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‘One Day at a Time’ Season Three: Lower Stakes But Still Plenty of Laughs

The Netflix remake continues to be a master class in the multicam sitcom, even if the balance of drama to comedy is off this season

Isabella Gomez, Marcel Ruiz, Rita Moreno and Justina Machado in 'One Day at a Time.'

Isabella Gomez, Marcel Ruiz, Rita Moreno and Justina Machado in 'One Day at a Time.'

Ali Goldstein/Netflix

The traditional multicamera sitcom, shot on a stage in front of an enthusiastic studio audience, looks much easier to make than it actually is. The format is close to 70 years old, dating back to I Love Lucy, but its roots go back much further than that, to the earliest days of live theater. (People who work in multicam often describe their work as “putting on a new play every week.”) Surely, actors strutting around a stage, launching broad punchlines aimed at the tourists in the back row of the studio have it simpler than the ones on more technically ambitious single-camera comedies like Broad City or Barry, right?

But the multicam show is naked and unprotected in a way its more modern counterparts are not. Either you laugh, or you don’t. There’s no help on the way from special effects or tricks with camerawork and editing. Single-cam shows also have license to be less funny because there’s not the awkward echo chamber of the studio audience, which has been coached to laugh at everything. When a single-cam joke doesn’t land, you just shrug and move on; when you hear a multicam audience cackling at something that’s not funny, it’s wince-inducing. But when a multicam show does work, there are few feelings quite as joyous in television.

Netflix’s One Day at a Time remake has, over its two previous seasons, put on a multicam clinic, showing just how far you can push the form while still using basically the same playbook that Lucy invented. At its core, the show a family comedy about Army vet Penelope Alvarez (Justina Machado) raising her teenage kids Elena (Isabella Gomez) and Alex (Marcel Ruiz) with help from her mother Lydia (Rita Moreno). But by working hot-button topics like immigration, PTSD, sexuality and more into that framework, One Day only increases the degree of difficulty for a format that’s very hard to get right in this day and age. (Elena, the symbol of the show’s political aspirations, is described by one character as “woker than a barnyard rooster.”) With greater risk has come greater reward. The more serious topics not only work powerfully as drama — last season’s finale, “Not Yet,” where the family took turns speaking to a comatose Lydia after a stroke, was as wonderfully theatrical as TV can get — but make the sillier jokes feel even more welcome, as relief from the parts built to make the audience cry.

Season Three (it debuted yesterday; I’ve seen all 13 episodes) sticks with what the series has done before, for good and occasionally for ill. It’s still a warm, inviting and at times explosively funny show — particularly whenever the great Moreno is letting loose. (In one episode, Lydia gets stoned at the opera.) The premiere alone features a trio of perfectly deployed guest stars in Gloria Estefan (who continues to sing the joyous theme song) and Brooklyn Nine-Nine‘s Melissa Fumero and Stephanie Beatriz. But at times it suggests the limits of this delicate yet potent blend of comedy and tragedy used by producers Gloria Calderon Kellett and Mike Royce (in conjunction with the legendary Norman Lear, who produced the original Seventies One Day).

The first season had as its narrative spine the gradual coming-out story of Elena, climaxing with her homophobic father Victor (James Martinez) walking out of her quinceañera in protest. The second was a bit looser but still followed some clear threads throughout, including health scares for Penelope (who impulsively went off her antidepressants and suffered the consequences) and Lydia (who survived the stroke, after Penelope had given her permission to go into the light). There are serious subjects in every episode — usually incorporated naturally, occasionally shoehorned in — but it’s the larger, ongoing emotional stakes that keep the series in equilibrium.

Season Three has its own arcs, though most of them are smaller in scale, in part because the Alvarez clan — and unofficial family members Schneider (Todd Grinnell) and Dr. Berkowitz (Stephen Tobolowsky) — have already endured so much over the previous two years, and are doing pretty well these days. Elena has some romantic stumbles in her relationship with non-binary Syd (Sheridan Pierce), Penelope feels stress as she studies for her nurse practitioner license and Lydia attempts to come back from the stroke by completing a bucket list — which she of course pronounces as “bouquet list.” (“It is an arrangement of all the beautiful things you want to do before you kick the bucket,” she explains, making it more than just another joke about her thick Cuban accent.) These are all fine stories on their own, but most of them don’t feel quite dramatic enough to balance out the silliest, most sitcom-y plots, like an episode where Schneider attempts to keep his bohemian new girlfriend from finding out that he’s rich.

Ironically, it’s Schneider, long the show’s goofiest character, who gets the season’s meatiest story arc, involving the arrival of his wealthy and distant father, played by Alan Ruck. It’s a great spotlight for Grinnell, though it begins pretty late in the season. That home stretch of episodes is, not coincidentally, the strongest that One Day is this year, even if it doesn’t achieve (or aspire to) the intense dramatic highs of “Not Yet.” The earlier episodes — which tackle toxic masculinity, panic attacks and weed, among other issues — mostly work, but there are occasional reminders of just how essential each half of the show is to the other, and what happens when they’re not properly aligned.

For two seasons, One Day at a Time made something that’s very hard appear to be very easy. This year, while still strong, it lets you see the sweat and strain.

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