Most entertainment reflects the time it was created in, even if the creators were aiming for something timeless. With sitcoms, the series can act as a snapshot of its era, even if the show was set in a different time. Most sitcoms are set in “now“, concurrent with its airing. As a result, some of the humour can start to look dated, especially if it’s topical. A joke about Ronald Reagan’s hair in 1985 may get a different reaction today than it did then. Such is the nature of the passage of time; things change.
Of course, as things change, what was once considered boundary-pushing might look quaint decades later. Society changes. Sometimes television pushes the change; sometimes it follows. Norman Lear made a career out of pushing boundaries, producing a number of series that explored subjects that, while possibly not taboo, weren’t part of day-to-day discussions or lives. All in the Family, running from 1971 to 1979, then continuing until 1983 as Archie Bunker’s Place, humanized a working-class bigot, giving him depth so that his beliefs could be understood without necessarily agreeing with them. The show also touched upon rape and how it affected the victim.
All in the Family had several spin-offs, each of those pushing boundaries as well. The Jeffersons featured the Black version of Archie in George Jefferson, again, showing why George held those beliefs and showing that he could grow from there. Maude featured an ultra-liberal woman and had an episode that dealt with abortion, two months before Roe v. Wade legalized the procedure. Good Times, spun off from Maude, showed the struggles of a working-class Black family.
In the Seventies, divorce wasn’t quite off-limits, but as the rates rose, especially in California, attention wasn’t called to it. Divorce was still seen as a failure in a marriage. Single parenthood was, and in many ways, still is something that society doesn’t want to touch. Single parents in sitcoms tended to be widowers, not divorcées. In 1975, Lear and his studio produced One Day at a Time to bring the tribulations of single motherhood into the limelight.
One Day at a Time starred Bonnie Franklin as Ann Romano, a recent divorcée who moves to Indianapolis with her daughters Julie (played by Mackenzie Phillips) and Barbara (Valerie Bertinelli) Cooper to an apartment building tended to by handyman Dwayne Schneider (Pat Harrington, Jr.). Over nine seasons, the series showed how Ann and her daughters coped as life happened to them. Schneider was on hand as a male role model for the girls, not quite a father figure but there if they needed him. As the series progressed, the cast grew to include Ann’s mother, Katherine (Nanette Fabray), adding a generational conflict to the series.
The show was a product of its time, dealing with events of the mid-Seventies to mid-Eighties during its run. Schneider was a parody of Seventies masculinity, a over-the-top portrayal, with a sleeve of his white T-shirt rolled up to carry a pack of cigarettes and the omni-present tool belt. Both Julie and Barbara grow up, get married, and become mothers themselves. While The Mary Tyler Moore Show showed that women could have careers, that series was also pushing boundaries.
The nature of television has changed since 1984, when One Day at a Time ended. Divorce became less a shame than it had been and was an acceptable way to end a marriage that wasn’t working, especially with no-fault divorce available. That boundary has been pushed back, with thanks in part to /One Day at a Time/, which led the way for sitcoms like /Golden Girls/ that featured divorced women as leads. The way television is delivered has also changed in the same time, going from over-the-air broadcast to cable delivery to Internet streaming. The former three-channel universe now has so many ways to deliver programming, networks and cable companies need to produce an overall higher quality of TV show just to get an audience.
Enter Netflix. Originally a way to rent movies over the Internet in 1997, Netflix has grown, offering streaming of theatrically released movies, classic TV series, and its own content, including She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, Blazing Transfer Students REBORN, and the Oscar-nominated Roma. One of the companies bigger hits is its One Day at a Time remake. Working with Norman Lear’s company, Act III Productions, Netflix updated the TV series for today. If divorce is more-or-less fact of life today, then what boundaries are there to be pushed?
The first update was to change the nature of the family. Instead of Italian-American Ann Romano, the new series stars Justina Machado as Cuban-American Penelope Alvarez, a divorced single mother who is also an Afghanistan veteran with both physical and mental wounds from her time serving as a US Army nurse. Penelope and her two children, Elena (Isabella Gomez) and Alex (Marcel Ruiz), live with her mother, Lydia (Rita Moreno) in an apartment maintained by Dwayne Schneider (Todd Grinnell). Like the original series, the show has how Penelope and her family cope with what life throws at them.
The first difference is obvious, the change of the core cast to Latinx, allowing an exploration of life of Hispanic Americans, including racism. With Penelope having PTSD as a result of her time in Afghanistan, the series can explore how veterans and how people with mental illnesses are treated. Since the series isn’t on a network that survives through paid advertisements, it can also delve into areas that would normally create boycotts. Unlike Julie and Barbara, Elena isn’t sure of her sexuality and realizes that she’s a lesbian during the course of the first season. Not all of her family is supportive, either; her father takes the news poorly. The series continues the tradition of Norman Lear shows pushing boundaries. Along with the elements mentioned above – veterans, mental illness, racism, and homophobia – the show examines religion, sexism, and immigration, all while treating the characters as human beings with motives, beliefs, fears, and hopes.
Unlike the original, the remake takes time to show Penelope at work. The only sane woman there, Penelope manages to keep Dr. Berkowitz (Stephen Tobolowsky) and his office from floundering. Dr. Berkowitz may also be the only person who knows how much Penelope’s time in Afghanistan is affecting her. The rest of her coworkers, Lori (Fiona Gubelmann) and Scott (Eric Nenninger), are unaware of the effort Penelope puts in.
One other change is how Schneider is portrayed. While still the building superintendent, the new Schneider reflects today’s masculinity. The remake’s Schneider comes from a dysfunctional family, having many stepmothers, and is recovering from substance abuse. He still fills the same role in the show, the male role model that really isn’t needed but is still a friend of the family.
With so much changed, is the new series a remake or its own show reusing a title? Keep in mind that the changes updated the show while keeping the premise, a single mother trying to raise two children. Like other series produced by Lear, the One Day at a Time remake brings to light issues that are lurking beneath society’s surface, issues that families are facing, while treating the characters with respect instead of using them as the jokes. The reactions and the interaction between characters are funny; the characters themselves are human.
One Day at a Time isn’t about the Romano/Cooper family or the Alvarez family, but what they go through. The remake brings the concept to today, with today’s problems, much like the original was about the today of the Seventies. Much of what Ann Romano went through then is out in the open now, but as times change, the problems families face evolve, which is what the One Day at a Time remake did to keep pace.