Monday, January 9, 2017

REVIEW: 'One Day at a Time' - Penelope Struggles to Get Through to the VA in 'Hold, Please'

Netflix's One Day at a Time - Episode 1.07 "Hold, Please"

While navigating her way through an endless maze of red tape with Veterans Affairs to make a medical appointment, Penelope reaches her breaking point.

Multi-camera comedy has long been seen as close to live theater. The action occurs on just a handful of sets. The story plays out in long, uninterrupted scenes. It's performed in front of a live audience. It's been a part of the television industry for almost its entire history. One Day at a Time is hardly the first sitcom to set an episode at one location and follow multiple characters and storylines as they weave in and out of that one room. The fact that the show does it in "Hold, Please" proves its throwback nostalgia appeal. And yet, there's something immensely grounded and socially relevant with this show as well. The action is centered around the Alvarez family apartment because Penelope is on hold with the VA. It's fascinating to watch as all the characters come in and out of this one location. They all have their own things going on but they also know exactly what to do should some finally pick up on the other end of the line. It's fascinating to watch from a technical standpoint. And yet, this episode is also key in giving each character a standout moment of insight and value. That more than anything else helps "Hold, Please" stand out as the best episode of the series so far.

Penelope's plight is the central journey of the episode. She's the one who needs to talk with someone at the VA to get an appointment with a chiropractor. Throughout this season, she has talked about the shoulder injury she sustained in Afghanistan. It's been a running joke at times. But here, it takes on a new level of poignancy as Penelope desperately needs help in order to relief the pressure she's feeling. It's a simple story setup but also truly complex while tackling the problems within this system. Penelope is on hold for a long time. It's a frustrating experience because it seems like no one is there to actually help her in her time of need. She served her country proudly. But now, she's struggling to find the support for her injuries she sustained during that time. She finally shares the story of how she got this injury. It's not as badass as one would hope but it's still an injury she got fighting in a war zone. She's entitled to get help. She just has to navigate a broken and ineffective system to get it.

It's always uplifting whenever someone picks up on the other end. At times, it's just an automated message. Those are good for a couple of jokes - like making sure to check oneself for testicular cancer. That message comes when Lydia and Dr. Berkowitz are sitting next to the phone. Penelope has left the apartment to treat an eye injury Schneider sustained while trying to reunite his college band during a local street fair. It's a silly and absurd story that happens alongside this drama with the VA. But it's pretty amusing nevertheless. It's surprising when Schneider shows up to the apartment accompanied by Lydia and Dr. Berkowitz. There is a camera motion that infers to the audience that the two of them are keeping a secret from Penelope. It seems they may have gotten closer after her performance at his birthday dinner. But things still seem pretty awkward between them. That's why it's funny when that line comes from the phone about testicular cancer. Sure, it makes things more awkward because Lydia brings up her dead husband again. But it's also clear that Dr. Berkowitz wants to explore what this relationship can be. Plus, it's pretty funny watching both of them take their pills and then have to hide them away as soon as Penelope returns to the apartment.

The episode also respects the severity of the situation and that many soldiers return home with injuries of the mind. That's apparent when it's Elena's turn to be on hold with the phone. She can't relate to the psychological effects of war. But she does understand what it means to be confused and not sure how to talk with loved ones. Lydia is still making such a big deal out of Elena's quinceañera. It's still two months away but Lydia wants all the plans to be made now. Elena is only doing the party for her mother. But she's the one dealing with the full weight of her grandmother's expectations. She has to find a boy to bring to the party to serve as her official escort. Her reluctance to do so plays as her just being difficult to Lydia. But in private, it's clear that Elena struggles because she doesn't know if she likes boys. She's questioning her sexuality and doesn't know how to talk about it with anyone. She's not ready to. She barely gets the words out when she thinks the phone is talking to her. That creates an awkward situation when Alex overhears. But he gets a poignant moment as well because Elena catches him stealing some of Penelope's pain meds. His friend, Finn, wants to sell them. Alex succumbs to the peer pressure even though he doesn't want to do this. That's a much more serious note than he typical gets to play. But more importantly, it's the kids who have to deal with these problems by themselves. It's not up to Lydia or Penelope to handle it for them and make sure they are okay. They are dealing with these issues in private. It all works out for Alex. Elena is able to talk some sense into him. But Elena's true feelings about herself are still uncertain. That will still be a struggle for her. One that she'll keep to herself until she's ready.

These stories work because they are well balanced and show the real life struggles of all the characters. Not all of these things can be wrapped up nicely in the span of one episode. They continue to be important for the foreseeable future. Of course, resolution does come for Penelope. She is able to make an appointment to see a chiropractor. The system ultimately works in the end. But that only comes after a devastating beat where it seems like all of this will be for naught. The fabled Jolene on the other end would rather leave early instead of help Penelope with her problems. It provides this episode with its few minutes of raw emotion that have become customary in each episode so far. In this moment, Penelope gets to rally against the system for not being there to help the people who need it the most. She celebrates having just a minor injury compared to the damage that Victor endured in Afghanistan. It's because she speaks up for herself that she ultimately gets the appointment. But there's a moment of defeat where it feels like the situation is hopeless. She slams the phone against the floor out of anger. It's raw and moving. And yet, the phone still works somehow and she gets the good news. It's a moment of victory that feels earned after an episode of uncertainty. That feeling still permeates through the rest of the characters. But for right now, Penelope is okay and that's great. 

Some more thoughts:
  • "Hold, Please" was written by Dan Hernandez & Benji Samit and directed by Victor Gonzalez.
  • Jill the car saleswoman shows up ready to go to the street fair with Penelope. She then goes alone because Penelope is determined to get through to Jolene at the VA. It's nice to see this as an actual friendship. Penelope now has someone she can talk to who understands what she's gone through. Of course, Jill has just written off the VA (despite some hearing loss) and thinks Penelope should do the same.
  • As soon as Jill's sword that lights up was placed in Lydia's room, it was only a matter of time until it got someone into trouble. Surprisingly, Alex is the one holding it when that happens. Even when he's hiding from Elena, he still thinks it's best to play with something new and shiny.
  • Of course, Alex will now be left out of the group chat with his friends because he doesn't get the pills. That's a lame punishment. But the feeling of being excluded is still powerful enough to get him to almost go through with this.
  • Penelope doesn't make it to the street fair before Schneider's big performance with his college band. And yet, she is able to hear them perfectly fine from her apartment. She is able to hear how bad they are and Elena booing them before they even begin.
  • It's not surprising at all that Lydia is perfectly fine with taking drugs for physical pain or maintaining outward beauty and health. But when it comes to mental health, she believes that's all fake and people should just suffer through it.

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.