Sunday, January 8, 2017

REVIEW: 'One Day at a Time' - Dr. Berkowitz's Birthday Party Takes Quite a Turn in 'Strays'

Netflix's One Day at a Time - Episode 1.05 "Strays"

Lydia grows suspicious of Elena and Carmen's intense relationship. Penelope later discovers that the inseparable friends are keeping a big secret.

One Day at a Time has shown some remarkable craftsmanship in these opening episodes. It's also managed to subvert storytelling expectations. It has an ability to introduce new plot details with extreme poignancy out of seemingly innocent stories. "Strays" makes the viewers suspect that it will be an episode about Elena's sexuality. Her bond with Carmen has gotten so close that Lydia suspects they may be more than just friends. That's a topic this show could handle so well. It has shown a willingness to address topical subject matter like that already. It wouldn't come completely out of the blue either. The show has set up its own awareness of sexual identity in some very subtle and small ways. It would be interesting to watch that discussion happen amongst this multi-generational family. Lydia expects people to be "queer" whenever they show a closeness. Meanwhile, Penelope just wants things to happen naturally. If one of her kids turns out to be gay, she would be perfectly fine with that. She's just not going to stress out and speculate because it isn't her story to tell. And yet, that's not what this episode is about at all. It is about human connection and the need to be there for one another during times of difficulty. The plot shift happens and the show pivots to a conversation about the plight of immigrants. That's another subject matter the show would have a unique perspective on. The show makes it a personal debate for this family that has real-world consequences for them in the moment and isn't just thought about in the abstract.

Again, this plot shift happens in a very innocent looking way. Penelope is trying to do something for Dr. Berkowitz's birthday. So far, he has been a pretty thin character. Her job has been an important story but the characters there aren't as unique or special as the ones at home. They still exist as character types and not multi-dimensional people. That really doesn't change in this episode. The story just brings them all over to Penelope's apartment for a birthday dinner party. The celebration at the office doesn't go according to plan. So, Penelope takes it upon herself to do something to cheer this man up on his birthday. She's caring and considerate in that way - unlike her co-workers who are too self-involved to remember to pick up the birthday cake and balloons. The party at the apartment is a fun sequence too. The relationship between Lydia and Dr. Berkowitz is very fascinating. She makes sure to look her best for him. She wants to sing "Happy Birthday" to him alone in a sexy way. And yet, she also makes fun of him because his first name is Leslie. This obviously excites him and it's all just harmless fun that is easy to watch.

And then, the conversation shifts to immigration. Elena and Carmen are working on a project at school that tackles the subject. But more importantly, it gets the main characters to reveal their own immigration stories. It's completely unexpected when it comes to Schneider. It's revealed that he is actually Canadian and was here illegally after his student visa expired. But considering he comes from money, he was able to get a great attorney to help him become legal. That contrasts nicely with Lydia's own story. She came to this country as a young woman. But more importantly, she did so through the system. She believes there is a right way and a wrong way to immigrate. That's a surprising opinion. She was running away from a chaotic and destructive country. But she still went through the proper channels and managed to build a life and family in America without having the constant fear of being sent back to Cuba. That's a plight she understands and respects. Penelope knows that there are situations around the world that are so much more complicated than that. She knows people can't wait years in persecution to one day hopefully come to America. She understands why people fill the need to come to the country illegally. That's an understandable opinion for her to have that is well informed because of her military experience and seeing the world. But again, it's all just talk around the dinner table. The story becomes much more engaging and emotional when it actually affects the family.

Elena and Carmen's close bond doesn't come from the two of them being secret lovers. It instead comes from Carmen having no where else to go because her parents were deported back to Mexico. She has been spending every night at the Alvarez apartment for the last two weeks. She has snuck in and stayed with Elena. She's the only friend she can count on during this difficult time. And yet, the two of them chose to keep this to themselves. They didn't tell Penelope or Lydia. They carried this burden alone. Now, Carmen hasn't been that important of a character so far. She was just introduced in one episode as Elena's friend from school. It was a good character to add because it helped fill out Elena's life outside of the house. But there's no reasonable explanation for the audience to get caught up in the emotion of this story as much as the characters do. This doesn't happen to just some random character. It's one who's appeared before. That makes her an easy target for something like this to happen and then watch the family react to it. It's a fairly simple setup and execution that the show did. It went through all the right steps to make it more important and moving than it should be.

And yet, the emotions of those scenes still land remarkably well. Elena wants Carmen to stay with the family for at least the rest of the school year. She doesn't want to say goodbye to her closest friend. She cares about Carmen. She has been there for her. But it's just not realistic for Carmen to stay. She has other family in Texas. She can move there and be taken care of. It's still a traumatizing experience because she has no idea if she'll ever see her parents again. But at least, she'll be surrounded by family. That's important even though it sucks to have to say goodbye to the Alvarez family. They need to be strong for Carmen. As difficult as it is to say goodbye and know it's ultimately the right decision, it's even harder for Carmen who has to start her life completely over in a new city. It's fascinating watching the family try to keep it together. Penelope and Lydia are strong because they've been through difficult situations like this before. But this is an entirely new experience for Elena. She has to grow up quickly and understand why this is good for her friend. Of course, it's still funny when Elena gets through it only to turn around and see Penelope and Lydia crying. It is difficult even for the people who have been through it before. It's an emotional but comforting sight.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Strays" was written by Peter Murrieta and directed by Phill Lewis.
  • Schneider seems to be having fun at the dinner party as the only adult who doesn't get drunk. But of course, it also means he has to resist the temptation from Lori, who is throwing herself at him despite being married apparently.
  • Scott really isn't that interesting of a character. His entire purpose is to be an ignorant man who says what comes into his head as bluntly as possible in order to get a reaction from Penelope. It works because Penelope is typically right. It's just very basic characterization as well.
  • Dr. Berkowitz's big character description in the early going of this episode is sad. He's a sad old man whom no one calls on his birthday. His Netflix password is his birthday and still his daughter said nothing to him about it. Of course, he does have fun later on with Lydia at the party.
  • Alex has a very small subplot about selling chocolate bars as some fundraiser for a sport he apparently plays. It basically just shows that he's not that great of a salesman. He wants Penelope and Lydia to do all the work so that he can get the reward of a PlayStation.
  • Elena calls Texas the worst place on Earth. And then, she immediately starts to walk that back after learning Carmen would be moving to Austin, which she's heard is pretty cool and weird.
  • Will the fact that Schneider is Canadian ever be important again? It's good for a couple of jokes throughout this episode. He has to catch himself before the accent slips out. But will that ever be a major concern for him or the audience again? It seems unlikely.

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.