been raised. So, Penelope bringing up these doubts is a real eye-opening experience for him.
  • It's good that Elena has friends at school. But all of the stuff with Carmen was a little too weird. It felt off in the context of this episode. Though it could be better in the future should that be a recurring character.
  • However, it's a pretty quick turnaround for Lydia to go from the family attending church every Sunday to just going at Christmas, Easter and at least one more time (so they aren't those people).

As noted in previous reviews from this show, 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.