Tuesday, January 10, 2017

REVIEW: 'One Day at a Time' - Lydia Shares More About Her Difficult Past to the Family in 'Viva Cuba'

Netflix's One Day at a Time - Episode 1.09 "Viva Cuba"

Elena gets a congratulatory letter that leaves a bitter taste in her mouth. For a school project, Alex interviews Lydia, who reveals a family secret.

Parents typically want to create better lives for their children. They want to give their kids the opportunities they never had when they were young. It's a familiar story but one that still packs so much relevancy. It's especially true when it comes to the immigrant's tale. The story of a person fleeing a horrible situation in order to find a better life in a foreign country is a powerful one. That's the history of the Alvarez family. Lydia came to the United States from Cuba as a part of Operation Pedro Pan, a program that helped get children out of the country. She was separated from her parents. But eventually, she was able to reunite with her greatest love, Berto, and form a wonderful life together in America. It's a story filled with happiness. Lydia was able to provide for her family. She gave new opportunities to Penelope. And now, Penelope is trying to do the same for Elena and Alex. "Viva Cuba" is very smart because it digs deeper into the true emotional realities buried underneath this tale. It's inspiring to think about when far removed from it. But it was a scary and uncertain period of time for Lydia. Plus, the family doesn't know the full story which leads to one of the most rewarding and emotional moments of the series so far.

It's important to know where one comes from. A respect for the past and all the people who led to this moment. A school project is what forces Alex and Elena to take their Cuban heritage more seriously. They are simply Americans now. They are far removed from the hardships that Lydia had to endure. They know the broad details of what was happening in Cuba at the time. They know that they should take great offense when Schneider shows up wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt. That opening scene is very clever because it builds to a Taylor Swift and Kanye West punchline but also informs the audience of something unique to this family. These characters have a firm understanding of who this man was to Cuba and thus can inform the white person who is ignorant to the truth. It's a past that they can all agree on being horrible. It shows that Alex and Elena do know the tragic details of the situation Lydia was running away from in the 1960s. It also does a solid job in setting up the story of the episode. By starting the episode with that moment, it opens the door for the kids to become even more informed about their family.

At first, Alex hopes to just film his grandmother telling stories about Cuba and that will get him an A on this project. It's something she loves to do. The family never has to press her too hard for her to share epic stories about her past. It's been a fun recurring element throughout the season. She loves sharing the happy moments of life and love. It's also amusing to watch Alex be even more inspired by Lydia's tales. Of course, it takes Schneider to convince him but Alex ultimately decides to do even more for this project. Meanwhile, Elena is being stubborn about getting into a prestigious writing program as the diversity candidate. She wanted to get in on the strength of her writing and not for the fact that she's Cuban. She's willing to turn this wonderful opportunity down because it didn't feel right to her to win this way. It's a story that does make her seem a little annoying and entitled. She has the luxury to turn this down. Penelope had to take any opportunity she could get in order to build this life. And she's still struggling to maintain it. So, it's frustrating to see Elena stick to these new principles. It's the one story that doesn't totally work in this episode. She comes around solely because she eavesdrops on another conversation that has more to do with Alex's project than Elena's achievements.

But still, it's a powerful moment when Lydia breaks down during her big interview. Alex is asking her questions on camera that she hasn't had to think about for a long time. It's easy for her to give the outline of her story. But when she's asked to dig deeper than that and remember all the hard emotions, it takes a lot out of her. This is a side of her that isn't frequently seen. Penelope sure hasn't seen her mother like this. In fact, she's surprised when Lydia reveals she had an older sister who couldn't come with her to America because she was too old for Pedro Pan. Instead, Lydia had to be the one in charge because she was the oldest and her sisters needed someone to care for them. It was a lot of responsibility to take on from such a young age. It's easy for her to share the story of the ground literally shaking once she was finally reunited with Berto. But the time between leaving and that reunion was tough. That was the true struggle. It's still heartbreaking to think about even now. It's a phenomenal monologue that Rita Moreno gets to deliver here. It's a powerful moment that truly lands. It draws the whole family and the audience in. We hear her tale for the first time with new appreciation for everything she has been through. It forces everyone to be grateful for what they have in this world. Alex gets the A and Elena agrees to be the diversity candidate in this writing program.

Penelope comes to a big decision about her future as well. Her story is a little separated from everything else going on. But it does connect with the rest of the family in the end. She's put in the work to make sure her kids have every opportunity to succeed. But now, she's realizing she doesn't need to put her dreams on hold to make that happen. She wanted to be a doctor when she was young. She has lived a fulfilling life so far as an army nurse. But now, that dream is creeping up in her thoughts again. She's faced with the reality of what it means to actually achieve that. It's a little soul crushing to hear of everything she'd have to do to be a doctor. It would put even more stress on an already tense situation. And yet, the story ends on a hopeful note with her informing the family that she'll return to school to become a nurse practitioner. That's a great goal for her to have that would be so exciting to see her achieve. She's worked hard to stand out at work. And now, she may have an even brighter future in that regard as well. It just goes to show that people can still choose to chase their dreams no matter what their age or situations may be.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Viva Cuba" was written by Michelle Badillo, Caroline Levich & Gloria Calderón Kellett and directed by Jody Margolin Hahn.
  • When Lydia is sharing the tragic story of saying goodbye to her sister in Cuba, she also notes that Blanca died when Penelope was young. Officially, it was because of the flu. But Lydia will never truly know what happened to her. That just adds to the overall tragedy of this story.
  • The earnestness of Schneider telling Alex that he should appreciate having such a direct connection to the past via Lydia and her stories is undercut a little bit by the jokes of his grandparents still being alive but him choosing not to visit them for dumb reasons.
  • The Alvarez family has a wall of all the achievements the kids have done so far. Penelope will have to make room for these new accomplishments but that only adds to how proud she is of them. Of course, she also keeps their baby teeth and umbilical cords which gives the show a couple of easy jokes.
  • Alex's video is very sincere and heartfelt when it comes to depicting Lydia's story of Cuba. But he also has a ton of fun in getting Penelope and Elena to dress up and give some abstract stories of life in Cuba. Those moments are played for the comedy of seeing Penelope with a beard and how low budget this film turned out to be.
  • Lydia is still insisting that she and Dr. Berkowitz are just friends. And yet, it's now just a comfortable sight seeing him in the Alvarez apartment. He's there for the screening of Alex's film and is grateful that Lydia invited him over to see it. 
  • Of course, Stephen Tobolowsky has fun with some physical comedy bits as well as he acts out his childhood dream of being a musical parody artist. He's not very good at all but it sure is a sight to behold.

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.